The sixty-third anniversary of the Nakba witnessed a number of important events set up by Palestinian refugees in Arab countries surrounding Palestine, in the Diaspora, and inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, including Jerusalem. Even Israel – that part of Palestine occupied in 1948 – witnessed marches to a number of Palestinian towns and villages in the Galilee region which were destroyed and had their population displaced in what has been described as ethnic cleansing.
Palestinians commemorate the Nakba not only to mark the anniversary of the start of this tragic and ongoing process, but also to renew the national covenant, upholding their natural right to return to the land of Palestine, no matter how long it may take or how great the odds. There are now around 11 million Palestinians, 5.5 million of whom live in historic Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan.
The refugees in what are called the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied since 1967, now account for 44% of the total Palestinian population therein; the number of refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the middle of 2010 was 4.8 million, just under half of the total Palestinian population spread around the world. Of these UNRWA-registered refugees, 60.4% are in camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, 16.3% are in the West Bank and 23.3% are in the Gaza Strip.
This year’s Nakba anniversary comes at a time when hope for a return has become a little closer thanks to the Arab Spring revolutions, especially in Egypt, and the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The split had cast a shadow on previous commemoration events, as did the decline of official and unofficial Arab efforts on the Palestinian issue. The sweeping political change across the region has given rise to optimism that the right to return, enshrined in international law, will remain a non-negotiable issue.
The fact that Nakba events took place at all is testimony to the commitment of the ordinary people across the Arab world to Palestinian rights and freedom. Campaigns in the neighbouring countries of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon established a new phase in the conflict. They also illustrated that that it has been erroneous for Western and Israeli leaders since the fifties to put the issue on the back-burner in the belief that “the old ones will die and the young ones will forget” and the question of the Palestinian refugees will slip out of the public eye. It is the young people of the region who have used social networking to generate and fuel the popular revolutions; it was the young people of Palestine who gave the final push for national reconciliation. The right of return is back on the agenda and will haunt Israel; it is at the core of the Palestinian cause and is not ripe to be written-off.
Previous attempts by the US and Israel to push for a peace agreement which waived the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the right to Jerusalem, all foundered and deservedly so. Peace will remain an illusion until and unless Israel and its Western backers accept that that was indeed the case and seek solutions which allow these rights to be fulfilled.
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