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Tel Aviv conference plans for Palestinian return


(MaanImages/Ali Mawassi)

By Alex Shams         6 October 2013         Maan News

TEL AVIV (Ma'an) -- There are few topics that scare the Israeli public more than the potential realization of the Palestinian Right of Return. Israel’s New Historians increasingly acknowledge that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a direct result of a planned ethnic cleansing that led to the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians from 530 villages. 

And yet there continues to be a wide-reaching, unspoken consensus across Israeli society that the return of the displaced indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of what became Israel and their descendants, today numbering around 4.5 million around the world, is not up for discussion.

As prominent Israeli columnist Gideon Levy asserted last Sunday in Tel Aviv, "Organizing a conference on the Right of Return is considered to be illegitimate by most Israelis. But we shouldn’t be afraid of that ... Let me remind all of us that we had demons in our past just as scary that evaporated over the years … Now that we have gotten rid of earlier demons, we’re left with this demon that no one deals with: the Right of Return."

It is precisely for this reason that the conference organized by Israeli organization Zochrot Sept. 29-30 at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv was so ground-breaking. Entitled, “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of the Palestinian Refugees,” it was one of the largest conferences to take place to date inside of Israel addressing the Palestinian Right of Return.

The conference aimed not merely to insist upon the legitimacy of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, but also to examine in practice how such a return would take place. Because of Israel’s refusal to accept this right, a great deal of Palestinian discourse until recently has focused exclusively on insisting upon the legitimacy and necessity of return. 

But if we accept the right as legitimate, a whole other host of questions emerge: Where will the refugees live? What kind of state will emerge? How will Palestinian society-in-exile re-emerge within the homeland? And finally, how will Jewish Israeli society come to terms with their new position in a state where they do not have a position of ethnic supremacy? 

The conference builds on increasing momentum within Israel’s borders by Palestinian activists actively materializing the Right of Return. Israel is home to tens of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced from their villages in 1948 but remained inside the new state’s borders. Many of these communities ended up as refugees only mere miles from their original villages but were forbidden to return by the State of Israel.

In summer 2012, young Palestinian refugees originally from Iqrit returned to their mostly destroyed village and set up permanent residence. In response, Palestinians within Israel from other villages have also begun returning to their villages. Despite intense pressure from the Israeli state they have remained steadfast and present, refusing to be displaced from their ancestral lands yet again. 

As Khulood Badawi, a Palestinian activist inside Israel, argued, “We need to take the model of Iqrit to other areas. We need to raise awareness by saying that we cannot just talk about the global Right of Return if we are not implementing Right of Return within Israel, while there are still displaced Palestinians here within Israel.” 

Badawi stressed that the displaced Palestinians within Israel must use the advantages at their disposal, primarily citizenship rights and the ability to return to their displaced villages, to lead the way by showing Israelis, Palestinians, and the whole world that in fact return is possible. As she argued, “We cannot realize the global Right of Return without achieving the Right of Return of those displaced Palestinians within Israel.”


Zochrot director Liat Rosenberg told attendees that, “Return is a long and ongoing multifaceted process that includes not only physical return of refugees, but also the establishment of an actual society. It begins long before they come, and it will continue long after.” The conference thus addressed not only how return would take place, but also how Jewish Israeli society would come to accept it. 

Zochrot has long been actively committed to challenging the collective, willed amnesia of many Jewish Israelis toward 1948. As conference organizers prominently reminded the audience throughout, the Eretz Israel Museum where the conference took place sits atop the destroyed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwannis, official recognition for which Zochrot continues to fight. At the same time, as various panelists noted, Israeli Jewish society needs to understand that Palestinian return and decolonization does not entail Jewish ethnic cleansing.

The conference challenged both Israelis and Palestinians to rethink their ideas of return, offering complex visions of possibilities rarely discussed or even imagined. As some speakers noted, “return” means something different for every Palestinian refugee. While some may actually desire to return to their physical homes, others desire the ability to live anywhere in their homeland free from Israeli discrimination. Others crave merely the recognition of the historical crimes committed against them. 

Palestinian architect and activist Shadi Habib Allah stressed that many Palestinians do want to return to their villages, and planning the geography of that return is of the utmost necessity. He presented architectural plans for the village center of al Lajun, offering a physical vision of return that “honored emotions,” as he explained through its innovative use of traditional Palestinian village design and notions of communal living. At the same time, the village offered a modern vision that would not insist upon a return to the path but hinted instead at a brighter future.

There are as many ideas of return as there are Palestinian refugees, a flexibility conference attendees frequently acknowledged. The decolonization of Israeli space through imagining Palestinian return means not returning to what was, but instead building a shared geographic future. And while the Israeli taboo on discussing the Palestinian Right of Return may not have been definitively shattered in these two days, that the conference even took place is a hopeful sign for the future.

As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy reminded the audience, "Treating (return) as something that should not be mentioned only exacerbates the problem … the only way to deal with it is first and foremost to talk about it."







From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees
September 29-30, 2013
The conference is over and it was a huge success! It took place as planned, despite attempts to prevent it, at the Rothschild Auditorium on the campus of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, which was built on the lands of the Palestinian village of Al-Shaykh Muwannis. Some 400 people attended the two-day conference. It was broadcast live on the Internet and viewed by some 750 people from all around the world. Tens of thousands of people were exposed to posts uploaded during the conference on Facebook and Twitter. Over 25 volunteers helped with administrating and documenting the conference. Speaking in English, Hebrew and Arabic, 35 presenters - academics and activists from Palestine/Israel, as well as Canada, the US, the UK, Serbia Poland - presented their various concepts and ideas for realizing the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland and its spatial implications. 
Over the coming weeks, Zochrot will publish all the lectures, visual and textual materials presented in the conference. Videos will be uploaded starting this week, and an electronic booklet with ten texts by conference speakers will be published in mid-November. 
Click here to view some conference photos
In the meantime, you are welcome to view three visions of return which were presented in the conference and moved the audience: Planning the Future Village of al-Lajjun, Future Return to Mi'ar, and ActualReturn to Iqrit. These visions were conceived by groups of Palestinian youth living in Israel, who participated over the past year in a joint project for Zochrot, Baladna: Association for Arab Youth, Arab Association for Human Rights and the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced. 
Palestinian author Salman Natur who mediated one of the conference panels wrote the following on his Facebook page: 
"I have just returned from Tel Aviv, where I took part in a conference organized by Zochrot, an NGO which acts to promote awareness of the Nakba and disseminate information about it and about crimes against the Palestinian people in general among the Jewish public. The concepts that echoed in the auditorium were Nakba, Awda (Return), memory, displaced villages, refugees, one democratic state from the river to the sea, acknowledgement and reconciliation. About 200 people, mostly Jews, filled the auditorium. The panel I mediated included seven speakers from the US, UK, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, in addition to a video lecture by Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta who wrapped up the entire story by stating: "I was kicked out of my home, and I want to return to it". This conference is a turning point in the attempt to transform Israeli consciousness. Something's noteworthy is happening here. I recommend following up on the conference's outputs. What has been said there is priceless. In fact, I recommend all Zochrot publications. The idea of a single democratic state is increasingly taking hold in the minds of many who are honestly seeking a just peace. The one-state solution as outlined by researchers and academics who spoke in the conference sounds more realistic than the two-state solution."
The conference is also receiving ongoing attention in the media.Recent articles include: 
Gideon Levy&Alex Levak, Haaretz 
Esther Zandberg, Haaretz, on the al-Lajjun Project
The Times of Israel
Ma'an News
Tom Pessah wrote on 972 about the conference.

مؤتمر "من الحقيقة إلى التصحيح: عودة اللاجئين الفلسطينيين"