Palestinians Talk about Return
Symposium at Zochrot's Exhibition Towards the Return of Palestinian Refugees
06/10/2011

Transcribed in Hebrew by Amaya Galili, October 6, 2011
English version by Ami Asher

Eitan Bronstein:  
Tonight is dedicated to the Palestinian talk about the return of Palestinian refugees – quite a phenomenal event in Tel Aviv. This is not an internal Palestinian discussion, but one held in a largely Hebrew-speaking environment. The speakers will share with us their thoughts about return.

Sami Abu-Shehade, member of Zochrot and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipal Council:
Usually, when people talk about Palestinian refugees the discussion revolves around concepts such as "right", or international resolutions. However, the context in which we talk about how this right is to be realized is hardly ever discussed in Palestinian society, and certainly not in Israeli society. Strangely enough, the only two occasions in which I have spoken about this subject were in Tel Aviv, as part of Zochrot activities. The first time was several years ago in a conference organized by Zochrot at Zionist of America House (ZOA), and the second is today.
Several years ago, Prof. Sari Nusseibeh argued that the issue of the refugees should be carried over from the realm of dreams and feelings to the realm of reality, and he asked how this could happen. This made many Palestinians angry at him – how come he's giving up the Right of Return?
I am a tour guide in Jaffa. Before the Second Intifada I conducted several tours with refugees from Yaffa who now live in Gaza. One time, one of the participants – a very old man – having already spent two hours in the tour, and it was a hot August day to boot, asked me, "Tell me, Sami, when will we arrive in Yaffa?" (audience laughing) I told him we have already spent two hours in Yaffa and asked him why he was asking. He said that the way he remembered it, Jaffa is full of orchards and he saw none in the Yaffa we were touring in. This was the Jaffa of his memories.
In another tour, a refugee daughter managed to locate her father's house by counting trees in Jerusalem Boulevard, in Al-Nuzha neighborhood, but would not come inside. She said that maybe, when there would be nobody living there, she would by the house and enter. Now she was unwilling to.
These people arrive in Yaffa, which is not the town of their memories and dreams. The refugees who'll return will by necessity be a minority in the Jaffa and Tel Aviv area. This is because all of the townships around Yaffa – Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Rishon Letzion, Holon, Ramat Gan and Givatayim – are populated exclusively by members of the Jewish race. Many of the refugees hate the Jews. Therefore, in order for the Return to actually take place, it is critical for both sides to get to know one another.
In order for the refugees to return to a shared space, the Palestinians are required to recognize the Jews' right to live here – to ask themselves what rights the Jews have, as a collective, in the Land of Palestine. This is something I believe must be done before the Return. I do not know how to answer that question, but it's essential for us as a people to think about it. The way things are, I see nobody discussing it.
As for the economic aspect, when the refugees return they will have all the problems of migrants, no matter where they come from. There will be masses of people migrating to a space totally different from what they have been accustomed to, and they will have to adjust to this space. It is reasonable to expect that they would receive some kind of economic compensation, and that they would arrive as a population whose immigration would be economically worthwhile. The country will have no difficulty assimilating them.
Regarding education – today there are already diverse education systems in Israel. At present, the state education system and both the Jewish and Arab identities are very much based on the conflict and on an "us-versus-them" rhetoric. When the refugees return to Yaffa, a new education system will have to be established, and perhaps one of the issues that would require attention would be helping the future Jewish minority maintain its identity.
The Return will have far-reaching consequences. The Palestinians do not expect to be a minority in their homeland, but now that we're discussing this solution seriously, there are millions of Jews here. What will happen to those who are not accustomed to live with the Israelization? How will a Palestinian inured to living in a constant state of conflict be able to move to Yaffa and live with the enemy?

Eitan:
Sami posed important questions in terms of future planning. In Zochrot, we would like to find more answers to such questions through planning and learning activities. In order to try and plan with the inspiration of the projects presented in the exhibition and tonight's speakers, we are creating a group for planning the Return to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area. This binational group will work over a period of almost a year, facilitated by myself and Omar. Another group composed exclusively of Jews will start working soon on learning and planning for Return and will hold three meetings. Everyone is welcome to join these projects and we will also be glad to receive written comments on the exhibition.

Hannah Farah, Kafr Bir'im, second-generation displaced person, artist and architect:
My father was born in Kafr Bir'im. I am Kafr Bir'im. I am still there – to the point I've changed my name in the ID and formally added the village name to it. Return happens every day within me, therefore my name is also the name of my place, so that maybe I could go on living with a stronger attachment to my land. The house in the slide that you see here – my father was born in it.
This is how it looks today, in ruins. After the expulsion my father wanted to return. There were court decisions mandating Return, but the IDF prevented this from occurring. I therefore decided I'm not asking anyone whether to return – I'm returning. And Return is part of a model I've created, showing how to build the village and bring it back to life. A place within which I exist, germinate, so to speak, a place I have to return to life. This involves coping with all the load of stories and pictures of this place. But time is stronger – the power of life, perhaps.
In this  photo, you can see me sitting in this house, perhaps helpless, perhaps thinking how to be more active. This architectural project is a concept originated by several people, including Hila (Lulu) Lin, of how to resuscitate this place. One idea was to host people there. Among the hosts were people who are no longer amongst us, but are there. Life in the middle, surrounded by the dead.
What will the next generation do? This is a photo of me and my son Fuad in the same house. My son is named after my father and he continues in our path.

Muhammad Jabali, poet and activist in Jaffa:
Sami's words encouraged me, I thought it would be a good idea for the refugees to return to a country which already has a Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. (laughter)
I don't know where to start presenting and I'm not sure about the practical relevance of the idea of Return. All the problems mentioned here are very real. I tried to picture 750,000 people trying to go back to live in Jaffa, and it's simply inconceivable. Where will they return to?
One of the strangest experiences I had this year was leaving a pub in Tel Aviv at five am in the morning, and telling the taxi driver to take me to Ajami. He started driving and then started laughing – he said, you talk like the old people, 50 years have gone by and you're the first young person to tell me to drive to Ajami and not to Jaffa. And then on the way there he told me that he had been born in Manshiye, a Jew. I never realized that Jews also lost their homes in Manshiye. He was form a mixed Jewish-Arab family living in Manshiye, and their house was destroyed [in 1948] in bombings by the [Jewish militant organization] Irgun, and they escaped to Tel Aviv and lived there as Jews.
We imagine the huge urban space that used to be Jaffa only as two neighborhoods. We should perhaps try to imagine this space as a containing space. If we try imagining this situation in science-fictional terms, an alien without any knowledge of who occupied what and what came instead of what, if he should look at the city as a single unit, it would be fairly clear to him where the Old City is. At first, he would be free of the political load and the memories. Jaffa would be simply Tel Aviv's Old City. Tel Aviv has no Old City. Jaffa is the source of the urbanity we are now experiencing. We are now in Jaffa, but in a voyage of time-leaps, with worlds being transformed on the way. Tel Aviv could be an extension of Jaffa urbanity, if you don’t notice the skip in the middle.
Particularly over the last 20 years, Palestinian nationality has been increasingly focused on Palestinian urbanity. Until then, Jaffa used to be just a memory, without a living, urban aspect to it. The Palestinian redemption was always conceived of through the villages. In my own developing political awareness, "Palestinian refugees" simply meant the 500 destroyed villages. There is no experience of a Palestinian town, there's nothing to compare to nowadays. There's no way of imagining a Palestinian urbanity. We can only speculate, there's no reference point. There's Ramallah, which is a very closed city without connections with the outside world – the decision whether to close or open is not its own to make. Its entire economic system is operated by American funds. In cities inside Israel there's no Palestinian urbanity – living together, yes or no, gentrification, house demolitions, ongoing Nakba – many things, but no Palestinian urbanity. We have no way of picturing a Palestinian urbanity which also has the potential of evolving. Where could a Palestinian living here experience the intimacy/alienation of a Palestinian urban space? Thanks to Jaffa, Tel Aviv is the only urban space in historic Palestine.
It is a bit odd to think about it this way, in the context of the Return to Jaffa, that the refugees' fear of the dispossessors who have occupied the city is what's so scary about the Return. I would like to focus on this dimension rather than on the political identity of the returners. There is plenty of urban fear, the civilization fears those who come from the outside, which is more of an urban bourgeoisie which would rather not rethink society and its systems. Petit-bourgeois discomfort of the idea of barbarians coming from outside and shaking things up.
Return is already here. I don't think Return will significantly change the nature of the existing urban space. There are already Palestinian refugees living in Tel Aviv. There are 1,500 [Palestinian] students in the university – I bet 200 of them are refugees. There are plenty of invisible, inaudible Palestinians living in Tel Aviv. There are many refugees in Tel Aviv without this being their formal address. My own formal address is in Taibe, but Tel Aviv is my urban space. If the poorest refugees return, worse come to worst we'll have another Shapira and Levinski [inner city neighborhoods] on our hands. And if the rich return, we'll have another New York.

Sandi Hilal, architect and artist, Beit Sahour:
I would like to present to you my own take on the Palestinians and how they view Return nowadays. In one of our discussions, Alexandro (my partner) asked me how Return would look like. I often say the words "Right of Return" and suddenly I realized that I have no image of actual Return. I pictured it like in the Wild West. All the Palestinians returning in the same instant, on horses with flags, to the place they were deported from. Actually, I scared myself with that image, and started thinking how the Israelis and the rest of the world would be overwhelmed with fear if I picture it this way. This is how I realized that I myself have adopted the Zionist way of thinking about Return, and that we, the Palestinians, actually also conceive of Return as a frightening prospect.
We are not developing our thinking about how Return would look like or be realized. Perhaps this would cause me problems later on, and Palestinians still don't manage to imagine and have a clear image of Return because of the trauma we have undergone. Because the moment you begin to picture Return, this means that perhaps we're accepting reality for what it is. The only image of Return we have right now is what the world and Israel have created for us. We have no illustration, no imagery of Return.
How to Palestinians conceive of strategies for Return? The first strategy was how the Palestinians built the first houses in the refugee camps. Do we build a roof or not? For many years, many Palestinians avoided building roofs so that others would not think they are resigned to the fact of living in a refugee camp. We want to live like refugees whose home is elsewhere. Palestinians have been afraid of losing the appearance of refugeehood. They told themselves: let us remain in this sorry state so that the world would recognize us as refugees. This way the world would take us on a plane back to Palestine.
When you come to a refugee camp, you see the talented and creative people there. When you ask them why they built swimming pools and the Phoenix [cultural center] in the Deheishe Refugee Camp, the first answer is that it's just temporary and that it would all be demolished when they return. They will demolish the Phoenix and return to their village and sleep under the olive tree. When I asked them, Why not build the Phoenix in their own village, they began imagining this possibility.
We have to take into account the fact that the refugees are experiencing two traumas – one is the Nakba. The other is that as a refugee, you have to be constantly ashamed of what you have managed to achieve in the years since the Nakba. You tend to think that in order to return you have to erase 60 years of diaspora. I think the two must be connected – displacement and diaspora.
A good friend of ours, Sari Hanafi, once asked his father – a Palestinian refugee living in Syria – whether he would like to return. His father replied, What would I do there? I don't know any Hebrew, I have no work there. I like living in Syria, I like the neighbors and the way of life here. After two minutes a journalist entered and asked the same question, upon which the father immediately replied, Sure, of course I'd return. I don't like living in Syria.
It's a matter of recognizing the right, as well as recognizing what they've achieved over the past sixty years.

Jabali: You must put an end to the diaspora. The right to be here – that's the basic desire.
Abu-Shehade: Most Palestinians have managed to create new lives for themselves. To them, Return means a Second Nakba. We usually don't think rationally about Return. I think the number of Palestinians who would really be interested in Return is negligible. Suppose the psychological interest in this conflict is over. This would be the significant think. It would be difficult for us – the activist industry gone, the military, Hamas, all gone. People will become disoriented. Because we are all used to living in the conflict, we are all soldiers, we all keep discussing politics. I don't know what we would do with the education system when the enemy is gone. First we must think about the Other as non-enemy. It is difficult to imagine this conflict-free reality.
Noa (from the audience): One of our main problems is that we are stuck with conflicted categories – Jews versus Arabs. We need a different political imagination and different categories. Secondly, it's a situation in which the colonialist entity would have to disappear as a political entity. And this is extremely frightening for Jews in Israel. They are attached to their privileges. We must discuss how to decolonize the state. The Zionist state will have to disappear as a political entity.
Jabali: Our entire discussion revolves around political imagination. You cannot imagine Return without imagining an open space. If the refugees were free to move in space they would have been be able come and visit. But they can't, because of all the political powers in the region. The question is who owns the land and what local connection and identity the people who live here have. I often think that one solution is for everyone to have two passports. Without considering this problem, it's impossible to think about Return, because somebody else will always be excluded and prevented from moving, from passing.

Abu-Shehade: All Jews killing Palestinians, who are in the military, will be part of local society after Return. They exist, although I'm not too fond of their culture. A serious political discussion would have to recognize their rights – the Jews' rights – as a community, in this place. They exist. We only take the Palestinians' rights into account, but the Jewish national group must also be attended to.
Farah: Let us ask the opposite question – what happens if all Palestinians want to return? Would the Jews want to stay?

Audience: Why are you only discussing nation-states? If we're talking about political imagination, why remain stuck on nation-states?

Hilal: In the group I'm working with, we often consider this question. We started off by thinking about decolonizing the West Bank, and then we asked ourselves what would happen if the entire historic Palestine is decolonized. This thinking process would enable us to imagine the future decolonized political entity from the refugees' point of view.
Abu-Shehade: Today's Palestinian identity is that the Palestinian has to suffer. It's a diverse community that has something of everything. We are all talking as if the refugees are a uniform entity, but this is not the case.

Boris (from the audience): There's tension here between the desire to convince Israelis [Jews] that it's not so bad, it's possible, that the country would not be flooded by peasants. That's one strategy. Another is to arrive at the border and create facts on the ground.

Buthaina Dabbit (from the audience): I would like to share my feelings about Return. When Omar called me and asked me to talk tonight, I was infuriated by the idea of thinking about Return when we're actually fighting over the right to stay here every day. I think we have good reason to fear and we have to face reality rather than talk about Return so lightly. Facebook has opened a world that the state had closed for us. For example, in Jordan there's a 25 year-old who's developed a model for Return to Lydda. For the first time I'm able to talk to refugees from Jordan, from Lebanon, and as long as there's an entity which deports and threatens and occupies, Return and my civil rights and a Palestinian State – it's all one package. If we are here we have to take responsibility and say, Enough bloodshed! As Palestinians in Israel, it is our fate to be poor and destitute. All we want is to feel part of a normal world, where you can easily drive to Jordan and Amman whenever you wish.

Aviv Gross-Alon (from the audience): Educational and cultural work can change reality. As a colonialist I can think about how I can stop being a colonialist, join the seminar and plan the Return which is not a voyage back through time but rather a process which takes the passage of time into account, which I consider to be a decolonizing action. It's part of creating a new culture.

Jabali: First, you must try to convince yourself that Return is not a catastrophe, before you try convincing the Israelis [Jews] of that fact. When Israelis visualize this "catastrophe", they see the Palestinians gaining and the Israelis losing. There are all kinds of catastrophes and you must take this into account. When the dream is broken down into realities, it's not so exciting. It's extremely complex.

Halal: A few days ago I asked some Palestinian refugees what would be the slogan they would right on a placard. They said: "We want to go to the sea".

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