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[Interview] Remembrance of the Naqba

[Interview] Remembrance of the Naqba

On the 16 of April 2008 we had a conversation with Tal Dor and Nidal al-Azza on their work in Israel/Palestina concerning the Naqba and the palestinian refugees. Tal works in the Israeli ngo Zochrot and Nidal in the palestinian ngo Bidal. Invited bij Actieplatform Palestina (APP) and Association Belgo-Palestinienne (ABP) they visited some cities in Belgium to talk about their experiences and vision on the Naqba.

By Nick Resmann and Maaika Santana


Foto Masser

Can you explain what is meant by ‘Naqba’?
Nidal: Naqba is an Arabic word. It means catastrophe. AL Naqba is the uprooting process of Palestine, of Palestinians, which occured in 1948. In that year 800.000 Palestinians were displaced and from one day on another they became refugees. Nowadays there are more than 7.000.000 refugees. There are 59 refugee camps that are recognized. For us, the displacement of Palestinian people, and thereby the Naqba, is still ongoing.

Next month, on the 14th of May, Israel will exist sixty years. A reason to celebrate?
Tal: I think I stopped celebrating the independence day a few years ago. It was part of the change in my political awareness. The Naqba has two days. The Naqba memorial is on the 15th of May, which is the day that Israeli Palestinians –Palestinians with an Israeli identity- go to the villages and have the Naqba march. Jewish Israelis celebrate the day of independence then, but according to the Hebrew calender.
In Zochrot for the last 5-6 years we have joined the 15th of May. There’s a march that we join every year. For me and other Jewish Israelis it’s important to understand that the creation of Israel is in fact the destruction of the Palestinian people and the theft of land. This is something we don’t speak about in Israel. We don’t speak about the amount of villages that were destroyed and the amount of people that were displaced and became refugees. For me, this day is a heavy day, being part of my history. The Naqba is part of my history as well.

How is the relationship with the neighbouring countries, where a lot of refugees went to?
Nidal: In Libanon, Jordan, Syria and other countries they commomerate Naqba-day too. Most Palestinians put a black flag on their houses. They participate in demonstrations to demand the right to return.

What is the position of those countries towards the refugees?
Nidal: It differs from country to country. In Lebanon it’s the worst. There they are prohibited to practice a list of 28 jobs. For example they cannot become university teachers. In Syria their situation is better. In Jordan they have citizenship, but they still feel, after 60 years of Naqba, that they are foreigners. In Egypt they have temporary residency. They have to renew it every 6 months. More then 3 or 4 times we denounced the scandalous deplacement of the Palestinian refugees in the Gulf states. After the first war in Iraq the Palestinians were displaced from Kuwait. Now, after the US occupation in Iraq, more than 15.000 Palestinians were displaced from Iraq. There are three new camps. One on the Jordanian border and two on the Syrian-Iraqi border. In Lebanon and Jordan it happened too, in 1970 and 1971. That is the secondary movement. So their situation in other countries is unstable. However, the on going Naqba is the result of many reasons that can be summarized in the lack of humanitarian assistance and absence of protection that they are entitled to under international law and relevant resolutions.

Let’s talk about the status of refugees in international law, which is the main topic on which you’re ngo is working.
Nidal: I’m working at Badil Centre. Badil is a big Palestinian ngo. It’s mostly supported by refugees, in the West Bank and Gaza, but also from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It has contacts with the popular and social movements within the refugee camps. Badil is defending refugees rights. It deals with the right to return as a human right. It uses international, including European human rights instruments and documents. Refugees are entitled to practice their right to return. They should be restituted and compensated. These rights are assured by the resolution of the UN of 1948, resolution 194. This resolution contains those rights. Badil campaigns for this resolution to be implemented.

You mentioned that there are about 7.000.000 refugees.
Nidal: Nowadays there are more than 7.000.000 refugees, about 70% of the Palestinian population. They are the largest group of refugees over the world. Two out of five refugees worldwide is a Palestinian.

If all the Palestinian refugees get the right to return you get an inversement of the etnicity within historical Palestine: there would be more Palestinians then Israeli Jews. That’s the Israeli argument for not allowing the right to return. How do you deal with this argument?
Nidal: I think the nature of the state of Israel should be in question, not the right itself. The right is not negotiable. It’s a right. NATO, European Union and the United Nations enabled more than 12 million refugees to practice their right to return in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Columbia and other countries during the 1990s. But after six decades of Naqba, the Palestinians are still unable to practice their right to return. I agree that there would be demographic problems. I agree with that. But other countries face this problem too. I think the problem is in the nature of Israel, as a colonial and racist system. This idea of a pure Jewish state for the chosen people, containing the Jewish dominance of the state, is in my opinion inconsistent with international law, human rights and democratic principles. This issue should be in question, not the right to return in itself. In this context we believe that we can practice this right and we believe that it will be possible and practical, especially because we present it with the best solution we see: to build one democratic, secular state for its entire people. A state where people can practice their rights equally, without difference in race or religion and free of any kind of discrimination.

We will come back to possible solutions. But first maybe Tal can say something about her organization, Zochrot. What is the purpose of the organization?
Tal: Zochrot is there to introduce the Naqba to the Israeli population. The Naqba is taboo. It is not discussed. That part of our history is not part of our education, even though the Naqba is part of our daily life. You see the Naqba everywhere, but you don’t give it the name. You see the Palestinian ruins, you see fruit trees that were planted by Palestinians, but you don’t give it the name. Zochrot would like the Israeli people to acknowledge and take responsibility over their history, so that there would be reconciliation, a just solution.

Is it from the perspective that the Jewish Israeli’s also are suffering from it?
Tal: It’s less that, it’s more because it’s also our history. It’s not only the Palestinian history. It’s also a weight on our shoulders. We have to take our responsibility. Of course we believe that by ending the violence and by having one state we will suffer less. There will be less violence for everybody. And of course we see that today the occupation, and the 60 years of occupation, are not serving us. But it’s more from the perspective of taking responsibility and wanting to change your reality, wanting to live in a different reality.

How are you trying to do that in Zochrot?
Tal: We use different methods. Our main action that we continue until today, we’ve done 23 already, is that we go to the destroyed Palestinian villages and we post the name of the village. We say: here was ‘Chechmo Anes’, and we remember it. We start putting the names very visual in our landscape and in our discourse. Following that we make booklets of each village. We collect the oral history, maps, documents, and so on. There are lots of documents in the archives and in Palestinian private possess, as prove of the ownership of their houses. There are a lot of documents stating the battles that took place, documents of Israeli commanders stating what they did and how it was planned to really erase any Palestinian remembrance.

How is it welcomed if you do these kind of actions? Are people willing to listen, are they interested or do they not want to hear from it?
Tal: It’s not easy. For most people it’s very difficult. First of all, our signs usually are taken away. Sometimes quicker than other times, sometimes destroyed even. By residents. It is very difficult what we are trying to say and to bring up. Sometimes we just create a platform for people. They say “ there is a Palestinian house next to mine, I would like to learn about it. Do you have connections with refugees?” So, it is true that it is a minority but more and more people want to know. But in most cases it is very difficult.

Do you have the feeling that you stand alone in this or are there other movements in society?
Tal: Of course on the Palestinian side we have a lot of partners. With other left activist organisations. Badil was one of our first and is a big resource for us. There are other Israeli organisations that believe in the same vision as we do. We worked together for example with Mapach, which works in disempowered communities, Palestinian and Jewish. We work together to introduce and to speak about the Naqba. Also with Basjalom, with Palestinian organisations within Israel.

And do you find supporters on the political side?
Tal: We don’t work with the political parties. There is a small group of left parties, Balad, the national Palestinian party and Jadatch, the Jewish communist party. But they have a small minority. I would not say that they represent us but definitely it is the only left voice in the Israeli parliament.

Being here together is quiet a signal, a signal of dialogue and unity. You already referred to a one-state solution. Can you explain this ideal solution?
Nidal: One state, a secular democratic state, is the only solution that can stop and uproot the conflict. When we talk about the right to return and you mentioned the demographic threat to Jewish majority, we believe that it is a Zionist idea to keep the Jewish dominance of the state. Maybe in ten years the 20 percent of Palestinian population that have Israeli citizenship will be denied the right to be in such a state. Because it should be Jewish. They suffer from different kinds of discriminations only because they are Palestinians and not Jewish. So our vision is connected to the right to return.
On the other hand it is also connected to what we call the acquired rights of Jews in Palestine. With acquired rights is meant that when someone acquired something illegally after a certain period of time, he or she acquire rights providing recognition and getting others acceptance. We can recognise acquired rights, but they have to recognise what happened in the Naqba and give the refugees the right to return. After that we can establish one democratic state.
The two-state solution, Tal would you like to talk about that? (Tal laughs and says “no, you can”) I just want to say that after the completion of the wall, less then 11 % of historic Palestine would remain for Palestinians. The West Bank remains full of settlements, bypass roads (Jewish only) and checkpoints that we have to pass. So we are talking about a state of 11 percent or less of the old Palestine for all Palestinians. I want to add: who can convince the Palestinians that they have to be in one state and cannot come in the other? Their memory, culture and villages are there as well. Or who can convince the Jews to have no right to stay in Bethlehem or in Hebron, to come to these holy places?

One of the problems is the wall …
Nidal: We consider all our problems, the wall, the checkpoints, the occupation, the violations of human rights, the 11.000 prisoners, Jerusalem, the borders, the water, the electricity as interconnected. We believe that these are all the results of what happened during the Naqba. So if we really want to find a just solution we have to start with the Naqba. We have to talk about what happened with the refugees, their rights and how we can resolve the problem. After that Jerusalem won’t be a big problem. Muslims, Jews and Christians can go to pray there. These problems would become manageable.

How is this idea of a non-religious state welcomed within Israel, in the Jewish and Palestinian communities? Is their any kind of support for amongst the people?
Tal: In Israel it is still a minority. A minority that is now more and more talking and writing about it. But it is now starting to develop.

If you adopt this solution, you give up the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. Are people willing to make that sacrifice?
Tal: A small minority is. In Zochrot we speak about giving up the Jewish state and the privileges. We speak about an equal state. Yes it is difficult and it is a minority but it is beginning to be discussed. The people speaking now about one state are activist or academics. Not the politicians. We are working to make as many Israelis as possible to believe in it. To live on the land equally and not to think that the only important safety is the Jewish safety or the only way to be safe on the land is to have a military regime.

From a Palestinian point of view?
Nidal: The one state solution is welcomed by Palestinians, although I am not talking about politicians. Last year Birzeit University did a poll. The result that came out was that 81% of the Palestinians support a one-state solution. But at the same time, this 81% think Israel would not accept it, or that it would not be welcomed by the international main powers. I think the one-state solution is not welcomed by the main powers because it is not favourable for the western interests in the area. In Badil we work on this. We have 14 partners in the West Bank, 2 other partners inside Israel and one Israeli partner, Zochrot with whom we try to educate the new generation of refugees, and trying to spread this idea in the Palestinian community. Not the one, democratic state is the most difficult, but the acquired rights of Jewish people who would also be living in the one state, and therefore would enjoy equal rights. But all partners believe this process of education is working.

Do you see some reasons for optimism?
Nidal: Because of our optimism we still struggle since Naqba. We still have our dream of a one-state solution and we work to accomplish it. Because of this we sometimes find a way to manage with daily life. We participate for example in demonstrations against the wall, be a part of the campaign ‘Stop the wall’. We support prisoners and their family. It will take time, but we have an aim.

If you have an aim, you know where to go. We wish you good luck.