Nasser Nasser /AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.As we approach the 5 June commemoration of the 1967 war, when Israel uprooted approximately 400,000 Palestinians (half of them for the second time), and occupied the remaining 20 percent of Palestinian territory, it is important to remember that it was not a beginning of a ‘conflict’ but the continuation of the Nakba (catastrophe) of 15 May 1948. Between and following these two major wars, Israel's expansion on Palestinian land has been unrelenting.
The ever-increasing Palestinian losses – and the lack of accountability for them – have led to immense Palestinian suffering, and a prolonged exile. Although seven decades have passed, the conditions for the Palestinian national struggle have worsened, and the right of return recedes further than in the past.
Undoubtedly, a major setback to the Palestinian national movement was the American-Israeli Oslo framework for 'peace' of 1993. Negotiated without consultation with the rank and file of Palestinians, and outside the framework of international law, it was an Israeli victory: the agreement stipulated that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) renounce armed struggle, and recognize Israel on 80 percent of Palestinian territory. Implicit in this formula was the abandonment of the right of return of the 1948 and later refugees. Once the cardinal principle of the liberation struggle, the 1948 Nakba remained a traumatic historical event without redemption or accountability.
It is thus not surprising that for most Palestinians, especially the refugees, the abrupt turn-around of their leaders was considered a betrayal. Since then, and despite increasing Israeli repression and atrocities (such as in Lebanon 2006 and Gaza more than once), there has been no change in the Palestinian Authority's flawed policies, and no end to futile negotiations.
This disastrous combination of Palestinian failure and Israeli colonial expansion in Palestine was exacerbated by the regional chaos brought about by imperial military invasions, especially in Iraq, and the subsequent spread of violence and sectarianism. Today, attention to the significance of Nakba commemorations must be viewed within this larger context.
The effects of the aforementioned changes are very tangible in the refugee camps, where I have been conducting research for over two decades.
During the 'Golden Age', camps were elevated to revolutionary symbols, and their inhabitants often described them as the 'face of the nation' and its predicament. Following the eviction of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, and especially after Oslo in 1993, they loomed as forlorn spaces, stripped of their national and political symbolism. Many camps devolved in popular discourse into ‘vulnerable poor neighborhoods’ riddled with social problems, or more recently as environments that attract 'fundamentalists' and 'terrorists'.
“Camps have been and continue to be – symbolically speaking – the political infrastructure of the right of return.”
In 1995, I interviewed a young, second-generation refugee born and raised in al-Baq'a camp in Jordan. In our conversations, Omar reflected on a past golden age described as a revolutionary cultural milieu.
He attributed his attachment to Palestine to three main factors. First, to the generation of 1948 who incessantly recounted stories about Palestine and the Nakba, especially their villages of origin. Secondly, Omar characterized the camp environment as a factor in shaping a distinctive political and social consciousness, within which land and return were key concepts. Finally, his commitment to the Palestinian cause was attributed to UNRWA teachers who instilled knowledge and national fervor. “Of course,” he told me, “how could one avoid having a sense of national belonging in such a patriotic environment.”
Thus, when the 'children of camps' joined the PLO in the mid-1960s and early 1970s they were already able to imagine their villages and Palestine through the rural landscape described by their elders. The struggle to return became the counter narrative to the Nakba and camp life, and 'land' and 'people' were conceptualized as inseparable emancipatory projects. Omar contrasted this period with 1995, when I interviewed him, observing that 'today people no longer go out on demonstrations…they feel these are useless.’
In another camp in Jordan, in the early 2000s I was involved in a project with a group of 10-14 year-old boys and girls. Moved by the events of the Second Intifada, they published a booklet filled with stories about Palestine transmitted to them by their elders, and about their yearning to return to the Homeland they never saw.
When I returned to the camp about two years ago, the shift in political and national consciousness of the same young people, now in their mid-twenties, was disconcerting. I was taken aback when one of them spoke of the ‘differences between Shi’ites and Sunnis’, a sectarian discourse unknown to Palestinian society, and distinctly outside the bounds of Palestinian national concerns.
Another refugee boasted of Palestinian ‘martyrs’ in Syria who died ‘fighting against the Alawites, Iranians and Shi’ites’. Although by no means representative of Palestinian society in general, or refugees as a whole, the sectarian discourse pointed to a current provoked by the regional discursive shifts, as well as the disenfranchisement of refugees from official national politics.
In light of the broader context, it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘Ain el-Helweh, was recently described in some media outlets as a ‘haven for fundamentalists’. Does this kind of language portent that it is the next target for destruction? Were not Nahr el-Bared, Yarmouk, Jenin, Sabra and Shatila also sites of violence, death and ruin? One has to ask who has an interest in fomenting violence within camps and in diverting their political culture away from Palestinian national concerns?
Camps have been and continue to be – symbolically speaking – the political infrastructure of the right of return. They are reminders of the Nakba and international responsibility, including the implementation of the right of return. Consequently, commemorating the Nakba and protecting refugee camps are entwined and equally critical endeavors: without historical accountability, without identifying perpetrators and victims, there is no redemption.
This calls for a Palestinian leadership that redirects the compass away from negotiations and back to national liberation. The youth of today desperately need a leadership that is willing to advocate for the right of return and confront the Nakba, instead of colluding to silence its history and tragic legacy.