The return of the right of return
"A wonderful event in the history of this land has happened," wrote Moshe Sharet, Israel's first foreign minister, in June 1948, referring to the Palestinians fleeing their homes – "to a certain extent, it is even more wonderful than the creation of the state of Israel." What represented a Nakba, a disaster, for the Palestinians as individuals and as a society, remembered with pain and anger to this very day, was considered by Jewish leaders as a miracle. It is hard to imagine more different discourses.
Yet while international and even Palestinian attention was focused on the plight of those refugees who were driven out of their home country, less attention was given to those refugees who had been uprooted from their villages and towns, but somehow managed to stay within the boundaries of the new state.
It is estimated that the number of these "internally displaced" Palestinians in 1948 was 35,000 people, about 20 to 25 percent of the total Palestinian population inside Israel. There are no official figures about their numbers today, but it is fair to assume that the internal refugees and their descendants still represent 20 to 25 percent of the total Palestinian population in Israel, meaning 300,000 to 350,000 people.
Their situation has been and still is even more difficult than their fellow Palestinians living in Israel. As Israel did not allow them to return to their villages, which were later destroyed, they found it very difficult to buy property and build new homes in the already crowded and impoverished Palestinian villages in which they settled. As most of them were peasants before 1948 and as all their lands were confiscated, they had almost no choice but to become manual labourers.
Raising awareness of Nakba
The fact that the Oslo agreements completely ignored the refugee issue, explains Bronstein, pushed Palestinians to take this question into their own hands. Until then, he adds, the Nakba was remembered as a personal or family event. The processions to the abandoned villages, which attract tens of thousands of Palestinians on Israel's Independence Day, turned the memory of the Nakba into a political and cultural matter.
Elain Khouri, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is an architect and artist, was born in the village of Fasuta to a father uprooted from nearby Sukhmata village, and a mother uprooted from Ikrit village.
Her father, who came from a distinguished family in Sukhmata, worked in construction, building homes for new Jewish immigrants. Her mother's relatives, she remembers, never stopped feeling miserable and victims in the village in which they settled after being uprooted from Ikrit.
Khouri could have been described as "integrated" into Israeli society. She lives in Haifa, works as a designer, is married to a successful doctor and her son excels in violin. But like many Palestinians of her generation, she does not let the memory of the destroyed villages pass away.
In an exhibition in Tel Aviv two months ago, Khouri and artist Yaakov Hefetz tried - through video art of Khouri walking through the ruins and old maps - to revive the destroyed village of her father, Sukhmata. "We cannot let memory dwindle away," she wrote in a paper distributed to the visitors.
An issue of civil rights
As the discussion with the Israeli journalists may tell us, such a line of politics may break the psychological barrier when dealing with the right of return. When Israeli Jews hear these words, they immediately see a conspiracy to flood Israel with millions of refugees, who will destroy the "Jewishness" of the state. Turning it into a civil-rights issue might make it easier for them to understand the human injustice in preventing people from going back to their villages.
Implementing any sort of return, even a small and symbolic one, seems virtually impossible in the current political situation in Israel. Israeli authorities refuse to let refugees come back to two villages - Ikrit and Bir'am - contrary to a decision by the High Court to let them return. Yet Odeh's move, together with other similar initiatives, maybe represent a beginning of a change in the language with which Israelis talk about the Nakba. This could be an important step forward.
- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department at Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Palestinian primary school students gather outside the UN office to commemorate the 67th Anniversary of Nakba, in Gaza, Gaza City on May 13, 2015.(AA)