Fifty-six years have passed since Palestinian lands were usurped and the exodus of thousands of families began. Generation after generation has been consigned to refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. Wars, international resolutions and countless peace initiatives have attempted to put an end to the Palestinian experience of suppression, violence and displacement. Marking the anniversary of the nakba, Palestinian writers address history and the present
The road to Palestine
Al-Awda's recent conference in New York underlined the inalienable nature of the Palestinian cause, suggesting concrete means by which to take the struggle forward, writes Musa Al-Hindi *
The flag of Palestine and the faces of its martyrs solemnly gazed down from the entrance and hallways of the Brookdale Campus of Hunter College.
"Sustainable Struggle: The Road to Palestine" drew together the second and third generations of Palestinians whose grandparents were the original opponents of Britain's foreign policy to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The dates chosen for the conference, 16-19 April, coincided with the Day of the Palestinian Prisoner, and the second anniversary of the fall of Jenin to the occupation troops. Palestinian music was played far from the usurped homeland. Only days before the conference President Bush assured Ariel Sharon of America's endorsement of Zionist policies that would further strengthen the Zionist state while denying the right of return to Palestine's Christians and Muslims. This second convention of Al-Awda (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition) was held with the hope of furthering the goals of the Palestinian right of return movement in the United States and Canada.
The convention was held in the shadow of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. As that organisation has been manipulated against Iraq, so was it strong-armed 56 years ago to partition Palestine and to recognise the Zionist state. The UN Charter provided for neither action. The actions of the UN Security Council in the intervening years have continued to reflect American and British economic interests in the Middle East. What the General Assembly has declared in accord with international law regarding the Palestinians, the Security Council continues to frustrate and undermine.
The war against Palestine is fought on many fronts. The Bush Declaration was the culmination of a process that began in December 1993, a few months after Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles, at which time the US voted against UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Another in a long line of conferences was recently called by a group of non-representative Palestinian elites. They convened a conference to undermine the internationally guaranteed right of return granted to Palestine's refugees. Their document, the "Geneva Accords", sidesteps legal precedents, uses deceptive language to deny millions of Palestinian exiles their lawfully guaranteed right of return to their homeland and self-determination.
Another front was the Zionist attempt to remove Palestine and the right of return from the platform of the American anti-war movement. Al-Awda's 2004 convention came a few weeks after Palestinians and their allies in the US achieved an important breakthrough. A global day of demonstrations against foreign occupations, specifically against the occupations of Iraq and Palestine, was declared 20 March. Some in the US peace and justice movement opposed any attempts to link the situation in Palestine with that in Iraq. The combined efforts of Al-Awda, the Free Palestine Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Group, and ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, one of two major anti-war coalitions in the US) defeated the opposition. In addition, ANSWER, whose representatives were present at the convention, announced its plans to organise a march for the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and against the occupation of Iraq and Palestine, in front of the Pentagon on 5 June. This was the first time in the history of Palestinian activism in the US that the right of return has been openly championed by a major American peace group.
The second Al-Awda conference utilised other strategies to strengthen the Palestinian movement in the US. These included educating new participants on the history and dynamics of the Palestinian struggle, providing a forum for activists to formulate concrete initiatives around the right of return, providing organisers with the opportunity to share their work and put forth ideas for future collaboration and describing the parallels which exist between the Palestinian struggle and those of other communities.
Participants attended a full day of informational and strategy workshops. They initiated an action programme for the years 2004-2005, which were declared Years of the Palestinian Right of Return in North America. The programme included organising nation-wide educational and informational activities between 15-22 May to commemorate the Nakba, as well as a weeklong series of protests during the month of September to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
The convention also resolved that Al-Awda activists would participate in the protests scheduled to take place outside the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The assassination of Dr Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantissi on 17 April prompted the organisers and attendees to redouble their efforts to ensure the success of the conference.
The Anti-Apartheid Action Committee was formed in New York and New Jersey as a result of the convention. Along with publishing educational material on Zionism and apartheid, the committee, made up of various political groups, is already in the process of organising a community-wide divestment campaign in New York that will target several types of public as well as private institutions, including city and state governments, labour unions and private corporations, that hold investments in the Zionist entity.
On the political level, the 2004 Al-Awda convention issued a number of political resolutions aimed at guiding and anchoring Al-Awda's activities in the US and Canada. The convention reaffirmed the definition of the right of return adopted during the organisation's first convention in June 2003. The right of the Palestinian Arab people to return to their homes, property and land of origin is an inalienable, national and individual right, based on the unbreakable natural belonging of a people to their property and place of origin. As such, it is a right that transcends generations, treaties and agreements. The right of return is inextricably linked to the fundamental right of self-determination for the Palestinian people, regardless of their places of birth or residence. This right is not subject to negotiation or compromise.
Al-Awda's definition of the right of return is significant for two reasons. First, by tying the right of return to the principle of self-determination, the definition highlights its national and collective aspect. According to the principle of self-determination, a people is free to decide its political future, as well as to pursue a socio- economic and cultural development path of its choosing, without outside interference. To do so, a people must have full control of its national resources, natural and otherwise, including land. The Palestinian peoples' right to self-determination and return was reaffirmed by UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 (XXIX).
Second, Al-Awda's definition emphasises the right of return not only as a legal right but also as a historic right. As such, the right of return stems from the Palestinian peoples' organic relationship to their homeland, the source and anchor of their collective identity. This definition underscores the inaccuracy of describing the right of return solely as an individual right.
Al-Awda's 2004 convention adopted by an overwhelming consensus a number of "points of unity", among which were included Al-Awda's vision, objectives and strategies. The "points of unity", which were later adopted by Al-Awda, advocated, first, the establishment "of an independent, democratic state for all its citizens in all of Palestine ... which encompasses present-day 'Israel', the West Bank and Gaza Strip"; second, the return of all Palestinian refugees to the areas from which they were expelled; third, the recognition of the anti-colonial nature of the Palestinian struggle and its connection to other struggles for social, political and economic justice; and fourth, the recognition of the central role played by Palestinian women in the struggle for freedom and return.
The importance of the "points of unity" cannot be understated. Their significance stems from the fact that this is the first time in which Al-Awda had articulated its vision of a just and durable peace -- the establishment of a democratic state for all its citizens -- thereby situating the right of return within the larger Palestinian struggle for national liberation. They do so by integrating the refugee issue with the struggle of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948. The "points of unity" also emphasise the national and organic unity of the Palestinian Arab people within 1948 and 1967 borders, and in exile. In doing so, the "points of unity" contest the fragmentation of the Palestinian cause into three separate causes, and challenge the division of the Palestinian people into three disconnected communities each conducting its separate struggle.
Finally, the convention stressed the need for unity among Palestinian national and Islamic groups and community- based organisations, within the framework of a reformed and democratic Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Despite the fact that it has been afflicted with corruption, the PLO remains the only national institution capable of bringing together all sectors of Palestinian society, both inside and outside Palestine. Furthermore, the PLO is the achievement of an arduous struggle by the Palestinian people that must be preserved. However, national unity under the banner of the PLO must be based on a national consensus anchored in the right of return, which constitutes the heart of the Palestinian struggle. After all, the PLO was originally established by and for the refugees who were fighting to liberate the parts of Palestine occupied in 1948.
The continued assaults levelled at the Palestinian right of return have succeeded in galvanising support for that right, especially among young Palestinians. The right of return has turned into a mass popular movement, a safeguard against any compromise which Palestinian officials and negotiators might be tempted to make in order to diminish the rights of the refugees. This movement is alive, vibrant and growing stronger every day. Al-Awda's 2004 convention, whose main message was "there will be no peace until the Palestinian refugees return home", was an important step in that direction. The overwhelming number of young activists present at the convention confirmed that 56 years of exile have failed to diminish the Palestinian people's resolve to regain their national rights.
* The writer, a Palestinian exile from Akka (Acre), is a member of the Coordinating Committee of Al-Awda (The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition).