Bitter Anniversary

As Palestinians mark the 62nd anniversary of their ‘Nakba Day,’ their refugee problem remains unresolved

palestiniank nakba day 311 (photo credit: AP)
palestiniank nakba day 311
(photo credit: AP)
Just like they do every year, on May 15 this year the Palestinians will mark “Nakba Day,” namely the day which they term their disaster, on which the British Mandate in Palestine ended 62 years ago.
Upon the end of British rule, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel and the armies of the Arab countries poured in to fight alongside their Palestinian brethren who had rejected the UN partition plan. By the end of the war 750,000 Arabs, about half of the Arabs in the country, had lost their homes and property and become refugees.
Aref al-Aref, a leading Arab figure who eventually served as the mayorof Jordanian Jerusalem, was one of the first to call the defeat of 1948nakba. It means disaster, holocaust or tragedy. Hecalled the five volumes in which he documented the destruction of hishomeland “The Nakba of Jerusalem and the LostParadise.”
As of 2010, 4.8 million Palestinian refugees are registered with theUnited Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) agency, seven timestheir original number. Few remain who personally experienced the loss.Almost all the Palestinian refugees registered today, who hold UNrefugee cards, are the descendents of the refugees of 1948.
Where are they? There are 800,000 in the West Bank. About one quarterof them live in small refugee camps at the edges of the major towns andincorporated into them. About one million refugees are registered inthe Gaza Strip, 600,000 of them living in large refugee camps (thebiggest of which is the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, withmore than 100,000 refugees).
About two million refugees are registered in Jordan, only a minority ofthem in camps. Another 800,000 are in Syria and Lebanon and smallernumbers are in other Arab countries and overseas.
Ahead of May 15 this year, the Palestinian media has been runningheadlines such as, “The Nakba goes on.” There maynot be flight and expulsion as there were 62 years ago but, accordingto the Palestinian press, there are equally serious incidents. Thesecurity barrier and the settlements in Judea and Samaria, the siege ofthe Gaza Strip, denial of residency rights and home demolitions, the“Judaization of Jerusalem” (as the Palestinians call construction ofthe Jewish neighborhoods and settlements in East Jerusalem) are all,for them, a direct sequence to the tragedy that has not stopped since1948.
At the same time, the Palestinians continue to demand the recognitionof the right of the refugees of 1948 to return to their homeland basedon UN resolution 194 (the November 1948 resolution says: “…the refugeeswishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighborsshould be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”).
Just how sensitive this subject is could be learned about a month agowhen Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in aninterview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the refugee problemcould be resolved by their return to the Palestinian state. In otherwords, return to a national homeland and not to the specific homes theylost inside Israel. The Palestinian public was in an uproar. Manyattacked Fayyad and asked how he dared give up the right of return. TheArabic translation of the interview, highlighted in the Palestiniannewspapers, carried a different version, according to which Fayyad toldHaaretz that the refugee problem would be resolved by a PLO decision.
Following Palestinian publications as I do, I found a new book inArabic in East Jerusalem a few days ago, entitled: “The flourishing ofArab construction in occupied West Jerusalem.” The album-style bookwritten by Palestinian researcher Adnan Abd al-Razeq has sketches, mapsand photographs of houses in West Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods beforethe nakba. It also carries a list of the Jerusalemfamilies that lost their homes and notes, for instance, that Israel’sprime ministers and their families lived in stately houses built byArabs, who lost them in 1948: Golda Meir in the neighborhood ofTalbieh, Levy Eshkol, and even Ehud Olmert in Katamon.
There is no doubt that in the first years after Israel’s War ofIndependence (which is the Palestinian nakba) thereturn was the refugees’ No. 1 demand. It still exists today, butundoubtedly with less force. The rage and bitterness of the people wholost their homes and their property are probably greater than those ofthe members of the second and third generation, who know of the “lostparadise” only from stories.
In the Hashemite Kingdom, which has the largest concentration ofrefugees, the problem is dulled. The Palestinians, whether they arerefugees or not, are citizens with equal rights. The children of therefugees are integrated in all of the systems of Jordanian society andgovernment. There are indeed refugee camps, mainly in the Jordan Valleyand on the outskirts of Amman, but they resemble normal slums on theedges of cities. The large refugee camp “al-Wahdat” has turned into abig slum of Amman, and on a recent visit I saw that many of theresidents of the camp are not members of Palestinian families butEgyptian laborers who came to Jordan in search of work.
More interesting are some of the new upscale neighborhoods of Amman,such as Shmeisani and Abdoun. They have magnificent houses, veritablepalaces that demonstrate the wealth of their occupants, which couldcompete with the homes of the world’s rich in Europe and America.Almost all of their residents are Palestinians, and many of them arethe children of refugees, who built these neighborhoods in the last fewyears.
The nakba of 1948 was followed by a large wave ofdiscovery and development of the oil fields of the Gulf states andemirates. The Bedouin rulers of the oil deserts needed skilled andavailable labor, and this was supplied by the refugees. In the 1950s,60s and 70s hundreds of thousands of Palestinians found their way tothe oil countries. They came as engineers: Palestinian leader YasserArafat, for instance, went from Egypt to Kuwait to work as a highwayengineer; or they came as teachers: PA President Mahmoud Abbas traveledfrom Syria to teach at a school in the emirate of Qatar. In fact, itwas the Palestinians who were at the center of the development of theoil countries. They were economists, engineers, bankers, journalists,teachers and technicians.
Before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 some one millionPalestinians were in the Gulf countries. “This is our America,” wrotethe refugee author Ghassan Kanafani, who, in his famous novella “Men inthe Sun,” describes the tragedy of Palestinian laborers trying to stealthe border from Iraq to Kuwait.
The Palestinians did not receive citizenship in the oil countries, andin the winter of 1991, after the first Gulf War, the Kuwaitiauthorities expelled 300,000 Palestinians because they supported SaddamHussein’s invasion. Eventually many Palestinians also left the otheremirates. They did so because the Gulf was flooded with hundreds ofthousands of cheap workers from the East, from Pakistan, Bangladesh,India and the Philippines. And some left recently because of thecollapse of the Dubai economy. One way or another, many of thePalestinians who left the Gulf came with their money to Amman, and itwas they who built the posh neighborhoods.
In Syria the refugees have little impact. The greatest concentration ofPalestinian refugees is in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, andalthough they have not received Syrian citizenship they are integratedinto society and the economy.
But there are two other concentrations of Palestinian refugees in whichthe problem is alive and felt every day, every hour. The first is theGaza Strip, which does not have the physical and social space to absorbthem. Of the million and a half residents of Gaza about one million arerefugees. The narrow and crowded strip cannot support its destituteresidents.
The second and much more problematic concentration is in Lebanon. Thenumber of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is unknown; estimates runfrom 200,000-400,000. Lebanon has never granted citizenship to therefugees. Moreover, the refugees are subject to a series ofrestrictions. Most of them live in the camps of necessity, since thehousing is free and only in the camps can the refugees receive all ofthe educational, health and other benefits and services provided byUNRWA. The camps form a sort of ex-territorial area; the Palestiniansmay leave the camps but they are only allowed to work in a small numberof professions, mainly menial work.
The source of these restrictions is the delicate balance between thedifferent religious communities in Lebanon. Most of the refugees areSunni Muslims and the other groups in Lebanon – Christians, Shi’itesand Druze – are afraid that the refugees will upset the communalbalance; they openly say that the refugees should be evicted fromLebanon. Occasionally, the fear of massacres in the refugee camps –which have occurred in the past in the context of the civil war inLebanon – surface.
Indeed, when it comes to the necessity for a resolution of thePalestinian refugee problem, the refugees of Lebanon are at the top ofthe list. Over the years, tens of thousands of refugees have, in fact,left Lebanon. Some went to Arab countries and others to Sweden, Canadaand Australia.
There are refugees inside Israel too, members of families who in 1948lost their homes and property but remained in Israel; they constituteabout 25 percent of the more than one million Arab citizens of Israel.Arabs from Tiberias, for example, or from Beit She’an, moved toNazareth. Residents of Galilee villages moved from one village toanother. The most famous case involves the residents of the villages ofIkrit and Biram on the Lebanese border, non-hostile villagers who wererequired by the IDF to evacuate their homes. They were promised thatthey would be allowed to return, but have never been permitted to doso, despite decisions by the Israeli High Court of Justice that theyshould be returned.
Ahead of “Nakba Day,” Palestinian spokesmen claimthat the problem of the refugees of 1948 is the oldest refugee problemin the world. An absolute majority of Israelis agreed that the returnof Palestinian refugees into Israel is out of the question. For all ofthe Israeli political parties, with the exception of the Arab parties,the issue of the return of the refugees to Israel proper is a red linethat cannot be crossed. Recognition of the right of return of thesemillions of refugees, in Israelis’ view, would mean the end of theJewish identity of the State of Israel, and perhaps even the demise ofthe state. Most of the refugees’ property has been seized by theIsraeli government and is now occupied by Jews, themselves refugeesfrom the Holocaust in Europe in World War II and from the destroyedJewish communities in Arab countries.
After all these years, the problem of the Palestinian refugees may notbe the first priority in the conflict over the future of the land, butit certainly is painful and troubling.