Mapping our Love of Palestine

10Apr13

right-of-return4-704x200“Not if, but how…?”

13 years ago this month, Boston University hosted the first major conference in the United States focusing on the Palestinian Right of Return. This historic conference featured prominent academics such as Dr. Noam Chomsky and the late Dr. Edward Said. Much has happened since then, and last weekend the second Right of Return Conference was held at the very same location. This was truly an inspirational event. Brilliantly organized by Boston area students, the goal of the conference this time around was not to make the political, legal, or ethical case for return, because the premise is that we already know and accept this to be so. Instead, the point of the conference was to discuss how this return is going to happen.

Participants included solidarity activists and scholars of Palestine. Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, founder of the Palestine Land Society; Dr. Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University; Liat Rosenberg, General Director of the Israeli NGO “Zochrot”; and Noura Erakat, US based Legal Advocacy Consultant for the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, all presented moving keynote addresses.

Some of the many highlights of the conference included the brilliant lecture by Dr. Abu Sitta. An engineer by training, he has meticulously mapped out the villages of every refugee forced to leave Palestine druing the Nakba. But while nearly every trace of the native’s presence has been erased from this landscape, what many of us do not know is that most of this land is largely uninhabited today. The Zionist state and military may make a claim to ownership, but Israelis do not live there.

The 2001 documentary film Frontiers of Dreams and Fears by Mai Masri painfully illustrates one example of this. Mona, a young Palestinian girl from the Shatila camp in Beirut, asks Manar, a young Palestinian girl from the Dheisha camp in Bethlehem, to visit her village in Saffouria, just north of Nazareth, and take some pictures of her land for her. But when Manar arrives at this village, once a large town of farmers, she discovers that it has been completely destroyed and the land is now vacant. So when scholars and activists say that Palestine has been ethnically cleansed, it is because the Zionist occupiers expelled the Palestinian people from their land as well as demolished their cultural heritage. The Zionists even planted trees in an attempt to conceal their crime against humanity.

Dr. Abu Sitta has also mapped out the populations of the camps in which Palestinians initially sought only refuge, but where they have been quarantined ever since. Therefore he can actually predict what the population density of the returned villages will be, and he concludes that these are sustainable communities. This leads him to argue that logistically realizing the right of return is, in fact, quite doable, because most of the areas that Palestinians will be going back to are currently not settled. While the dense urban centers complicate this vision, his work remains a stunning example of both intellectual and visual clarity, and provides evidence that this is not really a war over land, but instead a struggle against the attempt to create an ethnically pure state. Indeed this is a fight against fascism.

Of course any given map is going to be confined by its own borders, and one panel was actually dedicated to imagining alternative spaces of return. Here, the amazing work of Dr. Linda Quiquivix is worth noting. She reminds us that the maps we know today are tools that those in power have used to manage and control populations for centuries. Indeed the Palestine Papers prove that the so-called peace process has nothing to do with the Palestinian people when any “negotiated political solution” denies the right of return to all but a handful of refugees. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority is using the same maps that were drawn by the Zionist and imperialist powers, because they want to quantitatively divide something that has enormous substantive value for everybody, which Dr. Quiquivix illustrates with this beautiful old map showing Jerusalem to be the center of the world.

map

Dr. Quiquivix also showed us maps that depict the underground resistance. For example, one Palestinian activist drew a map of the rooftops he walks across at night when returning home after curfew in the Occupied Territories. Of course, making this kind of map public means that the resistance is now visible and thus easier to crush, so any decision to disclose these kinds of maps must always be made carefully. We really only need to reveal enough to inspire others, and as Dr. Quiquivix notes, there are some maps that should never be drawn.

But while the conference inspired us to imagine new spaces, there were many physical and even political absences from the auditorium. Nidal Azza, coordinator of the Resource Unit at Badil, was denied a visa, and Khaled Barakat, activist and coordinator of the Conference of the Palestinian Shatat, was not allowed across the Canadian border. More generally, grassroots organizers from Palestine and the neighboring countries were also visibly absent. During the discussion after my panel I related a conversation that I had last year with a Palestinian activist currently living in the Burj al-Barajneh camp in Lebanon, who explained how abandoned he feels when Palestinians leave the region to live in Europe or North America, where they have access to privileges that those Palestinians in Lebanon, as well as Palestinians throughout the region, are denied. Western activists like myself are also complicit in this cycle of abandonment, because we travel to places like Lebanon to show our solidarity with Palestinians, who open their homes and hearts to us. And then we suddenly leave, taking our experiences with us but often leaving very little behind. When one stops to consider this, it is quite a colonial relationship.

However the absence of those Palestinians still living in the camps or under occupation and apartheid was repeatedly noted and deeply felt at the conference. A number of second and third generation Palestinian refugees even spoke about how their lives in North America are haunted by those they have left behind in the region, and how this is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for them to reconcile.

What many at the conference were articulating was that distance is not just a measurement of space, but also of language, identity, class, culture, history, politics and power. Indeed the Palestinian Diaspora and we as international solidarity activists are close in countless ways, even if there are many more miles between us and unjust differences in privilege. Still, the connections between us are essential, and it is imperative for us to map out these relationships of solidarity to strengthen our collective resistance, and to show Palestinians struggling everywhere that they are not alone anywhere. Social media is already offering new ways for us to creatively map our struggle, and the recent campaign by hacktivist collective Anonymous to erase Zionism from the Internet is one such example.

All of this makes sense. The premise of the Right of Return conference was “Not if, but how…” Because the refugees will in fact return one day, and this means more than just reclaiming their land – it also means that Palestinians will reclaim their culture, history, religion, dignity, and so much more. And these are the returns that we, as international activists, need to help Palestinians map right now.

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