Palestine: The Return of “Return” (and Jerusalem)

In the lead-up to May 15, a key date in the history of the Palestinians’ ongoing “Nakba” (catastrophe) and the date– 70 years ago, in 1948– of the establishment of the State of Israel, grassroots organizations in Gaza and other parts of Palestine have been engaging in a six-week-long action called “The Great March of Return.” The aim of the action– as described in The Nation by one of its originators, Ahmad Abu Rtemah– has been “to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.”

The Great March seems to be being organized in a way similar to the weekly nonviolent mass actions that have been maintained in Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, and some other threatened West Bank villages for many years now. In those villages, each Friday after noon-time prayers, the population gathers to undertake some kind of a nonviolent mass activity– often, with very creative themes, and always designed  to encourage the participation of families and, where possible, sympathetic visitors. In Gaza, the Great March was launched on Friday, March 30, which was the 42nd anniversary of the original “Land Day” protest in the north of what is currently Israel, on March 30, 1976. On that day, Palestinian citizens of Israel held a nonviolent gathering to protest the expropriation by the state of some of their ancestral lands–and six of them were shot dead by the Israeli security forces.

As Palestinians note, the “Nakba” of 1948– that is, the catastrophe inflicted on them by Zionist/Israeli forces’ campaign to seize as much of the Palestinians’ land as they can while expelling Palestinians from it– still continues.

The Great March aims to end and reverse that process and to put firmly back onto the international agenda the Palestinians’ far-too-long-ignored right to return to their ancestral homes inside what is currently Israel.

Already, the Great March has been met with a wildly disproportionate and brutal Israeli response. Prior to its March 30 launch, the Israeli authorities announced they were deploying units of snipers to the already fortified frontier-line with Gaza, and giving them orders to shoot to prevent any Palestinians coming anywhere close to the frontier. That first day, the Israeli snipers shot dead 15 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and shot 758 other unarmed Palestinians in a way that inflicted serious injury– at least six of whom later died from their wounds. (Figures from the World Health Organization.) On Friday, April 5, the Israelis shot to death eight unarmed demonstrators (including one child and one journalist), and wounded 489.

Today, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel’s public radio that “there are no innocent people in Gaza.”

As Abu Rtemah and other Great March leaders point out, ever since the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194 on the conflict in Palestine, on December 11, 1948, the UN has been committed to the proposition (stated in Article 11) that,

…the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

Resolution 194 was adopted, moreover, just one day after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which clearly states in Article 13(2) that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Under customary international law, any individual’s civil status– and thus, also this right of return– is unequivocally heritable from one generation to the next: A child born to a refugee from any conflict anywhere around the world carries the same civil status and fundamental rights as her or his parents.

It is not surprising that Gaza’s extremely hard-pressed population of around two million souls is spearheading this new campaign for the Right of Return. The confined space of the Israel-besieged Gaza Strip contains the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees of any part of the world: around 70% of Gaza’s people are refugees from the lands that Israel seized control of in 1948-49, or the descendants of such refugees.

Additionally– and partly because of this high proportion of refugees in Gaza’s population– Gaza has always since 1948 been a key crucible for Palestinian nationalist organizing. It was there, in the 1950s, that the refugees Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar), Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), and more youthful Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) started building the networks that at the end of that decade became the largely secular, pan-Palestinian Fateh movement, which took over the PLO in 1968-69. (And the key demand around which they organized their movement? It was the Return of the refugees of 1948.)

It was also in Gaza that, in the late 1970s and 1980s, the refugee cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin started building the networks that in late 1987 became the pan-Palestinian “Islamic Resistance Movement”, Hamas.

It remains to be seen how far the current Great March of Return movement will spread beyond Gaza, though certainly its central tactic of organizing large-scale, public, civilian mass actions has also been seen numerous time in recent years in the West Bank (including in occupied East Jerusalem), among Palestinian citizens inside Israel– and among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

What is already clear, though, is the simplicity of the demonstrators’ call that the Palestinians’ long-neglected Right of Return needs to be addressed, though whatever means possible. This reassertion of the importance of the Right of Return is particularly notable since the entire international diplomacy of the post-1967 era was designed to ignore and sweep aside (wherever possible) this issue, or should that prove impossible, then to minimize as much as possible the extent and impact of its implementation. The same has been true since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem (which includes the historic heart of the city), of the  whole Jerusalem issue.

For 24 years after the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, the international diplomacy on this conflict– which came to be increasingly tightly monopolized by Washington– focused primarily on state-to-state issues between Israel and its neighboring states. The Palestinians didn’t have a state, so their claims and issues were always shunted off into an ever-receding future. It was not until the Israeli-Arab Peace Conference at Madrid in October 1991, that was jointly hosted by the United States and then (then-on-life-support) Soviet Union, that the Palestinians’ claims ever started to be put properly onto the peacemaking agenda. The powers gathered in Madrid agreed that (a) Palestinian claims against Israel would be handled by a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team, led by Jordan, and (b) the refugee issue would anyway be shunted off to a cumbersome “multilateral” negotiation in which the Palestinian claims to return to their homeland, per Resolution 194, would be diluted by being considered alongside other options like resettlement in place or international relocation for the refugees.

In early 1993, the Israeli government led by Labour Party head Yitzhak Rabin started to negotiate directly with the PLO, culminating in the two sides’ signing in September 1993 of the Oslo Declaration. In Oslo, Israel and the PLO agreed that negotiations over the  refugee issue should be negotiated as part of the promised “final peace treaty” between them; and they committed to concluding the negotiations for that treaty by early 1999. But in 1995 Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli hardliner; and his Labour successor, Shimon Peres, was such an inept leader that he was defeated at the polls the next year by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

The 1999 deadline for completing the final peace treaty negotiations came and went with no treaty in sight.

Later in 1999, Likud was beaten at the polls by Labour, and Labour leader Ehud Barak became Prime Minister. He declared he wanted to conclude the final peace with the PLO as soon as possible, but he was a very arrogant man who badly mishandled his relations with other political forces inside Israel– as well as his attempts at diplomacy with the PLO and with Syria.

In early January 2001, as Barak’s governing coalition was near collapse and hurtling toward a general election, he made an ill-prepared, “last-gasp” attempt to nail down the final peace with the PLO, during talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba. (Pres. Bill Clinton, who just the previous month had made his own proposal on the “final status” issues, was in the very last days of his presidency, and sent officials to Taba.) Taba was a fiasco. The following month, Labour lost the general election to Likud, now led by Ariel Sharon. He promptly ended the peace negotiations– and he and Barak agreed that Israel was not bound by any of the commitments that Barak’s negotiators had proposed or accepted in Taba.

At Taba, the Israeli negotiators had reportedly agreed to a return to Israel of some 100,000 older Palestinian refugees— out of a worldwide population of registered Palestinian refugees that then stood at over four million (now, over five million.) They also agreed to allow some Palestinian jurisdiction over some areas of East Jerusalem. With Sharon’s disavowal of Taba, both those commitments were off the table.

Now, 17 years after Taba, the situation of the Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem (many of whom are also refugees) has become yet more dire, as has that of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and elsewhere.

During those years, the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees of Gaza have– along with their non-refugee neighbors in the Strip– been subjected to a sickeningly tight siege, continual “small-scale” Israeli attacks, and no fewer than three all-out Israeli military assaults against the small, completely enclosed terrain of the Gaza Strip, in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.

Between them, those three assaults killed over 3,500 Gaza residents, the vast majority of whom were civilians. In those conflicts, the Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza meanwhile killed 78 Israeli soldiers and 13 Israeli civilians.

Regarding Jerusalem, Pres. Trump’s decisions– taken in clear contravention of both international law and 70 years of U.S. government practice– to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on or before May 15 have firmly put the issue of Jerusalem back onto the international agenda.

And there is no “peace process” at all right now, of the kind that from October 1991 until last year kept so many Palestinian political leaders busy. (Or “occupied”, as you might say.)

So the momentum is now firmly with the grassroots organizers of the Great March of Return movement, and with all the grassroots and political organizations that have decided to work with it. In Gaza, this includes all the existing political forces, including Hamas, Fateh, the Popular Front, and others. In other areas, the lineup of support for the Great March has not yet been made clear, but it will probably become clearer over the weeks ahead.

Given the Israeli government’s intransigence and the massive support it seems to enjoy from Jewish Israelis and from Pres. Trump’s Washington, and on the other side the determination, courage, discipline, and creativity of the supporters of the Great March of Return, the casualty toll can be expected to rise.

I’m hoping for more signs of conscience from inside the Jewish Israeli community, of the kind shown by the courageous human-rights organization B’tselem, which has called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to obey the blatantly illegal order to fire on unarmed demonstrators. I’m hoping for strong and effective solidarity actions from all around the world– including decisive actions by the world’s governments to start to hold Israel acountable for these war crimes.

But already, the organizers of the Great March have started to remind the world that the issues of Return and Jerusalem remain firmly on the international agenda, and cannot be wiped off it through any unilateral action by Israel, however brutal.