Nakba Day, a reminder of Palestinians’ fading hopes of return
RAMALLAH - On May 15th, Palestinians in the West Bank’s de facto capital commemorated Nakba Day — the Day of the Catastrophe — when the Israelis proclaimed a Jewish state on the land from which Palestinians had been forced out or fled into exile 67 years ago.
The West Bank is all they have left of what was once British Mandate Palestine and that has been occupied, along with the Gaza Strip, by the Israelis since June 1967.
The rest of their people are scattered across the Middle East, most of them living in squalid refugee camps, abandoned by the world at large, or integrated into other nations around the world.
It takes just a few minutes’ conversation with any Palestinian refugee to understand that the “right of return” is carved in his heart and consciousness. But these days, they are finding it difficult to believe they are any closer to achieving that dream than their parents and grandparents were when they left their ancestral lands, the most tragic experience in their history.
Palestinians believe the wait has become way too long and that their leadership is powerless to regain their rights from their mighty neighbour, Israel.
Songs of the Nakba, mournful and defiant, are played incessantly on radio and television. Black flags depicting the symbolic key of return flutter across Palestinian cities and, at noon on Nakba Day, in the most dramatic event of the day, sirens wail just as they did at noon on May 15, 1948, when Israel was proclaimed after 800,000 Palestinians had been driven from their ancestral lands.
The younger generations, which did not witness the Nakba, cherish stories, memories and dreams of the homeland from parents and grandparents. But the majority of Palestinians have one thing in common: They refuse to compromise their “right of return” to their homeland.
In the Ramallah home of Mohammed Muqbil, a reprint of the Palestinian pound, the pre-1948 currency in British Mandate Palestine hangs on a living room wall along with pictures of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Muqbil, nicknamed Abu Ali, was too young to remember his family’s trek from Ramleh, now a city in northern Israel, to Ramallah in 1948. Yet, that experience indelibly shaped the life of Muqbil, now 69.
These days, he is a leading politician and prolific writer of slogans — something he started doing as a young man — chanted by protest marchers over the years. Demonstrators still use Abu Ali’s slogans.
In recent years, however, Abu Ali’s role has been less visible as Nakba Day became less of a passionate annual protest against a people’s displacement from a land their ancestors had lived on for millennia, than an officially organised activity.
“The commemoration has become little more than a photo opportunity,” Abu Ali told The Arab Weekly at his home. “It used to be much more genuine but stopped after it lost its popular aspect as institutions started organising it in the last few years.” “O, our miraculous authority, the right of return is not a game,” he said, chanting one of his distinctive slogans. Abu Ali rarely missed a Nakba Day but he longs for the fiery protests of old.
“I’m almost 70 and our wait is getting much longer,” he said. “The Israelis have the land, the power and the settlements are growing with no international legitimacy or justice.”
Many Palestinians share Abu Ali’s sentiment that the Nakba commemoration has lost its lustre and feel frustrated that no settlement is in the offing. Each year, Nakba Day and the political speeches attract fewer people. Many complain the events fail to emphasise the significance of their quest to return home.
Some say the Palestinian Authority has been systematically weakened by Israel to the point that it might even surrender the right of return.
Rumours from the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks suggested that Israel will only allow a small number of refugees to come back in a “symbolic” return. And they would only be allowed to go back to the West Bank, not to what is considered Israel proper. In the Ramallah commemoration two days prior to Nakba Day, around 1,000 people rallied outside the Arafat mausoleum and Arafat Square downtown, marking the steady decline in the number of protesters over the years.
Some question the purpose of the commemorations.
Visual artist Majd Abdul Hamid addressed this issue in an April exhibition in which he challenged the growing inertia surrounding the “right of return”. One display was a glass-covered table covered in sugar pacifiers of different colours, signifying the keys to their former homes that many Palestinians usually bring out at this time of year.
“The keys are becoming a fetish object,” he told The Arab Weekly. “I want to question how that object relates to the Palestinian narrative, visually and conceptually. What does it mean to make it edible and what happens if you eat it? After all, it’s made of sugar.”
Abdul Haimid, born in exile in Damascus and now living in Ramallah, dubbed the current mourning a “celebration of the victimised without any horizon for dealing with it.”
According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, there are 12.2 million Palestinians around the world, the vast majority living in an exile that shows no sign of ending.