Challenging Israel’s stacked discourse on the right of return

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On this last Nakba Day (May 15, 2011), we witnessed the spectacular return of Palestinian refugees in real life. Thousands upon thousands of uprooted Palestinians gathered in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, near the borders of the Jewish state and challenged the boundaries of its civic and national identity. Several hundreds of Palestinian from Syria crossed the northern border unwavering in declaring their intention to return to their homeland. Thus, in a popular act of self-determination that seemed in like an ordinary trip, the many Palestinian refugees simply returned to their rightful place. Meanwhile, although this was a temporary and very symbolic return, we hear and anticipate that the next return is being organized for June 5th, the day that marks the completion of the occupation by Israel in 1967. 

Israel’s political leadership and the media describe these moves as violent attacks. They also lament that the act of border crossing is a military failure that must not be repeated. This, in language and in action, is in clear contrast to the non-violent nature of the behavior of the refugees who crossed, or want to cross the borders. The paradox extends internally as well. Discussing the right of return in Israel, even at the left side of the political spectrum, is becoming unspeakable, as it has been categorically labeled as an existential and pure threat.

Meanwhile, in between the temporary return on foot en masse and the many actions of refusal of the paralyzing fear, emerge web initiatives seeking to challenge the stacked discourse from a completely new perspective: a practical planning of and for the return of Palestinian refugees.  Zochrot’s organization published in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic, English) a project that is a first of its kind; the project describes a joint activity of Israeli Jews and internally displaced Palestinians from Miska, engaging in re-imagining and re-planning the destroyed village for the future. This planning takes into account the return of all refugees from the village, rebuilding it, and re-engaging its existence within its geography and context, including its relationship with the existing Jewish communities around.

This is a radical utopian thinking that imagines common everyday life of the inhabitants of the country and its refugees without occupation and dispossession. The three languages project invites wider audience, Arabic and English readers, alongside Hebrew readers who are the first target audience of Zochrot as an Israeli NGO, for a discussion on practicalities of Return. Clearly a multinational and multi lingual discussion is necessary here, not as have occurred in the past, but an authentic and critical one. The Return of Palestinian Refugees is first and foremost a Palestinian interest, both civil and national. The international community is critical in its role to approach the core issue of the conflict: the Palestinian refugees. Western and Arab countries also share responsibility for the problem, not only Israel, so they too must be partners in finding the solution.

Developing a dynamic “arena of speculation”,  as the name of another fascinating website/initiative by Ahmad Barclay and colleagues that deals with this central issue–critical perspectives on spatial futures of Palestine-Israel, is essential to expand the options beyond the war horizon in which the leaders of the region showed us so far. At the bottom of this page is a powerful image created by Sarah Pellegrini, where many of people are returning to Miska Village. At its center is a cultural institute envisioned by the people to be built in the village center after its resurrection and rehabilitation. The building pictured is a copy of the Cultural Center at Deheishe refugee camp called Phoenix. The Palestinian returnees rise in the image as the mythological phoenix that returns to life. Between reality and myth we need the power of geographical and social imagination to create a completely new just and humane spatial reality, one that is the manifestation of people’s Phoenix rising.

Eitan Bronstein is Zochrot founder and spokesman. English editing: Rula Awwad-Rafferty

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