UN International Day of solidarity with the Palestinian people

IHECS - November 29th, 2008
Sunday 7 February 2010
popularity : 12%

Note about the pictures * [1]

1948-2008 - 60 years of NAKBA : The issue of the Palestinian Refugees

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Pierre Galand (President of the Belgian-Palestinian Association - BPA) called the 29 November 2008 session to order and invited the audience to cheer the semper fidelis presence of the UBPJ (Union of the Belgian Progressist Jews) and introduced the different speakers : Jalal Al Husseini, Matthias Burchard, Gérard de la Pradelle, Tal Dor, AbdelFattah Abu-Srour, Leila Shahid.

"The creation of Israel in 1948 chased 750.000 Palestinians from their home through a number of more or less violent means. From the start, the United Nations passed resolutions requesting Israel to respect the refugees’ right to return and/or to compensation if the return is impossible (villages rased or destroyed,…). Yet one has to admit that the general tendency is to forget about the issue of the Palestinian refugee", P. Galand said before he gave the floor to the first guest speaker.

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Jalal Al Husseini (from the French Institute of the Near East, Amman) gave a number of figures as well as a brief history of the problem of the Palestinian refugees : 

"In 1949 (the 1948 flow of refugees was then more or less interrupted), the UNO assessed their number to 726.000 (650.000 of whom in need), to which one must add the 33.000 people displaced inside Israel. They were for the large majority farmers coming from the countryside. The Red Cross looked after them until 1950, when the UNRWA took over. As to the humanitarian agencies, they speak of one million refugees, taking the « economic refugees" into account, i.e. the people who still had a place to live in but had lost all means of existence (confiscation of their fields, impossibility of having access to them because of the checkpoints or other obstacles (see in Kalkylia and Gaza…). One third of these refugees, J. Al Husseini said, were re-housed in the about 70 temporary camps set up in the neighbouring countries, not to separate them from the local populations but to ease access to humanitarian help."

Today, i.e. 60 years later the UNRWA estimates the number of the Palestinian refugees to 4.600.000, 30% of whom live in the 58 official camps - which look less and less temporary - especially in Jordan(42%), Gaza (20%), Syria (20%) and Lebanon (9% ), to whom 2.000.000 of non-registered refugees (1.2 Million in the Arab countries) should be added.

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"The issue of the Palestinian refugees is different from that of other refugees (from Rwanda, Kosovo…), who either could settle outside their native country, or were repatriated. The Palestinian refugees are prevented from going back home by Israel : they call for the application of the UNO Resolution 194 - which recognizes their right to return and to a compensation for the wrong they suffered, and until that time, for the UNO to provide help to the people in need. But they are not a « humanitarian case », J. Al Husseini insisted. They want to be recognized as political refugees who are fighting for the recognition of their rights : the UNO created Israel, it is now up to the UNO to sort out the consequences of it. It is urgent since as long as they are not protected by the international community, the Palestinian refugees are at the mercy of the regimes of the different Arab countries they have found themselves living in".

And Jala Al Husseini explained what three features are characteristic of the situation of the Palestinian refugees :

- statelessness : so the Palestinian refugees’ right to return is protected, the host countries don’t give them the right to those countries’ nationality (except in Jordan where there was a massive nationalization of the 1948 refugees).

- socio-economic discrimination (jobs, housing,… especially in Lebanon) they are subjected to, despite the equal status they are supposed to enjoy with the indigenous population.

-  the preservation of the UNRWA * mandate (often seen as the symbol of the UNO’s responsibility concerning the refugee issue), which provides a clear financial gain for the host countries (e.g. hard currency flows).

Jalal Al Husseini indicated that there were three changes at present, all of them negative :

- a deterioration in the legal status of Palestinian refugees as well as division between the refugee communities and the Palestinian Authorities concerning the demands. "Return is being re-defined : the Palestinians wouldn’t find their original lands and properties but come back to today’s Palestine, i.e. limited to the West Bank and Gaza."

-  an increase in the degree of discrimination faced by the refugees in host countries,

-  an improvement of the living conditions in the camps : “Is that an indication that these « temporary » camps are bit by bit turning into permanent settlements ? J. Al Husseini asked. “The weak economic capacity of Gaza (whose population is trapped by the Israeli blockade and totally dependent on the trickle of international help Israel allows in) and of the West Bank (whose economy is choked by widespread control and restraint measures) make the return of these millions of refugees purely and simply impossible…

And Jalal Al Husseini concluded his speech by emphasising the uncertainty hanging over the fate of the Palestinian refugees as well as the absence of real strategies on the part of Palestine on this issue.

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Matthias Burchard, director of the UNRWA in Geneva, took the floor to first remind the audience of the fact that 70% of the Palestinian population are refugees or displaced people within their own country, “which makes them the largest and oldest established refugee people of all times”.

“The UNRWA was instituted on December 8, 1949 by resolution 302 of the UNO General Assembly to initiate help programmes aimed at the Palestine refugees of 1948. It was operational only on May 1, 1950. At that time, the 1,491,200 Palestinians – of whom 914,221 refugees registered by the UNO – divided up as follows : 240,300 people in Gaza, 764,900 in the West Bank, 160,700 in Israel, 322,000 in the different Arab countries and 3,000 in the rest of the world. Today the UNRWA is still pursuing most of its programmes, even though it was constituted as a "temporary organisation"… Its action covers 5 areas : Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza”.

“The UNRWA defines the "Palestinian refugee" as anyone who, on the eve of the 1948 conflict, had been living in Palestine for at least two years, and who, following the conflict, had lost both their home and means of subsistence. To benefit from UNRWA help, a refugee (and descendants) had to be registered as "in need" and to have found refuge in Israel’s adjacent countries in 1948. In July 1967,the UNO requested that UNRWA provide humanitarian assistance to the people displaced as a result of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as well.”

Matthias Burchard then referred to the different humanitarian services the UNRWA offers : healthcare, building or rehabilitation of houses and flats, school education, a programme of self-sufficient micro-businesses, urgent medical assistance as well as different social services (food basket, help to elderly people…). It has also set up various means of protection and promotion of the respects of the rights of the Palestinians. M Burchard mentioned, for example, the « Summer Games » that hade been organised since 2004 so Palestinian children can take part in sport, take part in artistic activities or attend remedial lessons (25,000 children came in 2008). The aim was to allow them to escape the street and its dangers. M. Burchard also pointed out how far from a solution the refugee problem still is, “since the descendants of the 1948 and 1967 refugees are refugees too.

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The UNRWA works at creating a place where the refugees can get together without being indoctrinated by extremists and where they can live without fear. However, M. Burchard admitted, these last two weeks (end of November 2008), the UNRWA has had to stop all food supplies because of the increased blockade of Gaza by the Israelis”.

To a question from the audience, he answered that “the most important part of the financial support to the UNRWA programme comes from western countries, notably the EEC : Israel doesn’t participate at all and the Arab countries’ financial contribution is very weak. This can be explained, he said, by the fact the UNRWA is still considered as the price the West has to pay to compensate for the catastrophe the creation of Israel caused”.

M. Burchard concluded his speech by underlining the huge potential of the Palestinian community.

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Gérard de la Pradelle, distinguished lawyer, professor emeritus at Paris X-Nanterre University (international law) tried to make clear what gives the Palestinian refugees’ right to return its special nature: though it is officially recognized, this right is not at all respected, or is even frankly violated by the entities supposed to guarantee it. “To such an extent that the notion of law itself is in peril”, G. de la Pradelle commented.

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The UNO Resolution 194 proclaims the 1948 and 1967 refugees’ right to return – though there is no clarity concerning the people who were evicted afterwards, either as the result of individual procedures or «transferred » against Geneva Convention (« Nobody has the right to change the disposition of the populations…. ») without there being any condemnation of these evictions.” 

"It is necessary to clear up an ambiguity as to the basis of this right to return”, G. de la Pradelle said. “Who can benefit from it ? Only the people who were physically forced to run away in 48/67 (= a personal right) ? Or also their descendants who have kept their Palestinian identity, their roots in their country, even if they have never been allowed to go there ? My opinion is that the right to return, which was recognized after the massive 1948 deportations, should not only be a right for the refugees but for everybody, whether they chose or not to leave, whether they have the nationality of the place they had to leave or not : everybody has the right to leave and go back to their country, including if they left freely (beyond war constraints….). Human beings have the right to live where their roots (cultural, linguistic…) are : see articles 12 and 13 of the Universal Declaration. Israel is bound by this pact. And, if there is an obstacle to this right (because the villages are destroyed, for ex), a compensation is due by the party responsible for the forced leaving of these people as a substitute to their (and their descendants’) right to return.

"What is terrible, G de la Pradelle concluded, is that law is only theoretically guaranteed : we must demand our political authorities to see to it that law is guaranteed in practice!

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Chercher un protecteur puissant, prendre un patron,
Et comme un lierre obscur qui circonvient un tronc
Et s’en fait un tuteur en lui léchant l’écorce,
Grimper par ruse au lieu de s’élever par force ?
Non, merci ! Dédier, comme tous ils le font,
Des vers aux financiers ? Se changer en bouffon
Dans l’espoir vil de voir, aux lèvres d’un ministre,
Naître un sourire, enfin, qui ne soit pas sinistre ?
Non, merci ! Déjeuner, chaque jour, d’un crapaud ?
Avoir un ventre usé par la marche ? Une peau
Qui plus vite, à l’endroit des genoux, devient sale ?
Exécuter des tours de souplesse dorsale ?...
Non, merci ! D’une main flatter la chèvre au cou
Cependant que, de l’autre, on arrose le chou,
Et donneur de séné par désir de rhubarbe,
Avoir son encensoir, toujours, dans quelque barbe ?
(…)Non, merci ! Calculer, avoir peur, être blême,
Préférer faire une visite qu’un poème,
Rédiger des placets, se faire présenter ?
Non, merci ! non, merci ! non, merci !

Mais... chanter, rêver, rire, passer, être seul, être libre,
Avoir l’œil qui regarde bien, la voix qui vibre,
Mettre, quand il vous plaît, son feutre de travers,
Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, - ou faire un vers !
Travailler sans souci de gloire ou de fortune,
À tel voyage, auquel on pense, dans la lune !
N’écrire jamais rien qui de soi ne sortît,
Et modeste d’ailleurs, se dire : mon petit,
Sois satisfait des fleurs, des fruits, même des feuilles,
Si c’est dans ton jardin à toi que tu les cueilles !

Puis, s’il advient d’un peu triompher, par hasard,
Ne pas être obligé d’en rien rendre à César,
Vis-à-vis de soi-même en garder le mérite,
Bref, dédaignant d’être le lierre parasite,
Lors même qu’on n’est pas le chêne ou le tilleul,
Ne pas monter bien haut, peut-être, mais tout seul !


It is by reciting these lines from Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte II, scene VIII (Edmond Rostand) that AbdelFattah Abu-Srour addressed the captivated audience… He is the director of the cultural and social centre Al-Rowwad in the refugee camp of Aida, Bethlehem, where we are going to stay for 10 days in April 2009. This centre offers a variety of cultural activities to the 8-to-15-year-old boys and girls of the camp (theatre, fine art, educational support, language and computer classes), as well as training sessions to young adults (photography, films, video montage, animation) with the help of a whole team of volunteers.

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"I was born in the refugee camp of Aida. There are only traces left of the village my parents are from, and the rusted key of the house they were forced to leave in 1948. My parents tried to go back home several times, but they were fired at. They ended up settling in the tents pitched by the UNRWA on a field this organisation had bought. This camp was supposed to be temporary but it turned into a less and less temporary place to live in for the 1948 refugees who were rejoined by the 1967 refugees. Poverty, exile and illnesses killed ten of my parents’14 children…”

“The first curfew (= ban on leaving the house, even to get food) I remember dates from my 4th birthday : I can still see the Israeli soldier standing in front of me, but I also remember what my parents were telling me about their beautiful village. Today, my mother is dead. Her tomb is at the foot of the 12–meter-high wall that surrounds Aida on the North, East and West. I can’t go there : her tomb is surrounded by barbed wire”.

“In 1985, I got a scholarship to go and study in France. Let me tell you about how I went through Customs : according to my ID, I’m from Jordan (a "dictatorship" under Israeli (=”democracy”) mandate). I corrected the customs officer « I am a Palestinian under Israeli occupation ». The bewildered officer registered me as « from undetermined nationality », since Palestine doesn’t exist… Same scene in the USA where the officer asked me where I was born. – In Aida. Where is that ? - It was in Palestine under the Jordanians. – I don’t have « Palestine » on my computer. Where was your father born ? - In … (name of a Palestinian village). – Where is that village ? – It was in Palestine. The Israelis destroyed it. - I don’t have « Palestine » on my computer. If it is occupied by Israel, it is in Israel."

And A. Abu-Srour concluded with a smile : “It is difficult to say you are a Palestinian. Except if you are a terrorist. Then, « Palestinians » exist !

When A. Abu-Srour came back from France nine years later, the area of the camp had shrunk again, and military forays and checkpoints had increased in number. The Palestinians’ reputation had deteriorated even more : « except for throwing stones, these people are good for nothing, hatred and violence are ingrained in them »… "Never did my parents utter a word of hatred. But why does Israel exercise such blackmail with the Holocaust against everybody ?", A. Abu-Srour wondered. "Do the Israelis hate themselves so much as to force everybody else to hate them ?" And he told us how, as a refugee, he experienced this exclusion from mankind. “I’m fighting for a fair cause : resistance against occupation, which is a recognized right.

"I want you to know that my children are human beings with a culture, generosity and beauty. I want the Palestinian children to keep this humanity. I want them to be able to tell people about their story themselves rather than let other people do."

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He then told us about his refugee camp : in Aida, 68% of the population is less than 18, 77% of the people are unemployed, 80% of the population live under the poverty line, trapped at the foot of an (illegal) Israeli settlement. They are subjected to incursions (or military training with tear-gas, bombs and firing) by the Israeli army. Yet, in response to all that, the children of the camp play theatre, learn photography and video-shooting. “They make art because it is important to find peace in oneself first”, A. Abu-Srour said. "What matters is creating links between the human beings. But don’t talk of peace to us. For a Palestinian, this word has lost its meaning. It has been overused and abused : 61 years after the decision of the division, 60 years after the Nakba, what can it still mean ?... Can a rapist make peace with his victim while he is still raping her ?"

He went on with the same quiet voice : "When you become aware of how conditioned the Palestinian population is, you can’t help thinking that, one way or another, Israel achieved its goal : the people in Palestine are adapting themselves to the situation, "I hope it’s not going to take too much time at the checkpoint today..." They are beginning to choose the dates of marriages and exams according to the curfew lifting ! And A.Abu-Srour made it clear : “We want to be able to move around in our country freely, not only through passage points. It is impossible to live in such hypocrisy !... The people working for the rights of Man must take a clear position : Israel is an occupying state and must pay for its crimes.

"Nobody can say « I can do nothing to it » and, as a result, do nothing because every new day will be worse than the preceding one", A.Abu-Srour concluded. "We, Palestinians, are not ready to pay for the Nazi crimes. We are neither guilty nor responsible for the Holocaust. We owe nothing to Israel nor to Europe. And we are not a humanitarian case : Palestine is not poor because it lacks resources but because we were put in need. But we are no beggars. The idea of Al Rowwad for that matter is that with or without money, we shall keep at it. Don’t do anything for us out of charity, please. But join us as partners."

N.B.: the Society of the Friends of Al Rowwad (to contact them) has created an exchange network between the children from here and Palestine and organises the barnstorming of Al-Rowwad Company of young dancers and musicians.

*****

Tal Dor, young Israeli woman is a member of
Zochrot, (Hebrew word meaning « remembering things differently »), an organisation that objects to Israel’s policy. She started telling us about her background and how she changed from being convinced of the necessity to be a Zionist to being convinced of the necessity to fight against the Zionist ideology : “One day, I was with a Palestinian friend who was telling me about the Nakba. It was the first time I had heard the word. “You mean the war of Independence ?”, I asked him… From then on, I have realized how differently things may have been lived by the Israelis and the Palestinians. I was 23 then and it was simply impossible for me to go on living in Israel with my eyes kept shut to the injustice that was being done to the Palestinian people. From then on”, T. Dor explained to us, "my responsibility was to work at changing the way the Israelis see and talk about what happened and to introduce the notion of Nakba in their speeches and encourage their critical analysis of the past events."

*

Zochrot’s first task was to go hunting for information and force the Israeli audience to acquaint themselves with it. "It is too easy to say « we didn’t know » : we have to get informed, listen to the news, read the archives, listen to the testimonies of the Palestinians. Fortunately, there is today a new generation of historians who are willing to re-read the events, confront the reality of the villages that were emptied of their inhabitants to the Israeli fantasies (« The Palestinians want to throw us overboard », « There is not enough room for everybody, the Palestinians must leave our Promised Land »…)

The second thing Zochrot did was to organize a number of seminars/lectures in Tel Aviv (whose success surprised T. Dor : hundreds of people attended them) on the issue of the return of the Palestinian refugees : "The question is not « whether » they will come back, but « how to enable them to do so» : what do we, Israelis, have to do to make this return possible ?" And Tal Dor smiled when she said that Zochrot had become famous after these conferences, particularly in the newspapers of the Israeli extreme-right activists : “Strangely enough, everything they wrote was correct but they concluded their articles making fun of all those who are dreaming of a possible harmony between our two peoples and saying « Keep away from the traitors to the country ! » And she admitted that the members of Zochrot had received threats…

*

Next to the conferences, Zochrot has set up a number of direct actions as well. Its members, for example, go and drive into signposts that give information as to where Palestinian villages Israel destroyed were located, or they unearth the remains of the houses that were demolished (see below, the remains of the village of Simsim, near the Gaza Strip).

*

Other activists go and stick phylacteries on the house and shop windows of the Israeli towns, which read in Hebrew : « I almost forgot that this house was the house of the (+ Palestinian name) family », or « I almost forgot that Tel Aviv is in fact Jaffa town , or « I almost forgot that the War of Independence is in fact the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians », or « I almost forgot that the village that used to be here was rased in order to build this settlement »…

"Of course, T. Dor said with a sweet smile, there are Israelis who come after us and tear the phylacteries off, but others do put them back in place… The fact is that, with these different creative/artistic actions, Zochrot works at changing the way people think in Israel. We instil a certain discomfort among the Israelis : we can’t go on hiding (or fooling ourselves about) the truth for ever. We must face it if we want to work at a better future."

Someone in the audience asked Tal Dor if Zochrot had any influence and she had to admit it does not. “We represent a tiny minority in Israel and I’m sorry for that…”. 

Then she mentioned the « Four Remembrance Days » that are part of the education of all the Jewish children : each day is devoted to a subject (the Jewish Diaspora, the Holocaust, the 48 War, Independence) and the message is « we have suffered, now we shall give the blows backs, we have to fight back”). "Not a word about the Palestinians in the whole process : they simply don’t belong to the Israeli memory. This is what Zochrot wants to act against. If we want to prevent another catastrophe, we have to recognize our faults, admit what we took part in : with this objective in mind, Zochrot has developed an educational box that is distributed in all Israeli schools and which should help the teachers to teach the reality of the Nakba to the children."

To another question from the audience, T. Dor answered that indeed, most of the members of Zochrot are intellectuals coming from the rich and comfortable part of the Israeli society (many are Askhenases). "But, she added, our aim is to touch all the Jewish communities, awaken their conscience and their activism. For example, we got in touch with a group of women who could not even say the word « Palestinians » (they spoke of « Arab Israelis »), so much this word is, from their viewpoint, synonymous with « terrorists ». "

As a way of conclusion, Tal Dor summarized the answer she gave herself to the question « what can I do ? » : encourage activism among the people. This is what Zochrot is trying to achieve.

*****

Leila Shahid, General Delegate of Palestine to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg briefly took the platform to thank AbdelFattah (whose name means « the one who opens the door ») and Tal (whose name means « morning dew») who both spoke about the way memory is experienced by the Jews and the Palestinians, about the place they both give to art and creation as a way to get back in touch with humanity, and about the importance of introducing a new vocabulary to talk about the situation in Palestine. She then said how amazed she was by the success of the Masarat festival and showed us the front page of the Bozar program : “ Never before did we see so many kaffiyehed heads on the front page of a magazine !”, she said with a happy smile.

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"But, she added, if the cultural news is good, it is not the case with the political news : the European Union is about to welcome Mrs Tzipi LIVNI who is going to address the EU to snatch two things forcefully :

1. an « upgrading » of the relation of Israel with Europe, so Israel can benefit from the same rights/privileges as the other member countries, yet without having the same duties (respect of laws, etc). It seems the 2009 French presidency is all too willing to grant it.

2. on December 4, a resolution will be voted that ratifies the entry of Israel in all the research programmes, which means Israel will have millions of euros at its disposal to finance a more than probably military research. We should object to it, ask why the Parliament would grant that to a country that doesn’t respect the rights of Man.” 

Before P. Galand ended the round table conference, Leila Shahid presented the campaign « Israel occupies Palestine, I sanction » which she invited us to take part in : folders and postcards to send to K de Gucht (Foreign Minister) and B. Ferrero-Waldner (European Commissioner at the foreign affairs) asking for the suspension of the EU/ Israel Association Agreements and of the negotiations on the « upgrading” of EU/Israel relations so long as this country doesn’t respect international law and the fundamental rights of the Palestinian population .

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[1The pictures / maps / drawings marked with a star * have all been borrowed from the net. Hopefully the authors will not object !