"Baghdad has fallen, the occupation forces are vandalizing our heritage there, and you want us to do something? No thanks, we are not in the mood and the spirit for activities."
As on numerous occasions in the history of the Palestinian struggle, a strong and trusted group of activists had to come together and work out a plan in order to challenge this dark mood of disappointment and frustration. It was one of those times when well-organized initiatives are most needed. Irrespective of their limited resources, local refugee community organizations in the West Bank were able to live-up to their responsibility by setting up an immediate and urgently needed program for enhancing popular morale.
Thus the 55th anniversary of the Nakba in May featured a media campaign on TV and radio stations and in the Palestinian press, community workshops and meetings, and a series of popular activities targeting old and young Palestinian generations (See, al-Majdal, Issue 18, June 2003).
One month of intensive work among the Palestinian refugee community in May - June resulted in a major recommendation: to re-launch the popular right of return conferences – an initiative initially started in 1995-1996 and subsequently put on hold – in order to strengthen the voice of Palestinian refugees against the growing US-Israeli pressure for a surrender of the right of return as a pre-condition for political negotiations between Israel and the PLO. The sense of danger and awareness of the pressure exerted upon the Palestinian leadership dispersed the dark mood and united three generations of community activists in action and preparations for popular conferences.
By September 2003, preparatory committees were established in three West Bank regions – Bethlehem, Ramallah and Tulkarem. Similar initiatives are in progress in Nablus and Hebron. The regional popular conferences will elect regional representatives with the aim of establishing a higher popular right-of-return coordinating committee in the West Bank. Community activists in the Gaza Strip have adopted the same model, but have yet to take the initial steps already accomplished in the West Bank.
The strength of the new movement of refugee community activists lies in its ability to involve three generations of Palestinian refugees. The old generation of men and women usually considered 'retired' from social and political activism is accorded special respect. They are listened to by large sectors of the society, refugees and non-refugees – mainly because they are perceived as persons who are not moved by narrow personal interest or corruption.
Elderly and respected individuals from the camps have organized themselves as delegations and visit Palestinian towns and villages, in order to raise and explain their concerns and the need of public support for their right of return. They have been received warmly wherever they go, and – for the first time in many years – the 21st commemoration of the Sabra and Shatila massacre organized in Deheishe camp/Bethlehem was joined by a considerable number of non-refugee participants, representatives of towns and villages in the region.
Major thought has been invested in developing ways of cooperation between the old and younger generations of activists. The latter move faster and easier, they easily develop ideas and plans, but the amount of their free time is limited due to work and family obligations. The old have more free time, and visits to camps and villages can provide a framework for meaningful social activity during the work-hours of the younger ones. In this way, the three generations have found a way to work together, both jointly and separately.
Finally, activities and efforts towards the preparation of the popular conferences are by themselves understood as an effective tool for raising awareness for refugee rights among the broader Palestinian society, and as a bell of alarm for the Palestinian leadership, who is called to maintain a clear and strong position on the basic rights of the people, i.e. self-determination and the right of the refugees to return to their homes, irrespective of US pressure to compromise these rights.
Mohammad Jaradat is the coordinator of BADIL’s Refugee Rights Campaign.
Conference and 4th Annual Right of Return Strategy Workshop, London
Debates, a conference, workshop and book launch will be part of a series of events in London from 5-10 November on Palestinian refugees' right of return. Participants will include Israelis, Palestinians, representatives of the world-wide Palestine Right of Return Coalition and UK Members of Parliament. The public is invited to attend the following events:
"The 'New History' of 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba"
"One State of all its Citizens, including the Refugees: The Future of Palestine/Israel?"
The conference is organized by Al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition, London in partnership with the International Coalition for the Right Return, Al-Awda U.K. It will be chaired by Neil Gerrard, MP and Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and will conclude with a workshop on: "International Campaigning on the Right of Return" (Victoria Britain, chair; Jaber Suleiman, researcher and writer, Lebanon; Sharif
The above public events are being held within the framework of the 4th Annual Meeting of the Palestine Right of Return Coalition convening in closed session in London. This Meeting will bring together some 35 delegates of initiatives working world-wide to strengthen Palestinian refugees' right of return in the context of a just and durable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This fourth annual meeting of the coalition aims to finalize the organizational framework for broad and democratic coordination of Palestine right-of-return activities and Palestinian exile communities and to set priorities for coordinated action in 2004.