Reaching Palestine and kissing the Soil: Palestinian Refugees return home on

Palestinian refugees crossing the wire border into the occupied Golan Heights (© Source: al-Hayat) Palestinian refugees crossing the wire border into the occupied Golan Heights (© Source: al-Hayat)

The revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring manifested itself in the actions of Palestinians, Arabs, and their allies on this Nakba Day 2011. Alongside the usual annual gatherings marking the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese activists made unprecedented strides in their quest to claim the right of return for refugees to their places of origin inside historic Palestine and the occupied Golan Heights.1

Palestinians residing in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon courageously marched towards their respective borders with Israel in a show of defiance and steadfastness. Israel's aggressive response to Palestinians demonstrating against their forcible displacement and exclusion resulted in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. The demonstrators, many of whom entered their homeland for the first time since their forcible displacement, were joined by thousands of others demonstrating in solidarity, from Istanbul to Sydney, New York to London and set a precedent for direct action that was repeated less than a month later on June the 5th.

Whilst demonstrators in Jordan and Egypt were beaten back by their respective governments, it was on the border of Lebanon and Syria that the clarity of the Palestinian struggle for return found its vehicle in the young bodies of Palestinian refugees whose hop, skip and jump over the barbed wire fences and minefields was a major step in overcoming 63 years of denial, neglect and isolation. At a meeting in Syria a few days after Nakba Day, youth involved in the march to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights spoke about their experiences.

“We couldn't stop so close to home”

Although the marches had been planned well in advance, even the demonstrators themselves were surprised by their audacity and courage to transcend the militarized borders that have forcibly separated them from their original homes. As put by Yasser Yousef:

I was one of the first to reach the border fence and I didn't foresee what was about to happen. The youth were chanting “the people want freedom for Palestine” and one of them initiated the march over the fence by putting up the V for victory sign and running towards the minefield. When we reached the fence we heard the youth on the other side warning us that we were entering a minefield, but this didn't dissuade us, we couldn't stop when we were so close to home. Some of us climbed over the barbed wire fence while others tried to cut through it to help the others get through.

As Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights greeted the first demonstrators who made it over the fences, a river of other protesters soon followed. Despite the spirit of elation, the protesters remained mindful of landmines and many, including Mahmoud Faris, remained behind to assist others, “I asked my cousin who was with me to stay and warn the people about the presence of mines and prevent them from stepping on them.”

Once in Majdal Shams, the largest town in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the protesters made their way to the town's main square, as Bashar Hassan describes,

When I reached the main square in Majdal Shams by the statue of Sultan Basha al Atrash, the commander of the great Syrian revolution against the occupying French forces, there were hundreds of people from Majdal Shams out to welcome us and stand with us. One of our youths climbed on top of the statue and put the Palestinian flag in the statue's hand and everybody started clapping and chanting for Palestine and its people. I couldn't control myself and I started crying.

United for Return

In contrast with the formal political situation, where a discord among the main two Palestinian factions and the exclusion of refugees from the Palestinian body politic continues to stymie the achievement of genuine unity and strategy for liberation, the youth demonstrated oneness in their purpose. As Haitham Abu Taleb describes “What drew me to the demonstration was that the chants were for Palestine and devoid of any factionalism, the only flag they were carrying and waving was the flag of Palestine.”

From its earliest inception, the Palestinian national movement, was built on the twin axioms of liberation and return. Despite the marginalization of the right of return during two decades of a failed peace process and notwithstanding the obsolete status of the Palestinian diasporic governance body, the return of refugees continues to be a central demand of the national movement. Abu Taleb, a participant in the Nakba Day marches explains how this was evidenced during the demonstrations, “The youth were from different parts of society, held different political views and represented a variety of Palestinian factions. But none of these differences were evident in the march because we were united against the Israeli soldiers who were preventing us from returning to our homes.”

Soon after the first demonstrators made it across and as others continued to spill across the border, the Israeli army arrived firing tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. One returnee, Ahmad Abassi, looked on as Israelis tried to prevent refugees from returning:

The thing that affected me the most was when I saw three Israeli jeeps driving between the returnees and trying to divide them by keeping some people in Ein a-Tina [on the Syrian side] and others in Majdal Shams. For me this was very symbolic as it represents the way in which Israel tries to divide us and weaken our struggle.

Return at any Cost

Like the struggles for dignity and accountable governance that continue to sweep the Arab world, the marches for return have created a new horizon of what is possible for Palestinian refugees. Taking their struggle beyond the rhetoric of podiums and over the borders that have denied refugees their self-determination, the marchers visibly demonstrated the ongoing human cost of Israel’s exclusivist project. In doing so, these refugees also transformed their dehumanizing characterization from a “problem” to be solved to active and able agents of change.

Israel’s use of brutal force to deny refugee return on Nakba day reflects an ongoing policy of forced population transfer and exclusion that began since the State’s establishment in 1948. For Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes in the aftermath of their initial dispossession, Israel saw to it that they were again taken from their homes and dumped on neighboring borders or empty hillsides. In the Hula valley, hungry refugees wandering back to harvest their crops were subject to a systematic torching campaign by the Palmach,2 while many others were simply shot dead. Over 5,000 returning refugees were killed in this manner between 1949 - 1956.3 Soon after, realizing the need to find a ‘legal’ framework to cement Jewish supremacy in the country, the Israeli parliament, the Knessest, passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law which gave the government carte blanche to deport and otherwise keep Palestinian refugees in forced exile.

Some of those attending the demonstration were from this older generation and joined the youth in crossing the border, as Muhammad Muhammad describes,

I was exhausted by the time I reached the fence. As I began climbing there was an old woman who asked me to lift her up so that she could scale the fence to go to Majdal Shams. I told her, “it will be difficult for you ya hajje” [a term of respect for those who have made the Pilgrimage to Mecca] but she insisted that she wanted to climb, telling me “what's important is that I reach the other side and to kiss the soil of Palestine”. Me and a few others carried her over the wall and helped her to reach Majdal Shams. When she reached the other side, she lay prostrate on the ground for more than 10 minutes kissing the ground.

The passion exhibited by Palestinian refugees embodies an energy that has been abandoned and untapped since the Palestinian leadership relocated from exile to the Occupied Territory and embarked on a detrimental peace process. Palestinian refugees cannot continue to be excluded from the base of the Palestinian people who are entitled to self-determination and to whom the Palestinian leadership must be accountable. As such, without their energy and commitment in a broader Palestinian strategy of liberation and without their endorsement of a potential solution, resolving the decades-long colonial conflict in Palestine will continue to remain elusive.

1. This right is enshrined in international law, universal principles of justice as well as UN resolutions 194 (1948) and 237 (1967).
2. Morris, B. 2004. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: Revisited, Oxford, Oxford University Press p.252
3. Morris, B. 1997. Israel's Border Wars, Oxford, Oxford University Press p.147