When the 12-year-old 'Imad saw his mother prepare some sandwiches, which they can have during the march on 15/5/2011 to the southern Lebanese borders with Palestine, he wondered in surprise, "What is the food for? Will we have the time to eat it? Aren't we going today to the borders of Palestine to fight the Israelis?"
The message which this kid and his peers have conveyed gave that event another dimension. These marches of return that headed towards the borders with Palestine, which was occupied in 1948 and became known as Israel, turned into a landmark in the Palestinian approach to the right of the Palestinians to return to their homeland.
The Return Marches: A Turning Point
The crowds that participated in the marches in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and the Gaza Strip in addition to those killed while trying to penetrate the border fence represented three important indicators:
First: Transforming the right of return from a theoretical framework or a nostalgic wish to a practical program. This indicates that Palestinian refugees are adherent to their land and that their stay in host countries depends on their ability to return. Thus, this indicator sends a reassuring message to the host countries which are concerned about naturalization.
Second: The strong transition of the issue of return to the third generation. This proves that the owners of this right have not forgotten it but rather became more ready to die for it. They are ready to use new, effective, and even costly methods which have not been used by their fathers or grandfathers. The vast majority of participants were the youth and almost all of those who were killed and wounded were the young also. This conveys an important and decisive message in this respect and proves that the Israeli hope "The old will die and the young will forget" did not come true. Hence, the hopes of those concerned about the right of return were boosted as much as the Israeli side was frustrated.
Third: The vital efforts related to the Palestinian national work have moved since 1987 (the start of the Intifadah) into the Palestinian interior after they were mainly focused outside Palestine. Indeed, the recent marches have provided new indicators for the possibility of enhancing an effective Palestinian role abroad. This role could be in the adoption and embrace of programs within the scope of what was prohibited during the last 25 years.
What enforces this inclination is the state of transformation witnessed in the Arab world and which might open new horizons for the support of the resistance or for the activation of programs concerned with the right of return. In addition, the countries bordering Israel might have to ease their grip (whether willingly or with reluctance) because of their new policies or their internal problems.
The Right of Return
It goes without saying that the right of the individual to live in his home and on his land, enjoying freedom and dignity is a self-evident right which is guaranteed by all international laws and covenants and exercised without debate everywhere on the globe. However, depriving the Palestinians of their right of return to their homes and lands is the only exception in this sense.
The problem of the Palestinian refugees is the oldest refugee problem which remains without a solution since it started in 1948. While the Rwandans, Armenians and Bosnians are able to return to their homes, the Palestinian refugees are still unable to return to their homeland after the lapse of 63 years for their displacement.
In addition, the problem of the Palestinian refugees is the largest regarding the number of refugees as compared to the total population. Around 5.75 million refugees live outside historic Palestine, whereas 1.8 million Palestinian refugees of the 1948 occupied land live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus amounting to 7.55 million refugees out of 11.1 million Palestinians, estimated in early 2011. Hence, more than two thirds of the Palestinian people are refugees.
Thirdly, the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees has the largest number of UN resolutions that confirm their right of return. Since the issuance of UN Resolution 194 till now, around 120 resolutions have been issued to stress the Palestinians' right of return to their homeland. This right includes the return to Palestine which was occupied in 1948 and not only to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Despite its clarity and simplicity, this right is disabled because of the Israeli arrogance and the American and Western support to Israel. It is also disabled because Israel is being dealt with as a state above the law. Thus, the US did not blink when the Zionist gangs carried out 34 massacres and deported more than 800 thousand Palestinians (out of 1.39 million) in 1948 from their land. Moreover, the US and its allies did not apply any of their slogans and values related to the rights of the refugees. They were not even concerned about solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees as much as they were concerned about backing Israel to thwart the implementation of the right of return.
The Israeli logic considers that the application of the right of return would bring the Zionist project to an end and would strip Israel of its Jewish character. This logic asserts that there is no meaning for a peaceful settlement if the Palestinians insisted on achieving this right. On the other hand, was there any logic when the Jewish immigrants came from around the world under the protection of the British guns to live in Palestine against the will of its people and for their number to increase 13 folds (from 50 thousands in 1918 to 650 thousands in 1948)? Was there any logic in uprooting the Palestinians from their homeland where they have lived for more than 4500 years so that the Jews get forged majority by shedding Palestinian blood? Is there any logic that the Palestinians be deprived of the right of return (as any civilians trying to go back to their homes after the end of the war) just because the Zionist enterprise failed to secure Jewish majority, and that's if we accepted the argument that these Jews have the "right" to immigrate and live in Palestine?
The Fence and Beyond
The marches on 15/5/2011 were characterized not only by the wide youth participation but by the participation of all age groups and refugees in a number of countries and places simultaneously. Perhaps the most significant aspect was the unplanned part; the penetration of the border fence and raising the Palestinian flag on it.
In Lebanon, the number of participants exceeded 30 thousand and according to the estimates of the march organizers the number reached 50 thousand, whereas thousands could not make it due to lack of means of transportation. The participants had high morale before, during and after the march although most of them had to walk from 5 to 16 km (including elderly, women and children).
Did the border scarecrow collapse? Did the fake "sanctity" of the fences surrounding Palestine fade? Did the Palestinians put their hands on a weapon which they have been afraid to use for many years because of the cruelty of the Arab regimes (which were lamenting the right of return and scared of naturalization) and the fear of the Israeli reaction?
The Palestinians have broken the fence, and with it the barrier of fear, which Israel and the Arab regimes have built, has crumbled. A moral victory was achieved but the question is whether this reaction would crystallize into an effective program?
It is the question beyond the fence incident. Would it be possible to mobilize wide crowds that would penetrate the borders and implement the right of return? Could they bring the issue of the Palestinian refugees on the front burner of the political and media arenas?
To what extent will Israel shed blood to thwart the Palestinians who are persistent about the return? Would it be possible to benefit from the experience of the 415 deportees in Marj al-Zohour whom Israel had displaced in late 1992? Those returned a year after their deportation because of their steadfastness and keenness to return.
This is not about wishful thinking or daydreaming. It is the right of the refugees, whose issue was ignored for more than 60 years, to think out of the box and to break traditional initiatives and positions which are more relievers than genuine solutions.
The Israeli Concerns
The Israeli side has expressed its concern about facing marches similar to those held on 15/5/2011. It acknowledged the high costs it might have to pay if it insisted on using armed forces to prevent the Palestinian crowds from breaking the border fence, where these prices have political, legal and media repercussions.
The Palestinian, who is keen about the return and has a document proving his ownership of his land (koshan document) and also has his house key, brings the conflict with Israel back to its essence. His position also shows that the matter is not a mere difference over the '67 lines but rather about uprooting the Palestinians and depriving them of their basic rights. Further, it shows that the ugly face of an occupying entity which is based on the misery of the Palestinians and their pains. Thus, Moshe Ya'alon, the minister of strategic affairs in the Israeli government, did not drift away from the fact when he said that the Nakbah incidents were proof that the struggle is for the very existence of the State of Israel and not just over borders. The commander of the northern region was also right when he said that what has happened is a prelude to future incidents and the time remaining to draw lessons is indeed very short.
It seems that the Palestinians are facing three possibilities to deal with the event:
1. The satisfaction with what happened on 15/5/2011 by considering it a shining star added to the history of the Palestinian people of steadfastness and struggle.
2. The youth and factions might build on the event and study how to develop it in a programmed political process. Innovating new political, legal and media means when seeking their right of return.
3. Mobilizing the wide public in host countries, outside conventional calculations, will impose a new situation through breaking the fence and will force the return issue worldwide. This possibility is linked to relaxing the grip on the security of borders more than any other condition.
Investing in the Event
This article will not delve into the controversy surrounding the political investment of those who allowed the refugees to proceed with their marches, especially in Syria and Lebanon. Even if there were political gains for some, this does not mean cancelling the marches since the gains achieved by the refugees themselves are greater than those achieved by any other party. In addition, the common interests with any forces should be a catalyst enhancing the efforts in this context rather than thwarting them. Therefore, let the authorities on the other borders with Israel allow the refugees to carry out their programs and let them enjoy the political gains as long as the issue is a part of the refugees struggle and not necessarily a part of the regimes' agenda.
What matters is highlighting the right of return and foiling any efforts aiming at cancelling it. Moreover, in order to preserve the essence and mission of these marches and the programs related to the right of return, it is essential to institutionalize the movements and implement them with caution and boldness. Youths must be given enough space to take initiative and change the stereotypical programs.
Finally, let the answer to 'Imad's question be "We are going to Palestine not only to fight the Israelis but to achieve victory as well."
The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 6/6/2011
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.