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Palestinian Refugees Embrace the Right of Return Across Borders

On Saturday 29 July 2000, over 500 Palestinian children and youth from refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank journeyed by bus to the border between Lebanon and 1948 Palestine/Israel to meet and call for the right of return. Within minutes of arriving at the border, the Israeli military set up a roadblock to prevent refugees from the West Bank from reaching the fence to greet their brothers and sisters from the camps in Lebanon, and exchange gifts, including material for the Campaign for the Defense of Palestinian Refugee Rights, personal addresses, and email addresses. 

For more than an hour activists from BADIL Friends Forum and the children themselves, attempted to persuade the Israeli military to allow the children to reach the fence. "They have kept us apart for more than 50 years," said one girl, "and all we want is 5 minutes to see each other, and they won't even allow us that." Having spotted glimpses of their brothers and sisters on the Lebanese side of the border, some of the young people climbed a nearby abandoned building to waive Palestinian flags so that those in Lebanon could see those from Palestine. Within a short time, the young people from the Lebanese side of the border had climbed to the top of a 5-story building, also waiving flags. Both sides attempted to communicate with each other via megaphones.  

While the children on both sides of the border were disappointed that they were prevented from meeting and embracing each other, the day strengthened the feeling of being united as one people and the determination to return to their homeland. The day was also a reminder of the importance of educating the new generation about their inherited right of return to their villages of origin, and the right to restitution of their properties and lands, especially at a time when there is great pressure by Israel, with the support of the Clinton administration, to reach an agreement not based on UN Resolution 194 (III) and the basic principles of international law. The day also highlighted Israel's responsibility for the refugee issue, its violation of UN resolutions and international law, not only with regard to the right of return, but also concerning the simple right of people and families to be together. 

The visit was coordinated by BADIL/BADIL Friends Forum in the West Bank and Ai'doun in Lebanon, in conjunction with grassroots partner organizations in the West Bank refugee camps of al-Fawwar, Deheishe, 'Azza, 'Aida, Balata, Nur Shams, Askar, and Ein Beit Alma, and the Lebanon refugee camps of Shatila and Ein al-Hilwe. 

Below is a reflection on the visit by partners in Lebanon. Click here to see some photos of the visit. 


… and the preparations for embracing are complete 

A week had passed since we had informed the youth that they were going to meet their beloved Palestinian brothers at the southern liberated border of Lebanon. The rejoicing and happiness was indescribable. The youngsters flew like birds; everyone was preparing him or herself for the encounter. Someone raised the question: "What are we going to say to those coming from the soil of our homeland? How will we talk with them?" The youngsters made up slogans and prepared placards on which they wrote their hopes with the bright colors of joy. They bought balloons and wrote their names and addresses on them. They wrote the names of the Palestinian villages and towns from which they came, and they prepared Palestinian and Lebanese flags. They also started writing songs and poems, which they memorized collectively to sing on the day of happiness. It will be a joyful day, the day when they come together with their dear relatives… 

The youngsters from Shatila camp could not wait for the sun to rise on the day of the meeting. On Saturday, 29 July 2000, the youngsters gathered in front of the youth center in the camp. Everything was ready. Impatiently they waited, everyone was singing, smiling, laughing, and dancing, because most of them had not yet seen the southern liberated border of Lebanon or the soil of beloved Palestine.  

The first group started from Shatila camp in Beirut and journeyed toward Ein el-Hilwe camp (40 km south of Beirut) in Saida where they were supposed to meet the others. Suddenly, amid the chaos, the beat of the drums was cut short, and the songs for Palestine stopped. Someone had raised a question. "How would they recognize us?" Some started to talk about their expectations of the meeting. Others who had already visited the border began describing the visits, "When we met at al-Dahera Gata…." It was the most interesting experience they had ever had. The expressions on their faces can't be described. The questions never ended, mixed with love, longing, and uncertainty. The children were anxious to meet others who they never knew, but nevertheless considered them as dear relatives and sons coming from the heart of their homeland Palestine. They imagined warmly greeting them, giving them their names, telephone numbers, and email addresses and to make plans in the hope of coming together for another meeting… 

The buses that were waiting for us in front of the Ein el-Hilwe camp were over-overcrowded. There was not a single space left. Still, youngsters were looking for seats and saying, "Take me with you. I don't want a seat." "I'll stay standing the whole way." "It's unbearable, impossible, that I'll miss seeing dear relatives and from beloved Palestine and to miss having my eyes washed with the sight of the homeland…" We hesitated, caught between these sentiments and the thought of leaving them behind. In the end we decided to take an additional bus. 

That morning, five buses and several cars started the 60-km journey to the southern Lebanese border with Palestine. We had to drive fast in order to arrive before 12:00 noon, the time we had scheduled to meet with our brothers, so that they wouldn't have to wait… 

Everybody was waiting to hear the news from the brothers from BADIL in Palestine via the cellular phone, which was covered with telephone numbers. Hours went by, time passed quickly. The temperature outside was hot, but it was even hotter inside the bus as the excitement and enthusiasm continued to increase. The youngsters were singing national songs as their voices grew louder and their throats opened even wider. They also sang other emotional songs, thirsty for love and happiness. It was the experience of a lifetime. And then they would return back to think about the purpose of the trip, sitting in silent scrutiny of the sights they passed on the way to the border. Moments later, voices would rise again in national song, at times interrupted by questions. Mohammed kept asking, "Where are we now? Others asked, "Were these occupied areas before? How far is the border from here? Is this area in Lebanon or Palestine?" 

The cellular rang … complete silence … a voice from Beirut was on the line saying that the brothers in Palestine had already called to inform that they had reached Tabariya (Tiberias) on the way to al-Matalla. Screams and shouts of joy filled the air, and the news was transferred to the other buses. We would reach the border first, which is good because our brothers on the other side would not have to wait under the heavy heat of the sun. 

We passed the city of al-Nabatieh, reaching the liberated areas starting from the village of Kufr Tabnit, the neighboring village of Arnon, and Shqeif Fortress which sits atop a hill with a vista of Palestine, al-Baqaa', and most of south Lebanon … Here there was a Palestinian military base before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon … From here military operation started towards Kfar Gela'adi settlement in 1976 …This area was shelled by the Israelis and exposed to a military parachute operation in 1978 … These memories were related by one of the journey with long experience in the Palestinian resistance movement. With bitterness he added to the new generation, "memories of bravery, memories of heroism and the memory of the martyrs are all gone and no one remembers them. No one sees through these memories now, only through Oslo and compromise. They have killed these nice pictures and removed the bright things in our history." 

At the Lebanese army checkpoint, they wanted to search the IDs of all people in the buses, but the brothers from Hizbollah talked to them, after which we were allowed to cross … 

Going down to al-Khardally valley, crossing al-Letani river that flows through the wadis and down to the sea, we proceeded up another hill again, passing by the village of Deir Mimass from where you can see the village of Kufr Kalla perched on the side of the valley, which remained steadfast guarding the soil of the martyrs (such as Abu Ali Halawa killed in an Israeli commando operation in 1976) until the day of liberation. 

From here we could see the border, though still in the distance. Then, Al-Qulaia'a village, from which most of it's inhabitants, collaborators with Israel, fled to occupied Palestine. In Burj al-Molouk, the military detention center, run by Zionist collaborators, stands as a witness to the defeat of the enemy and the victory of the national and Islamic Lebanese resistance.  

And then we arrived, adjacent to al-Matalla settlement in Palestine. One of the girls named Amanda shouted, "Palestine is exactly like I drew it". The ten-year-old girl had never seen Palestine, but she had imagined what it was like, and set her imagination to paper in a drawing competition on Palestine at the Children and Youth Center in Shatila. 

The barbed wire fence is the only thing that separates occupied Palestine and Lebanon. Everyone was shocked, eyes wide open, as they stared at the homeland. They didn't have words to describe what they were feeling. Soil is soil, but they wanted to describe the magic and charm of both the ground and the homeland. Palestine was a prisoner of that barbed wire. So many questions were running through the minds of the boys and girls; reaching the edge of their homeland, which they have dreamt and talked about since the day they were born, and seeing it only brought more questions. Hear is the Palestine that they also sing about, and write poems about, even though they had never seen it until today. One of the youngsters shouted, "What will happen if we remove this fence and enter our homeland?" 

We reached Fatima Gate between the Lebanese village of Kufr Kalla and the settlement of al-Matalla. The military base there had been reduced to rubble, destroyed by popular anger, and transformed into a place to throw off the anger, animosity, and hatred towards the occupier. The watchtowers built by the Zionists along the borders had been transformed into places to throw stones, more than at Mecca, at the Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border. A visit to the border cannot be counted as a pilgrimage without throwing stones at the soldiers of the occupier. The enemy has tried in vain to protect their soldiers, building round, cement towers, with small windows made of thick, shatterproof glass, but even these windows could not withstand the anger of the stones.  

By now, the cellular phone had taken on a special significance. Everyone was waiting to hear from those in the other side. We moved from place to place, trying to find the best location for the frequency of the phone … here it's good … no, here it's better … watch out, be careful … we shouldn't occupy the line, our people are waiting and they will call us when they arrive …. From time to time someone came to ask if they had called. Embarrassed, we had to answer, "No". 

At mid-day the sun was already burning and the face of the children started to become red. Under one of the roofs they gathered and began to dance and sing. Boys and girls joined in the dabke, dancing to the beat of the drums. Others went up to the upper floors of the building hoping to see those who would be coming from the other side. They looked towards the horizon, hoping to see them from afar. The enemy was not satisfied with one barbed wire fence on either side of the border. Cement blocks, 2 meters high, had been placed at the fence to prevent people from seeing and reaching each other. On the Lebanese side of the border one could not see the movement of the soldiers nor the farmers in the apple orchards in Palestine. 

On the Lebanese side of the border you could see photos of the martyrs and Islamic and national resistance flags were everywhere. Photos of Hassan Nasrallah and Mohammed Fadllalah were on display, bought by visitors as souvenirs. At the same time, enthusiastic speeches and songs were playing over loudspeakers belonging to Hizbollah, and the word Palestine, Palestine, was heard over and over again.  

Questions about the phone call from the other side became persistent and urgent. "We should call Beirut, they might call there." "Maybe they tried to call." The connection to Beirut, however, was bad. Then worries started to take hold. Some of the youth started to search for stones to throw over the fence. "No, no… don't do this now, then they will prevent our beloved brothers from reaching the fence … but if they bother them and stop them from reaching us ... then they will see what we can do." 

All of a sudden, from the top of the building, some started to shout, "They are there, they are coming!" From over the apple trees, we could see the ends of the Palestinian flag playing with the wind … everyone start running toward the 50 cm-concrete fence. Voices and shouts became mixed together.  "Wave the flags to let them see us!" "They are coming slowly". In fact we saw nobody. Some of the older youth started to search for ways to see them from behind the trees. One of the youth was sent to check out the view from an unfinished building a little further from the border. "Come, come here," he shouted. "The view is much better from this building." We brought with us loudspeakers in case we couldn't reach the fence and speak face to face; just as they do in the occupied Golan where the people of Majdal Shams talk to their relatives on the other side of the border in Syria with a loudspeaker. 

We carefully climbed the five floors, one after the other, holding the hands of the children and checking each floor to see if the view was clear or not. "Yes they are there, not more than 300 meters away." "They are arguing with the enemy soldiers to come close. They must succeed, just to come a little closer so we can see them." "But it seems that it doesn't work." Flags waved without stopping, and through the speakers we sent our warm greetings and welcome to our beloved, dearest brothers from Palestine. We urged them, "Make another try. Try to come closer. Try to speak with them." We tried again, and again, repeating our demand. But to no avail. The matter is not in their hands. More enemy soldiers arrived at the border. 

The blood started to boil, and the anger increased. In loud voices and over the megaphone, the youth started calling the descendents of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Safad and Nazareth, Gaza and Jericho, Nablus and Acre, to every inch of Palestine. "All of our greetings and love!" We shouted loudly, "Remain steadfast, we are with you, the occupation will not separate us, we will liberate Palestine from the dark forces. The children of the refugee camps in Lebanon, the Lebanese, and the Arab nation, we will not give up, we will continue fighting, victory is coming, if not today then tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then the day after. We will return, we will be unified, and the families will be together again. We will live freely in peace and dignity on the soil of Palestine, the whole Palestine from the sea to the river. We will have victory over the Zionist enemy. Palestine will be free, independent and it will prosper." 

These words came from the depths of the heart. They were not prepared. They were not for public consumption or the media, but from the heart, expressing the great love, and a pledge to continue the struggle until the liberation and freedom of our kind homeland. We were not sure if the words from our hearts reached the hearts of our people on the other side of the border. We couldn't see the expressions on their faces, just the waving of the flags. 

After more than an hour, time started to lose its meaning. The number of brothers on the other side sometimes increased and sometimes decreased because they had to get on the buses. They were doing their best to come close. But they were unable, and we were unable. The children have too many questions. And the older ones are throwing questions at our faces. The experience is too painful and not having answers is just as painful. 

"Good bye, say hi to the whole family, say hi to the whole of Palestine…" 
We sent these words through the megaphone as they were waving their hands, and we were receiving the same message as they got onto the three big buses and would take our dear ones, and our hearts and feelings, far away to the heart of Palestine. But they are lucky to at least be in Palestine. Filled with sadness, our eyes followed them as they left, hoping we could run behind them just as our eyes followed them into the distance. Silence covered the area. The happiness that had filled the faces of the children, youth, and elderly was transformed into sadness, as if they had just lost the most beloved member of the family. The colored balloons had lost their meaning, slipping from the hands of the children. There was no enthusiasm to grab them. One of the balloons though flew high in the sky and drifted over Palestine, with the faces of the people behind it and for a small moment it transformed them. A small joy flashed across the faces, but sadness still lurked behind. The letters and papers with addresses stuck like putty in the hands of the children. They looked at the papers with deep sadness, as if looking at a lovely person and being unable to do anything. Throwing stones at the soldiers did not reduce the anger. What we need is much more than this. 

The smiles, joy, and happiness that had accompanied us all on the journey to the border did not return with us. On the way back, we pass al-Khiam prison, where the dark forces used to hold and torture the fighters. Samer said: "We must come every day to disturb the criminal Zionist enemy and make them angry, to convince them that there is no solution but to let us see each other." Mustafa, eleven years old, said: "Hey, look, we broke the windows of the watch tower, but it's not enough, we must aim to hit the coward Israeli soldiers." A voice from behind Samer said, " Why is there is border fence? We must remove it by force and go inside to our land, we have the right to do it…" 

We are back in the heart of refuge, the diaspora, and the sad and disappointed camps.  Questions continue to run through our minds about this peace process. The person who thinks that our problem will be resolved through resolutions, slogans and the hugs and kisses of Camp David is naïve. What kind of human rights will it give us? What about the right of return? What about the resolutions of the United Nations? What does it mean, "security and coexistence"? How will those who engineered Oslo bring about our return? Will they sign what is good for us? Let them sign what they want to sign. The children of Palestine are united in their perspective. The children of Palestine will try again and they will be prepared, inside and out on how, and where and what …  

Abu Mujahed
Children and Youth Center, Shatila Camp