Report from Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon

16May11

Yesterday at least 50,000 Palestinian refugees gathered for a demonstration in Maroun al-Ras, a small hilly village in southern Lebanon that overlooks the border with Israel, to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe, that forced Palestinians to flee their lands in 1948. Usually Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not able to cross south of the Litani River, but yesterday refugees of all ages and from camps throughout the country assembled only meters away from the lands that they and their ancestors once freely roamed to peacefully demonstrate that “the people want to return to Palestine” or “الشعب يريد العودة إلى فلسطين”. Similar demonstrations occurred on Israel’s border with Syria in the occupied Golan Heights as well as on the border with Gaza and in the West Bank. As author and civil rights advocate Raja Shehadeh explained yesterday to the BBC, the catastrophe has never really ended because it is “an ongoing Nakba for Palestinians”. It manifests itself daily for Israeli Palestinians in the racism of an apartheid state, for Gaza’s Palestinians in the crushing poverty exacerbated by the blockade, and for the stateless Palestinians of Lebanon in the lack of civil rights.

Palestinians “living” in Lebanon arguably have the most difficult lives of any Palestinians outside of Gaza. In Jordan most Palestinian refugees were immediately granted citizenship, although some of those arriving after 1967 have subsequently been denied this right. But otherwise they generally have equal rights and access to government services. In Syria, the Palestinian refugees do not have citizenship but do enjoy almost equal rights and access to government services, with some selected restrictions on property ownership. However in Lebanon, the 400,000 registered (although the number of those living in Lebanon is probably closer to 250,000 due to recent immigration) Palestinian refugees have neither equal rights nor citizenship. They are not allowed to own property and cannot work in many professions. Furthermore, the squalid living conditions in many of the camps throughout Lebanon are not suitable for human beings. So to be more realistic, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are hardly living at all.

Thus the gathering in Maroun al-Ras was an assertion of humanity by demanding the right to live. This right to live is something that not only Lebanon and Israel but also the international community has shamefully denied Palestinian refugees. The Palestine Papers illustrate that only 5000 of Palestine’s six million refugees were being considered for return during the so-called peace process. And only last month President Obama was rumored to be drawing up a new “peace plan” that excluded the right of return at all, a right upheld by international law in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 194. Against this reality it is no surprise that 50,000 Palestinian refugees spent hours on a bus and walked miles to gather on the border in Lebanon because there is no other way for their voices to be heard. The Lebanese government pushes the Palestinian refugees into the shadows for fear that they will settle in Lebanon, disrupting the delicate balance of a sectarian state, while the international community simply erases them from negotiations on any future homeland. Tens of thousands came to the border of Palestine yesterday to nonviolently say that we are still here and we still want to return to our homeland.

I attended the demonstration with some of the Palestinians living in the Shatila camp of Beirut. When I arrived at the camp in the early morning hours, I got disorientated by the service route and could not find the meet up location an activist friend had specified. So I stopped to ask for directions from two young Palestinian ladies walking towards the buses and they insisted that I just come along with them. The two were best friends, named Rania and Rims. They were so beautiful. Smiling, Rims grabbed my hand and they lead me to the bus where her father was ushering people onboard, but this bus was full so we went to another bus instead where one of my friends named Zeinab was already seated. She too could not find a seat on the bus she was supposed to board and along with her niece Natalie was separated from the rest of her family and friends. Such was the mass turnout for the demonstration: beyond all expectations.

The mood on the bus was exuberant. It was a long journey and we had a dearth of good music so some of the young men occasionally used the microphone on the bus to project songs from their mobile phones as the youths in the back were clapping and singing along. All along the route there were signs revealing the kilometers left until Palestine. But when we finally reached the border those on the bus collectively gasped. Many onboard had never even glimpsed the land that their ancestors were forced to leave 63 years ago. I was sharing the front seat with a young mother and her child. She swooped the young girl into her arms, lifted her up and pointed out the window. She whispered into her daughter’s ear, “Look my dear, there is Palestine. Our Palestine.” The expression on the mother’s face was subtle and yet piercingly sad, making the moment truly profound. An unspoken sense of urgency suddenly overcame us all. As we approached Maroun al-Ras, already in the fourth hour of a journey that involved more waiting than moving, two of the youths’ tempers flared, but only for a moment. When we reached our destination the exuberance returned.

Tens of thousands had gathered and the mood was festive, indeed the atmosphere was almost like a carnival. There was music and people were dancing and waving Palestinian flags. Zeinab and Natalie would not leave my side and generously looked after me all day long, with Zeinab even giving me her own breakfast manouche when I said that I was hungry. Unfortunately as soon as we arrived at the actual site of the demonstration, the sound of rapid gunfire temporarily halted our progression. Some of the demonstrators had rushed down the hill to the border fence, throwing rocks over into what they regard as Occupied Palestine. Israeli soldiers responded with live ammunition. It was pretty evident that the Israelis were uneasy with the scale of the people power assembled at their border. Several Palestinian politicians and activists were addressing the crowd throughout the demonstration. When a sheikh led the demonstrators through a series of nationalist chants that included verbal challenges to Israel, as soon as the crowd was silent again gunfire erupted in response. Palestinian words always seem to inspire Israeli bullets. Nevertheless the peaceful part of the demonstration continued when hundreds of balloons were released into the air in the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Certainly if one embraces the logic that it is justified to use violence against people who say that Israel as a Jewish state should not exist, and considering that the Israeli occupation physically prevents a Palestinian state from even being realized, then this logic consistently applied would mean that the Israelis are justifying terrible violence against themselves. But then the irony is not lost upon any of us. In her contribution to The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Judith Butler (2011) describes how the Holocaust was the result of the Nazis trying to choose their neighbors and in the most violent of ways imaginable. She argues that if we are to embrace humanism, and we must if we are to leave peacefully in a diverse world, it means that we cannot make that choice to live among our neighbors, for they are already our neighbors. In a pluralist world everybody has the right to belong and thus there is no choice to be made. We must live together. Ultimately when we try to exercise a choice we are committing crimes against humanity, and there is absolutely no justification for that.

It is still not clear to me exactly what happened on the border yesterday. I did not see any Israeli soldiers firsthand and only watched stones being thrown into vacant land on the large screen that al Manar television had set up to present a live feed of the demonstration. Other than that, Hizbullah was not present at the demonstration itself and only provided logistical help around the site with hundreds of volunteers guiding traffic and providing food and beverages to the Palestinian refugees arriving by bus. This was thoroughly a Palestinian demonstration and Israeli officials who suggest otherwise, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, are autocratically trying to stifle Palestinian voices, further marginalizing them as stateless. They are human beings and need neither the Lebanese Resistance nor Iran to remind them of this fact.

Furthermore the demonstrators coming from Lebanon definitely did not breach the border and so how and why six demonstrators were reportedly killed and over one hundred injured is beyond my understanding. A reporter for The Independent alleges that their supposed crime was voicing a desire to break the fence and hanging Palestinian flags on the barbed wire. That the reporter describes the resulting deaths as “violence breaking out,” as if it was uncontrollable or reciprocal, is deeply unjust. The refugees were all unarmed and did not cross into Israeli territory. Nobody should have died yesterday. According to the Agence France Presse, one of the dead who was buried today was only 17 years old.

The demonstration ended when two of the casualties were announced to the assembled crowd, and almost immediately people began to exit the site. Suddenly sparse but heavy raindrops started falling from the sky, as if descending from eyes grown tired after too many years of grief. In the lives of Palestinians, the words of Mahmood Darwish are always apt:

From you the sword—from us the blood

From you steel and fire—from us our flesh

From you yet another tank—from us stones

From you teargas—from us rain[1]

As we were trying to find our bus to go back to Beirut, Zeinab was told that one of the youths killed was from Shatila camp. Indeed he could even have been on our bus that morning. While leaving the demonstration I had seen a young woman crying, tears streaming down her horrified face, and as an American I tried to imagine that it was my father or brother who had been killed. But I could not. The problem is this could not happen to my family as we have lived in America for several generations and have never had to fight for anything. The demonstrators at Maroun al-Ras were demanding civil rights and a homeland that we as Americans are guaranteed by a representative government that considers us citizens in a home that is on land my parents can own. People like us are not special, only privileged and we should never take that for granted. Indeed this should make us more empathetic and not less. But instead our government’s blind support of Israel ensures that Palestinian refugees will never have what we have. Yesterday six young lives were extinguished on the Lebanese border because they dared to demand being treated like the rest of us, like human beings.

With hundreds of buses parked all along the streets of Maroun al-Ras, it was almost impossible to find the same bus that we arrived in. Thus when we saw our activist friend pass by in a minivan we jumped onboard to go to Sur instead, so that we could then take a service bus back to Beirut. Palestinian refugees from one of the camps in Sur were also in the van traveling back to their temporary homes. I was feeling very cold after being out all day in the wind, and started shivering. The Palestinian woman on my left, her name was Aida, saw this and put her arm around me, warming me with her generous human body and heart.

[1] “To those who pass betw’een fleeting words”

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