Trending Topics:

The Arab Spring and reviving the hope of return


It has been more than two years since a wave of revolts and demonstrations hit a number of Arab countries calling for dignity, freedom and justice. With persistence and determination protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya succeeded in toppling their long ruling dictators, no longer tolerating being misrepresented or oppressed by tyrants. However, the main question we pose in this article is: with the change of political climate in the Middle East, what effect has the Arab Spring had on Palestinian refugees’ hope of return?

Some have argued that “Palestinians have largely been on the sidelines of the Arab Spring.”[1] Others claim that the Palestinian cause has been missing from the discourse of the Arab revolutions.[2] Our ethnographic fieldwork carried out between October 2011 and October 2012 in the West Bank indicates that the Arab Spring has had an impact on Palestinians, especially on refugees. Our hypothesis is that the Arab Spring has revived the hope of return, a hope which has, for the past 65 years, been undermined for various reasons.[3] Nonetheless, deducing a correlation between the Arab Spring and renewing the hope of return is preliminary since the Arab Spring is still unfolding.

While documenting the stories of cross-generational Palestinian refugees, we noticed an expression of hopelessness that without changes in the region, return to their homeland would be impossible to achieve. One of the reasons for this is the unconditional international support for Israel. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has received the support of the international community and, as a result, was able to breach countless international laws and United Nations resolutions that affirm Palestinian refugees’ right of return: such as United Nations General Assembly resolution number 194. Breaches of Palestinian rights are commonly justified through the claiming to ‘protect Israel’s national security’. Thus, when it comes to the right of return Israel has without a doubt gained “international support that the right of return is impractical, and has made that [impracticality] the agenda of the international community,” said Yousef, former advisor to the Palestinian leadership in the negotiations team and a second generation refugee.[4]

Recently though, the international support for Israel has declined. According to the British ambassador to Israel,[5] this is due to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The fact that the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status in the United Nations also suggests that Israel is beginning to lose the support of the international community. Regardless of those who opposed or supported such a step and regardless of its negative or positive impacts on the Palestinian question, it has given some Palestinians hope that many countries are beginning to change their position.[6]

One of the most fundamental reasons obstructing the implementation of the right of return is the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the utter exclusion of refugees in previous,and most likely future, negotiations. According to Yousef “[t]he Israelis have not wanted to talk about refugees and the right of return in the context of negotiations. We’ve never gotten to final status negotiations except in Annapolis,[7]which was pointless.”[8]Sami, a third generation refugee, added: “If there’s a solution [through negotiations], it wouldn’t include, it wouldn’t include and I say again: it wouldn’t include the return of refugees.”[9]

Since the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have drastically failed in finding a solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, Palestinian refugees took matters into their own hands. For example, during the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba on May 2011, a new form of commemoration took place.[10] Palestinian refugees, those of the third and fourth generations, gathered in Haifa,Egypt, Jordan, on the borders of Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and in the West Bank near the Qalandia refugee camp and marched towards the Israeli borders.[11] This symbolic act of return proves that Palestinian refugees have not forgotten or given up their right of return. Sadly, this historic moment resulted in Israel killing 20 people, mainly Palestinian refugees, on the four borders with Israel.[12] The fact that some Palestinian refugees actually crossed the borders separating them from their homes in Palestine reveals that entering Palestine is not impossible. Nonetheless, Palestinian protesters would not have been able to reach the borders without the approval of the Syrian and Lebanese governments. There were signs of official support in Lebanon where analysts said leaders used the Palestinian cause in order to deflect attention from internal problems and in Syria where President Assad sought to divert the world’s attention from his onslaught on the uprisings by allowing confrontations with Israel in the Golan Heights.[13] These incidents demonstrate what Palestinians have been saying all along that Arab countries play a fundamental role in preventing their return.

The political change in the Arab region has, to some extent, affected the Palestinian discourse of return. In the past, second generation refugees’ spoke about the Oslo Accords as a development with a potential for achieving return. Today, third and fourth generation refugees emphasize that implementing return cannot take place with the continuation of the status quo of the Arab regimes. Thus, some Palestinian refugees perceive the Arab Spring as the significant change they have been waiting for in order to implement return. For instance, Lina, a third generation refugee, met with many Palestinian refugees in Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon and met with some of the young refugees who crossed the borders in 2011, and noticed that “their hopes for return were high, especially in light of the Arab revolutions where dictators were overthrown and replaced by new regimes.”[14] This idea was confirmed by other refugees such as Abu-Ibrahim, a first generation refugee, who expressed that “the revolutions and the change taking place in the Arab region is promising that return is soon.”[15]

Although other Palestinian refugees believe that the outcome of the Arab Spring would not lead to return, they, nevertheless, hold on to the slight hope it has given them. For example, Sana, a third generation refugee said: “Realistically speaking, I don’t think the right of return will be granted. Nevertheless, in light of the Arab Spring and with the radical change of the Arab regimes, I believe it is the only solution left.”[16]

The ongoing Israeli colonial policies in the occupied Palestinian territory are the basis for refusing the right of return. The dispossession of the Palestinians by Israel beginning before the 1947-1949 Nakba did not end there. The forceful displacements of Palestinians and house demolitions continue until this moment in area C of the West Bank[17]and in Jerusalem.[18] Moreover, between 1948 and1956 Israeli forces killed some 5,000 Palestinian refugees who tried to return to their homes.[19] Today, Israel continues to prohibit Palestinian return. One recent example that highlights Israeli determination to ban Palestinian return is through denying Palestinian-Americans entries to the West Bank and refusing to renew the visit visas of thousands of Palestinians who hold foreign passports.[20]

Despite the expansion of Israeli colonization in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians have not given up. Instead, they have employed forms of resistance such as hunger strikes in Israeli prisons or the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which is rapidly,“gaining momentum and posing a real threat to Israel.”[21] World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has recently joined the BDS movement to support academic boycott of Israel.[22]

The impact of the Arab Spring on Palestinian refugees’ right of return cannot be fully assessed at this stage, considering that the Arab revolutions have extended over two years. Although some Palestinians have argued that the effect of the Arab uprisings on Palestinian refugees’ right of return was ephemeral and ended on the 2011 commemoration of the Nakba with the death of many Palestinians, according to our empirical research, for many such as Abu-Saleh who is a first generation refugee, “[t]he journey of return has begun.”[23]


This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of al Majdal and is based on MA theses by the authors and oral testimonies from multiple generations of Palestinian refugees. The theses have recently been published by the Forced Migration and Refugee Unit at Birzeit University. Find the theses at:, and Authors used pseudonyms for all interviewees.

[1] Osamah Khalil, “Who are You?: The PLO and the Limits of Representation,” Al-Shabaka, (18 March 2013),

[2] Mohammed Abdelnur, during a Symposium entitled “Palestine in the Discourse of the Arab Revolutions,”

[3] “Disappointed Palestinian Refugees still Hoping for Statehood,” Middle East News, (22 September 2011).

[4] This interview was conducted on 14 May 2012 in Birzeit.

[5] Harriet Sherwood, “Israel losing international support, says British ambassador,” The Guardian, (Friday 3 August 2012),

[6] Amal Zayed, Palestinian Refugees Narratives: An Intergenerational Comparison, The Forced Migration and Refugee Unit, Birzeit University, (2013): 136.

[7] The Annapolis Conference took place in Annapolis on 27 November 2007 and was organized by the Bush Administration in order to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. For further information see Carol Migdalovitz’ CRS report for congress on the “Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: The Annapolis Conference,” 7 December 2007 at

[8] This interview was conducted on 14 May 2012 in Birzeit.

[9] This interview was conducted on 16 October 2011 in Ramallah.

[10] Zarefa Ali, A Narration Without an End: Palestine and the Continuing Nakba, The Forced Migration and Refugee Unit, Birzeit University, (2013): 16.

[11] Karma Nabulsi, “Nakba day: we waited 63 years for this,” The Guardian, (19 May, 2011).

[12] “Nakba Day 2011,” Occupied Palestine, (16 May 2011)

[13] Ethan Bronner, “Israeli Troops Fire as Marchers Breach Borders,” The New York Times, (16 May 2011).

[14] This Interview was conducted on 6 September 2012 in Ramallah.

[15] This Interview was conducted on 16 April 2012 in Jalazone refugee camp.

[16] This Interview was conducted on 16 May 2012 in Birzeit.

[17] Area C was first delineated in the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self Government Arrangements known as the Oslo I agreement, which divided the West Bank into three separate categories. More than 60 per cent of the West Bank is classified as “Area C’, which is under Israeli administrative and military control. For more information see Jillian Kestler-DAmours’s,“The battle for Area C,” Al-Jazeera, (10 August 2012) at

[18] Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, “Jordan Valley Displacements and Demolitions Continue,” (6 June 2012) at

[19] BADIL, “From the 1948 Nakba to the 1967 Naksa,” Occasional Bulletin No. 18, June 2004.

[20] Anna Germaine, “Palestinian-Americans denied entry to their homeland,” Palestine Monitor, (15 April 2013)at

[21] Rima Merriman, “Another Better Way for Mahmoud Abbas,” The Palestine Chronicle, (28 January 2013) at

[22] “Boycotting Israel,” Al-Jazeera,(10 May 2013) at

[23] This interview was conducted on 21 March 2012 in Jalazone refugee camp.

Zarefa Ali and Amal Zayed

Zarefa Ali is a researcher focusing on Palestinian refugees. She received her Master’s Degree from Birzeit University in International Studies with a concentration in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. Her latest publication is “A Narration without an End: Palestine and the Continuing Nakba.” Amal Zayed received her Master’s Degree from Birzeit University in International Studies with a concentration in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. She worked as a researcher at the Forced Migration and Refugee Unit at the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies. Her latest published work is a book entitled “Palestinian Refugee Narratives: an Inter-Generational Comparison.”

Other posts by .

Posted In:

4 Responses

  1. on August 10, 2013, 2:32 am

    I yesterday asked the respected MA’s couple of questions in relation to what I learned so nicely on this site – who is actually considered refugee? And what about German refugees? Ot Greek from Cypruss? I was recently inspecting their university – awfull stories they tell about what Turks did.

  2. Taxi on August 10, 2013, 3:07 am

    This IS the time to have hope, despite the ongoing brutal Nakba. It is time to have realistic hope because the status quo in the whole region is on shaky grounds – not stagnant and predictable like it used to be for DECADES before the Arab Spring literally erupted, surprising the whole world. There are by far more possibilities for change inside a tumultuous environment than inside an environment blighted with purgatorial stagnation.

    Now, what will facilitate this long overdue return of refugees, is yet to be determined. But my money is not on Kerry’s so-called ‘peace negotiations’.

  3. yrn on August 10, 2013, 3:12 am

    No wonder no one comments on this article and no wonder you deleted my comment.

    Tel us about the Egyptian Spring
    Tell us about the Syrian Spring
    Tell it to the Syrian people
    Tell it to the Palestinians in Syria .

    How long can you fool people around

  4. amigo on August 11, 2013, 6:56 am

    “The fact that the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status in the United Nations also suggests that Israel is beginning to lose the support of the international community. “Authors

    That was the day Israeli got desperate to get the Peace talks sham going again.Unfortunately for them, the horse left the stable and no one believes the Zionist lie anymore.

    Thanks for your work .

Leave a Reply