67 years ago, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine unfolded through expulsions, massacres, and demolitions. Hundreds of villages were emptied, then levelled; centres of Palestinian urban life and community disappeared; columns of refugees took flight at the barrel of a gun.
A society was dismembered and fragmented. In the months and years after 1948, the army of the State of Israel, formed from the militias who had occupied and ‘cleansed’ village after village, used bullets and landmines to keep out the refugees trying to return home.
This is what we remember on Nakba Day, a vital act when so many still deny, or justify, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. ‘It never happened’, some say; ‘It happened, and they deserved it!’ say others. The liberals wring their hands, acknowledge the horror – and then urge us to ‘move on’.
Nor is it just about remembering – it is also about the ongoing Nakba, and resistance to the apartheid horror of Palestine today: the systematic discrimination faced by Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, the Gaza prison camp, the military regime and matrix of control in the West Bank.
67 years on, Israeli authorities plan to demolish Palestinian homes in order to build a Jewish town on their ruins. 67 years on, the refugees in Gaza sleep in homes shattered by the same army which expelled them their lands just a few miles across the perimeter fence.
But it is also about the refugees’ right to return, and not just in the abstract: the actual, physical return of Palestinians excluded from their homeland because they are not Jews. It is not impractical, and it need not be a fantasy. It is, however, fatal to the present system of settler colonial privilege.
In fact, there are more than 2 million Palestinian refugees within historic Palestine: in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel’s pre-67 lines. That includes UNRWA-registered refugees from the Nakba, as well as Israel’s so-called ‘present absentees’: Palestinian citizens stripped of their lands.
There are another 3 million refugees across the walls and fences in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Thus the majority of Palestinian refugees, even those in neighbouring states, “live within tens of kilometres of their historic sites of dispossession.”
As Palestinian architects Ahmad Barclay and Dena Qaddumi put it: “Palestinians remain a majority in much of their homeland, albeit under de-facto Israeli control”, with many refugees and displaced a short distance “from their original homes.”
Thus the question of return begins from this reality; a de facto state with its internal borders of privilege and exclusion, visible and invisible boundaries that preserve, and echo, the original violence of expulsions and displacement.
What would a return of Palestinian refugees look like? It is a question increasingly been taken up and answered by Palestinians, as well as Jewish Israelis. This work is a breath of fresh air, a contrast to the stale, apartheid-accommodating proposals generated by years of ‘peace process’ politics.
There is, of course, the research and scholarship of Salman Abu Sitta, who has refuted claims that “there is no room in Israel for the refugees’ return.” In 2013, a major conference took place at Boston University to examine the political, legal, humanitarian, and practical aspects of return, including precedents in East Timor, Bosnia, and South Africa.
Palestinian groups like Badil are producing in-depth resources based on the premise, in the words of Ali Abunimah, that “ending the Nakba requires creative and practical thinking and planning for return.” This means examining the implications of return on questions of property and residential rights, as well as the meaning of full reparation:
the return of the displaced; restitution of housing and property; compensation; satisfaction – e.g. public apology and prosecution of those responsible; guarantees for non-repetition – e.g. reform of laws; and rehabilitation.
Workshops like Zochrot’s 2010 ‘Counter-mapping: Thinking about the Return‘, examined questions like: “How many new housing units will be built? What will the shared Israeli-Palestinian space be like? How will industrial and agricultural regions be allocated? What infrastructure will be required for towns and villages? What principles will govern movement throughout the area?”
Meanwhile, Palestinians on the ground, in places like Miska, Iqrit and Kufr Birim, have already embarked “on a process that imagines and realises a return to their lands.” These are initiatives that marry practical activism, a kind of present-future return, with plans and sketches that “open the political imagination towards the different forms in which a present return could take place.”
So yes, it is imperative to remember the history of ethnic cleansing, and yes, it is essential to connect the Nakba of 1948 to the ongoing Nakba, an unbroken history of expulsion and massacres, exclusion and occupation. But it is as equally important to stress the viability and necessity of return.
It is about replacing parameters defined by settler colonialism and ethno-nationalist separation, with those of restorative justice and decolonisation. The return of the Palestinian refugees carries the twin-promise of the liberation of the imagination, and of the land.