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Home al-Majdal The Threat of Disengagement (Summer 2004) The Nakba and the Dynamics of the Refugees’ Problem

The Nakba and the Dynamics of the Refugees’ Problem

Written by  Husam Khader

Many have written about the Palestinian Nakba as a concept and as a major historical event with severe negative impacts on the economic, social and demographic aspects of the Palestinian situation. The Nakba is not necessarily linked to a specific date, even though is normally associated with 1948. In fact, the Nakba is a complicated historical process: it required prior planning and, at the same time, its consequences remain to this day.

The elements of the Palestinian Nakba first came to light during the late nineteenth century, i.e., since the First Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration and subsequent Jewish immigration to Palestine. This was accompanied by Jewish propaganda, including the slogan of Palestine as a land without people. The British Mandate facilitated the creation of a Jewish state and the transfer of Palestinian land through new laws that transformed the landholding system from collective to individual ownership.

This was followed by General Assembly Resolution 181 (partition), massacres against Palestinians executed by Jewish gangs, collective expulsion of around one million Palestinians, the destruction of Palestinian cities and villages, Judaization of the land through the destruction of historical landmarks which emphasize the Palestinian presence on the land for thousands of years. The Nakba continued as a historical event throughout the years carrying within its folds massive hardship, suffering and brutality.

This prolonged pain manifested itself in the loss of land and the presence of the refugee and the refugee camps. The loss of land was a direct result of the Nakba. Land holds a complicated, private, material and symbolic meaning for its owners. The loss of land resulted in the separation of the peasant from his land which led to the destruction of the socio-economic infrastructure based on the land. The peasant thus became unemployed or in the best case scenario performed minor jobs to provide for the family. The Nakba also resulted in the elimination of cultivation as a style of work and means of production for the refugees. It destroyed the economic foundations that supported the extended Palestinian family and it destroyed social relationships and the social hierarchy that revolved around the land.

This prolonged pain also manifested itself in the appearance of the refugee and the refugee camps as witnesses to the historical catastrophe of the Palestinian people. Revolution, action and resistance emerged from this same pain. Within the streets and neighborhoods of the refugee camps, the Palestinian individual created strategies for his survival and resistance on all levels. The refugee camp and the refugee are definitely among the main results of the Nakba which remain unresolved. Uprooting and dispossession of Palestinians from their land resulted in a new reality. Palestinians became dispersed among several geographical areas, but within six main locations: the 1948 land (internally displaced Palestinians), Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in addition to other places that are not formally called camps in Egypt and Iraq.


During the early stages of exile, the camp was a focal point replete with a mixture of visions, positions and outlooks for the refugee. The refugee was accused of fleeing but at the same time he was expelled from his land; the refugee was accused of selling the land and at the same time he was uprooted from his land; and, finally, the refugee was perceived as the outcome and the cause for his problem. Refugees suffered from this isolation.

This process was accompanied by continued attempts to further isolate the refugees in order to separate the refugee from his typical picture of the land. A new picture was supposed to replace the old, which is the refugee camp as an alternative to the refugee’s original land. The isolation and absence characteristics of this stage was subjected to the Israeli narrative and propaganda concerning what happened in 1948, in addition to the refugees’ loss of their land and the accompanying catastrophic economic situation and political oppression and different cultural and social surroundings facing the refugees in their new refugee camps.

Emergence from Isolation

Refugees have demonstrated an amazing ability to from imposed isolation and the depressing economic and social situations of life in exile. The refugees’ collective awareness and conscience helped in maintaining the Palestinian national culture and identity. It also helped in forming, reproducing and developing this identity among refugees especially after the 1967 war. Refugees created new strategies in order to preserve this identity, such as, prioritizing education in place of the lost land and as a means of survival.

Refugees dealt with education and knowledge as a field of resistance and as a reaction to the prior illiteracy which was a main reason behind the refugee situation. Another strategy was the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization which reflected the identity of struggle for Palestinians. This identity would not have emerged in the absence of Fatah and subsequent national resistance groups. This process survived and developed due to the immediate response among the refugees in different camps, especially the second generation of the Nakba.

Continued Demand for the Right to Return

Everything above is really an extended preamble to this article. However, it is a necessary one when addressing the refugees, their Nakba and their rights. The refugees are the owners of this collective conscience which revolves around their right to return and restitution. Refugees today, along with their institutions, have a sacred responsibility in developing their aptitudes, contributing to the demand for their rights, and finally shedding light upon the following:

Regardless of the suggested scenarios (e.g., one democratic state) for the Palestinian people, we must not forget our demands. The creation of a Palestinian state does not mean the return of refugees to this state. Actually, refugees should be able to return to their original lands from which they were expelled. Here lies the importance of knowing the legal aspects of the right to return. We should intensify our academic research around this point in particular. All suggested proposals undertaken by joint Israeli-Palestinian politicians and academics must be rejected. These proposals must act as an incentive to adhere to the right to return through organized and effective methods.

The different names and bodies that represent the refugee issue must be unified under one umbrella by the establishment of a network responsible for linking all available efforts, committees and apparatuses. This does not demean previous conventions conducted inside and outside Palestine which acted as a preliminary step towards building a progressive level of unity among all these different bodies. There should be social organizations capable of representing the refugee rights, such as; “Aidoun” committees in Syria and Lebanon, Defending Refugee Rights Committees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Association for Internally Displaced within the Green Line, the Right to Return Assembly and Coalition in Jordan, the Right to Return Congress, the Coordination Convention for Committees Defending the Right to Return around the world, al-Awda Center in London, Refugee Committees in Europe and North and South America, BADIL Center and its international campaign, scientific research and comparative studies that express awareness and vitality and ability to benefit from other experiences in the field of restitution, Associations for the Families of Displaced Villages, cultural centers and their leading role in raising awareness and adherence to rights, popular unions for youth and women centers, service committees in refugee camps, executive offices and other bodies and committees that are spread all over the world.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that the position concerning the right to return is the criteria to measure the seriousness of any organization or committee or individual. This right is not subject to bargains, referendums or opinion polls. This right must not be viewed as a trial balloon. Our people must be totally aware, ready and steadfast to confront all attempts to trespass the right to return.

Husam Khader is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and head of the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights. He was arrested by the Israeli military in March 2003. This article first appeared in Arabic in al-Quds (Jerusalem), 16 May 2004. Translation by Rana Mousa.

Husam Khader

Husam Khader

Husam Khader is a PLC member, and the chairperson of the Palestinian refugee rights defense committee. He was arrested by the Israeli occupation forces at his house in Balata refugee camp near Nablus on 17 March 2003. He is still being held in Hadarim prison inside Israel. This article first appeared in Arabic in Haq al-Awda 10-11 (2005). Translation by Nimr Awaini

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