Palestinian diaspora divided over right to return

Palestinians at Istanbul conference asserted the right of refugees to return to Palestine amid disagreements.

Palestine conference
The Palestinian diaspora is hardly monolithic when it comes to agreeing on whether Israel should continue to exist largely as a Jewish state [File: Al Jazeera]

With the two-state solution to end the Middle East’s long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians teetering on the brink of collapse, thousands of members of the Palestinians diaspora converged on the Turkish city of Istanbul last month to discuss and debate what the future holds for them.

The gathering marked the first attempt by the Palestinian diaspora since their displacement many decades ago, to organise a global group to demand an end to what they see as concessions made by the political leadership based in Ramallah in their name that favour Israel and demand the right to return to Palestine.

The final statement of the two-day conference demanded the right of return of millions of refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

READ MORE: Palestinian diaspora creates new political entity

Israel views this demand as beyond consideration because it would, for all practical purposes, undermine its founding principle as a state created for the Jewish people, albeit by displacing native Palestinians.

However, the Palestinian diaspora is hardly monolithic when it comes to the question of whether Israel should continue to exist largely as a Jewish state, with views differing almost as widely as the present geographical addresses of the conference attendees.

The Istanbul conference provided clear proof that each diaspora community has developed its own discourse that revolves around its collective experience of citizenship, displacement and life in refugee camps.

‘Never relinquish’

Mohamad Dalbah, a Palestinian journalist, said the final statement was the proper representation of the feelings of many refugees and was fully warranted.

In his view, Palestinians should never relinquish their claim to their lost country because “Palestine is not moving anywhere.”

“Israelis will not be able to put Palestine in a suitcase and take it away to Europe or America for example,” he told Al Jazeera.

Dalbah: “Israelis will not be able to put Palestine in a suitcase and take it away to Europe or America”

Dalbah’s argument cannot be fully appreciated without understanding how people like him ended up either as members of the diaspora or as inhabitants of Israeli-occupied territories, rather than as citizens of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Dalbah, who immigrated to the US in the 1980s, says the land of Palestine will remain intact even if it is populated and controlled by Jews.

He strongly opposes any compromise with Israel that does not include the return of all of the refugees to historic Palestine.

Displacement: A brief history

In 1937-38 Palestinian leaders of the time, notably Haj Amin al-Husseini, unanimously rejected several British-sponsored partition plans to divide Palestine into two separate Arab and Jewish states.

The Palestinian leaders, supported by Arab states, opposed partition on the grounds that Palestine deserved to be granted independence as an Arab state while Jews already living there would have protection as citizens with equal rights. 

Jewish and Zionists leaders were divided on the partition plan. Some supported it while attaching specific conditions to it, while others rejected it outright.

Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, the two most influential Zionist leaders of the time, perceived the partition plan as a golden opportunity to create their much bigger and future Jewish state.

To this end, Weizman and Ben-Gurion convinced the Zionist Congress in 1937 to approve the partition plan as a ground for more negotiations. …

He also accuses the leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah of giving away Palestinian rights and ending up empty-handed.

The Istanbul diaspora conference highlighted the fact that Palestinians who live in Arab countries, whether as refugees or citizens, hew to positions and terminology that evoke memories of Palestinian nationalism in Palestine dating back to the 1930s and ’40s.

According to one school of opinion, Palestinians raised in the Arab world and living in countries that are authoritarian or oppressive tend to avoid self-critical thinking rooted in free expression and free speech.

They embrace the safer views of the larger society that reflect the official government line or the viewpoint of the authorities.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have lived in poverty-stricken refugee camps since 1948 and are not allowed to hold decent jobs, not to mention freedom of movement. Syrian Palestinians, on the other hand, are treated by the state like any normal Syrian citizen.

In Jordan, however, Palestinians are full citizens. Whether they live in Amman or in refugee camps, they enjoy equal standing like any other Jordanian citizen not of Palestinian descent. [Most Palestinians gained citizenship when Jordan annexed the West Bank after the 1948 war with Israel.]

That said, the history of Palestinian displacement is not the same as the history of Palestinian immigration.

Most of the Palestinian diaspora currently outside the Middle East migrated during the Ottoman period, and the overwhelming majority of them were Christians.

They did not suffer the trauma of displacement or having to lead lives according to the dictates of Middle Eastern authoritarian and dictatorial regimes.

“In the West, Palestinians have extensive experience in free expression and the expression of opinions that may contradict the views of the larger societies or the government,” Ray Hanania, a Palestinian American journalist, who was born and raised in Chicago, told Al Jazeera. 

“That makes them more likely to entertain solutions to challenges, engage more freely in the leadership of a community, and play more active roles in Western governments.” 

Hanania: 'Palestinians have made historic mistakes by relying on Arab states' [File: Al Jazeera]
Hanania: ‘Palestinians have made historic mistakes by relying on Arab states’ [File: Al Jazeera]

Hanania, whose family moved to the US and South America as immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, draws heavily on his own experience as a frequent critic of US policies in the Middle East to join issue with what he calls the uncompromising tone of the Istanbul statement.

Hanania, who supports a two-state solution and a fair compromise between Palestinians and Israelis, was not invited to attend the diaspora conference.

His argument is that the current international and regional balance of power is not favourable to the Palestinian cause, and therefore Palestinians should not push for a zero-sum game formula – that is demand “everything or nothing”.

Displacement: A brief history

… In November of 1947, Britain ended its mandate over Palestine, turning the country to the United Nations and triggering the 1948 war between Arab armies supported by Palestinian irregulars and Jewish militias.

The war ended with a newly declared state of Israel controlling more territories than the Arab side along the lines of the partition plan.

The remaining eastern parts of Palestine were renamed the West Bank and annexed by Jordan, while the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian control.

Palestinians who fled the war ended up as refugees in what was now Jordan’s West Bank and Egypt’s Gaza besides Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

“Palestinians have made historic mistakes by relying on Arab states that did not have the Palestinian best interests in mind, and not compromising with the Zionist movement when it was still possible,” Hanania said.

“As a result Palestinians have got what they have asked for: nothing.”

It also became clear at Istanbul that the differences in the political philosophies of the Western and Middle Eastern Palestinian diaspora communities are not the product of some kind of an East-West divide.

Many of the Palestinian activists in Europe and the US, for example, are recent immigrants who, while physically operating in the West, are closer to the Middle East in a political and cultural sense.

Could this be the reason the Palestinian American immigrant community has not fared too well in influencing US foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East?

The answer is not clear-cut but a link cannot be ruled out of hand.

“It’s still a struggle sometimes, especially in Western nations where Israel maintains strong lobbying and exercises political intimidation,” Hanania told Al Jazeera.

“But in Latin America, where Israel’s influence is less, the Palestinian diaspora has been able to assert its influence to the full extent.”

In this context, it is worth noting that the Palestinian diaspora narrative in Latin America does not revolve around nationalism and displacement as it is the case in the Middle East.

It is a very different kind of experience that centres on integration and empowerment.

Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Latin American Palestinians represent the largest population of Palestinians outside the Arab world.

READ MORE: Chile: Palestinians gather to forge unified diaspora

Together with Honduras, Chile has the most organised Palestinian diaspora community in the world.

Since the late 1800s, Chileans of Palestinian descent have demonstrated their support for the Palestinian cause by becoming successful members of the Chilean society.

The result is a well organised, prosperous community with as many as 14 members of the Chilean parliament and a top professional football club founded in 1920 called “Palestino”.

Miguel Lama, a third-generation Palestinian Chilean professor of heart surgery who attended the Istanbul conference, said the Palestinian community in Chile does not question the existence of Israel the way some Middle Eastern Palestinian groups do.

Lama embodies the story of political empowerment of Latin American Palestinians [Al Jazeera]
Lama embodies the story of political empowerment of Latin American Palestinians [Al Jazeera]

Lama, whose father was also a professor of surgery, said the statements that came out of the Istanbul conference, as well-meaning as they may have been, were “made with hearts, not brains”.

Some other members of the Palestinian Chilean delegation went as far as to describe the procedures and deliberations of the conference as “undemocratic”.

Lama wonders if the differences on display at the conference could be due to the fact Latin American Palestinians tend to be much more established in various ways and politically empowered than their fellow Palestinians in Arab states.

He admits that fourth and fifth-generation Chilean and Latin American Palestinians are much more passionate about the Palestinian cause in comparison to their parents or grandparents.

Nevertheless, he believes Palestinians have to be “realists” and have to establish their independent sovereign state on any part of historic Palestine.

“We have to work with reality,” he told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise, we will be going backward.”

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter:  @ali_reports

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Source: Al Jazeera