Refugees and the Right of Return

A group of us have been working on a documentary in Lebanon. We visited four different refugee camps, including Shatila-the site of the 1982 massacre coordinated by the war criminal Ariel Sharon.

The Right of Return has become the key issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What is the right to return? For some people, it is the right to return to their specific homes, the very homes that they were expelled from. They still have house keys, they have land deeds, and they have memories from each of the 453 Palestinian villages that were depopulated and destroyed. For others, the Right of Return is a more general right; whether they choose to exercise it is a decision that they’ll make on their own. Some of the people we spoke with said “maybe I’ll go back, maybe I won’t, but it is my right and I should have the choice to make.” Others said, “I know my village has been destroyed, I know my house has been destroyed, I know other people are living in my house now. For me, the right to return is my right to go back to that land and to live wherever I want. Maybe I want to live in Tel-Aviv, maybe I want to live near the village that I’m from.” The right to return can also mean living somewhere on the land.

The Palestinian refugees are the oldest and largest group of refugees today. There are 5.2 million, of whom 3.8 million are registered with the United Nations Works and Relief Agency. I’m going to focus on the refugees in Lebanon because that’s where we just were. The refugees in Lebanon are mostly from the north of Palestine, from the Galilee. We visited the camps of Shatila, Burj-el-Barajneh, Nahr-el-Bared, and Ayn-el-Helweh. There are 362,000 refugees in Lebanon. UN Resolution 194 affirms the right to return for Palestinian refugees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13, also affirms that this is a basic human right. It has been denied to the Palestinians for the past 53 years. Israel has denied the Palestinians the right to return and has also refused to offer adequate compensation for the destruction of their homes and villages. It is a denial of human rights and in complete violation of international law. It is also a policy embedded in racist and apartheid ideology. There have been all sorts of abstract and flawed excuses given for why the Palestinians have not been able to return, such as the question of space. But none of the excuses given are really the problem. The fact is simply that Israel does not want Palestinians to return home, and they have no legal or moral reason to justify themselves.

I want to talk a little about our trip itself. I will go from image to image of things that really spoke to me. It’s difficult to imagine what the camps are like. This is why we wanted to show “Children of Shatila.” How narrow are the alleyways? How many family members are living in a small space? They can’t build outward, they can only build upward and even that’s limited. I wanted to show some of our own footage but we just got back and haven’t put anything together. Instead I’m going to describe various images.

When we would do an interview with someone in their home, the lights would turn on and off seven or eight times during a one-hour interview and I was always struck by the people who were talking because they’d continue as if they didn’t even notice. And what does that mean when you don’t have electricity? It means no water. It disrupts education. We went to a video class, and when the electricity goes off, the professor can’t teach. The professor has got the camera plugged in and they have to just sit there and wait for the electricity to come back on. So this obviously affects all aspects of life.

We walk into a room full of college graduates. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied work in 79 different kinds of jobs. The Lebanese government has not given the Palestinians citizenship, because Palestinians are Palestinians and they should be in Palestine. They don’t want to take the responsibility from Israel who created these refugees and expected other Arab countries to take them in. Theoretically, this may make sense, but the result is that the refugees who are not getting their rights from Israel are also not getting rights in Lebanon. And they’re the ones that have to suffer for it. So we would go into a classroom and talk to kids that are studying, that are getting degrees, but with no job-prospects. They hope they can travel but they don’t have the right to travel. There’s nothing they can do. Lebanon brings in a lot of foreign workers; a lot of Arabs from other countries, as well as others from further away like Sri Lanka. A lot of refugees said, “We’ll take those jobs, we want those jobs, we’ve been here for 52 years. Why are they bringing people in and not letting us have jobs?”

Another image: we’re walking through the camp one day, and an 88-year-old woman comes out of nowhere demanding that we turn the camera on so that she could say something to President Bush and to Sharon. And she says: “I just want-tell them that I am from Jaffa, I was born in Jaffa, I grew up in Jaffa. I am going to die in Jaffa. Go tell them I don’t want anything, I don’t want money, I don’t want nationality, I want to go back home, period. Masalaama, goodbye,” and she left. That’s all she wanted to say.

A pre-school classroom and these little kids are there, third- generation refugees. Their grandparents came there, their parents were born in the camps, these little kids are born in the camps. They know where they’re from. If you ask them where they’re from they don’t say Lebanon, they don’t say Ayn-el-Helweh camp. They don’t say Shatila, They know the exact village they’re from. There’s an oral history that is passed down. They stand up, introduce themselves to us saying their name and where they’re from. They would point to a little map on the wall. They know their village and they want to go home to Palestine.

A house, a family of eleven, living in a one-room house. This family had nine kids. During the interview, we realized only three of those kids belonged to the family by blood. The rest are orphans from the Shatila Massacre. Shatila is full of orphans.

A classroom of students in their twenties, arguing about Lebanese nationality and their rights. “Do we want nationality here or don’t we want it?” And some said “Yes, look at Arabs in other countries that were given their rights they haven’t forgotten about Palestine. They have nationality from Jordan or from Syria or from the US and that doesn’t mean that the right is not theirs to go back home.” And others would say, “No we don’t want Lebanese nationality but we want rights, we want our right to work.”

We arrived in Shatila a week after Sharon was elected, so it was flooded with journalists going there to see people’s reactions. Despite this, people were very open to us, especially since we were an Arabic-speaking and partly Palestinian crew. At the same time, I felt many people were, understandably, tired of being objectified by all the camera crews. I had one little boy who followed me around for about twenty minutes hissing at me “Sahafia, sahafia” (journalist), spitting it out and just following and every time I turned around to look at him he would dart off into an alley. And that’s a reaction that you can understand. People visit refugee camps, they act like it’s a zoo, they take photographs, they make films, and they go away.

What has changed in the last 53 years? Nothing. They’re still in the same situation and it’s not getting any better. Children have no space to play, to run. There’s no space to do anything. There are open sewers that run through the camp. Kids are playing in these sewers. There are electrical wires hanging down everywhere. It’s extremely dangerous. Most of the refugees were farmers before they were exiled. That is who they were for hundreds and hundreds of years; land was part of their lives. And they’re living in a space now that is just cement walls and tiny alleys and there is no land whatsoever available to them. It really struck me walking through a market where somebody was selling fruits and vegetables. And I thought that must be so humiliating; to be a farmer and then suddenly, you have no land and you’re purchasing carrots off a stand.

The Lebanese camps have been shelled a lot by the Israelis through the years. We interviewed one man, a schoolteacher, and afterwards he wanted to take us up to his roof. He happened to live on the top of a three-story building. And on his roof he had a shell-an Israeli shell-that had hit the camp in the 80s. And he had taken this shell and put it on his roof and planted something in it. I felt it was a wonderful act of defiance-to use it as a flowerpot.

Since the Israelis withdrew from the south of Lebanon, a lot of the refugees have gone there, to the border with Palestine. We spoke with one 14-year-old girl who had gone to the border, which, of course, they can’t cross. But they can see Palestine. And she said that from across the barbed wire she saw an Israeli soldier. She called him over and asked him if he could bring her some dirt because she wanted some earth from Palestine. And while she was waiting, it suddenly struck her how pathetic that was to be standing on the other side of this fence begging a soldier to bring her some dirt just so she could smell her land.

One thing that’s not discussed often is that not only were the refugees forced from their homes, but in the process, in this panic of war, entire families were separated. Many found themselves in refugee camps in different places with borders separating them. People have cousins, grandmothers, sisters they cannot see because some of them remained in Palestine. Or some are refugees in Syria or Jordan. A lot of the camps are broken up into villages; some are predominantly made up of people from a certain village. Even so, people are separated. The right of return also means that families and friends can reunite without the restrictions of arbitrary borders.

The desire for the right of return is alive and well. And, after all that the Palestinians have endured, the realization of this right is a necessity. I want to share some of the responses we got in our interviews. “Would you go back home if that meant living under Israeli rule? What does it mean to go back home? Do you want to go back to Gaza? Will Gaza and the West Bank do?” Of course the responses varied a lot. “Would you live with Jews?” Some people said “no, how can you ask me that, after what they did to us, how could you ask me such a question?” The overwhelming majority however said that they would; they distinguished between Jews and Zionists. “We don’t have a problem with Jews. There were always Jews in Palestine and we lived together; Jews, Muslims and Christians. This is not a religious issue. We want our freedom and our rights.” Would the West Bank and Gaza do? Some people said it would because at least the earth underneath is Palestine. The vast majority of the people however said it would be unacceptable. “That’s not where I’m from and that’s not my home. I’m not from the West Bank. I don’t want to go from one place I don’t belong to another place I don’t belong.”

The one answer that was consistent and unwavering was that they do want to return and they will return. After four generations, they are survivors of 1948, of al Nakba; they’re survivors of 1967, they’re survivors of the Israeli air raids on the camps, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1982 Israeli invasion, the Camp Wars; there are refugees in camps from other refugee camps. They have gone through so much, and still it’s amazing to see how much hope they maintain, believing that this suffering will eventually end and they will return. Or their children, or their children’s children. They are not from Lebanon. They are from Palestine. And no one will convince them otherwise.

The right of return must be recognized. No state and no government that deems one group superior to another based on religion, ethnicity, or whatever else, can continue. I don’t think we should support that as human beings. I don’t believe in a Muslim state, or a Christian state, or a Jewish state. I believe in states where all people are treated as equals. I don’t care what it’s called. Call it Palestine, call it Israel, call it any name you want. It’s really not the issue. The issue is human rights and justice for all people, regardless of their background. It is intolerable to compromise justice and freedom just because it’s inconvenient for the State of Israel. As for those who claim to support peace in the region but won’t accept the right of return, they are no better than those who tried to justify apartheid in South Africa or the subservience of blacks in the United States by creating “separate but equal” facilities. To ask the Palestinian people to compromise their human rights is absurd. What kind of world are we creating when we ask people to compromise their most basic rights?

David Ben-Gurion once said, “The old will die and the young will soon forget.” Well, the old are dying and the young are dying too, but nobody is forgetting.

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