Just about three years ago, I wandered into a Palestinian refugee camp for the first time. Deheishe refugee camp lies a couple of miles from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is one of 59 such refugee camps in the West Bank alone. It is clear when you come upon this, or any other refugee camp, that you are entering a different sort of space—one that is densely populated, with narrow alleys, and oftentimes raw sewage running down the streets. But it is the people of this refugee camp—and others in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon—who make the best of these abysmal circumstances by creating tightly-knit communities that the confines thrusts upon them.
Stumbling upon this community was in some ways an accident. In all my years of research about Palestine and Israel, I had not yet come to understand the root of the problem. I had been distracted by what I had imagined was the key to a peaceful solution: Palestinian and Israeli children who collaborated in various dialogue initiatives.
Indeed, it was a film broadcast on Idaho Public Television just after September 11, 2001, entitled Promises, that documented these sorts of encounters which first put Deheishe onto my radar screen. But I had missed the point in my exuberance over the possibility of Palestinian and Israeli coexistence, which this film, like so much of our media in the United States, obscures.
Palestinian refugee camps hold the key to our understanding of historical narratives that have been silenced, as well as international laws that have been violated. As we process the American media this week, much of which is intent on maintaining an imbalance that privileges an Israeli perspective in relation to its 60 anniversary, we must also take a moment to consider the gaps and fissures of those who are not afforded a platform to voice their side of the narrative.
For Palestinians May 15 is not a day to be celebrated, but rather it is a day to be mourned. Al Nakba is the Arabic name for this day and its surrounding historical events. Literally, it means "the catastrophe." The word encompasses the entirety of the Zionist ethnic-cleansing project, masterminded by David Ben-Gurion as Plan Dalet to remove the indigenous Palestinian population from the land to make room for predominantly European Jewish settler colonists. The end result was that 750,000 Palestinians became refugees.
Of the 531 villages that were ethnically cleansed, more than 70 percent were totally destroyed in order to prevent Palestinians from returning to those villages. To cover up these war crimes, the Jewish National Fund, an entity that holds Israeli land in trust for Jews around the world, planted forests over the ruins of these villages. As a young Jewish girl, I recall receiving certificates from the JNF stating that someone had planted a tree in Israel in my name.
When I took youth from Dehieshe to visit their villages in historic Palestine a couple of years ago, I recall the horrific feeling that came over me upon entering the Menachem Begin National Forest, which had once been my young friend Lina's village of Ras Abu Ammar. We spent hours searching for remnants of her family's home using mental maps her grandparents shared with her.
There are other Palestinian villages that are visible. Villages like Zakariyya, where Israelis inhabit Palestinian homes that my young friends' families once dwelled in. Or villages like Jerash, where no Israelis live, but the ruins of a Palestinian village on the hilltop are easily visible. In all of these villages are the stories of Al Nakba, which helps us to understand the root of this 60 year conflict. At the other end of the story is the desire for these young people and their families to have the right to return to their villages as codified in United Nations Resolution 194, which enshrines into international law that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." These two bookends—Al Nakba and the right of return—are the keys to solving the conflict between Palestine and Israel, a conflict that can only be solved by recognizing human rights and international law.
Dr. Marcy Newman is assistant professor of English at Boise State.