As Israel marks Independence Day, Palestinians ask for right of return

Will the international community finally listen and, more importantly, act?
Sunday 29/04/2018
Israeli Arabs take part in a rally calling for the right of return, on April 19. (Reuters)
Generation after generation. Israeli Arabs take part in a rally calling for the right of return, on April 19. (Reuters)

An estimated 15,000 Palestinians participated in the March of Return protests April 19 in Atlit, a Palestinian village near Haifa inside Israel that was destroyed during the Palestinian Nakba in 1948.

Participants waved Palestinian flags and marched demanding the right to return for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Palestinians and the more than 7 million refugees uprooted from their homes.

The March of Return has been organised annually since 1998, each year in one of the 500 villages depopulated during the Nakba, its date coinciding with Israel’s Independence Day.

The march is organised by the Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID) and has become increasingly popular, as shown by the growing participation of younger Palestinians. It is the biggest event of the year for Palestinians inside Israel. Participants include people from across the Palestinian political and geographical spectrum.

The march aims to draw attention to the plight of forcibly displaced Palestinians, including the more than 380,000 often-forgotten internally displaced Palestinians and to demand the realisation of their right to return.

The large numbers participating in the protest constitute a very real threat to the views of David Ben Gurion, one of the founders of Israel, who said, referring to Palestinians: “The old will die and the young will forget.” As the march in Atlit showed, even 70 years after the Nakba, Palestinians have not forgotten and the young remember and continue to demand their rights.

The slogan of the march is “Their Independence Day is our Nakba,” a phrase that touches on the core of the conflict: The fact that Israel came to be at the expense of the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.

This reality prevails and is the basis of Israel’s denial of the right of return. Israel argues that the return of refugees would constitute the end of the Jewish nation-state and, therefore, Palestinians in exile cannot return and must be absorbed by host countries.

This argument illustrates the fact that demographics are a central element of the conflict but not the only one. Internally displaced Palestinians constitute a hole in the Israeli case since they were given Israeli citizenship and are, therefore, part of Israel’s demographic. The denial of return of this group of Palestinians shows that Israel does not simply want to maintain a Jewish-Israeli majority with the minimum number of Palestinians but also control the maximum amount of land.

One of the first measures taken by the Israeli government after its establishment was to destroy the villages from which Palestinians were expelled to erase the possibility of return to those areas. Not only that, it confiscated the lands and properties of those displaced, Judaised historical sites and built on the remains of the villages.

Israeli policies are not simply about displacing Palestinians but erasing any remains or memories of their presence in the land. This is precisely what the March of Return is trying to challenge. By keeping the memory alive, by bringing Palestinian presence back to those villages, the march is confronting the Israeli policies of erasure while demanding the right of return.

The March of Return organised by Palestinian citizens of Israel has influenced the more recent “Great March of Return” in the Gaza Strip. That march began March 30 and will continue until May 15 when Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day.

The violence used by Israeli forces to suppress these weekly marches has led to 33 Palestinians being killed and more than 4,000 injured, drawing considerable attention to the march and, with it, the issue of return. Looking at the demonstrations for return in Gaza and the march in Atlit, there seems to be a resurgence of the issue of return in the Palestinian context.

This resurgence should serve as a wake-up call for the international community and a reminder of their obligations vis-a-vis displaced Palestinians.

Despite Israel’s attempts to put the issue of return to rest, these marches are evidence that the issue is alive. While addressing the crimes committed by the Israeli military in suppressing the marches in Gaza is very important, it is essential that the core issue, the main reason behind the marches themselves, is addressed and solved.

The international community recognised the Palestinian right of return in 1948. Palestinians in 2018 are marching by the thousands in the streets, risking their lives, demanding its realisation. Will the international community finally listen and, more importantly, act?