Refugees march to return

15 May
5:29 PM

Long before Muhammad Bouazizi there was Muhammad al-Dura. The horrific footage of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy gunned down by Israeli soldiers while seeking refuge alongside his father in September 2000 was one of the sparks that made protests spread across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The second intifada, like the first intifada (1987-1993) before it, was a popular grassroots uprising against Israeli occupation. It was these intifadas that have made the Arabic word for uprising largely synonymous with the Palestinian liberation struggle — and made the word universally understood all over the world.

Since the wave of recent Arab uprisings began in Tunisia late last year after the self-immolation by Bouazizi, many have asked when the Palestinians will follow suit and lead a revolt of their own.

In the decade after the second intifada began, Palestinians have faced violent Israeli repression — thousands were killed and injured, and tens of thousands have been detained and imprisoned. Entire cities, villages and refugee camps have been subject to invasion and curfew, often for weeks at a time. And in recent years, the Palestinian Authority has become a repressive force of its own, forcefully quelling protests in the occupied territories and working in open coordination with the Israeli army.

Despite this, the spirit of the Palestinian liberation movement has continued unabated. Protests by Palestinians inside the occupied territories, Israel and the diaspora are commonplace, particularly the ongoing weekly protests in West Bank villages like Bilin and Nilin that have gone on for years.

Solidarity with Palestine in the Arab world has always existed. Not only did Arabs protest in support of Palestinians early in the intifada, but more recently, during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, hundreds of thousands protested across the Arab world, from Yemen to Morocco, against the attack that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority civilians.

However, Arab despots, many of whom have become the target of popular protests calling for their ouster, have often either suppressed or co-opted protests in solidarity with Palestine. During the various uprisings and protests in the Arab world, other than the flag of the respective nations being waved, the Palestinian flag has also been present in almost every country, a symbol of just how important Palestine and the intifada are in the greater Arab world.

Now, inspired by the recent Arab revolts, Palestinians are planning for their own uprising in a day activists are calling the “third intifada.” What initially started as a call for a protest on Facebook has transformed into a grassroots movement led by Palestinians around the world.

On Sunday, 15 May, Palestinian activists, political factions and non-governmental organizations, are participating in various coordinated actions to protest Israeli occupation and call for the right of return for some six million Palestinian refugees. The significance of this date is that it is Nakba day — the day Palestinians annually commemorate their ethnic cleansing from Palestine as British forces departed in 1948 and Zionist forces took over much of the country to establish Israel.

Protests are planned in Ramallah, Gaza City, Amman, Damascus, Cairo and other cities. Egyptian activists are also planning to go to Gaza and challenge their government’s complicity with Israel in the siege of the territory. Here in Lebanon, organizers are calling for an unprecedented “Right of Return” march to the border that they were forced to cross 63 years ago this week.

Unlike Tunisians, Egyptians and other peoples in revolt, Palestinian refugees don’t have the luxury of living under only one oppressor. In Lebanon, for example, hundreds of thousands of refugees live with few civil rights; many are restricted to refugee camps enclosed by the Lebanese army.

In recent years, activists have waged a campaign demanding civil rights in Lebanon in order to return home to Palestine. In the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, after it was destroyed in 2007, Palestinians had to first demand a return to the camp where they had sought refuge six decades ago before demanding a return home to Palestine. Conditions in Syria and Jordan also restrict refugees’ freedoms and deny them many political rights. While most Palestinian refugees declare only one goal — to return to Palestine — they also admit that getting there is a long and circuitous path.

Sharif Bibi, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and one of the organizers of the 15 May Right of Return March, told me, “Palestinians have always dreamed of an Arab revolt since they believe that Palestine won’t be liberated until the Arab world is liberated. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt gave hope to people and made the idea that ‘we can do it’ into something real.”

Bibi says there are already more than 500 buses planned to transport an estimated 35,000 persons — mostly Palestinian refugees — from across Lebanon to the village of Maroun al-Ras on the boundary with Israel. Very few mainstream Lebanese political groups are endorsing the march, except for Hizballah, the Shia Islamic resistance movement celebrated for liberating southern Lebanon from 22 years of Israeli occupation in 2000.

It was soon after that liberation that hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon traveled to the boundary. Many greeted family members whom they had been separated from for decades or never met before, on the other side of the fence in Israel. Also around this time is when a now-famous photograph of the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said throwing a stone across the border emerged.

According to Bibi, the march this weekend will have a different purpose. Located hundreds of meters away from the border fence, Sunday’s demonstration aims to show that Palestinian refugees have not given up on their inalienable right to return home.

Given their history, it’s easy for one to assume that Palestinians will play a central role in any larger uprising in the Arab world. After this weekend, that role should be clear.

Matthew Cassel, a former editor of The Electronic Intifada, is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East. His website is justimage.org. Follow him on twitter (@justimage) for live coverage of Sunday’s march in Lebanon.

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