Wakim Wakim: Yes, and we were strongly motivated by the fact that our issues had not been raised in the 1991 Madrid Conference. We started in 1992, as a group of internally displaced people, to develop contacts with local community activists. The result was a first meeting in Nazareth in April of 1992 where we decided to establish an action committee, which would work to protect the rights of the uprooted in Israel. This committee built its contacts with local groups and raised the demand for return. It started to work with local communities, Knesset members, political parties and NGOs. Finally, in March of 1995, a popular conference was held with some 300 participants from more than 30 uprooted villages, as well as representatives from other local councils and members of political parties. This conference established the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel.
You say that the Committee raises the demand of return. Does this mean that you consider the issue of the internally displaced part and parcel of the Palestinian refugee question?
Of course. We demand the implementation of UN Resolution 194, which applies to the refugees in exile and to us internally displaced as well. You know, it was mainly coincidence that determined in 1948, who would become a refugee and cross the borders and who would remain on this side of the new border. Every one of us here has relatives in exile. I personally have family who is stranded in one of the camps of Beirut. This is why we consider ourselves part and parcel of the struggle of the Palestinian refugees.
At the same time, you know, I wonder many times what is worse: to be in exile, far from your home and land and to dream about it, or to be here, to pass by your village and land almost daily, to see it and to be prevented from enjoying it? We have been in a very difficult situation for years. At the beginning, at the time of the Israeli military government in the Arab areas in Israel, our lands and villages were declared closed military areas. Nobody was allowed to go there. Only on the Israeli Independence Day would they release the restrictions a little, and we could go there and plant or make a picnic. In the meantime, Israel feels more secure and we are no longer considered a big threat - we are citizens of Israel. But our situation remains awkward. I for example come from the village of al-Bass, near the Lebanese border. Israel established on its land a small settlement called Shlomi. I as an Israeli citizen can go to live there, if I am willing to rent my own land from the Israeli state. Absurd, isn't it? Most people abroad don't know at all about our situation, and once they find out, they are stupefied.
The Committee is now four years old. How do you draw your balance sheet?
Generally speaking, I think we have been very successful, especially if you take into consideration how we are working. We have today numerous local committees operating as registered associations. The National Committee is the higher political framework of these local committees that represent some 60 uprooted communities. Volunteers do all work in the National Committee. Currently we do not even have a paid coordinator. The National Committee succeeded to put the right of return of the internally displaced on the agenda of all active Palestinian parties and the Arab Monitoring Committee in Israel. Together with the local committees, we organize voluntary workdays to maintain the holy sites in our villages and to clean the graveyards, as well as protest activities and demonstrations. Of course, we could do much more, if we had the necessary resources. We are in need, for example, of a sound survey of the demographic composition and living conditions of internally displaced. This has not yet been done. We also need maps and planning schemes that could serve as a tool for lobbying for our return to our village lands.
What is the reaction of the Jewish society in Israel to your demand of return? Do you really think that there would be a way to convince the Israeli establishment to permit the return of internally displaced, if they come equipped with the necessary maps and a strong lobby?
Maybe yes. We have Israeli supporters. There is a readiness by the Israeli society to consider a re-distribution of land and the return of internally displaced Palestinians. After all, this would only amount to a re-shifting of the Palestinians already existing in Israel. We are not perceived as the big threat. The real threat are the external refugees, those that demand to come from outside.
How would you define the future strategic goals of the National Committee?
There is an urgent need to open the file of the internally displaced in the context of the Palestinian refugee question. The refugee file cannot remain exclusively in the hands of the PLO. We are in need of a broad return movement that will comprise representatives of our communities and all active institutions. We need to work, in cooperation with experts, on the documentation of our villages and properties as well as on research and public awarenessraising. We, the internally displaced living in Israel would like to have a chance to meet with our relatives and neighbors of our communities of origin, those who live in exile, in order to combine the scattered documentation and share our experience in a joint quest for our right of return.
Contact: National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced:
Atty. Wakim Wakim, tel. 053-752601; fax. 04-9925754.