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Speak it aloud: Palestinian return

Articles on Zochrot’s conference, From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees
1) Ma’an: Tel Aviv conference plans for Palestinian return;
2) +972: At annual conference, Palestinians and Israelis turn ‘return’ into reality;
3) Ha’aretz: A utopian Arab city in Israel? Turn left at Route 65, the model of al-Lajun;
4) Notes and links;

Palestinian citizens of Israel, joined by Jewish Israelis organized by the activist group Zochrot, return to the destroyed village of al-Ruways, March 30, 2013. All structures in Al-Ruways were destroyed and the original residents forcibly displaced to nearby Tamra by Jewish militias in the Nakba in 1948.Photo by ActiveStills.

Tel Aviv conference plans for Palestinian return

By Alex Shams, Ma’an news
October 08, 2013

TEL AVIV — 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 got 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.

Walaa Sbeit (right) has helped lead the reclamation of Iqrit’s land, photo by Jonathan Cook/Al Jazeera.

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.”

Notice for Zochrot’s international conference, Tel Aviv, September 29-30, 2013

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 [that] 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.”

A drawing for the planned Arab city of al-Lajun. Photo by Shadi Habib-Alla

At annual conference, Palestinians and Israelis turn ‘return’ into reality

Palestinians, Israelis and internationals gathered in a Tel Aviv museum last week for a two-day conference dedicated to the Palestinian right of return. Tom Pessah on some of the conference highlights.

October 05, 2013

I don’t normally cry during academic conferences, although perhaps “academic conference” would be the wrong way to characterize Zochrot’s conference on the issue of the Nakba and the Palestinian right of return. This year’s conference, titled “From Truth to Redress,” was held in Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum (on the grounds of the former Palestinian village Al-Sheikh Muwannis) and featured two days of presentations by Palestinians, Israelis and others on turning return into reality.

The position of the right of return in Jewish-Israeli discourse is odd; it is always mentioned, but no one ever really talks about it. It is the one thing we obviously should all be against, we say to ourselves. It is the most predictable issue, we repeat, one that will go away after a peace agreement. Even thinking about it is unrealistic. So we don’t.

Which is what made Shadi Habib Allah’s presentation so stunning. It began simply enough: Habib Allah, an architect and descendant of refugees, assembled a proposal for a new Palestinian village within Israel. He talked to the potential residents, found out their preferences, studied the location, and used his professional skills to come up with a detailed plan for a community that will combine historical relevance and modern services. The twist, though, is that this isn’t an entirely new village. According to Habib Allah’s presentation, al-Lajjun, one of several hundred Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, would be re-established on its original site (which is currently a park). The village would be populated by its original residents and their descendants, and would look something like this:Visualize return

What caught my eye was the Arabic-English-Hebrew signs welcoming visitors to the future village, as well as the meticulous planning which takes into account the presence of nearby kibbutzim and the future economic relations with them. In a previous Zochrot event, one of the speakers said that the discourse on return is often trapped between Jewish-Israeli fears and unrealistic Palestinian nostalgia, which seeks to recreate the world before 1948 without changing a thing. But the new al-Lajjun isn’t a time capsule nor an exhibit from a museum – it’s a plan for a concrete, living 21st century community that will fulfill the needs and desires of those who hail from there.

At another panel, Zochrot member Ami Asher spoke of return as something Jews like himself could actually want. Jewish Israelis are not suffering from the outcome of the Nakba in the same sense that Palestinians are, he says, and any comparison would be absurd. Yet, the situation these Israelis are born into, of having to take up arms to maintain the continued expulsion of Palestinians, is unenviable. It isn’t something Asher would wish upon his children and grandchildren.

But nothing about this situation is inevitable. Attorney Noa Levy presented the legal models that Zochrot has designed, together with the Palestinian organization Badil. According to Levy, only about 1,000 houses of the original occupants are still standing, in cities like Jerusalem and Haifa. Otherwise, return would mean construction of new housing comparable to that which took place during the immigration of Jews from the ex-Soviet Union in the early 1990s. These are only suggestions, aimed at showing that compromise is possible, even on this issue which remains taboo within Israeli society. Levy went further and, together with Palestinian partners, began sketching out legal arrangements to diffuse the thorniest issue – Jews who occupy these former Palestinian houses, in ways that would recognize both sides’ rights and push them to compromise.

I only spent a few hours at the conference, and it is still too hard to summarize it all. Being surrounded by a community that was willing to finally break the taboo of return together, intelligently and warmly, brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps I should just mention the Palestinian who quoted Arik Einstein’s classic “You and I Will Change the World” (“Ani Ve-Ata Neshane et ha-Olam”). This world where Israelis are sent to protect our borders – to kill Palestinians who want to live where their families resided for centuries. “You and I, then the others will come,” goes the song. “They’ve said it before me, but that doesn’t matter. You and I will change the world.”

The old town of Iqrit before it was cleared of Palestinians.

A utopian Arab city in Israel? Turn left at Route 65

Plans for a theoretical Arab city show how the right of return could be implemented – in terms of design, at least

By Esther Zandberg, Ha’aretz
October 06, 2013

There will be a large square in the center of al-Lajun, the city sited on Route 65 between Umm al-Fahm and Afula. Surrounding it will be public buildings to serve the future residents and visitors. Among the buildings will be a museum, art galleries, craft workshops, a visitors center, coffee shops, and even a center for the protection of nature. The idea behind the planning of the city center draws its inspiration from houses with courtyards, the standard style of building for local Palestinian construction. In the middle of the square will be a sort of low stage for meetings and performances. The buildings will be faced in stone and designed in the traditional oriental style, including arches and domes.

The theoretical-utopian city, planned by architect Shadi Habib-Allah, is to be built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of al-Lajun – abandoned and destroyed in 1948, one of some 500 Arab villages removed. Since then, no Arab town has been established (except for the Bedouin towns). Kibbutz Megiddo now sits on the land of al-Lajun.

The new city is intended to house the families of the village’s residents, most of whom now live in Umm al-Fahm, as well as additional Palestinian refugees who will come to live there as part of their realization of their right of return. The square will feature a “key” monument – an enlarged version of the symbol of the dream of the right of return.

A number of human-rights organizations involved with the dream of the right of return are partners in the al-Lajun project. The project was presented this week at the international conference titled From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees, organized by the Zochrot nonprofit.

Former Palmach fighter, Amnon Neumann, delivers the opening address at the Zochrot conference. Photo by Eléonore Merza.

The conference was held at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv – or, as Zochrot calls it, al-Shaykh Muwannis (a Palestinian village that was located in the Ramat Aviv area before the founding of the State of Israel) last Sunday and Monday. Zochrot said the multidisciplinary conference was planned to “discuss practical aspects of the return of Palestinian refugees grounded in the transitional justice principles of acknowledgement, accountability and a joint Jewish-Palestinian process of redress.”

This was Zochrot’s second such conference. It was not dedicated to the debate over the right of return in itself, but to a concrete discussion of ways to implement the return, in both a symbolic and concrete fashion – culturally, diplomatically and spatially.

“The objective of this conference is not to argue whether the Palestinian refugees have a right to return, but to see how this right can be realized,” states Zochrot. The conference focused on “the implication of return for the country’s physical, cultural and economic space, on the nature of its future society, the status of Palestinians and Jews living here, the nature of its regime, and, last but not least, the practicalities of returning property after 65 years of refugeehood and the destruction of Palestinian life on the one hand, and the establishment of a Jewish State and the resulting new reality on the other,” said Zochrot.

Al-Lajun is a test case for a broader vision, the establishment of seven urban communities in the same area. The communities will be a memorial to the dozens of villages that existed there before the establishment of Israel, and will house their refugees, other “internal” refugees and possibly other returnees in the utopian future.

The power of an image

The center of the new city has a neo-traditional architecture style – and that is not by chance or an expression of personal taste. Habib-Allah, who agrees with the description of a Disneyland style of kitsch, explains the choice as a need to restore the architectural typology from before the Nakba (“the catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians for the establishment of Israel), as burned into the memories of the refugees from the original village.

The planning of the city was done by the al-Lajun Group, which deals with the vision of the right of return and as well as other organizations, including Zochrot. The group is mostly made up of young activists – the third generation of the village’s original residents who left and now live in Umm al-Fahm.

The architectural return to the original village as they imagine it, said Habib-Allah, “is a real need. We thought to realize the memory to memorialize traditional Palestinian architecture and also to soften the shock of return to a completely foreign place,” he said.

Habib-Allah, 28, is from the village of Ein Mahal near Nazareth. He is a graduate of the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Jordan, one of some 25,000 Arab-Israeli students who have studied in the neighboring country. Since graduating three years ago, he has worked in an architectural firm in Nazareth to receive his architect’s license, and has worked on a number of private architectural projects. He often visits Jordan and returns to the “Arab-cosmopolitan atmosphere of students from the entire Arabic-speaking space that I miss here. What bothers me there is mostly that women have no personal security,” he said.

On the edges of the urban center planned for al-Lajun, there will be neighborhoods of housing in the “Western” Israeli suburban format, and a light industrial zone that could be a joint project with nearby Kibbutz Megiddo and other Jewish communities in the area. The city will also have a transportation hub that will serve neighboring communities on Route 65 (a major national thoroughfare). The destroyed communities, whose memory has been erased from the Israeli space, will be commemorated in the street names and public buildings of the new town.

Al-Lajun, like the other cities in the project, is located in the area that is designated as the only available land for the development of the Arab communities of Wadi Ara. In 1998, thousands of dunams of land in the area were expropriated for military needs and declared a closed military firing zone. The move triggered riots, which were cited by the Or Commission – examining the violent Wadi Ara riots of the fall of 2000 – to be a precursor to that later violence. To this day, they remain a warning sign and lingering scar. The investigative commission recommended compensatory land in return for the expropriated land. The final compensation did somewhat soften the anger and split created, but was not a true solution. The al-Lajun project could be a utopian correction.

Far from old Jaffa

In a lecture in response to the al-Lajun project, architect Dr. Haim Yacobi, the head of the masters degree program in urban design at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, criticized the project on a theoretical basis – and the connection between architecture, politics and utopia. He saw it as an opportunity for residents and refugees to formulate a new position, including the demand for land in recognition of the remains of the built-up environment – and not just as a utopia of orientalist fantasy, such as in Old Jaffa or the Ein Karem neighborhood in Jerusalem, but as part of giving legitimacy to the fabric of history, identity and space of those returning.

Does architecture have a place in the process of right of return, asked Yacobi, or maybe it is only an illusion facing the political experience today in Israel? What is the place of ethics in relation to communities of refugees at a time when every discussion of the right of return has no practical horizon in today’s reality?

As usual at such conferences, the audience may have been multilingual, but it was already convinced beforehand. Outside there was not even a single demonstration against the conference, and the police who were stationed in the museum courtyard just in case returned to their bases safely. Nonetheless, it seems the right of return made another step on its path to the threshold of public awareness.

Notes and links
Conference//From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees

About Zochrot

Nakba is an Arabic word that means “catastrophe.” The Nakba was the destruction, expulsion, looting, massacres and incidents of rape of the Palestinian inhabitants of this country. It was keeping refugees out by force at the end of the war, in order to establish the Jewish state. And it is the ongoing destruction of Palestinian localities, the disregard for the rights of refugees and displaced people, and the prohibition against teaching and commemorating the Nakba in schools and civic groups.

Zochrot will act to promote Israeli Jewish society’s acknowledgement of and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba and the reconceptualization of Return as the imperative redress of the Nakba and a chance for a better life for all the country’s inhabitants, so that it renounces the colonial conception of its existence in the region and the colonial practices it entails.

Zochrot will act to challenge the Israeli Jewish public’s preconceptions and promote awareness, political and cultural change within it to create the conditions for the Return of Palestinian Refugees and a shared life in this country.

Zochrot carries out different projects to advance understanding of Nakba and Return. This website is one of those projects. The site presents information about the Palestinian localities that Israel destroyed in 1948 and about the Nakba’s place in our lives today. The Nakba and Return are spoken in different voices on this site — in photographs, testimonies, maps, prose, and more. Zochrot’s is one of these voices, a voice that seeks recognition for injustice and new paths toward change and repair.

The return to Iqrit, Al Jazeera, June 2013.

Funds from European governments support an ‘erase Israel conference’ an hysterical response from NGO Monitor which sees the hidden hand of Europe behind every Palestinian utterance.

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