On Sunday, May 15, Palestinian refugees took a step marking a turning point in the century-long struggle against their country’s colonization. On that day tens of thousands of refugees and their allies marched to the borders of historic Palestine and demanded to be allowed back in.
The marchers declared that this was the first of many attempts to exercise their Right of Return in practice. As we go to press, the next one has been announced for June 5.
May 15 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), the date of Israel’s declaration of statehood. In the months before and after May 15, 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were violently driven from their homes—homes which were then either leveled or turned over to Jewish settlers. They have been denied the right to return ever since, in explicit violation of international law and UN resolutions.
In the years immediately after 1948, refugees trying to return—either permanently, to till their lands, or even just to retrieve household goods—were labeled “infiltrators” and shot on sight. That same label was applied this May by Zionist officials to those seeking to return. But refugees reject this label and proudly call themselves Returnees.
In the months before May 15, Facebook pages calling for a Third Intifada promoted the marches and gained hundreds of thousands of “Facebook friends,” despite Facebook corporate censorship. The marches to the borders of historic Palestine gathered tens of thousands from dozens of refugee camps, and ended at fences on the edges of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. Protests also occurred at checkpoints in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Al Jazeera, the Electronic Intifada, and numerous progressive websites were full of moving accounts of a day full of beauty, courage, hope, and remembrance; of tens of thousands headed to the borders on buses, flashing victory signs as their buses passed each other; descriptions of grandparents showing children breathtaking vistas that the former hadn’t seen in decades and the latter never; of strangers helping each other up rocky slopes to reach their goal.
All the accounts also noted the barbarous reaction of the Zionist military, which murdered four unarmed protesters in Syria, ten in Lebanon, and one in Gaza, wounding ten times as many in each location. Several eyewitnesses noted that the firing was not wild and sporadic, but rather carefully aimed: for each bullet fired, one returnee fell, either wounded or dead.
Several hundred Palestinian refugees broke off from the main crowd at the border in Syria, tore down two rows of fences and marched across a mined no-man’s land, heading toward the town of Majdal al-Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Several dozen made it all the way into the village, and celebrated with local residents until being forced out by Israeli soldiers.
Such heroic action on the Golan Heights is not without precedent. Mya Guarnieri noted in the British Guardian that nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation did not begin during the First Intifada. “Nor did it begin in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nonviolent resistance began in 1982, in the Golan Heights,” when Syrians living there staged a campaign of mass refusal of the Israeli ID cards that Zionist soldiers tried to force them to use. After six months of such resistance, coupled with mass strikes and protests, the ID effort was abandoned.
At Maroun al-Ras, hundreds of Lebanese protesters and Palestinians from nine refugee camps defied Lebanese army attempts to keep them from approaching the border. The day’s events were clearly inspired by the growing Arab revolution, which itself had been inspired by decades of Palestinian steadfastness. In this spirit Moe Ali Nayel, a Beirut-based journalist who was in Maroun al-Ras that day, wrote in The Electronic Intifada that the Arab masses have finally answered the question posed by Julia Butros in her song “Wayn al-Malayeen?” in which she asks, “Where are the millions? Where are the Arab people?”
Nayel reported that “the Lebanese army had formed a human chain to prevent more people from joining those at the border fence. … One group of courageous young women broke the chain of men and ran towards the front line and everyone cheered them on.”
He ends his account by describing how the Lebanese army—notorious for its failure to defend the country against Israeli attacks over the decades—ended the protest by prolonged gunfire in the air. “We all started sprinting up the steep mountain; a random man pulled my arm and dragged me up with him. The firing intensified and there were the same waves of people this time running in panic. Next to me there were lost children, crying, wanting their parents; an old man ran out of breath, crouched down; I saw an old Palestinian woman running up the mountain with tears running down her face.” But, he concluded, “After yesterday, things will not be the same. … The Arab people are here, the Arab rage is here, the malayeen are here.” There were also protests in favor of Return inside Israel, most prominently in Jaffa, despite recent racist laws forbidding commemoration of the Nakba.
Jaffa was also the end destination of one refugee, Hassan Hijazi, who began the day in Syria and, after crossing the border, decided to keep on going, and so hitched a ride with peace activists until he reached his town of origin. Needless to say the possibility of more such fully completed returns has Zionist officials petrified.
At Qalandiya, the main checkpoint Israel created to bar West Bank Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem, at least 40 protesters were badly injured. There were clashes in major West Bank towns as well.
The PA and Hamas discouraged the marches to the border, the former by calling a competing protest in Ramallah, a significant distance from any Israeli border, the latter by stopping buses headed for the border (although dozens of demonstrators walked on foot and got as close to the border as they could). Similarly, Egyptian and Jordanian security forces blocked roads and bridges to protesters, and in Cairo beat large numbers gathered at the Israeli embassy who had begun a sit-in to demand its closure.
The day’s events had Zionist officials worried. First, because in their arrogance they had ignored clear signs that masses were on the way to the borders, and so deployed most of their military and police forces to the usual locations in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, because they now know more such protests are coming (some speculate that the most massive may come in September, when a UN vote to recognize Palestine, however meaningless in and of itself, nevertheless may become the spur for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to head from Ramallah and elsewhere to Jerusalem to demand concrete results from the vote).
U.S. and Israeli officials, and their friends in the media such as Ethan Bronner and Anthony Shadid of The New York Times, tried to blame the day’s events on everyone from the Syrian and Iranian regimes to Hezbollah, with no evidence of course.
The day’s events also explain the support of Israel and the U.S., despite heated rhetoric, for the Syrian regimes of Assad, father and son—that is, their record of keeping the border quiet and doing nothing to challenge Israel’s occupation of their land.
On May 15 it was the Arab masses, not the Syrian regime, who showed they have the courage and the power to end Zionist colonialism.
“The old will die and the young will forget.” This was the prediction of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. But at rallies around the world, Palestinian speakers recounting this quote added their constant rejoinder to Ben-Gurion’s taunt: “The young will NEVER forget!”
We can be sure that future such Return protests will be met with even more murderous violence, and antiwar and solidarity movements around the world must begin organizing to defend the Returnees.
The Return marches have also reminded the world that the plight of the Palestinians is not only or even primarily about the “Occupied Territories” in the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza. Rather it is a question of Zionism itself. “This is not a struggle over the 1967 borders,” said Benjamin Netanyahu after May 15, “but a challenge to the existence of the state of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe that must be rectified.” In the same vein, in a letter justifying his opposition to an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner from the City University of New York, racist trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld wrote that he particularly objected to Tony Kushner labeling Israel’s acts in 1948 as ethnic cleansing.
Finally, we note that this Intifada of Return is of world-historical importance not only because it is a turning point in the Palestinian struggle, and not just because of its significance for the Middle East as a whole and the imperialist system, which rests upon domination of that region. The militancy of youth and workers in Egypt inspired workers as far away as Madison, Wisconsin. But the Return movement takes the potential for inspiration to a new level.
When workers occupy a factory, the implicit challenge to existing property relations makes other workers think, “maybe I—maybe we all—could take back our factories and own and run them ourselves!” What, then, would be the worldwide political impact of a refugee population that, by marching in their millions across borders, takes back an entire country?
We won’t know for sure until it happens—but to guarantee its potential comes to fruition, partisans of liberation around the world must organize now to defend this new Intifada!
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.