Refugees

For 66 years Israel’s founding generation has lived with a guilty secret, one it successfully concealed from the generations that followed. Forests were planted to hide war crimes. School textbooks mythologised Israel’s creation. The army was blindly venerated. But while Israeli Jews tried to enjoy guilt-free street parties last week, news reports focused on the Nakba marches held by the fifth of the population who Palestinians.

Palestinians were due to stage marches to commemorate Thursday the loss of their homeland 66 years ago – an event they call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe” – a little more than a week after Israeli Jews celebrated the anniversary of the Jewish state’s birth. But for many Israelis, it is becoming ever harder to mark their Independence Day without confronting the fact that Israel’s establishment created a new set of victims.

A dream long nurtured by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians made refugees during the establishment of the state of Israel has become a concrete reality at a small makeshift camp atop a windswept hill. A dozen young men have set up the camp at a site in the Upper Galilee from which their grandparents were expelled more than six decades ago. Today, all that remains of the village of Iqrit, close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, is a Catholic church on the hill’s brow. But in 1948, the village was home to 600 Christian Palestinians.

In the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrics at the United Nations last week, armed with his cartoon Iranian bomb, Israeli officials launched a quieter, but equally combative, initiative to extinguish whatever hopes have survived of reviving the peace process. For the first time in its history, Israel is seeking to equate millions of Palestinians in refugee camps across the Middle East with millions of Israeli citizens descended from Jews who, before Israel’s establishment in 1948, lived in Arab countries.

If there was a moment defining the shift in Israel’s strategic position over the past year, it occurred in September when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was overrun by hundreds of Egyptian protesters, some armed with sledgehammers. It was not quite the fall of Saigon. But it indicated how in a few months Israel had gone from a state adept at shaping its regional environment to one increasingly buffeted by forces beyond its control.

On a rocky slope dropping steeply away from the busy main road at the entrance to West Jerusalem is to be found a scattering of ancient stone houses, empty and clinging precariously to terraces hewn from the hillside centuries ago. Although most Israeli drivers barely notice the buildings, the small ghost town of Lifta — neglected for the past six decades — is at the centre of a legal battle fuelling nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Film shot on mobile phones captured the moment when at least 1,000 Palestinian refugees marched across no-man’s land to one of the most heavily protected borders in the world, the one separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Waving Palestinian flags, the marchers braved a minefield, then tore down a series of fences, allowing more than 100 to run into Israeli-controlled territory. As they embraced Druze villagers on the other side, voices could be heard saying: “This is what liberation looks like.”

Despite the loss of their village, the 4,500 Palestinian refugees from Saffuriya and their descendants have clung to one hope: that the Jewish newcomers could not buy their land, only lease it temporarily from the state. According to international law, Israel holds the property of more than four million Palestinian refugees in custodianship, until a final peace deal determines whether they will be allowed back or compensated for their loss. But last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, forced through a revolutionary land reform.

Visitors to Canada Park, a few kilometres north-west of Jerusalem, enjoy its spectacular panaromas, woodland paths, mountain-bike trails, caves and idyllic picnic areas. A series of signs describe the historical significance of the landscape, as well as that of a handful of ancient buildings, in terms of their Biblical, Roman, Hellenic and Ottoman pasts. Few, if any, visitors take notice of the stone blocks that litter sections of the park. But Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, is committed to educating Israelis and foreign visitors about the park’s hidden past – its Palestinian history.

A broad coalition of Jewish lobby groups has made a series of breakthroughs this year in its campaign to link the question of justice for millions of Palestinian refugees with justice for Jews who left Arab states in the wake of Israel’s establishment 60 years ago. Referring to these Jews as the “forgotten refugees” and claiming that their plight is worse than that of exiled Palestinians, the campaign has scored political successes in recent months in Washington, London and Brussels.

A poet for the people

21 August 2008

After the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat four years ago, it is difficult to think of another Palestinian, other than the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who could have commanded three days of national mourning. Darwish spoke to the refugee experience: his passionate and sometimes angry expressions of loss and exile echo across the Palestinian diaspora. Six decades after the establishment of Israel, some four million Palestinians still live in mostly makeshift camps across the Middle East.

There are few clues to help locate the cemetery of al Birwa. Its unmarked entrance is at the end of a dirt track, and most of the gravestones are strewn across untended, rocky ground. The brittle, sun-blasted stalks of Galilee thistle that shoot up from the ground here each spring are the only reliable visitors. This is the spot, close to the coastal city of Acre in northern Israel, where the family of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s “national poet”, said he would have chosen to be buried. Instead, he is due to be laid to rest today in Ramallah in the West Bank.