The United Nations’ World Refugee Day, observed annually on June 20, should not merely represent a reminder of “the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.”
It should also be an opportunity for the international community to truly understand and actively work towards finding a sustainable remedy to forced displacement, for no woman, man or child should be forced to endure such grueling, shattering and humiliating experience in the first place.
Palestinians who have withstood the degradation of exile for over 70 years embody the harshness of this collective experience more than any other group.
To be a refugee means living perpetually in limbo – unable to reclaim what has been lost, the beloved homeland, and unable to fashion an alternative future and a life of freedom, justice and dignity.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 68.5 million people around the world who have been forced out from their homes, with 25.4 million of them classified as refugees.
Of the officially listed refugees, 5.4 million are Palestinians, registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
For Palestinians, the grim reality of being a refugee is compounded through the absence of any political horizon, enough to convey a sense of hope that, 70 years after the genesis of the Palestinian refugee crisis, a remedy is at hand.
Abandoned in this seemingly eternal quest for a homeland, Palestinians hold tighter onto hope, because it is hope alone that feeds their own sense of determination, which neither time nor distance will stand between them and their Right of Return. This internationally-honored right is etched in the hearts and minds of millions of Palestinians everywhere.
The archetypal image of a refugee – a man, a woman, a child holding on to the pole of a tent, charting a path of exile to no specific place, imploring UN officials for help, and the world for mercy – is, by itself, not enough to deconstruct the complexity of that identity. To belong to a place that has ejected you, yet to seek an alternative home in places to which you do not belong, culturally and in every other way, confuses one’s sense of being. The psychological trauma alone is shattering.
While Palestinians continue to hold on to a sense of identity in their various spaces of exile – refugee camps across Palestine and the Middle East – their prolonged odyssey is seen as a ‘problem’ to be haphazardly fixed, or entirely dismissed, in order for Israeli Jews to maintain their demographic majority.
The mere fact that the Palestinian people live and multiply is a “demographic threat” to Israel, a ‘demographic bomb,’ even. This unmistakably racist notion is wholly embraced by Israel’s allies in Washington and elsewhere.
When Israel and its friends argue that the Palestinians are an “invented people“, not only are they aiming to annihilate the Palestinian collective identity, but they are also justifying in their own minds the continued killing and maiming of Palestinians, unhindered by any moral or ethical consideration.
Israel and the US will do anything in their power to trivialize the centrality of the Palestinian refugee question and its relevance to any future just peace in Palestine.
Nearly a million Palestinian were made refugees following the establishment of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948. Hundreds of thousands more acquired that dismal status in subsequent years, especially during the Israeli war and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
The 5.4 million refugees registered with UNRWA are those original refugees and their descendants.
Israel has never agreed to take responsibility for the consequences of its violent inception – the ethnic cleansing, the untold destruction of towns and villages and the very erasure of historic Palestine.
Even during the Oslo Peace Process, Israel refused to discuss the core issue of refugees, relegating it to the ‘final status negotiations’, which have never taken place and will, most likely, never actualize.
In the meantime, Palestinian refugees have been sentenced to subsist in this unfair status – neither here nor there. If there was such a status as second, third and fourth time refugees, Palestinians would have acquired that, as well.
Indeed, millions of Palestinian refugees have been exiled more than once, from Palestine to Jordan or Lebanon; from there to Syria, and back and forth.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current war in Syria have taught us that Palestinian refugees with relatively better living conditions are not safe, either.
The small Palestinian refugee community in Iraq was persecuted after the invasion, to the point that they were forced to leave, en masse, to any country willing to take them. Many of them ended up as refugees in South America.
The same sordid scenario was repeated in Syria and will, tragically, be replayed elsewhere in the future.
Instead of remedying the crisis with a degree of moral and legal accountability, successive US administrations have tried to marginalize the importance of the Right of Return.
Israel, on the other hand, has targeted refugee communities through wars and massacres, most notably during the 1982 war and invasion of Lebanon, and the subsequent Sabra and Shatila Massacre in September of that same year.
Now, with the help of the Donald Trump’s administration, Israel and the US are orchestrating even more sinister campaigns to make Palestinian refugees vanish through the very destruction of UNRWA and the redefining of the refugee status of millions of Palestinians.
By denying UNRWA urgently needed funds, Washington wants to enforce a new reality, one in which neither human rights, nor international law or morality are of any consequence.
What will become of Palestinian refugees seems to be of no importance to Trump, his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and other US officials. The Americans are now watching, hoping that their callous strategy will finally bring Palestinians to their knees so that they will ultimately submit to the Israeli government’s dictates.
The Israelis want the Palestinians to give up their Right of Return in order to get “peace”. The joint Israeli-American “vision” for the Palestinians basically means the imposition of apartheid and keeping Palestinian exiles in a never-ending ordeal.
The Palestinian people will never accept this injustice.
The Right of Return remains a driving force behind Palestinian resistance, as the Great March of Return demonstrated in Gaza, starting March of last year.
All the money in Washington’s coffers will not reverse what is now a deeply embedded belief in the hearts and minds of millions of refugees throughout Palestine, the Middle East and the world.
Palestinian refugees may not top the political agenda of the Middle East at the moment, but it is their persistence, determination and undying hope that will keep their cause alive until international law is respected and human rights are truly honored.