Sixty years ago, my grandparents lived in the beautiful village of Beit Daras, a few kilometers north of Gaza. They were farmers and owned hundreds of acres of land.
But in 1948, in the first Arab-Israeli war, many people lost their lives defending our village from the Zionist militias. In the end, with their crops and homes burning, the villagers fled. My family eventually made its way to what became the refugee camp of Khan Yunis in Gaza. We were hit hard by poverty, humiliation and disease. We became refugees, queuing for tents, food and assistance, while the state of Israel was established on the ruins of my family’s property and on the ruins of hundreds of other Palestinian villages.
Some people may tire of hearing such stories from the past. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is one of the first sayings I learned in English. But for me, the line between past and present is not so easily broken. I raise this story today because it remains profoundly relevant to the Middle East peace process — and to help convey the deep-seated fears of Palestinian refugees that we will be asked to exonerate Israel for its actions and to relinquish our right to return home.
That cannot be allowed to happen. All refugees have the right to return. This is an individual right, long recognized in international law, that cannot be negotiated away. Palestinian refugees — and there are more than 4 million of us registered with the United Nations today — hold this right no less than Kosovar or Rwandan or any other refugees.
Of course, I understand that the clock cannot be turned back. Most of the Palestinian villages inside what is now Israel no longer exist. And experience shows that when the rights of refugees are recognized and backed by international communities, only a small portion opt to return.
But the option should be open to us. If a refugee decides to return, he or she should not be hindered. Anything less would be unacceptable to Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are refugees. Those who choose not to return must be fairly compensated for their losses.
My fear is that in the months ahead, enormous financial and political pressure may be brought against our fractured leadership to concede the rights of refugees.
In 2000, Yasser Arafat was castigated internationally for his refusal to accept what was perversely termed a “generous offer” from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, even though it made no provision whatsoever for the return of refugees. However, Arafat was greeted as a hero by Palestinians for his principled unwillingness to sanctify ethnic cleansing.
Seven years later, we will perhaps be confronted with another “generous offer” aiming to formalize our dispossession. Tragically, world powers have little stomach to battle Israel for what they view as bygone peccadilloes.
There are real consequences for being stateless and weak. For two years, I have been unable to return to my home in Gaza. In 2006, I was stranded in the Sinai with my two small children, unable to get through the closed border from Egypt into Gaza. It is perhaps madness to want to enter such a prison, but it is where my family and loved ones live. I eventually gave up. Last summer, I tried and failed again.
Yet my ultimate destination is not Khan Yunis but Beit Daras. It is fundamentally unjust — even all these years later — that the world stands by and countenances the Israeli decision to expropriate my family’s land.
And it is fundamentally racist to believe that I would pose a threat to Israel if I were to move back to my family’s village (which I would do if I were given the option). The notion of a Jewish state that must always retain a Jewish character — so that people of other ethnicities can be barred from living in their ancestral homes and minorities groups are treated as second-class citizens — is frighteningly similar to the apartheid state of South Africa, where different ethnic groups were treated unequally under law.
If black and white South Africans could resolve their differences on the basis of equality, why is it inappropriate to insist that Israelis and Palestinians do the same? Surely all modern conceptions of justice and equality must decry a system that places Jews above Palestinians.
Both peoples have suffered enormously over the last several decades. Resolution, however, will not come by the powerful dictating to the weak, but only through insistence on equality between the two peoples.
GHADA AGEEL is a third-generation Palestinian refugee. She grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza and teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter in Britain.