Palestinian refugees pledge to return home with non-violent marches

Palestinian refugees pledge to return home with non-violent marches
A new movement aims to inspire masses of Palestinians to take direct action, reports Ali Adam.
7 min read
02 March, 2018
Participants are being urged to only carry the Palestinian flag [AFP]

Palestinian refugees will hold peaceful marches towards Israel in a mass movement to force a return to their homeland, according to organisers of "The Great Return March".

"The 1948 war ended seventy years ago and there's absolutely no justification for the refugees to be prevented from returning to their homes," the group added.

Their statement went on: "There are international resolutions on the refugees' right of return, most notably Resolution 194, and the decision now is in the hands of refugees who will exercise their right of return in a peaceful manner whenever they want.

"There is no longer any point in waiting for just political solutions that will repatriate the refugees to their homes or prevent the occupation from further settling, land confiscation, repeated aggression and blockade."

Organisers have yet to choose a specific date for the march, but it's likely to be held on May 15 - Nakba Day - commemorated every year by thousands and thousands of Palestinians scattered across the region. The new US embassy in Jerusalem is aso slated to be opened that week, and Prince William of Great Britain - the country who's "Balfour Declaration" indirectly led to the creation of the state of Israel - is also expected to visit the region early in the summer.

The idea of a March of Return is not new. It originated in May 2011, when young Palestinians - inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings - led thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank to march towards the Israeli borders. At the time, more than a hundred Palestinians from Syria managed to breach the Israeli border fence and enter into the Arab Druz village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The marchers are going to be demanding their return in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 - agreed in 1948

The idea has recently been revived by a group of Palestinian activists in the Gaza Strip, and their initiative is garnering considerable support not only from fellow Gazans, but also from Palestinian refugees across the region.

The organisers behind the march are trying to meticulously plan their movement, doing everything possible to bring the march to fruition.

The Great Return march is a movement that's trying to bring hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from their camps across the region to participate in mass sit-ins near Israeli borders, intended to grow into peaceful marches to the land from which they were expelled inside Israel.

The marchers are going to be demanding their return in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 - agreed in 1948 - which states "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date".

Organisers have persistently stressed on the peacefulness of the intended march and called on Palestinian political factions and participants to maintain the peaceful nature of the march. It's intended that the marchers will only carry the flag of Palestine and banners bearing the text of Resolution 194.

A variety of Palestinian political factions and civil groups have already voiced their support for the initiative and expressed a readiness to take part.

One major challenge for the movement is to maintain its popular outlook and nature; analysts are urging that the Palestinians must not allow the march to be hijacked by political factions.

Since the Nakba in 1948, the Palestinian refugees have been enduring miserable conditions in their camps. Not only have those conditions not improved over time, they have severely deteriorated. The absence of a solution to their plight may compel many to take part, demanding change and decent lives.

What may aggravate the suffering of the Palestinian refugees is the recent assault launched on UNRWA by the Trump administration, threatening the refugees' only lifeline - UNRWA provides basic needs including food, education and health services.

"The grim and harsh humanitarian situation that the refugees are living in will induce them to take part in the March of Return," Ahmed Abu Irtema, organisers' spokesperson told The New Arab. "The alternative for them [is] slow and painful death."

The march also comes at a time when many Palestinians believe there is an Israeli-American plan to liquidate the whole Palestinian cause - a plan that started with US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and taking the city's status off the negotiation table. 

Last month, youth activists called on social media users to participate in setting up tents near the borders in preparation for the march. The tent has long been symbolic of the refugees' plight.

Muthana Najjar is a prominent Palestinian journalist.

"I was the first to set up a tent and I am proud to shed a light on the right of return which is not only enshrined for the Palestinian refugees in international law, but it's also our way out of the crises that the Palestinian people are suffering," he told The New Arab.

Najjar's Facebook account has been blocked, and activists suspect the social media company of blocking several other Palestinian and pro-Palestinian accounts and pages.

The idea of the march is to promote the one-state solution.

Palestinians interact and work with Israelis normally and peacefully. This means that the one-state solution is possible

"We're not calling for removing anybody from existence or displacing anybody from their place, we're simply calling for justice for the seventy-year-old plight of the Palestinian refugees - whose weapons are their rights and UN resolution 194 - and we're placing our hope in the international community to sympathise with our just cause instead of sympathising with a racist apartheid regime," said Ahmed Abu Irtema.

"Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank head to Israel on a daily basis to work there and the same used to happen in Gaza before the year 2000. Palestinians interact and work with Israelis normally and peacefully. This means that the one-state solution is possible.

"The one-state solution is the most moral and most sensible solution. On the other hand, the two-state solution has collapsed entirely due to the continuation of settlements and the refusal of the Israel to recognise the pre-1967 borders."

Israeli leaders have long feared the idea of a one-state solution and potentially losing the country's Jewish demographic majority. Despite the Israeli rejection of the two-state solution and the continuation of settlement building, Israeli leaders have repeatedly warned the Palestinian Authority's officials not to even speak of the one-state solution. 

In an interview with Al-Ghad in December, Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior official now based in the UAE, said: "Israel warns Palestinian officials not to speak of the one-state solution, I myself was warned by multiple Israeli officials not to speak of it."

John Kerry, a former US secretary of state, speaking at a conference in Dubai last year, blamed the Israeli leadership for the absence of a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Kerry pointed out, at the time, the possibility of Palestinians resorting to peaceful civil rights movements to solve their plights: "If you see 40,000 kids marching up to the wall every day with signs saying 'give us our rights', I mean, I don't think Palestine is going to be immune forever to the civil rights movements that have swept other nations in the world, and somehow, Israel is ignoring this today.

"That's not leadership."

The prospect of the Great Return March is horrifying for Israel, as it'll have to respond with military force to a peaceful march if it wants to stop it; a scenario that's going to cost Israel tremendously in a way that's going to affect Israel forever.

Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, wrote in a 2016 article for Israel Hayom regarding Gaza's citizens: "Indeed, the nightmare scenario in which thousands of Gaza residents rush the security fence, and the military response this would necessitate, could cause the situation to spiral in extremely undesirable directions."

Similarly, Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specialises in Israel's security affair. Writing in The Jerusalem Post in 2015, he said: "Attempts to break through the fence are nightmare scenarios for the defense establishment. What will happen if thousands of Palestinians march on the fence, knock it down and continue their march into Israel? Will Israel respond with gunfire that will lead to a massacre?"

Abu Irtema concluded: "Ultimately, If Israel chose to abandon its racist policies and started to live up to democratic values and norms, giving all its citizens, Palestinians and Israelis, full rights, this decision will triumph not only because it's the moral decision but also because it'll fit into the current era of human rights and international law."

Ali Adam is a journalist and researcher whose work focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict