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On May 20th, PSC marked 70 years of Nakba with a conference in London about the right of return. Below is a short summary of each session:

Session 1:
 The Nakba, Refugees and International Law

Salma KarmiAyyoub – Lawyer and external consultant for the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq

Hazem Jamjoum – Doctoral candidate in Modern Middle East History at New York University and policy member of al-Shabaka.

Hugh Lanning, Chair of PSC (Chair)

 Hugh Lanning:

  • Right of return has often been left off the agenda, to focus on the occupation instead
  • The conference aims at addressing that. It should not be just an abstract discussion. As a solidarity organisation, we also need to think about what we can do to see the right of return being implemented

Hazem Jamjoum:

  • Right of return not created in 1948 – the United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 just re-asserted this pre-existing law
  • Limitations of international law is what I want to focus on. International Law is about politics & power
  • Important to note that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has positioned itself as a police state. It is now subcontracted to police Palestinians.
  • 80% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, some of them only 20-30 minute drive away from their village. This is a political issue not humanitarian one. 7/10 Palestinians are displaced overall.
  • We don’t demand the right to return – we have this right, we demand the implementation the right to return, we demand the return. The law is overwhelmingly on our side on this.
  • Jewish entry to Palestine is framed as return – rhetorical device for Israel.
  • We’ll hear a lot about “Nakba 70” today – the Nakba started before 1948 and has not stopped. Eg: Jordan valley since 2012: no water or electricity, all buildings built after 1967 are systematically destroyed. Designed specifically to continue the displacement.
  • Naftali Bennett made it clear: two state solution is dead, what is important is to empty Area C and maintain the PA as loyal force to maintain Israeli security.
  • Right of Return: historically has been considered the controversial issue, even a taboo subject in the 90s. In the solidarity movement it was considered as a threat to clean two-state solution. In certain circles this right is called anti-Semitic.
  • March of Return illustrates that the return of Palestinian refugees is the central struggle. Everything else emanates from this. Our task as a liberation movement is to stay focus on this. This is a land for all of its people, it is not about expelling the Jews. But we need to focus on the return.
  • The PA hijacked the refugee problem when it established itself as state-building organisation.
  • Again, this is not a humanitarian issue. People who are protesting are protesting for a political demand as a result of political mobilisation – this is about power, not about impoverishment. Palestinians do not want our tears. They want our action.
  • Israel’s “exclusivism” has a global impact:
    • We need to draw the connection between Israeli policies and the expertise developed in population control globally. One of Israel’s main export is training the globe including US, UK and African dictatorships on how to be effective security states.
    • The fascist Trump administration is inspired by Israel (“if Israel does it then it’s ok”). The demand to make America white again is very similar to Israel’s demand.
    • this is Israel’s contribution to the world right now

Salma Karmi–Ayyoub:

  • International law is indeed limited but remains important. We are being denied the right to return, so this legal right has to be part of our advocacy.
  • Right of return is a legally grounded right. Palestinian refugees have the choice whether to return or not.
  • I will provide a brief overview of the various frames/sources of international law informing the right of return:
    • UN resolution 194, paragraph 11. Not just about returning to the village you came from, it’s about returning to people’s actual homes. Applies to the descendance of refugees.
    • How the law of nationality interacts with law of state succession: when a new state emerges, that new state is obliged to offer nationality to people who were on the land. In 1948 Israel violated customary law, which says that Palestinians are entitled to nationality and cannot be prevented from entering. This body of law on state succession is then reinforced by humanitarian law, which says that no one can be deprived of their nationality because of race.
    • Human rights law: individual right to return (according to the Declaration of Human Rights: everyone has a right to leave a country and to return).
    • Previous examples: displaced people have been allowed their right to return regardless of whether they’ve been considered a security threat. South Africa used to be an occupation of Namibia – 1967 UNSC declared that those who have left can return to Namibia (including those who were fighting against South Africa) – this right is not based on the conflict ending.
    • Previously mentioned laws apply to those who left whether voluntarily or forced. There is another body of law applying when refugees have been forcibly expelled. The remedy to this unlawful act is to allow the return.
    • Israel keeps saying that this is a “highly unusual situation” or that it is “not practical” to allow Palestinian refugees to return. We can challenge these by using previous examples of mass displacement followed by return: former Yugoslavia in 1990s. Guatemala in 1994 and Cambodia – both peace treaties guaranteed the right to return of displaced. Many other examples. Israel’s arguments do not hold.

Session 2: Palestinian Refugees: displacement, dislocation and dispersal

Rania Madi – United Nations Legal Advocacy Representative of Badil, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

Rania Madi:

  • My journey as Palestinian: born in Ramallah and parents originally from Jaffa. Expelled when was 16 years old for different political reasons. Arrived in Jordan, then Syria, then Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq.
  • Now a legal adviser at the Geneva Municipality and also working for BADIL since 2006.
  • Important to remember than the UN only recognised state of Israel based on Israel recognising the Palestinian right of return.
  • The Nakba is an ongoing process. Let us remember that in 1990 the Palestinians were expelled from Jordan. During the Lebanese war, thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave (Sabra and Shatila massacre). Later on, Israel also attacked Tunisia exactly where Palestinians lived. Targeting Palestinians everywhere they go.
  • It is not enough to criticise the PA, the 7 millions of Palestinians abroad need a representative, but we’re really far from this.

Session 3: Palestinian Discourses of Return

Amjad Iraqi – Palestinian citizen of Israel, writer for +972 Magazine, and Policy Member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, also Adalah.

Tamara, activist and film maker, director and co-founder of Makan.

Mohamad Fahed – Grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, and completed his MSC at UCL University, after completing his Sixth form at Eton college.

Mohamad Fahed:

  • I grew up refugee camp in Lebanon, and my grand-mother never gave up her memories of her village. Ben Gurion said: “the old will die and the young will forget”. But we haven’t forgot.
  • In my view the creation of Israel impacted Palestinian lives in 5 different ways:
    • Palestinians living under siege in Gaza
    • Palestinians living under military occupation with checkpoints and walls in the West Bank
    • Palestinian citizens of Israel
    • Palestinians of the diaspora in the West and elsewhere
    • Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan + those who have been internally displaced living in Gaza and the West Bank
  • My experience as Palestinian refugee: Arab countries and host countries also have a responsibility to treat Palestinians with dignity. The human side is important. Palestinians in Lebanon have no civil rights, forbidden from 20 professions including engineering, law, public sector, and they can’t own properties outside refugee camps. I’m not patriotic, the Palestinian struggle for is a human rights one – we get lost in the political complications of it. We shouldn’t lose the human side.

Panel discussion:

  • Tamara: my grandma lived in Egypt and then Libya, she was privileged not to be a refugee. I feel a similar connection as the one expressed by Mohamad. My grandma passed away a year ago. I’m asking how we going to continue to nurture our connection to Palestine?
  • Importance of culture. Many books were stolen during 1948 by the Haganah and these books are now in Israeli archives. It’s not just about the physical displacement, it’s the cultural displacement.
  • Amjad: we Palestinian citizens of Israel remain inside Israeli state borders, and this has created a distance with other Palestinians. For those within “1948”: we see new Jewish towns emerging, feeling dislocated from entire world you knew just a few years ago. we need to think about the notion of return more broadly.
  • Mohamad: our connection through our elderly people. Social media is helping too.
  • There was always “Palestinianess” in my household through my father and mother’s stories. Sharing these stories is a way of doing memory work, as we don’t have a lot of texts about Palestine.
  • Tamara: search for identity. I am ¾ Palestinian, ¼ Libyan – I feel like the Palestinian cause strengthen my identity.
  • Amjad: those in 1948 think about the right of return differently, the frame is different. We speak a lot about equality, while Palestinians abroad talk a lot about liberation – these concepts are different but not exclusive.
  • Mohamad: we as Palestinians have to find ways to demand our right of return without getting rid of the Israelis living there. The fragmentation of Palestinians, created by Israel, can make us stronger. There is a diversity of opinions. When Palestine is liberated we will live in a cosmopolitan Palestine.
  • Tamara: fragmentation doesn’t mean different experiences We need to recognise the fragmentation and the multiplicity. When we talk about Palestinians we are not talking just about the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank.
  • Amjad: the Palestinian identity is intersectional, not homogeneous – it has always been the case. We need to embrace this diversity.
  • Amjad: As non-Jew living in Israel we will never have equality. There are currently more than 60 laws discriminating in some ways against Israeli citizens who don’t have the Jewish nationality. My standard of living is higher than those living in the West Bank but that’s not enough.


Session 4: Realising the Right of Return:

Dr Ghada Karmi – Leading Palestinian activist, academic and writer

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio – Co-founder of De-Colonizer and founder of Zochrot.

Tareq Baconi – Author and journalist, Analyst at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.

Tareq Baconi:

  • Palestinian refugees in Syria are currently facing a second displacement, so this conference is very timely.
  • I want to celebrate the fact that right of return is back as a major topic, instead of previous discussions on land swaps etc. We need to focus on core rights.
  • The previous panel celebrated the fragmentation of Palestinian experiences as something politically debilitating but culturally enriching.
  • Different people are defining right of return differently. Even if we had one definition, we Palestinians are now powerless, we have no political leadership capable of strategising. The first step is to recognise that weakness. The lethal force used on protesters in Gaza was caused by the fear that the right of return is infiltrating the Palestinian consciousness again. Palestinians are not passive anymore and they want to demand their core rights.
  • Right now is not the time to have a political discussion on one or two states – it’s too early for this conversation to take place because we can’t realise that.
  • I have 5 recommendations:
    • Communication: what’s happening on the ground is a situation where there is a single source of power discriminating. We need to be talking about freedom, about justice, not about two states or one state. BDS has been transformative in terms of language but we need more to mainstream this narrative. We have a need for human stories. There are no two parties – There is an occupier and an occupied people – we need to use a discourse of rights.
    • Analytical framing (see Nadia Hijab article): settler colonialism or apartheid – There are also many other frames. When deciding on the most useful framework, we need to ask: what framework can help us communicate on this issue but also give us strategic power? What frame allows us to use international law? The apartheid framework is a useful one.
    • Political power: we need inroads with policy makers, people who can effectively use the power of the grassroots. To build power, we need to think about where power is located. Look at the ICC, and the UN.
    • Movements such as Black Lives Matter: fighting different form of supremacy but need to inform what we do. Trump and Bibi are two faces of the same coin.
    • We Palestinians need to hold our leadership accountable, and start thinking about emergence of new leadership, one that is representative.