From Shatila Camp– What does the right of return mean in 2010?

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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I’ve been spending more time in the camps recently. Two days a week, I leave my apartment on my leafy street in my quiet neighborhood and jump in a taxi heading southwest.

Ala mafra’ sou’ Shatila, iza t-reed,’ is what I usually say to the cab driver. He drives west first, past the open air restaurants and air-conditioned mall where wealthy Beirutis gambol. The car may or may not meander and idle in the sun for twenty minutes; traffic here is possessed of neither rhyme nor reason. Either way, the driver will always manage and he’ll always make a left onto the autostrade heading south. This is when my scenery begins to evoke life at the fringes.

Stately apartment blocks and gleaming condominiums give way to pockmarked dust-ridden tenements. It’s an abrupt change in Beirut – the city is too small for a gradual deaestheticization. The very poor and the very rich are separated only by a thin black film pasted on the windows of a Mercedes Benz here. But I think that’s the case in New York, too.

It’s not long before I’m stepping out of the cab into the heart of the Shatila market – a condensed open-air bazaar. I dodge two-way traffic on the narrow one-lane street and push my way through and around the shopping mass. To my right is a dusty, vacant lot encumbered by a lonely tree – maybe lemon. Other vegetation grows wildly in the lot’s far reaches. The wasted and decomposed bodies of Sabra and Shatila massacre victims lie beneath the red earth. This is a mass grave, adorned at the peripheries by pictures of the dead. The tree was planted in their honor near a sorry, faded plaque commemorating their deaths.

But you can’t see the grave from the market. Its entrance is obscured by the men pushing vegetables, fans, cassette players, batteries, sunglasses and all the other necessities and frivolities of China-manufactured daily life. I walk by and know it’s there and sometimes manage to not notice.

The market gets narrower, and the ground gets muddier and wetter the deeper I push. Eventually I tire of the bustle and veer into one of the narrow alleys that suffuse the camp and feed the market.

Shatila is an organism, and the alleys are its guts. Many are no more than a meter wide and are paved with concrete. Sixty-two years of growth have pushed the compacted refugee tenements up and together. The sun is blocked and cannot penetrate the camp’s depths; this is the bottom of the ocean. There is always water in the alleys, sometimes flowing and sometimes stagnating. The air is pregnant with human smells and teeming with living sounds. Small children yell, scream, laugh, run and fight in these alleys. Young men smoke cigarettes and do nothing. In other places, groups of women gather and chat. Inertia rests heavily on the faces of anyone old enough to understand.

Palestinians in the camps always ask me where I’m from. I tell them that I’m from Be’er Al Saba’a, but I was born in the Rafah camp; no one calls the camps home. Invariably they say, “May God strengthen the resistance and the men of Gaza,” or something like it. Usually we’ll talk, and as we’re parting ways some will ask for a favor: “Whenever you go back, bring me back a handful of dirt.” I’m always a little embarrassed when they ask.


The Palestinian right of return is enshrined not only in international law, but in the hearts and minds of all refugees. The fact that our forebears have mostly succumbed to time and heartbreak has not diminished our resolute demand to see that right fulfilled. In 1950, the right of return meant the expulsion of Zionists from our still warm hearths and the restoration of lands and property to their rightful owners. But, what does it mean in 2010?

My sense is that the right of return is a mythologized ideal that exists in a hallowed family space for most refugees. In other words, the prospect of actually returning to a house or an untilled field to lead a fellah lifestyle holds little appeal for many contemporary Palestinians. Thankfully, many refugees in the West and Jordan have done quite well (Lebanon is a very important exception). We can’t know until we ask them, but I think many Palestinians in America and other places like it wouldn’t resettle. Many were born abroad and enjoy high standards of living in the countries where they are citizens. Intermarriage and acculturation have permitted them to move on in a material sense.

I’m thinking of my American-born infant niece now. She will likely come of age in a world that sees the fulfillment of the Palestinian right of return and the emergence of a unified Palestine/Israel. But why would she leave her friends, family and native culture for her father’s homeland? More likely, she’ll visit every few years. She’ll speak broken Arabic to get around and take pictures at the major tourist sites. She may visit her great-grandfather’s village.

To be sure, there will be second and third generation Palestinian-Americans who do opt to go back. They will be motivated by a nationalistic zeal and a desire to develop their ancestral homeland. But even they may not choose to spend their entire lives there.

Some Palestinians will read this and have a negative visceral reaction to what I’ve written. They may regard my words as an implicit concession to the Zionist ethnic purge machinery. To them I respond that we ought to avoid politically fetishizing – Peter Beinartizing – our offspring. Lamenting the “lost” Palestinians is regressive. It’s an attempt to rob humans of their individual prerogatives for the sake of our political agendas.

There is an obvious corollary here. I’m talking about the Jewish experience in the Diaspora and the way Zionists employ emotional blackmail to promote aliya. In my view, if a Palestinian-American wants to become a plastic surgeon and live in Beverly Hills, well, who cares?

Yet, my niece may decide to go back; I certainly will. What does that mean? Do we painstakingly find my grandfather’s house in Be’er Al Saba’a and evict the current inhabitants? And if forty of us – all progeny – decide to go back, how do we divide his house forty ways? What about Khaled Adwan’s house in Barbara? It was razed along with the entire village. Do I claim the trees that Zionists planted in its place?

One begins to see how impossible it is to implement the 1950 version of the right of return.

But just so I don’t alienate more people than is necessary, I want to emphasize that if I could resurrect Musa Abu Moor and turn the clock back sixty years, I would. But I can’t. He’s dead now and his long suffering is buried with him. My priority is to think about ways to enable my niece and the luckless infants in Palestine and Lebanon to lead complete, fulfilling lives. That’s the idea here.

So what does the right of return mean in 2010?

I want to state outright that I am strongly opposed to forcing anyone out of a 1948 Nakba-era home (1967 is a little different and I’ll get to it below). Apart from the moral problems associated with evicting people, it’s a sure recipe for more violence. The idea may have an emotional appeal for many Palestinians – me included – but that appeal is borne of vengeance not justice. There is no justice in punishing people for crimes they didn’t commit (sadly, contemporary Israelis have no shortage of crimes to answer for).

If the right of return doesn’t mean property reclamation, what can it mean? As I see it, my right will have been fulfilled once I have the opportunity to purchase or rent property anywhere in Palestine/Israel. Any Palestinian in the Diaspora must have the right to move and settle there if that’s their choice. For very destitute refugees like those here in Lebanon, it means resettlement and integration programs, if they choose to go back. Lebanon is a complicated case, however, and I’ll address it at length below. As for monetary compensation, it’s a part of the formula, but not for individuals. I’ll explain more below.

The question of injustice remains, and refugees in Palestine and Lebanon continue to suffer the consequences of Zionism’s original sin. So what do we do?

Development monies will have to be dedicated to the Gaza Strip, West Bank and other underdeveloped areas in any unified state. All of society will pick up the tab through federal and state taxes (if a federal model is employed).

Refugee properties from 1948 can also be used to extract rehabilitation revenue. An additional 2 to 3 percent annual property tax levied against 1948 properties for a period of 100 years will yield substantial revenue. The money will be directly invested in developing poor communities and will be extracted from those who have benefited directly from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The key here is that the funds are being extracted on a non-racial basis. If a wealthy Palestinian decides to buy a house in West Jerusalem from a Jewish person, he too will have to pay the rehabilitation tax. Corporate and municipal developments can be treated similarly.

An additional tax assessment will likely drive the market value of 1948 properties down slightly, while simultaneously increasing the long-term cost of ownership. That may encourage an initial pop in the number of 1948 properties that change hands after the implementation of the rehabilitation tax. A corresponding sales tax can be levied on sales in the first twenty years after implementation. That’s to ensure that refugees capture the otherwise lost revenue that will correspond to a smaller assessment base.

This approach also has the added benefit of correcting some of the damage done by the 1858 Ottoman Land Law since ‘purchased’ properties will undergo the same assessments. The Levantine aristocracy employed the law to steal property from fellahin. Some of that property was later sold to the Jewish National Fund, which then ‘evicted’ the rightful landowners. The logic is the same; the thieving party is different.

The ethnic cleansing program that began in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967 deserves a different treatment. Because the process has been gradual and ongoing, we have itemized lists of what was taken by whom and when. In the West Bank, full compensation must be offered to the afflicted parties. A material distinction must be drawn between settlement communities like Ariel in the West Bank, where land was seized, and settlement communities where houses were seized and Palestinians expelled. In the Ariel case, I’m opposed to trying to remove an entire community built on occupied land. To the extent that it’s private land, the owners must be fully compensated with either similar plots of land or financially.

In cases like Hebron and East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have been expelled from their houses, forcibly evacuating settlers is a morally tenable option, in my view. The relatively small number of settlers and their outsized impact requires their removal. If eviction appears impractical or impossible then in kind compensation (other houses) must be offered. Jerusalem is too sensitive to allow one party to monopolize its holy places. Furthermore, by insisting on evacuation now, we avoid rewarding the criminals who are currently ethnically cleansing Jerusalem.

I mentioned above that I believe many Palestinians in the Diaspora will not resettle in Palestine/Israel. But I also believe that the Palestinians in Lebanon are an exception. Of course, the right of return is theirs, too. They should exercise it as they see fit when the political reality allows them to do so. But their situation is more complicated than just that.

There are about 400,000 Palestinian refugees here who are deprived of their basic human rights. It’s no secret that Lebanon is second only to Israel in its mistreatment of Palestinian refugees. There are outspoken elements of the Lebanese political spectrum who make it clear that the Palestinians are unwelcome here, and that they will be expelled at the first obvious opportunity. My concern is that enacting the right of return will enable those forces to do just that. It would be a heartbreaking irony if anti-Palestinian factions in Lebanon used the implementation of the right of return to ethnically cleanse Lebanon of its Palestinians.

Again, many Palestinians in Lebanon will likely want to be resettled in Palestine/Israel. Their resettlement isn’t a huge logistical problem; Israel absorbed a million Russians in the early nineties. The real issue is that some of them may not want to leave Lebanon, the only home they have ever known. How do we keep these people from being expelled against their will?

The international community will have to lean on the Lebanese government to protect the human rights of the refugees who opt to remain where they are. There are too many variables for us to come up with a clear solution for Lebanon’s refugees, but some of the development revenue I spoke about earlier ought to be earmarked for Palestinians here. Again, it may be the case that all the refugees decide to return to Palestine (in which case this is a moot point), but we should have protections in place for those that don’t. The right of return can’t be used to expel Palestinians from Lebanon.

The transition from apartheid to equality will not be easy. But there are several things that can be done to alleviate some of the pain. Jewish-Israelis must come to terms with the Nakba. After that, an apology for the crimes of the past must be forthcoming. I think we will all be surprised by the amount of goodwill generated by widespread recognition and an official apology. Palestinian leaders – if they’re wise – will take the opportunity to acknowledge the evil of the Nazi genocide. They will thereby demonstrate to everyone that there is nothing to be lost by recognizing the roots of the other’s insecurity and anger. That recognition in no way dilutes the moral or legal basis for our grievances.

Up until recently, we Palestinians have gotten away with forceful statements affirming our inalienable rights without having to explicitly state what those rights entail. But that’s not the case anymore. BDS and the one-state solution present us with the first real opportunity to implement the right of return. That means that it’s time for us to demythologize that right and to being speaking of it in practical terms. That’s what I’ve tried to do here.

My thinking on this issue was directed by two equally weighted principles: 1) Justice, without creating greater injustice; and, 2) Responsibility to future generations on both sides. Nothing I suggested here is perfect, and I found myself repeatedly frustrated by the irreversible injustices wrought by time and death. When that happened, I reminded myself that our responsibility is to the living and the unborn.  Yet, I should underline the fact that no solution is credible or workable without the consent of the refugees themselves. 

Finally, I may have alienated some Palestinians with what I’ve written here. But the time for maximalist dogma has passed. I challenge every one of you to begin thinking about the right of return in concrete ways. The day will soon arrive when we have the opportunity to implement that right in a unified Palestine/Israel. It’s crucial that we’re ready for it.

About Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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