70 years of Nakba: Why can’t Palestinians walk home?

First published by the Middle East Eye on 18/5/2018

All who are interested in peace in historic Palestine must remember that we did not choose our occupiers; they chose Palestine, knowing it was not an empty land, and we paid with our lives and rights

I would not be writing these words today if Israel had not been created in my homeland, Palestine, against the will of indigenous Palestinians. I might instead be writing to celebrate the independence of a democratic Palestine in which indigenous Jews, Christians and Muslims lived as equals, building the country together after the end of the British Mandate. Palestine would be a full member of the United Nations; it might even have been allowed to enter the Eurovision song contest and won.

Had Israel been created in Wales instead, against the will of Welsh people, I might be writing in solidarity as they commemorated their trychineb (the Welsh word for “catastrophe”). Thankfully for the great Welsh people, they were spared the creation of Israel in their homeland and the expulsion of their people to neighbouring countries.

Atrocious massacres

Palestinians are again in mourning, commemorating 70 years since their catastrophe, which resulted from the creation of Israel in their homeland. They are still seeking their legitimate rights, principally their right to return home.

Many words will be written about what happened in the lead-up to, and during, the Nakba. Those seeking to justify Zionist crimes will argue that it was the victims’ fault for fleeing their homeland, rather than the reality that they were driven out, many at gunpoint, seeking refuge from Zionist Jewish terror. Yes, it was Zionist Jewish terror that deliberately drove Palestinians away from Jerusalem, Yaffa, Haifa and Akka, along with villages such as Deir Yassin and Qibya, the scenes of atrocious massacres by Zionist terrorists.

Israel continues to deny the Nakba, has legislated to punish those who commemorate it, and has denied Palestinians their rights, including the right of return

Palestinians are not the first or only people to flee for their lives. You need only look at Syrians today to see what human beings do in order to survive and to ensure the safety of their children. They take whatever possessions they can carry and run, but always with the expectation to return once the violence ends.

Nobody would deny the Syrian people their absolute right to return to the homes they left, and if they were destroyed, they would be helped to rebuild them. The outcome of what happened in 1947-48 was a catastrophe, which non-Palestinians could only truly understand if it happened to them.

Denying the Nakba

The population of my city of residence, Birmingham, is 1.1 million – almost that of the entire Palestinian population that inhabited historic Palestine in 1948. I can imagine the catastrophe that Brummies (what residents of Birmingham are lovingly called) would have felt had more than half of that population been terrorised into leaving their beloved city, with most never being allowed to return, as their homes were handed over to non-Brummies. Their lives in Birmingham would have become memories overnight, while the trauma of their dispossession would have been carried through generations.

I have no doubt that Mancunians, Geordies, Liverpudlians and Londoners would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Brummies until they were allowed to return, welcoming them into their homes as they sought refuge from their tormenters.

Israeli security forces stand guard during a protest organised by Palestinians on 10 May 2018 (AFP)

This analogy can be applied to any group of people expelled by another group. However, what is different here is that the wrong committed by Zionism, and then by Israel, has never been righted. Israel continues to deny the Nakba, has legislated to punish those who commemorate it, and has denied Palestinians their rights, including the right of return.

Israel has neither given all who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea equal rights, nor accepted the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders to end its occupation, considered illegal under international law. In fact, it denies there is an occupation in any part of historic Palestine.

Israel has annexed territories it occupies illegally, including East Jerusalem, and has sought recognition of the whole of the holy city as its capital, rather than accepting that it could be the capital of Israel and Palestine. It continues to build illegally in the occupied territories and is considering legalising outposts it has thus far considered illegal.

Demonising Palestinians

Israel has continued its siege on Gaza, now in its 11th year. It controls all access to historic Palestine, including access to the occupied territories, and has implemented a policy to deny entry to human rights activists and campaigners who have supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Having failed to silence criticism of its policies, it has cynically sought to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Most significantly, perhaps, Israel has sought to demonise Palestinians. It portrays us as a lesser people, with violence as part of our DNA – a bunch of terrorists with limited intelligence. That, to me, is the most abhorrent of all the abhorrent actions Israel has taken against us since its creation.

What is troubling is that supposedly civilised westerners who claim they fight for equality and human rights, including those holding the highest offices of state, have adopted this narrative, or at least continue to support Israel despite the facts that are there for all to see.

While people across the globe sympathise with Palestinians and understand Israel’s crimes, the political elite refuse to represent their citizens and continue to support Israel when, had its actions been committed against their own citizens or against Jews, they would not rest until it was punished.

How can anyone explain to Palestinians the stance of the US in recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s, but not Palestine’s, capital? How can western leaders support Israel’s claim to self-defence when it kills and maims thousands of Palestinians in major wars against Gaza, or the daily trickle of killings in the West Bank?

International silence

The world’s silence as Israeli snipers used sophisticated weapons, including some supplied by the West, to pick off Palestinian civilians one by one as they marched to return home through the Gaza border has been deafening. The silence in the face of the deaths and injuries of medics and journalists has been particularly galling.

I remind all who are interested in peace in historic Palestine that we did not choose our occupiers. They chose Palestine, knowing it was not an empty land, but one that had a people – my people, Palestinians who have paid with their land, lives and rights.

The families that hailed from Najd would walk home, given a chance to do so, as would the families hailing from dozens of other ethnically cleansed villages in the Gaza district

Seventy years after the Nakba, Palestinians decided they could not wait any longer. Enough is enough. It was time to go home, and that was the reason for the Great Return March. If the refugees did go home, Gaza would no longer be the most densely populated place on earth; its population of two million would fall to 400,000, as 80 percent of its residents are refugees from other parts of historic Palestine.

They would not need large sums of money to be repatriated. They could simply walk to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948.

The Palestinians want to return in a climate of peace. It is in their interest and would be in compliance with UN Resolution 194. The existing residents would also need help to accept justice and 194. In most cases the houses were demolished and other houses built on their site. Clearly, negotiations  would need to take place to find a long term resolution that both sides agree to.

Take the example of Najd, a village just 14km north of Gaza City, whose population of 700 Palestinians was expelled in May 1948 by the Negev Brigade. Its inhabitants fled to Gaza. On its land, the Israelis built Sderot, a town that now has a population of 24,000.

Israeli officials take foreign dignitaries to show them the remains of “rockets” fired from Gaza that landed in or around the town, but they do not mention that they are actually standing on land that was once Najd, before it was ethnically cleansed of Palestinians.

The families that hailed from Najd would walk home, given a chance to do so, as would the families hailing from dozens of other ethnically cleansed villages in the Gaza district.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). He appears regularly in the media as a commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwash. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A girl raises a Palestinian flag as a boy holds a wooden key symbolising return at the Gaza border on 13 May 2018, during a demonstration commemorating the Nakba (AFP)

Interview: Palestinians in Europe hold annual conference

I took part in the Sun will Rise programme for Press Tv which was broadcast on 4/5/2018

Interview: Update Gaza return marches

I was interviewed by Shafiq Morton for drive time on Voice of the Cape Radio, South Africa on 4/5/2018

You can listen below

 

UNRWA, the US Embassy move and the Israeli occupation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/4/2018

Gazan's gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA's funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

Gazan’s gather outside the UN offices in Gaza to protest US cuts to UNRWA’s funding, on January 28, 2018 [Mohammad Asad / Middle East Monitor]

This will be remembered as the year when the United States of America broke with the international consensus by moving its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognising the Holy City as the capital of Israel. The deliberate timing of the move to coincide with next month’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in historic Palestine —the Nakba (Catastrophe) — has angered Palestinians whose faith in the US as an honest broker in the peace process has always been low but is now non-existent.

Palestinian anger has been fuelled further by the Trump administration’s removal of references to Palestinian land captured by Israel in 1967 as “occupied” from its latest annual human rights report. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017” broke with previous policy by changing the section on the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine from “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza”. At a stroke, the US State Department has removed reference to the occupation of any land taken by force by Israel in 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

US threats of aid cuts - Cartoon [Arabi21News]

It is rather ironic that the report still claims: “Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Such a change runs counter to international law. Washington’s alleged commitment “to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty” can certainly not be seen as applying to the Palestinian people.

This US administration is chipping away shamelessly at the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, which they have demanded for 70 years. Trump claims to have taken Jerusalem off the table, that there is no occupation and that the settlements are no longer referred to as “illegal”. This leaves just one more issue to take off the table, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 194 in which it resolved that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

OPINION: The Middle East Quartet still includes the US, so can it still play a role in the peace process?

There are now 5.5 million Palestinian refugees clinging to this right; the Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of them marching peacefully to the border area in Gaza to reaffirm it. While they wait for that right to be implemented, they continue to be supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was established in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for “Palestine refugees in the Near East”. UNRWA began its operations on 1 May 1950 and its services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict. They are delivered in the main countries where the Palestinian refugees continue to live: the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, UNRWA provides services to refugees who make up 80 per cent of the population.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. It also receives some core funding from the regular budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

READ: UNRWA gets cash injection after US cuts

The agency is facing a funding crisis, exacerbated by the US decision to cut its contribution. In January, the State Department announced that it was withholding $65m out of its $125m interim aid package earmarked for UNRWA stating that “additional US donations would be contingent on major changes” by the agency.

When asked what major changes the US Administration asked of UNRWA to continue its funding, the official spokesman was unable to point to specific requirements. Speaking at a meeting in the British parliament organised by the Palestinian Return Centre, Chris Gunness expressed the agency’s surprise at the defunding given that last November US officials had praised UNRWA’s high impact, accountability and flexibility.

The PRC meeting looked at Britain’s relationship with UNRWA. Gunness praised the government’s ongoing financial support but then set out the problems that the agency is facing, which he described as an “unprecedented financial and existential crisis.” He told the meeting that the Trump administration is actually “defunding UNRWA to the tune of $305 million” having only paid $60m in January when $360m was expected. Despite having already started to procure food and non-food items in the expectation of receiving the full amount from the US, UNRWA was told by the State Department that no more would be forthcoming.

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Gunness described the scale of UNRWA’s work in numbers: it educates 525,000 children, for example, 270,000 of whom are in Gaza. Its health projects offer 9 million patient consultations a year. It employs 33,000 people, including 22,000 teachers and education staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees themselves; this gives a huge boost to the economy in Palestinian refugee camps. It also supports small-scale projects through micro finance. “UNRWA is not a light bulb you can turn on or off,” insisted Gunness. “You cannot just offer a third of an education to half a million children.”

UNRWA’s resources have been stretched by the crisis in Syria, the spokesman pointed out. Additional needs have been generated by the 150,000 Palestinian refugees who were among more than half a million living in Syria to flee to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Gunness warned that even after the recent Rome conference which sought to raise $466 million for UNRWA, only $110m was raised, including $50m from Qatar alone. Although Saudi Arabia subsequently pledged another $50 million, the agency only has sufficient funds to see it through to July of this year.

The real problem, he said, is the lack of a political solution; this is a conversation that the donor community “is not prepared to have. They seem to believe dialogue about reform somehow replaces it, but it does not. Their focus continues to be on how efficient UNRWA is in delivering its services and the rising costs.” The costs are rising, he added, because there has been 70 years of unaddressed dispossession and 50 years of occupation. “That is what drives the bill up. There are more and more refugees because there is an unresolved political plight and the children of refugees have become refugees.” This “protracted refugee situation” also applies to UNHCR.

When asked what would happen to the refugees if UNRWA collapsed, Gunness said, “Palestinian refugees are human beings with rights.” Those rights do not disappear if UNRWA is not around. “Their options will remain as integration wherever they are, third country repatriation or repatriation, which means going home.” He confirmed that the preferred remedy for dealing with refugees by UNHCR is the right of return in that it produces the most stable outcome.

READ: 100 days since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the facts

Speaking at the same meeting, Oxford-based Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi warned that the US defunding of UNRWA is designed to “dismantle it”. Professor Nabulsi argued that UNRWA was created by the UN following the “dismantlement of our country and destruction of our society” under its watch. “It was,” she reminded the audience, “initially meant to exist for 6 months to a year but with the passing of time, it had become ‘stabilised’.”

The current crisis, she insisted, is more extreme than those previously, “because it goes at the heart of who we are as a people and that we are a people.” UNRWA, she said, “is the only institution that recognises our inalienable rights and our status as refugees and the obligation of the UN to uphold those and protect us. Its demise would be like you have wiped us off the face of the earth.”

She contrasted the reaction to Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem with the UNRWA funding cut. There was pushback by the international community, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, against the embassy move. “The attack on UNRWA, however, has happened very quietly. Not many people understand it or see how important it is.”

Nabulsi reminded the audience that the US Embassy move, the siege on Gaza and other Israeli policies are classic settler-colonialism, which the Palestinians have experienced for a century. “Colonialism displaces the people and sets up a new country instead. It is a process not an event.”

Nevertheless, Professor Nabulsi finished by sharing a reason for optimism. “Because it is an ongoing event, we have a chance to stop it,” she pointed out. “It is not over.”

Interview: Israel’s violent response to Friday protests by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is gradually drawing international reactions.

I was interviewed by On the News Line for Press TV, which was transmitted on 16/4/2018

Palestine- Israel two-state solution is off the rails

First published by the Arab Weekly on 15/4/2018

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Another brick in the wall. A 2016 file picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during an inauguration ceremony of Hahemek rail line. (AP)

Early in his administration, US President Donald Trump stated that he would support whatever the parties agreed to in relation to a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was a major departure for the United States, which had consistently stated that the two-state solution was the only way to achieve peace. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had argued in December 2016 that if Israel’s choice was “one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic. It cannot be both.”

During the 2015 election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised there would be “no Palestinian state under his watch.” His coalition partners agree either implicitly or explicitly that the two-state solution is not on the table, particularly following Trump’s election and the formation of a US negotiating team that is wholly pro-Israeli, both in tone and in action.

The Trump administration is still working on the “ultimate deal” that it claims will be difficult for both Palestinians and Israelis to accept. The undertones to the Palestinians are that this will be for “implementation, not negotiation.”

The United States angered Palestinians by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the agency tasked with delivering services to Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with the US team, arguing the United States cannot be an honest peace broker having made these two critical decisions. However, his efforts to convince other countries or the European Union to take a lead and his call for an international peace conference to take place in mid-2018 have not borne fruit.

The Great March of Return has seen tens of thousands of Palestinians camp and demonstrate on the Gaza border with Israel calling for implementation of their right of return, which the Israelis met with violence, killing tens of protesters and injuring thousands.

Israel refuses to allow the refugees to return, 70 years since UN Resolution 194 giving them this right was adopted. The Gaza march has highlighted the Palestinian refugee problem to the US team, making it clear that, unless the issue is resolved, there will be no peace, whether in one or two states.

The Palestinian leadership clings to the two-state solution despite the ever-increasing number of settlements and settlers in the West Bank. Israel is making it impossible to achieve. It is expanding settlements and key members of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, have called for annexing the West Bank.

In any case, Israel has been acting as if it has sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its latest project demonstrates this clearly. Reports claim that it is starting construction of a railway that would cross into occupied territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The three-phase project would see the railway established on 200 hectares of land. Palestinian agricultural land, trees and water sources would be destroyed in the process. The plan includes building 11 West Bank railways with a length of 475km and 30 stations, some of which would be in illegal settlements.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation condemned the Israeli government for the project.

It is likely that the plan would encourage further settlement construction, as housing in illegal colonies is generally cheaper than it is in Israeli towns and cities. This, together with fast railway connections, would lead to more Israelis residing in illegal settlements. Their opportunities for interaction with the Palestinians would be further limited because it is not clear how Israeli security concerns would be addressed to allow Palestinians to use the railway.

Going further, Reuters reported that Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently proposed linking Israel’s freight network with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a project he presented to Trump Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt. He claimed this could benefit the Palestinians “If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost,” he said.

Whatever the real motives, the outcome would be an entrenchment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and an erosion of the last possibilities for a Palestinian state.

Israel claims it does not want to see one state emerge as a long-term solution to the conflict. However, these projects are a clear indication that it is creating a one-state reality that can either mean equal rights for all in one state or an apartheid state in which Jewish Israelis dominate Palestinians. It is derailing the two-state solution.