While most Israelis were celebrating the state’s 68th Independence Day with barbecues and flyovers on Thursday, thousands of Arabs from across the country gathered in a dusty field in the Negev Desert for the 19th annual “March of Return.”
Participants assert the rights of descendants of Palestinians who fled Israel as a result of the 1948 War of Independence to return to the homes, or at least the land, they left.
The UN today says there are five million Palestinian refugees, though there were only a total of 750,000 after the 1948 war. The number has grown more than five-fold because the UN designates second, third and subsequent generations of descendants of Palestinians who used to live in what is now Israel as “refugees.” Only Palestinian descendants of refugees are treated in this way by the UN, and Israel rejects such special treatment.
Israeli governments, both left and right, have also argued that the demand for a massive influx of Palestinians would, and is indeed intended to, end the Jewish state, and is therefore in direct contradiction with the right of Jews to self-determination.
Palestinians see the right of return as a case of righting the historical injustice of forced expulsions during Israel’s War of Independence, as well as a way to ameliorate the conditions of the estimated 1.5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
For Arab Israelis, many of whom consider themselves Palestinian citizens of Israel, the annual march of return is usually the largest and most important annual political event for Arab Israelis.
This year, however, rather than an immense political rally, the event felt more like a large high school or university gathering.
The overwhelming majority of those who attended were in their teens or early 20s. While politicians, officials and a few poets made fiery speeches, swore oaths to defend the land and even sowed seeds, younger attendants flirted, rode horses, ate ice cream and danced to a rap concert.
Hoda Salah Eldin, 23, a parliamentary assistant to Arab MK (Joint List) Osama Sa’adi, said many from the older generations stay away from political events because they think it will bring them trouble with the Israeli authorities and perhaps hurt their businesses.
“The younger generation is more aware. They care more about what happened,” she said. “We remember the massacres and the destruction of houses and villages.”
Still demanding a full ‘right of return’
Near a ring of tents that encompassed the seating area for Thursday’s event, a comfortable Bedouin-style shelter had been set up for some elderly inhabitants of the Negev who lived through the 1948 war.
They were meant to be the main attraction, a living testament to the “Nakba,” the term widely used by Palestinians and in the Arab world to describe the “catastrophe” of modern Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Muhammad Sulliman al-Ubra was sitting in the tent. While he could not say exactly how old he was — they did not have identity cards when he was born, he said — he told The Times of Israel he could still remember fleeing to the Jordanian border during the war in 1948.
Those from his tribe who crossed into the Hashemite Kingdom are still there today, he said.
He and his family stayed within the boundaries of Israel, and after the war, he says, they were processed into the state but prevented from settling their original land.
Today Ubra and much of his extended family live in Rahat, a predominately Bedouin city set up up in the Negev to absorb those who once lived in illegal villages.
“The march lets me know that there are still people who remember,” said Ubra. “I don’t know if it will do anything,” he added, “but at least the youth will remember what happened.”
Th’abet Kadah, 19, from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, who is just starting an engineering degree at Haifa’s prestigious Technion institute, said he would not give up on the full right of return, meaning for all five million people considered Palestinian refugees by the UN.
This demand differs from that made by some Arab Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who have, in an unofficial capacity, accepted the idea that most Palestinians refugees will never come to Israel.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has informally acknowledged that he does not expect Israel to absorb millions of Palestinians, since this would fundamentally alter the 78%-22% Jewish-non-Jewish population balance in Israel. Nevertheless, in formal negotiations, Abbas has insisted that the “right of return” be accepted.
Leader of the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction Ayman Odeh, in his speech to the crowd at this year’s march, called for “recognition of the Nakba” and “gestures to correct this wrong,” but did not call for a full right of return.
In the past, Odeh has focused on Arab citizens of Israel, calling for their right to return to intact villages from which their families were expelled in the 1948 war. (Israel has so far refused, fearing it could set a dangerous precedent.)
Technion student Kadah, however, was insistent that all those considered Palestinian refugees by the UN should have the right to return.
“Golda Meir said ‘the old will die and the young will forget,'” said Kadah. “But we say to Meir, don’t forget that the fathers taught their children, and so the children will never forget.”
(The phrase ‘the old will die and the young will forget’ is sometimes attributed to former prime minister Meir, and more widely to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, sometimes in well-known media outlets. It is not clear that either of them actually said it.)
Anan Muzalbet, 25, from Maghar, a village in the northern Galilee, also said he believed in the full right of return.
“The point of this day for Palestinians is (to declare) that, one day, all of the people who left their land will return here,” said Muzalbet, a lawyer.
When asked how all five million Palestinian refugees could be settled into Israel, an influx that would spell the end of the Jewish state, Muzalbet shook his head and smiled. “This I don’t decide. At some point they’ll come back. I really don’t have any clue how to solve this,” he said.
Salah Eldin, the parliamentary assistant to MK Saade, who also advocates a full right of return, said it was clear that such a position by definition negates the idea of a Jewish state, and is a call for a one-state solution in which all citizens would have equal rights.
She said she did not think most Palestinian refugees, if given the chance, would come to Israel. “Many of them have built lives in other places. They can’t start over from nothing,” she said.
But the demand for the right of return, she acknowledged, “opposes the whole idea of two states. There are people in my party that are for the right of return but also support the two-state solution. Where will they go? It doesn’t make too much sense to me,” she said.