By: Dr. Aref Assaf
Note: I wrote this piece in 2011 marking the 63rd anniversary of the Palestinian “Nakba” or expulsion from their homeland. While little has changed to erase the memory of what was lost, much has happened to ensure its flame never goes out. I share a rare video of a family elder’s recollection of our now destroyed village.
The upcoming sixty-third anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel does not call for celebration. Rather, for an honest assessment of the consequences and manner in which the state was created. The creation of the state was the single event that led to the ongoing hostility between Arabs and Israelis. Which led to the instability of the Middle East region, a humanitarian crisis, but above all the continuation of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
Every year on May 15, we as Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (“the catastrophe”), the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds and thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. In 1948 more than 60 percent of the total Palestinian population was expelled. More than 530 Palestinian villages were depopulated and completely destroyed. To date, Israel has prevented the return of approximately six million Palestinian refugees. Approximately 300,000 internally displaced Palestinian second-class citizens of Israel are prevented from returning to their homelands.
I am the son of a refugee. For eighteen years I lived in a one-room “home” in a refugee camp built by the United Nations in 1950. I shared my home with my eight other siblings and my parents. For me personally, the anniversary is particularly somber. My father died three years ago, after waiting and dreaming for six decades that one day he would return to his native village of Allar, West of Jerusalem. He so fondly recalled his youthful life in the village. It was his dream to return there, even be buried there.
A few years ago I wrote the following to an American Jew, Abigail Leichman, who had just announced her decision to return to her “ancestral” home in Israel. “Dear Abby, you tell us that you are returning to your ancestral home to build a nation. But what about my ancestral home in Palestine, and what about the thriving nation you will have destroyed? What about my parents’ little village of Allar which you have wiped off the face of the earth in 1948, rendering its 450 inhabitants refugees for over five decades? My parents still hold the key to their now non-existent homestead but which remains vividly alive in their dreams and prayers. Nothing is left of Allar (you renamed it Matta) which you obliterated in October 1948. Only the lone one-room school remains standing and intact as a memorial to its past. You have turned the school, the place where my parents learned their alphabet, into a stable for animals. The natural spring that ran through the village is all but covered with garbage and the refuse of poultry. When I last visited Allar, in 2005, its new occupants confessed to not knowing what really happened to Allar’s original owners. How will you answer your victims?” Abigail Leichman never responded.
The memory of Palestine that was my father’s burden is now mine to bear. He left us no money but the endless love for our homeland. It was an inheritance I will pas on to my children lest they forget from where we all came. My father’s legacy also includes my inalienable right to return to my homeland, Palestine, which has been affirmed by the UN Resolution 194 over 115 times since 1948. Most importantly, the Right of Return is not substituted or affected in any way by the establishment of a Palestinian state in any form. My Right of Return must be recognized by Israel irrespective of my ability or desire to exercise it or seek compensation thereof. Israel’s moral, political and physical salvation hinges on its readiness to accept the full moral, political and financial obligations the Catastrophe has brought unto the Palestinians.
The right of the Palestinian refugees and the uprooted right to return to their homes is a fundamental right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is an inalienable right. This right follows from the sanctity of private ownership, which cannot be extinguished by new sovereignty or occupation and has no expiration date. It is according to this principle that European Jews claimed successfully the restitution of their lost property in World War II. All without the benefit of a single UN resolution. The Right of Return is essentially my right as an individual which cannot be delegated, reduced or nullifies by any representation on my behalf.
Sixty-three years later, Israel and Palestine are consumed in violence. Innocent Palestinians and Israelis are both dying in the conflict. The United States contributes to the violence by providing unconditional military and economic aid to Israel. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues to spiral out of control. While the majority of Palestinians live in abject poverty. Israel continues collective punishment of the Palestinian population through the military occupation of Palestinian land. The collective punishment includes home demolitions, expansion of illegal outposts and settlements, barriers and walls, blocked access to medical care, checkpoint and the targeting of the civilian population.
Celebrating Israel’s creation on Arab land represents a questionable morality that from any ethical perspective renders these celebrations unacceptable. First, they never mention the terrible fact that Israel came into being and is intrinsically linked to the dispossession of the indigenous Arab population. Who now compromise the world’s oldest and largest refugee population. This anniversary cannot be celebrated in a vacuum. Rather at a moment during which Israel is one of the states that systematically violates the basic rules of international law, humanitarian law, and human rights, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice.
Israel’s ongoing denial of Palestinian rights and unconditional US financial and diplomatic support for Israel only fuels the anti-American sentiment abroad. America’s blind support for Israel has been the main objective of the AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Despite its claims, Israel has been a huge liability for the US and has made America’s foreign policy disliked all around the world. Public opinion surveys conducted in eight Arab countries have shown that “the negative perception of the United States is based on American policies, not a dislike of the West.” The same polls showed that “the Palestinian issue was listed by many Arabs among the political issues that affect them most personally.” Resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue would undoubtedly improve America’s international image by, providing the US government supports the consistent application of the international law. As the Arab Spring unfolds and dictators are deposed, the views of the Arab street will invariably dictate a sea change policy transformation. A shift that is deeply supportive of Palestinian national aspirations. Just a couple of days ago, Egypt has unleashed a one million man demonstration declaring the centrality of the Palestinian struggle in the overall Arab masses’ march toward freedom.
On May 15th, I will join my fellow Palestinians and their supporters, miles apart, and through the social media. All who will be marching in and around the historic land of Palestine, to let the world know that Palestine still lives on. It shall be known as the “third intifada”. Here in New Jersey, I will take refuge while the Dalai Lama visits New Jersey. I pray his words of wisdom, peace and compassion will provide temporary relief and solace. To AIPAC I say, stop defrauding the American taxpayer. I do not wish to foot the bill for my own misery. And after all, since my taxes are paying for Israel’s intransigence, I demand my money back.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.
Below is a rare interview with Mr. Hasan Assaf, a family elder who was born in Allar in 1929 and lived through the 1948 Nakba. He recalls in Arabic the history, geography and people of Allar.
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