‘This is my own, my native land…?’
By Aquila Ismail: Dawn, October 2, 2007
I WAS having coffee with my friend Samar Al-Husseini in a café when we heard the recent Supreme Court verdict on the right of every citizen to return to Pakistan and live there. Samar wistfully asked if there was some court in the world that would grant her and her family the right to go back to Jerusalem which she left with her family in 1960, just like many of her relatives and friends had done.
She cannot return even though her family still legally owns their house and her mother keeps the keys to it as a prized possession. Samar was born in that house and 20 generations of her family had lived in it. That accounts for at least 400 years.
We wondered how many generations does one have to live on a land for one to be given the rights of a citizen — one lifetime, two, or a 100 or just a few years or can you just move in and be called a person with inalienable rights to live in that land? Or can this be decided through the political expediency of those in power? Or through international institutions? Or the courts? Can people be driven out of their home because they do not fit into the pattern on which a state is built — religion for Israel, as well as for Pakistan, language for Bangladesh and so on?
Our painful conclusion was that nations and boundaries are tenuous at best and the land belongs to the people who at the point in time that political boundaries are drawn have the clout, or the support of global powers, or, as in the case of Samar’s home, the state is able to acquire state of the art weapons by political manipulation and then use them with impunity. And also justify it!
Samar left Jerusalem at the age of six, but she says, “When I dream of myself with someone it is in Jerusalem, not Kuwait, not Jordan and not even the UAE where I have lived for 16 years…I want to walk through the front door of my beautiful home in that cherished neighbourhood with the blue skies and the almond trees.”
Her parents reinforce her memory. Samar’s right to return to her place of birth is enshrined in international law but who gives a damn? Whereas a ‘law of return’ gives the chosen people the right to ‘return’ to Samar’s home from wherever they may have been born on the globe as this was their land in biblical times. That it was the land of Samar’s people as well is conveniently ignored. If one talks of her right as opposed to the rights of those who live in Europe or America one is sure to be labelled as anti-Semitic although Samar’s people are also Semites.
Under the law of return, most people of Jewish heritage can immigrate to Israel no matter where they may have been born, even if they have citizenship of that country and have lived there for years. They can receive Israeli citizenship and all the privileges and obligations that ensue.
The state of Israel came into being in its present location because the Jews believe that it is the biblical Land of Israel. This links people of Jewish heritage to Palestine. The Jewish ‘right of return’ was embodied in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel of May 14, 1948: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles...”
However, a Palestinian born in Palestine cannot return to his or her homeland even though he or she was ousted by design, force and the use of laws that border on apartheid. Village after village, town after town, became part of refugee camps in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon etc. The subsequent wars swelled these numbers. So even if a Palestinian state is set up in the lands currently under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority the people in the camps still have the right and the desire to return to the villages they left behind in 1948.
The term ‘right of return’, when applied to Palestinians with respect to the State of Israel differs significantly with the accepted universal definition of the term. It reflects a belief that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to the homes their families had possessed and left prior to or during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
One reason that is given to prevent Samar from returning is that this will alter the nature of the Jewish state. Although in a democratic country you cannot differentiate between people on the basis of race, religion, etc, it is feared that if all the people who were expelled from the areas which now constitute Israel and are now refugees were allowed to go back, the demographics of the Israeli state would change.
If this is not apartheid what is? Can a state be created on land belonging to others and then declare that in fact the owners of the land have become the ‘other’? This is hardly an acceptable situation in international law. So here we ask if laws can really safeguard the rights of people of the world. And indeed, can the law be implemented even if upheld by national and international courts?
When individual assertions reach a critical mass then truth and justice prevail. So dear Samar, dream on and hold on to the keys to your house, but do not keep silent. Tell everyone you can about your desire and right, and question anyone who says it is futile to do so.
The writer is a freelancer based in Abu Dhabi.firstname.lastname@example.org