On going home

Omar al-Qattan
27 August 2003

“Like most people I am a pessimist by experience but an optimist by nature. I shall go on being true to my nature. It is often a mistake to learn from experience.” Edward Bond, from the introduction to Saved.

Like all constituent acts, the pledge, or dream, or assertion of one day returning to Palestine dominates our lives. Sometimes, it appears as a slogan, or part of a political project, but for most of the Palestinians I know, including myself, it is something deeper and more fundamental. But fundamental ideas, as we know so well, are far from being the pure, straightforward or even sacred things we claim they are. Indeed, we may call them sacred because deep in our souls we know that they are easily violated.

Although there has been much discussion and debate about the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to go home, I doubt very much whether any Palestinian or honest and ethical human being has any quarrels with the legal and human validity of this right. But there is a difference between asserting a right and realising it.

The popular saying among Palestinians, one I have heard so often from older people when talking about the land or house or entire village they have lost, is: fishi haq bidi’ warahi mtalib – no right disappears as long as someone puts a claim to it. And it is one of the great human achievements of the last fifty or so years that the Palestinians, despite a massive disadvantage on every level, have been able to maintain this claim. We have done it through poetry, song, film, art but above all through maintaining the popular resistance to Israel’s denials and expansionism.

Yet the reality – the one that is undeniable and observable and utterly appalling – is that we own less and less of the land, have access to less of it than we did even three years ago, and are faced with one of the cruellest colonial projects of land-grabbing in modern history .

So we find ourselves in the unenviable position of being right and yet powerless, our assertion and claims constantly dismissed as unrealistic wishful thinking. It thus sometimes seems to me that we Palestinians have become the world’s greatest dreamers, although I know and have always somehow intuited that we must pass from this patient, relentless and stubborn tenacity to a new stage in our thinking about the future. In other words, the wisdom of that peasant saying, with its confidence of always somehow being able to wrong-foot history by silent, stubborn refusal, must be translated to a new kind of vision – more lucid, more rational and more coherent.

A vision of wholeness

I say this with much hesitation. Two of the films I have made on Palestine have characters that struggle with this dilemma. At the end of one of them, a refugee from Jaffa stands on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and chides her son for doubting that one day she will be able to just get up and walk back home, even if this were by a Christ-like miracle, across the water. “People have been to the moon and back, and you’re telling me I wont be able to go home?!”, she tells him.

In another film, another refugee in a Gaza camp is infuriated by his son’s declaration that he threw the keys to his father’s old house (again in Jaffa) into the sea after the Oslo accords. “If I am given a choice to go to heaven or go back home, I’ll choose the latter he says.” A declaration of faith if ever there was one (the clip was censored by a Saudi-owned television station once because it was considered blasphemous!).

Yet however moving these defiant assertions may be, I know, as so many of us also know, that they are not enough. Indeed, they are entirely inadequate, the tragic words of blinded tragic heroes whose fate is already sealed. The problem is that, unlike the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, nobody is there to pick up the pieces at the end, no one is there to reassure us that order and justice and peace will now be reinstated.

So what is it that we want? No: what is that we want and that is also just and possible? It is a question that remains generally unanswered on the Palestinian side. We are now witness to a medley of mediocre political leaders playing word-games with this most fundamental of issues – Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Authority (PA) minister asserting the right of return while on a visit to Lebanon and then declaring that it is negotiable as soon as he returns to the West Bank; or Sari Nusseibeh, another PA official, demanding the relinquishment of that right (would he give up his home in Jerusalem, I wonder?). But no one knows what policy any of the Palestinian political factions actually has towards this matter. We know that Arafat remained adamant about it during the Camp David talks and that this may have been one reason for the impasse between him and the Israelis. But a policy? A project for the future? None has emerged.

What is worse is that we have become cornered by Israel’s separatist logic, as embodied in the ludicrously unrealisable two-state solution. I would even say that the infamous separation wall is a perverse realisation of the aspirations of those within the Palestinian political establishment, particularly Fatah, who dream of a little grocery store of a Palestinian state.

What happened to the secular Palestine that was the basis of the Palestinian National Covenant? What happened to the idea of a mixed, democratic society that we were brought up on as the alternative to Israel’s exclusionist, separatist and racist project of a country for Jews only? A small, meagre chunk of devastated land for Palestinians only? I am tempted to go back to dreaming.

Yet dreaming is not an option. It seems to me that we must now begin to rise above the arbitrary solutions with which political leaders on both sides have become so obsessed. Let us try to ask first of all: what kind of home do we want to return to? More importantly, what kind of home would we want to share with our Jewish neighbours? What kind of neighbourhood can we offer them that they will want to live in?

This is so important because whatever the magnitude and gravity of the injustices Israel has committed against us, the injustices it continues to commit, we cannot build a future without Israeli Jews and we must, above all, find a way of persuading them of the vital necessity – indeed, of the beauty – of our project.

And yes, you have guessed right – I am talking about the bi-national state. I am talking about a country where everyone has a right of residency and is equal before the law; a country at peace with its neighbours and open to them; a country in which the recognition and compensation of the wrong committed by Israel against us will be the basis for future cohabitation between Arabs, Jews and anyone else tempted to live in our beautiful country.

This is not wishful thinking or fantasy. It is the only way I see of freeing ourselves from the painful dreams of returning to a place that no longer exists and, instead, of creating a new Palestine. It is true that few Israelis today accept this solution and that I make it sound as if it is up to us to impose it, when in fact we can only propose. But propose we must for I believe that the current Israeli mood and policy reflect weakness rather than strength, while we for our part retain the one weapon that we have not used enough: the ethical argument of the oppressed.

Speaking of the separation wall, the brave Israeli activist Haim Hanegbi describes this weakness very forcefully: “The purpose of the wall is to separate, to isolate, to imprison the Palestinians in pens. But the wall imprisons the Israelis too. It turns Israel into a ghetto…the last desperate act of those who cannot confront the Palestinian issue [or are] compelled to push [that issue] out of their lives and out of their consciousness.” Perhaps it is time we expose this weakness with a new, generous vision worthy of the sacrifices that our people have been making for more than a century.

The courage of realism

We must begin to translate our dream of return to a noble and just project, one that threatens no one and yet is just and fair, one that persuades, indeed seduces, Israelis to accept rather than brutally reject our existence. To quote Haim Hanegbi again, the right of return will not mean that we “return to Jamusin, which stood once in the middle of what became part of Tel Aviv, or settle at the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol [two major avenues in Tel Aviv]” but to a country that is open as in Europe…It means the establishment of a super-modern city in the Galilee for the 200,000 or 300,000 refugees in Lebanon…of another Palestinian-Jewish city between Hebron and Gaza”.

He adds: “We [Israeli Jews] will have to come to terms with the fact that we will live here as a minority: a Jewish minority that will no longer be squeezed between Hadera and Gadera, but will be able to settle in Nablus and Baghdad and Damascus… that will be able to live and die here, to establish mixed cities and mixed neighbourhoods and mixed families.”

We Palestinians must also come to terms with our irretrievable loss. Our mourning for the country that we or our parents lost must end, but this will only happen if we can persuade ourselves and others of an alternative that can justly compensate this loss, while offering a viable, peaceful and prosperous future for all the inhabitants of the region. I cannot imagine any such alternative other than the bi-national solution.

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