Unit 12. "That’s Not Something We Talk About
The right of return of Palestinian refugees

In this Unit we’ll ask what does the right of return refer to, understand what return means to Palestinian children in the Aida refugee camp, and examine what return means for us.

• Learn about historical and legal aspects of the right of return.
• Deal with the fears that arise when Israeli Jews address the issue of the right of return, and understand the source of these fears.
• Conduct a rational, practical discussion about the right of return.

Keywords: Art, The Future, Histories

1.  Introduction:
The Palestinians right of return is a central issue in every discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides view it as the heart of the conflict, and solving it seems to be a condition for solving the conflict itself.

2.  Opening questions:
-    Do you know who the Palestinian refugees are?
-    What do you think the right of return means?

To the teacher: Use the information in Supplementary Material 1 about the refugees and their right of return. Distribute it to the students on note cards, so they’ll have it handy. After the students have read the definitions, ask: What do you think about how a refugee is defined, and about what the right of return means? Do you agree with what’s written? If not, why?

- The refugee problem remains an unsolved aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The right of return is a complicated issue that leads to many arguments and arouses strong emotions, but it is important to learn about it and examine what it means for us.

3.  Reading in class:
Students will read two excerpts (cf. Supplementary Material 2). The first deals with the 1948 war and the Israeli government’s decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees while fighting continued. The second deals with international recognition of the Palestinians' right to return, and quotes Paragraph 11 of United Nations Resolution No. 194.

4.  Class discussion:
- What was the significance for the residents of the country of the decisions you read about when they were made?
- What is their significance today?
- Resolution No. 194 is central to Palestinian discourse, but most Israelis don’t know anything about it. How can you explain this difference? What do you think is the significance of recognizing the Palestinians’ right of return?
- Do you think Resolution No.194 has any significance for us, as Israelis? What?

5.  What is the Palestinian right of return?
Present “Dreams of Home”  to the class, and describe it briefly: In the summer of 2007, seventeen boys and girls from the Aida refugee camp, located between Bethlehem and Beit Jala, participated in a project run by the Lajee community center and photographer Rich Wiles. The initial purpose of the project was to teach the children to use a digital camera so they could document daily life in the refugee camp. After several workshops, the children asked to visit and photograph the villages from which their families had been expelled. Israel refused permission to members of the children’s families to accompany them on the trip. When the project had been completed, the Lajee Center published “Dreams of Home”, containing photographs of the children and the villages they visited.  We’ll look at some of the photographs and the texts the children wrote to accompany them after they visited the villages.
Distribute the photographs to the class (cf. Supplementary Material 3).

To the teacher: You could post the photographs as an exhibit before the lesson begins. After explaining what they are, let the students come up and look at them.

6.  Looking together at the pictures – Spend time in class on each photograph, and ask:
-   What do you see in the picture?
-   Does the text add to or detract from the picture?  How?
-   What does the right of return mean for the Palestinian child in the photograph and for their family?

Questions to ask after looking at all the photographs:
- What do you see in the pictures and the texts of the Palestinian children?
- What does the right of return mean to them?
- How is the tension between dream and reality expressed in the pictures?  What happens to the dream of return when it confronts the reality?  What effect do you think that has on the Palestinian children?
- Try to imagine – How would you have been photographed had you been one of those children?

7.  Concluding discussion

To the teacher: You can use the statements by Palestinian refugees about the right of return (cf. Supplementary Material 4) for the class discussion.

- Why is the issue of the right of return still so important and central, even sixty years after the Nakba?
- What does the right of return mean to you?
- How are we affected by the fact that many of us don’t recognize the right of return and are unwilling to discuss the topic?
- How do you feel when you hear about the Palestinians’ demand to return and their dream of doing so (as in the pictures from “Dreams of Home”)?
- Implementing the right of return means, first of all, recognizing the right of Palestinians to choose, individually and collectively, whether they want to return – or whether they would rather receive compensation or move elsewhere. Implementing the right of return, like other rights, is carried out through negotiation. In many places in the world where there were refugees, sometimes as a result of war, various agreements were reached by means of negotiation. The arrangements included, for example, return to the locations from which the refugees had been expelled, compensation, or resettlement elsewhere. What would accepting such arrangements mean for Israelis and for Palestinians? 
- Israelis often view the right of Palestinian return as necessarily implying denial of our existence here. Can you imagine other possibilities?

8.  Conclusion
In this lesson we learned that the Palestinians became refugees not only because of the war, but also because of a decision by the Israeli government. We examined three main aspects: first, the decision of the international community – UN resolution No. 149, that is the basis for the Palestinian struggle over their right to return to their homes. A second aspect is the perspective of young Palestinian children, their dreams of the right of return, as well as what happens to them when they confront the Israeli reality. The third aspect is our own - what the right of return means for us, our apprehensions, and fears about it.  Being able to imagine other conditions and solutions could make it possible for us to create a different reality.

Suggestion for a follow-up activity:
Discussing how the right of return could be implemented creates an opportunity to deal with the fears Israelis express about it. You could consider what Moshe Dayan said about the need to continuing fighting, and/or the summary of the Dayton Accords as an example of possible arrangements – in this case, for the return of Bosnian refugees (cf. Supplementary Material 5). You could ask what the message of each of these texts is - how does each of them view war and peace; do they imply any practical steps that could be taken regarding a solution to, or a continuation of, the conflict; and what might these steps be?

Supplementary Materials Index

Supplementary Material 1:  Introduction – a page of note cards
Preliminary information about the refugees and their right of return

Supplementary Material 2:  Readings
Decisions regarding the return of Palestinian refugees

Supplementary Material 3:  Photographs
Photographs from “Dreams of Home”

Supplementary Material 4:  Quotes
Palestinian refugees speak about the right of return and about the refugee condition
From “Palestinian refugees and the right of return” – Information packet, Badil Center

Supplementary Material 5:  For further discussion as part of an additional activity
1. A speech by Moshe Dayan: from the eulogy for Ro’i Rotberg, 30.4.1956
2. The Dayton Accordss. What can we learn from the solution to the Bosnian refugee problem: from a lecture by Paul Partitor, an attorney, 25.1.2003, Tel Aviv.

Theoretical background
The right of return is a central issue in the Israel-Palestine conflict, arising repeatedly in the framework of diplomatic negotiations, as well as in public discourse. What guides the discussion (or lack of discussion) on the right of return in Israeli public discourse is the view that “It’s either us or them”, a view stemming from existential apprehensions and fears. According to this view, redressing one injustice, one done to the Palestinians, necessarily leads to doing injustices to Jews, and therefore there’s no reason to discuss the right of return at all. We believe it important to deal with such deeply-rooted fears, which is why it is valuable to discuss the issue openly and explicitly. Such discussion will help us sketch a reality that is not based on the assumption that such a dichotomy exists – that accepting the right of return, a right of the Palestinians, means denying or destroying the rights of the Jews. We believe that discussion among Israelis on the right of return is important for our future here.

The right of return is the right of each individual Palestinian refugee man and woman who was expelled from the country - and of their descendents - to choose whether to return to the place from which they were expelled, whether to receive compensation, or become a citizen of, and rebuild their life in, some other country. The right of return does not necessarily involve an actual return, but rather the opportunity to choose among alternatives, only one of which involves returning. It is an individual right, and also the collective right of entire communities, to again live as communities. And it's anchored in international law.

Pedagogical rationale
The purpose of this Unit is to begin a forthright discussion of the right of return. It involves learning about the issue and its complexities from both an historical and an experiential perspective, and it allows students to deal with the apprehensions and fears that arise when discussing the right of return. The Unit also aims to encourage thinking about possible solutions. We examine these central questions: what is the right of return?, what is its significance for Palestinians and Israelis?, what would it mean for Israelis to accept the right of return?, what would it mean for them to reject it?, and what possible ways can we think of to implement the right of return?

The Unit is divided into three parts. In the first part, students become familiar with historical documents related to the right of return. The first document is the decision taken by the Israeli government in June 1948 to prevent the return of refugees. The second document is Paragraph 11 from UN Resolution No. 194, approved at the end of 1948, calling for the refugees to be allowed to return in accordance with the principles of international law. These historical documents show that Palestinian refugees were not allowed to return because of government decisions, not because of “fate”, or the exigencies of war. These documents will deepen the students’ understanding of the historical circumstances, and will provide a basis for asking questions and for a better understanding of today’s reality. 

The second part of the Unit contains photographs and texts from “Dreams of Home”.  The project shows photographs taken by Palestinian children from the Aida refugee camp during a field trip to villages from which their families had been expelled, and texts they wrote after their visit.  The project was created by the Lajee Community Center in the Aida refugee camp, and concluded with the publication of a book - “Dreams of Home” -  from which we selected three photographs and a number of texts to include here. The book contains additional photographs and texts. By exposing the students to the project, they will come to understand what the right of return means today to Palestinian boys and girls. We recommend exhibiting the project in class and discussing it. Creating an exhibit is a method that encourages students to discuss the photographs among themselves as well as providing a basis for class discussion.

The concluding discussion is intended to provide an opportunity for the students to work through what they’ve learned, rationally as well as emotionally. It has been designed to allow them to express their fears and apprehensions regarding the Palestinian right of return, and will also allow these fears to be addressed rationally: Where do these fears come from and how can they be dealt with. The discussion concludes by inviting students to think about the practicalities of return by learning about efforts in other places. An additional lesson could be devoted to discussing possible alternatives (cf. the suggestion for a follow-up activity).


1. The Children of Lajee Center with Rich Wiles (2007), Dreams of Home, Aida Camp, Bethlehem, Palestine.

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