Why the Right of Return Matters to Palestinians

Attilmap_2_2My father’s family is from a Palestinian town named Atteel that lies a few kilometers north of the West Bank city of Tulkarem. In 1948, as Zionist gangs set about ethnically cleansing most of Palestine, they did not succeed in eradicating our village. Today, the town lies in the West Bank, just east of the Green Line—the virtual separation line between the West Bank and “Israel proper”. Some of Atteel’s agricultural land was not as lucky—it fell on the other side of the partition and now forms part of the state of Israel. My grandfather had orange groves there that went to Israel, and are now owned by the Jewish National Fund, and can only be given to Jews. Any person claiming to be Jewish from anywhere in the world can travel to Israel, receive an Israeli passport and be given that land by the Israeli government at a subsidized price. Meanwhile, my cousins and I, some of whom live meters away from that land are not even allowed to set foot on it. Such is real estate in “The Only Democracy in the Middle East.”

Whenever peace is discussed, the majority of Israelis and westerners (and many Arabs) automatically assume that in order for there to be peace, the Palestinians need to give up their right of return. Israel has to remain a Jewish state, they argue, and giving Palestinians a right to return would mean no more Jewish majority, which would bring about a system of governance not based on religious exclusivity. It always amuses me when people make this argument with a straight face. Instead of ethnic cleansing and expulsion—an unquestionable evil—being used as an argument against a religiously exclusive racist state, the presence of the religiously exclusive racist state is used as an excuse for the propagation of ethnic cleansing and expulsion.

The problem that any secular or humanist (or even rational) person would have with the idea of a religious state is that it is a recipe for disaster, conflict and oppression. Never in history has a religious state not led to massive bloodshed. In Israel, this is obviously true: to set up a Jewish state in a land that was predominantly non-Jewish, the Zionist movement’s terrorist gangs had to undertake an enormous premeditated program of ethnic cleansing that murdered thousands and displaced almost a million Palestinians from their homes, for no reason other than that they believed in the wrong god. Israel then destroyed their homes (and some 400 of their villages) and denied them their right to return to them. Ilan Pappe has recently published a book detailing and documenting the elaborate nature of these crimes, how their planning started in the late 1930’s and how cynical and ruthless their execution was.

That monstrous crime against humanity had to be carried out in order to establish a religiously exclusive state should give us pause to think about the desirability of having any religiously-exclusive state, especially in a place as religiously diverse as historic Palestine, and especially considering that this state has not stopped expanding its territory until today, as can be attested by the increasing building of religiously-exclusive colonies in the West Bank. Instead, many people are hypocritical and racist enough to state that this crime needs to be continued, with millions denied their right to return, in order to save the existence of this religiously-exclusive racist state.

That the right of return is legal is not something even worth arguing, it is fully and comprehensively established in international law and UN resolutions. That it is necessary for many Palestinians to return to their home can be seen from the terrible conditions in which many refugees live in countries surrounding Palestine. Getting these lands back will be what these people need to lift them out of the horrible poverty of exile in which they have lived for 60 years. These vital uncontroversial issues are not the points I want to make today. Even if one were to ignore them, the right of return remains vital, and we as Palestinians should continue to cling to this inalienable right after almost 60 years, since it is the only commendable and honorable thing to do, and it is the only path to achieve a true and comprehensive peace.

In my case, I would be lying if I said I needed these orange groves. My grandfather has 56 descendants spread out all over the world, and splitting these lands is unlikely to give any of us a large amount of land or money. Yet that does not in any way diminish my determination to fight until my last day for these lands, and all my cousins all over the world think similarly. In order to understand this “unreasonable” demagogical clinging to old pieces of land, it might be instructive to contrast it with another famous case of someone “unreasonably” refusing to give up something which a racist authority had told them they were not entitled to.

Rosa20parks When Rosa Parks got on a bus in Montgomery and was asked to move to the back of the bus, she refused. It was an honorable stance in the face of incredible racism. This, as is well known, led to an invigoration of the civil rights movement and mobilized the masses to the streets until they were victorious and segregation was abolished all over the south.

After abolishing segregation, Rosa Parks may have never taken a bus, or sat in the front of it. Her descendants may never think about where they sit when they board a bus, if they ever take one. Everyone would agree that the problem with segregation is not with the mere act of sitting in the front of a bus, it is about living in a society that bans people from sitting in the front of the bus based on their race. This is equally a problem for someone who takes the bus every day and someone who never takes it.

The same people who tell me I am being unreasonable clinging on to my grandfather’s land, should surely have told Rosa Parks that she was unreasonable clinging on to the seat in the front of the bus. After all, a lot of protests, riots, clashes and lynchings resulted from the civil rights movement, surely, it would’ve been better for the sake of “peace” for Rosa Parks to have compromised and moved to the back of the bus. Similarly, a lot of resistance, fighting and murder resulted from Palestinians not giving up their right of return and it would’ve been better for the sake of “peace” for Palestinians to have compromised and forgotten their homes and lands. This, of course, is equally nonsensical in both cases.

However, most people who tell me to forget my land in Palestine would never be caught dead saying Rosa Parks was unreasonable. But the blatant hypocrisy is still lost on them. Why is it that in one case, blacks should not give up a seat on a bus because of their race, while Palestinians should give up their own lands, homes and villages on which they and their ancestors have lived for millennia because of their religion (or lack thereof)?

The way to end racial conflict in the American South was not for Rosa Parks and blacks to give up their rights to the front of the bus and ‘let everyone live in peace’, but by ending the system that denies someone the right to sit in a certain part of a bus depending on their skin color. Similarly, peace in Palestine will not come when Palestinians give up their right to own a piece of land because of the religion to which they were born; but rather, when we abolish the system that assigns plots of lands, houses and villages to people based on what version of god they believe in.

I will never consider there to be peace in Palestine so long as I can visit my grandfather’s house in Atteel and look a few kilometers west to see my land that I can not visit, own, or sell. The day I can reclaim that land, I will visit it once, savor the feeling, and the very next day, I’ll sell my share of it to the highest bidder regardless of their religion, race or ethnicity, and donate the money to an educational institute that will teach the children of Palestine, regardless of their religion, race or ethnicity about the importance of equality and justice, about Rosa Parks, and about how peace could never be achieved on the basis of racist exclusion, whether it be from the front of a bus or from an orange grove.