Just before the violence broke out in the Jerusalem area in the spring of 1948, my father and my grandmother left their home in the Musrara neighborhood and fled to the Jordanian city of Zarqa, where my dad helped set up a school. My uncle Costandi waited as long as he could, but in the end the violence became unbearable and he had to leave.
When he arrived in Jordan, he assured his brother and mother that he had locked the house with two turns of the key and brought with him the big metal key with the hope of returning as soon as soon as the fighting and violence ended. His departure saved his life, but their sister, my aunt Hoda, and her family did not leave, and their decision proved to be tragic. My aunt’s husband Elias Awad was killed in the clashes between Jordanian soldiers and Zionist underground fighters that broke out in the Musrara district just outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, leaving my aunt a widow with eight children.
My family’s story was not unique. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the fighting to save their lives and brought their house key with them, hoping that they would one day return. Dad even told us about the quality wood cupboard that my grandfather, a carpenter, had built inside their Musrara home.
My grandmother’s family, the Fatallehs, also left their home in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. Their house still stands, not far from the King David Hotel.
Of course, my father, uncle, aunt, grandmother and her family never returned to their homes and properties. Years later, after the Israeli occupation in 1967, we tried to see my parents’ house and noticed that it was occupied by an immigrant Jewish family. At that time, poor Jewish immigrants from Arab countries (the Sephardim) had lived in this neighborhood, which was adjacent to the borders of East Jerusalem. As we approached the house, we saw parts of the wooden closet we had grown up hearing about broken up in the yard.
While my uncle registered as a Palestinian refugee and received the usual rations from the UN refugee and works agency (UNRWA), my dad never did. I’m not sure whether it was pride or a lack of need, but the school he was headmaster of was paying him a salary and he didn’t need to stand in line to get the monthly UN food rations. But, with or without an official refugee card, that didn’t stop my dad or the rest of our family from talking about Palestine and the right of return. The UN passed resolution 194 guaranteeing the right of Palestinian refugees to return and be compensated, but that, like so many other UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, has never been implemented because of Israeli rejection and America’s protection of their spoiled child.
Our family has never lived in a tent, nor has it received any UN support, but we have never forgotten where we came from and what our national rights are. The more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948 are now five million, according to UN figures. The right of return is a non-negotiable, inalienable right, no matter how long it takes to be fulfilled. Israel has done everything possible to reject this right and, while the refugee question was one of five issues left for final status talks, Israel has always tried to avoid any negotiations on how this right was supposed to be implemented. This is despite Palestinian leaders clearly demonstrating that they are willing to find some kind of accommodation of the implementation of this right within an overall settlement based on the two-state solution.
The Arab Peace Initiative even went one step further and agreed that any resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue must be agreed upon — thereby giving the Israelis a veto power on any potential resolution to this issue that they don’t accept.
Many Palestinians who became refugees in 1948, like my father, uncle, aunt and grandmother, are no longer with us today. But the yearning and aspiration of Palestinian refugees everywhere is as alive today as ever before. Witness the current Great March of Return in Gaza and the efforts around the world to keep the refugee flame alive as proof of this right, even after seven decades.
For most (but not all) Palestinians, whether registered refugees or not, the idea of returning to Jaffa and Haifa, which are part of the state of Israel, is nothing more than a romantic dream. If given the choice today, most Palestinian refugees and their descendants would not want to live under direct Israeli rule. Some, especially young Palestinians, including my children, are calling for equal rights in all of Palestine/Israel. They feel that a one-state solution would automatically address a large part of the right of return.
For me though, the issue is not the actual return but the right of return. And the issue is not about a house here, or a wooden closet there, and their compensation. I am sure I speak for many refugees and their dependents today when I say that what we want from the state of Israel 70 years after the Nakba is a simple statement in which the leaders of Israel recognize the historic and moral responsibility for having created the Palestinian refugee case. As to how to implement the right of return and the compensation guaranteed by UN resolution 194, I will leave that to the politicians and negotiators.
- Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning journalist and author of the recently published book “Sesame Street, Palestine” by BearManor Media. Twitter: @daoudkuttab