Drafting the Blueprint for Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return

A conference this week at the Eretz Israel Museum, of all places, showed that plans are being made for Palestinians to rebuild and move into villages abandoned in 1948.

For two days, participants in the international conference of the Zochrot organization, which took place this week at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, discussed how to promote the return of the Palestinian refugees, how to plan their villages that are to be rebuilt, and whether their houses will be similar to those that were destroyed.

Was it a hallucination?

There was probably no more appropriate venue than this: the Eretz Israel Museum, with vestiges of the lovely Palestinian stone houses belonging to the village of Sheikh Munis, standing among its exhibition pavilions; a place that describes itself on its official website as a “multidisciplinary museum dealing with the history and culture of the country.” Even the posters that were hung outside on the street where the museum is located spoke of “Cultural Memory” − although they were referring to the seventh Israeli Ceramics Biennale.

There was probably no less appropriate time: When the only issue on the agenda is the Iranian bomb; when the possibility of a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians seems more distant than ever; and when the term “right of return” is far more threatening to Israelis than the term “the Iranian bomb” − this was the time and this was the place for holding the Zochrot conference, under the headline of “From Truth to Redress,” with its declared intention of promoting the return of the Palestinian refugees to their lost villages.

About 200 Israelis, Jews and Arabs, along with several guests from abroad, participated in the event. Had a passerby found himself there, he would have been persuaded to believe that the return was imminent, any day now. Someone in the lobby said, “It’s a little bizarre” − but under the radar, there is a tiny minority of Israelis, Jews and mainly Arabs, who are working seriously toward making it all happen.

For one, the Udna ‏(Our Return‏) project is in full force. There are already several groups of young Israeli Arabs, third- and fourth-generation refugees, who are not only dreaming about return but are also planning it, recreating their grandparents’ villages in their imagination and planning their reconstruction.

And, in fact, the most powerful part of this conference was the revelation of the existence of such groups − descendants of the uprooted, refugees in their own
country − who already have architectural models of the villages slated to be rebuilt. Some of these people even live now among their ruins, in a quasi-underground manner. In a country where there are people who are seriously planning the construction of the Third Temple; where an outpost is established on every barren hill of the West Bank; where every furrow of land is sacred to the Jews − there is room for them, too, of course.

But the construction of the Third Temple or the establishment of innumerable illegal settlements threatens the Israelis far less than the implementation of past decisions by the High Court of Justice and Israeli governments to restore the uprooted residents of Ikrit, for example, to their land. It turns out that a group of 15 young people has been living for about two years in the village’s church; they are descendants of the original uprooted residents, Arab hilltop youth, who are determined to rebuild the village.

“Transitional justice” is the legal term for what they dream of, and they tried this week ‏(in vain‏) to pursue justice in the museum.

When Aziz al-Touri, a representative of the unrecognized Negev village of Al-Araqib, asked why Jews are allowed to move to the Negev, to kibbutzim, moshavim and isolated farms there, but the Bedouin are not allowed to live in their villages, the question of justice echoed through the museum in full force, reminding everyone that, in effect, 1948 never ended. Over the past three years the huts of Al-Araqib have been rebuilt 59 times. That, too, constitutes a return of sorts, after Israel demolished them 58 times, an unmarked Guinness record, perhaps, that few people in this country have even heard about.

The question of justice also reverberated when the homes of tens of thousands of citizens of the nascent state were destroyed in 1948 and afterward. When some of these people were forced to abandon their houses in the heat of battle, when some were promised they could return quickly. To date, no Jewish communities were built on the ruins of some of their villages − and still Israel stubbornly refuses to allow even them, and not only the refugees in the camps and the residents of the diaspora, to return to their land. Why? After all, they aren’t a threat to Israel’s “Jewish character.”

Amnon Neumann, a former fighter for the Palmach − the pre-state Jewish commando force of the Haganah − opened the second day of the Zochrot conference with a manifesto he wrote against Zionism and in favor of the one-state solution. A video clip that was produced by Zochrot and screened at the gathering brought his testimony about 1948: He took part in the occupation and expulsion campaigns in the south of the country, between Sderot and Gaza.

“In all the Arab villages in the south,” he said in the clip, “almost nobody fought. The villagers were so poor, so miserable, that they didn’t even have weapons ... The flight of these residents began when we started to clean up the routes used by those accompanying the convoys. Then we began to expel them, and in the end they fled on their own. They didn’t think they were fleeing for a long time. They didn’t think that they wouldn’t return. Nor did anyone imagine that an entire nation wouldn’t return. We began expelling them, and then we began to spread out to the sides ... We expelled them because of Zionist ideology. Plain and simple: We came to inherit the land and that’s why we didn’t bring them back ...

“I don’t want to get into these things, these aren’t things that you get into. Why? Because I did it. During that period, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I received the same education as everyone else. I carried it out faithfully, and if they told me things that I don’t want to mention, I did them without having any doubts at all. Without thinking twice. I’ve been eating myself up for 50-60 years already, but what was done was done. It was done on orders.”

Dr. Munir Nuseibah, a lecturer and researcher in law from Al-Quds University, spoke of the right of return of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who over the years lost their right to return to the Gaza Strip, where Israel continues to control the population registry.

Amir Mashkar, a young man of 19, told about his and his friends’ outpost in the Ikrit church: “There was no longer a war, the war was over, there weren’t any confrontations, and suddenly the village disappeared. Only the church and the cemetery remained ... to this day we bury our dead in Ikrit. We return to our village only as corpses.”

Everything he and his friends try to plant or build around the church is uprooted or destroyed by the Israel Lands Administration. The land was confiscated, after all. One day, members of Mashkar’s group put down synthetic grass, imagined there was a soccer stadium there, played against the team Ahi Nazareth − and won. Ikrit the champion. “Oh, tanks and cannons, we are returning to Ikrit,” they wrote on the victory poster.

Said Salameh Heibi, 30, a mother of three with a bachelor’s degree in economics, an Israeli woman descended from the community of Maghar, who lives today in the northern town of Kabul ‏(south of Acre‏) and wears a black kerchief and keffiyeh: “They always said that the young people would forget. The young people won’t forget: Here I am. I live five minutes from Maghar and I’m a refugee. Someone else lives in your place and you’re a refugee. It’s not easy. Every time I open the window I can see the mountain that belonged to my family. I don’t aspire to return to the entire territory − others deserve something, too − but the right of return is a right, not a dream, a right that’s not up for negotiation.

“They succeeded in 1948, but we won’t forget. The generation after us won’t forget. We visit there almost every day. For a Maghari who meets another Maghari, it’s like meeting a cousin. I feel as though I was expelled. This land is ours and it caused pain to my father. I saw him crying many times because of it, every time they said: Maghar. It’s not easy. We’re the third generation and we’re saying: Enough.”

Another young man, whose family comes from Lajoun, in Wadi Ara, presented a digitized preview of his ancestral village, which he intends to rebuild: cobblestone “Dutch” streets, stylish stone houses, pergolas, promenades, water canals − a lovely village.

Michal Ran, an American doctoral student from the University of Chicago, presented her vision of return, urban planning based on research of several villages. She says that al-Ruways, a village northeast of Haifa, can be rebuilt, that nobody lives on its ruins and all its descendants live in Tamra. Ran is deliberating as to whether to build high-rises, and recommends developing green spaces and pedestrian paths.

And Aziz al-Touri, of Al-Araqib, spoke about the wheat fields that the Israel Lands Administration sprayed with poison from a plane in the late 1990s. And also about the special forces of the Israel Police, the planes, horses, bulldozers, commandos, the Border Police and members of its counter-terrorism unit − all of whom came in the middle of the night on July 27, 2010, three generations removed from 1948, and destroyed his village. Since then, he said, they repeatedly destroy, and the residents repeatedly rebuild and repeatedly return.

The vision of the pergolas and the promenades in Lajoun simply evaporated.