A Palestinian refugee visits the ruins of her ancestral village.

A ruined house in Kufr Birim

A ruined house in Kufr Birim

HAIFA: You have undoubtedly heard of the more than five million United Nations-registered Palestinian refugees scattered across the map of the Levant, living in sordid conditions in crowded and underfunded camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories. Ethnically cleansed Palestine during the 1948 Nakba – the establishment of Israel – they are prevented from returning to their ancestral homelands simply because they were not born Jewish.

Much less known is the plight of “internally displace persons,” we Palestinians whose families were displaced from their towns and villages during the Nakba but remained within the borders of what became Israel. According to Badil, an organisation that advocates for Palestinian refugee rights, IDPs made up an estimated 46,000 from 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in Israel.

On both sides of my family, my grandfathers were among those who were forced from their homes and eventually made to take Israeli citizenship.

In October 1948, when soldiers from the newly-formed Israeli military arrived in the Palestinian village of Kufr Birim, hugging the border of Lebanon, my grandfather on my father’s side fled with his wife and four children to a nearby village.

Though soldiers promised the roughly 500 villagers they’d be allowed to return once the war ended after a few weeks, that commitment was never fulfilled. My great uncle, frustrated and tired of waiting, was shot and killed when he tried to go back to his home.

Despite repeated attempts, the military prevented them from going back to the village, always citing alleged “security” reasons due to its proximity to the Lebanese border. They tried everything – speaking to the military, going through Israel’s court system. Yet nothing worked.

An eventual court ruling in favour of the villagers’ return didn’t stop the Israeli military from razing the homes, schools and businesses in the Kufr Birim with bombs dropped from warplanes in 1953. Those who were promised to return home just four years earlier were made permanent refugees, and the village’s lands were divided between a national park and several new Jewish-only settlement communities.

The story of Iqrit only differs on details, the names of the victims, and the villages and cities to which they were forced to flee. Promised to return by the military and court alike, the Israeli military waited till Christmas Day of 1951 to place dynamite under just about every standing structure in the village. Several villagers were forced to watch as the military levelled their hometown.

From Iqrit, my grandfather – this time from my mother’s side – was just fourteen years old when he became a refugee.

Born and raised in Haifa, a historically Palestinian city on the coast, I grew up always aware that Palestinian refugees have a right and duty to return to our lands, not matter where we are. Haifa never felt like home to me, and I always knew I needed to do whatever I can to return.

Palestinians everywhere know that Israel’s racist courts have no interest in justice for us. On the contrary, they differ little from the increasingly anti-Palestinian mood among Israeli politicians and citizens alike, and play an important role in preserving our dispossession.

The 1.7 million Palestinians living across Israel suffer from laws that discriminate against us, silence us and prevent us from accessing state resources.

With the immense injustice of the occupation and colonisation in mind, some activists decided to make right the wrongs imposed on our grandparents’ generation.

It all started in the summer of 2012, when courageous young activists originally from Iqrit returned to their families’ lands, set up tents, started to rebuild and refused to leave. Since then, Israeli authorities and police have harassed, threatened and arrested them over and over.

A year later, in August 2013, another group followed their lead. Organised by Al-Awda (“The Return”), a group established in 1982 for Kufr Birim’s refugees, we also made the decision to no longer wait for Israel’s permission.

Much like Iqrit, we have faced harassment, threats and looting by Israel’s land authorities. We have been denied access to forbidden from building, intimidated and told that we do not exist.

Most recently, land authorities banned us from entering our church, despite our having used it for decades for weddings, celebrations and religious ceremonies.

But in both Iqrit and Kufr Birim, the rightful owners of the land have declared their intent to stay, no matter what Israel does. Our presence on the land is resistance in and of itself, and Israel has proven that it’s scared we will set a precedent for return.

As an indigenous people struggling against racism, occupation, colonisation and apartheid, we are growing increasingly aware of the parallels between our resistance and the struggles taking place across the globe.

After all, the same racist ideas that keep us refugees are behind racist policies that displace people in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. The same contempt for human life that killed 17-year-old Palestinian child Nadim Nuwara earlier this year put the bullet in Mike Brown, a teenager murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri for ostensibly no reason other than being Black.

The same capitalist thuggery that privileges white Jewish-Israelis over Palestinians in Israel is behind the unjust and treacherous economic policies that keep the rich running the show in the West.

From Kufr Birim to Ireland, from Iqrit to the United Kingdom, and from Gaza to Ferguson, we have a shared interest in mutual solidarity and support.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Waad Ghantous

Waad Ghantous is a Haifa-based social worker, activist and member of Al-Awda, a Palestinian organisation that advocates for the return of refugees to Kufr Birim.

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