The only thing heard nowadays about the majority of the Palestinian people – those made refugees in the Nakba of 1948 – is that they must consider themselves and their fate entirely forfeited. Surrendering their right to return to the place they were expelled from – the most basic right every refugee has under international law – is apparently a given. It is on every leader’s lips, the key component of “the compromise” required in the leaked details of John Kerry’s “framework” for peace; a commonplace at every western diplomatic closed-door roundtable, which includes the quiet complicity of every Arab regime.
Forfeited if you consider what is now happening to the half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria without respite: entire refugee camps, established more than 65 years ago, utterly flattened; the people in them killed or having fled to safely elsewhere; other refugee camps under military siege for so many months that the people suffering in them are literally starving to death. Hundreds of thousands made refugees for the third or fourth time in their lives, spending the hard months of this past winter in the snow and rain, many without a tent or food, the children without a school or medical care, on the slopes of a Turkish hillside, crowded into already bursting camps in Lebanon, cordoned off under military jurisdiction in Jordan.
It is not all that different to the extreme pressures Palestinians are facing in Palestine, where everyone is more or less a refugee too. In what is now Israel, people internally displaced from their homes in 1947 and 1948 are living in villages that still have no electricity; in Jerusalem more Palestinian refugees are created every day by the Israeli military, as people are illegally thrown out of their ancestral homes. In the occupied West Bank, people’s homes are demolished each week. And, of course, in Gaza, where the density and length of the siege, the despair of any change by the people there (the majority of whom are refugees from 1948), and the silence on their collective predicament, is legendary.
You could think, under these extreme cruelties specifically designed to break Palestinians and their cause, that the people as a whole have surrendered – or, if not surrendered, then at least are resigned to their fate. You would be wrong. Today, right across the world – and leading from besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus – Palestinians are raising the flag of return under the banner Return Unifies Us. As a result of a remarkable call issued by a number of large national civic coalitions, which has spread like wildfire across the Palestinian body politic scattered to the four winds, it is now signed by more than 150 popular and grassroots organisations in Palestine and in exile.
Palestinians in dozens of locations are coming together to promote the popular demand for unity and the right of return: the Yarmouk youth band are holding a concert by candlelight; on the windy Turkish border the survivors of the razed, and now regrouped, Handarat camp near Aleppo Syria are giving oral testimonies; and in the 300,000-strong Palestinian community in Chile, Lebanon, Jerusalem, France and Australia, at a concert in London, right across Gaza, in Balata camp in Nablus, Der’aa camp in Syria and Al Am’ari camp in Ramallah, poster exhibitions, lectures, rallies and marching scout troupes are all celebrating the unity of the Palestinian people and their rights.
By this grand gesture, in the face of the continuing disaster of ethnic cleansing, they are making the invisible spirit of an entire people, their humanity and their dignity, visible. On the anniversary of the legendary battle of Karameh in 1968 – a landmark of Palestinian resistance to their nation’s destruction and a rallying call for the cause of liberation and return – Palestinians everywhere still have the power to fashion their fate. And they have taken it.
Karma Nabulsi is fellow in politics at St Edmund Hall, and teaches at Oxford University.