“I call you to remain the same

 for those who are in exile and those who stayed.

 If time passed by and I return to my home

I will henna the house for my beloved ones”

(Palestinian song)

By Mjriam Abu Samra

The return of the refugees has been a prerogative of the Palestinian struggle since the Nakba. Yet, the approach to this fundamental issue has radically changed over the years as a consequence of the several transformations of the political discourse, framework and strategies that the Palestinian national movement has undergone. An analysis and in-depth understanding of this shift in the political language, trajectories and goals, which was exemplified with the 1993 Oslo accords, and which has shaped the Palestinian struggle, is therefore necessary for re-establishing  successful strategies that finally enable Palestinians to satisfy their ambition to justice, liberation and of course, return to their original homes and villages.

In fact, while the political discourse and goals of the Palestinian resistance movements were inspired and pervaded by anti-colonial principles and while ambitions of liberation and return guided the national movement in its early years, the slow but constant shift in the rhetoric  and strategies of the PLO since as early as the mid-70s has inevitably impacted how the claim to return has been articulated. In the aftermath of the Nakba the struggle was justice-centered: total liberation and return were two faces of the same coin, two concepts impossible to separate, being the achievement of liberation of ancestral Palestine and the return of its indigenous population, inherently interconnected. The PLO’s transformation in both its organizational practices and its political vision and discourse from a revolutionary movement working to achieve liberation and justice into a quasi-state apparatus willing to establish a mini-state[1] concerned with land, boundaries and representation rights, has deprived the struggle of its anti-colonial spirit and has slowly undermined its unity of intents and goals. This process was formalized with the Oslo Agreement.

The 1993 accords have, in fact, crystallised this shift and undermined the political framework of the struggle: Oslo has sanctioned the fragmentation of the Palestinian society by dividing it into “different groupings” with apparently different political aims while pushing the majority of the Palestinian people outside the peace process.[2] By reducing the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle for justice, liberation and return to a mere negotiation of “land for peace” and refusing to acknowledge the “principled” nature of the struggle and the united, coherent and “homogenous” nature of its goals, the “peace process” transformed the geographical fragmentation imposed upon the Palestinian society into a fragmentation of political ambitions, discourse and strategies. The Palestinian struggle for justice, liberation and return has been dealt with as “the green line” or a “borders issue,” the “Jerusalem issue,” the “Gaza issue,” the “Israeli-Arab citizens issue,” and the “refugee issue” just to name a few. Attempts to find solutions for all these matters have been made at various political and diplomatic levels, as if these “different issues” were not all part of the same struggle: a struggle that can only be sorted out comprehensively, by addressing each of the issues inhibiting justice. Thus, these “issues” should be addressed for what they are: the consequence of Zionist colonization of Palestine and ethnic cleansing of its indigenous people. This political fragmentation has been (re)enforced by the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the consequent marginalization of the PLO.  This repositioning of the PLO and its political and infrastructural transformation, as induced by Oslo, has fundamentally contributed to the isolation of Palestinian communities, “issues,” and politics. In fact, with the Oslo accords, the transnational national liberation project, as originally spearheaded by the PLO, has been ruptured and the political and geographic divisions that individualized the Palestinian struggle have been reinforced.  The PLO has become an empty shell, sustaining itself on the legacy of what it used to be, what it symbolically stood for, and what millions of Palestinians have been hoping it would become again: as a matter of fact, it has left the political ambition of its people in a vacuum.

In this process of “depoliticization of the Palestinian struggle,”[3] the refugees have paid the highest price: not only have they been geographically and politically separated from the rest of their people but, even among the “category of Palestinian refugee,” different groupings have been identified: several solutions have been discussed for the Palestinian living in the refugee camps in Arab countries while the Shatat, the “Diaspora,”[4] particularly in western countries, are always less frequently acknowledged, as if they hold the “best conditions” and as such not living in a camp dismisses these people of any relevance when debating the “refugees issue.”

In this context, it has been noticed that

“Two discourses have dominated the return of Palestinian refugees over the past two decades. The first – fuelled by the Oslo process – understands return through a lens of realpolitik: Any implementation of Palestinian return must conform to the demographic, economic and political will of the Israeli establishment. This approach was most recently seen in Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that he no longer has the right to live in his hometown of Safad. The second addresses the individual and collective right of return with reference to international law, humanitarian conventions and UN resolutions. The discourses are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the domain of one particular social group, Palestinian, Israeli or otherwise.

However, the Palestinian perspectives in these two discourses have this in common: they are both essentially defensive in nature. The Oslo-fuelled discourse seeks “creative solutions” to accommodate Zionist exceptionalism – specifically the desire for an ethnocracy guaranteed by a Jewish majority. The rights-based discourse attempts to defend against efforts to undermine, obfuscate or negotiate away the established rights of Palestinian refugees. Neither discourse directly addresses the immediate needs and aspirations of Palestinians themselves, whether they are refugees, internally displaced or non-displaced.”[5]

In this sense, the al-Shabaka analysts continue, the “discussion of return should be grounded in the notion of decolonization. Given the nature of Palestinian displacement, the implications of this decolonization straddle the borders of historic Palestine.”[6]

Building on this analysis, I argue that the only successful approach to the return of Palestinian refugees is reframing the whole struggle to its original anti-colonial nature, It is necessary to relocate the return of the refugees in the broader framework of a struggle for justice and liberation, the only framework and struggle that can be successful. And, the first step in this sense, I suggest, is redressing what that political fragmentation, that gradual shift in the Palestinian discourse crystallized by the Oslo agreement, has brought about: Palestinians should recover the unity of intentions and foundational principles as the basis of the struggle. The Palestinian people should reunify itself, overcome the dispersion and “rebuild” their society around a shared understanding of the intrinsic and inextricable cohesion of the struggle for the return of the refugees and the anti-colonial struggle for total liberation from the colonial superstructures imposed on their lives.

Today, 65 years since the Nakba started, this challenge is even more ambitious: two and even three generations of Palestinians have been living outside Palestine, and while the tie to original villages and towns remains strong even among the youngest ones, the difference in cultural, social and economic background and lived experiences is more marked and significant than previous decades. Palestinians all over the world face today a new challenging responsibility: “building” transnationally a common Palestinian identity able to incorporate these diversities and reframe a shared justice-centered understanding of the struggle in order to elaborate a successful strategy that would finally lead to liberation and return. In this sense, the experience of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) remains the most radical contemporary attempt.

PYM is a transnational movement established by Palestinian youth, from Palestine and in exile worldwide; it aims at being a “space that brings together Palestinian youth from all over the world with diverse views and various political, cultural and social backgrounds in a collective process of decision making, assuming responsibility, and action. By cultivating the skills of young Palestinians it also works toward empowering the Palestinian grassroots movement around the world.”[7] The Movement’s vision is “to mobilize Palestinian youth, strengthen our role and assume responsibility and accountability to our national struggle.”[8] PYM aims at revitalizing new generations of Palestinians’ participation in the Palestine liberation struggle; it builds upon historical and lived experiences that allow young Palestinians all over the world to understand various current realities while defending a strong common vision for Palestine.

PYM is playing a fundamental role in developing transnational structure, strategy and tactics, that actually allow Palestinian new generations to reorganize the struggle with common, unified trajectory, political goals and strategy: PYM is aware of youth fundamental role in the national struggle and their prominent role in rearticulating a political framework that addresses the core nature of the struggle.  More than anything, PYM is convinced that the new generations should take upon themselves the responsability to re-connect the scattered and fragmented Palestinian society: “many Palestinian youth continue to recognize the need for a grassroots movement as the only mechanism in achieving their struggle for freedom.”[9]

PYM therefore, aims at re-organizing transnational spaces and structures that allow the participation of Palestinian youth, wherever they are, in the  national struggle: in international summer schools, camps and conferences, new articulations of the Palestinian identity are constantly discussed in an effort to include the diversities that forced exile has  imposed on us and for finding again the cohesion of the struggle, goals and strategies that seemed to be lost.

PYM answer and to the social and political fragmentation imposed on our people is permeated by the eternal memories of our ancestors, by the steadfast resistance of our brothers and sisters who heroically remained in their villages, by the painful nostalgia of those who were born in exiled, by the hunger of our prisoners and by the conviction that only justice can make us free. By reframing the struggle to its original anti-colonial nature, PYM identifies justice, liberation and return as the fundamental principles inspiring the struggle, it emphasizes the intrinsic and inextricable ties between the liberation of Palestine and the liberation of the Arab world and stresses the “joint struggle model” with other Third World and oppressed people.

PYM answer to contemporary challenges comes from the understanding that the Palestinian struggle is the struggle of all the oppressed, that our Nakba is the “Catastrophe” of all the colonized people of the world, that our Return is the end of the painful journey of all dispossessed and exiled people: our struggle doesn’t have “borders”, our struggle demands justice.

“The way to Palestine is by the tools of liberation and dignity, and not of expectation and compromise, from all regions, urban and rural, and the spirit of revolt generated by injustice and collective motivation to confront it.  Palestine’s liberation and that of other occupied Arab territories cannot be without the establishment of a national governing system with unitary objectives that mandate the breakaway from any system of dependency and domination, and call for the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.”[10]


Miriam.Abu_.Samra_1-300x224Mjriam Abu Samra

*Mjriam Abu Samra is a Italian-Palestinian woman. She has spent most of her life in Italy where she has contributed to the establishment of the Palestinian Youth Association “Wael Zuaiter” and to the political and cultural activities of Palestinian youth in Rome. At the moment she is based in Jordan where she is completing teh fieldwork for her PHD in IR at University of Oxford, UK. Her work focuses on Palestinian student and youth movements from the Nakba to the Arab Revolutions. She is a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) International Central Council.

[1] Alain Gresh “The Palestinian Dream On”, Le Monde Diplomatique, 149, Paris, Jul/Sept 1998.

[2] Joseph Massad “Oslo and the end of the Palestinian Independence”, Al-Ahram Weekly, 982, 21-27 Jan 2010 available at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/982/re7.htm accessed on 05 September 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The use of “Diaspora” with regard to Palestinians is controversial. It has been noticed that the definition of Diaspora “seems to accept a situation of dispersion […] which implies the abstraction of the right of return. Identifying the Palestinians as refugees is to recognize that there exists a problem requiring a solution. To qualify them as Diaspora, is to eliminate the language necessary to change their situation”. Kodmani quoted in Arrar, Tareq (2006) “Palestinians exiled in Europe” Al Majdal Available from http://www.badil.org/al-majdal/al-majdal.htm pp. 41-45 p. 41accessed 16 June 2009.

[5] Ahmad Barclay and Dena Qaddumi “Reframing Palestinian Return: A New Al-Shabaka Policy Circle” Al Shabaka, 25 November 2012, available at http://www.al-shabaka.org/reframing-palestinian-return-new-al-shabaka-policy accessed on 28 January 2013

[6] Ibid.

[7] Palestinian Youth Movement Website available at http://pal-youth.org/ accessed on 30 January 2013

[8] Ibid.

[9] Loubna Qutami “Arab Revolutions and the Palestinian Youth Movement” presentation given at the American Studies Association Conference, (October 2011)

[10] Final Statement of Arab Youth Conference for Liberation and Dignity.