by Justine McCabe, PhD | Al-Awda | 28 March 2004
This landmark Israeli conference was focused on the Palestinian right to return to their homes in Israel and its irrevocable connection to the Nakba. Held in the north coastal city of Haifa, the conference was organized by the Emil Tuma Institute for Palestinian and Israeli Studies, and several Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli NGO’s including Ittijah (Union of Israeli-Arab Community Based Associations), the Association of the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel and Zochrot ("Remember" in Hebrew). The conference attracted more than 300 people of whom about 100 were Jewish according to conference initiator Haifa University Professor, Ilan Pappe.
This event was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first gathering in Israel in which support for Palestinian refugee rights was publicly acknowledged as the cornerstone for an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This action has been formalized as the "Haifa Initiative."
Although such Jewish-Palestinian cooperation for peace occurs elsewhere in Israel, it has existed mostly in terms of opposition to Israeli occupation practices (e.g., the courageous work of Gila Svirsky, Neta Golan and Jeff Halper of ICAHD--Israeli Committee against House Demolition) and attempts to encourage Jewish/Palestinian Israeli integration in housing (Fred Schlomka’s MOSAIC) and schools (Amin Khalaf’s Hand-in-Hand has, since 1998, created 3 integrated schools in the country).
By contrast, the significant effort of the Haifa group is bringing into public view the now extensive scholarship challenging founding myths of Israel, especially the cause of the refugee problem. These Israelis asserted that the source and continuation of the conflict are the failure to acknowledge the expulsion and dispossession by Zionist forces in the 1948 war of over 800,000 native Arab inhabitants of Palestine and their descendants; and that as long as this historical truth is denied or excluded, there can be no peace, no reconciliation.
Press coverage was good. There were two good, long articles in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz (Hebrew edition) before and after the event; and unlike in the US, there were no disruptions/picketing of the event.
Haifa was intentionally chosen for the conference as one of the few "mixed" Israeli cities, and a relatively progressive place in terms of Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli relations. This is not to minimize the ongoing gross discrimination against Palestinian-Israeli citizen, of whom 25% are internally displaced; Israel continues to confiscate their land; and conference participants emphasized that they’re reminded of their inferior legal status every day.
It was also chosen because of its history of ethnic cleansing: before the Nakba, there were about 70,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians and 70,000 Jewish Palestinian until early 1948 when about 64,000 of the former were expelled. The city now approximates the proportion of Palestinian-Israelis in Israel, about 20%
Nonetheless, there was a palpable inclination of Jews and Palestinians toward one another in Haifa, though particularly among conference participants. For examples, some public spaces like cafes are obviously "integrated," and there’s less overt evidence of sectarian identification (Jewish or Muslim, e.g., few women wearing the hijab). Reflecting its multicultural context, the conference was simultaneously cast in Arabic, English and Hebrew. All the Palestinian-Israelis spoke Hebrew and some Jews, Arabic; some Jews like Uri Davis spoke of having gone to live in Palestinian communities). Thus, particularly among the conference organizing groups, I observed Jews and Palestinians embodying what they professed: a mutual fate and attachment to the same land.
In addition to representing al-Awda, US, I also came as an official representative of the US Green Party (the only political party represented at the conference). In light of the crucial role that the US plays in the conflict, USGP was included mainly because it is an American party that supports the Palestinian right of return. Moreover, many of the organizers--not naïve to the duopolistic nature of the American political system—expressed basic solidarity with USGP’s supportive platform positions, its effort to create a multi-party system, and its connection to Ralph Nader whose political aspirations were seen by many as offering a hopeful alternative in an otherwise desperate situation in terms of the destructive role of the US in this conflict.
I spoke briefly on the opening evening of the conference (my remarks below, addendum 2). Drawing out the parallel between US and Israeli history as regards our disastrous relations to the native peoples of both countries, I offered the view that the US continues to carry the deadening consequences of that formative genocide to this day--to the detriment of Americans and the world. At conference end, I invited people to join both Al-Awda and to form a Green Party there that would include both Israelis and Palestinians. Finally, I apologized as an American for the misery our government has caused the people of Israel-Palestine by its continuing financial and political support of the occupation especially.
More than anything, this conference inspired enormous hope —not easy to do, as you all know, given this horrific situation.
Make no mistake, there was straight talk about the facts of the Nakba: Israel’s responsibility for ethnic cleansing, the continuing suffering of the refugees and Palestinian-Israelis, the feasibility of return, and the grotesque and continuing violation of international law, morality and human decency by the Israeli government. Prof. Sharif Kananeh spoke of the Palestinian genocide that is occurring, and of the rather despairing historical fact that refugee return has been limited (e.g., only 15% of Bosnian-Serb refugees have returned home). On the last day of the conference there was a sobering trip to a few destroyed Palestinian villages where, with the great assistance of conference participants/refugees Mahmoud Issa (Al-Awda, Denmark) and Ayeda Ayed (Al-Awda, Canada), we heard from survivors the details of how people were driven out, saw the remains of some villages (e.g., mosque) and new forests that have been deliberately planted over remnants to cover them up.
Clearly, publicizing this truth about the Nakba and the refugees is an essential way to keep hope alive. But the Haifa conference reminded me of other ways by which we can sustain hope for a just resolution to this conflict.
Perhaps most compellingly, it was hopeful to witness the experience of "enemies"--Israeli Jews and Palestinians--amicably working together to declare the truth about their shared history, and to form a just and sustainable life together there.
Another significant source of hope was the tone and manner in which the conference was conducted. That is, the undeniable outrage of participants at the facts of Palestinian dispossession and ethnic cleansing was not permitted to dwarf, oppress or exile the genuine sorrow that are the continuing results of these crimes. The program allowed sufficient psychological space for participants—particularly including the Jews present--to be emotionally moved by such facts that are, at once, uniquely Palestinian and resonant with all extreme human suffering, including historic Jewish suffering.
For examples: the sight of elderly and frail Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali moving at a snail’s pace to the podium where his words powerfully and tenderly called forth the pandemic human experience of loss coming through the medium of Palestinian loss. Or to hear Salman Natour, Director of the Emil Institute for Israeli and Palestinian Studies, speak of his ongoing meetings with Jewish civic groups in Haifa where he challenges them to receive the fact of ongoing Palestinian suffering while he reminds them that he has received the reality of the suffering of Jews by Europeans.
By contrast, what did not evoke hope in me were those occasional speakers whose words were more rant or a formulaic list of wrongs. No one, including myself, would question the justifiable anger informing these. But hearing only that, can evoke some of the raw, even violent feelings that, when sustained, fuel the dehumanization that the Israeli government maintains in relation to Palestinians. On the rare occasion that this occurred, instead of being moved to hope or inspired to act, I found myself feeling deadened, despairing.
My point here is that the Haifa conference demonstrated that in addition to telling the truth about the issue--inherently virtuous as it is--supporters of Palestinian human rights and peace have another responsibility about which we don’t speak much: how to keep alive our own humanity and that of all the people in this conflict, most especially Palestinians living under occupation and in the refugee camps.
Overall, I found that the discourse of conference participants was faithful to this and evoked it others.
To conclude, conference participants were there to proclaim the fact that there are Israelis—Jews and Palestinians--who are humanists committed to the rule of law, to exposing Israeli state propaganda, and to sharing life in their country.
These sentiments are part of Ilan Pappe’s summary at the conference close:
"In the weekend, 26-28 March, 2004 the first Right of Return conference in Israel attracted more than 300 people for two days of extensive discussions, lively debates and a series of recommendations for future activity. The participants learned about the history of the Nakbah*, the international and moral legal basis of the Right of Return and of possible way of implementing it. . . . The initiating NGOs vowed to continue the struggle for protecting the memory against its denial in Israel and abroad, for relocating the right of return at the center of peacemaking in Israel and Palestine and for finding the appropriate political structure in the future that would enable the return of the refugees who had been ethnically cleansed from Palestine. The initiators and the supporting NGOs are convinced that the return is the key for a better future, not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for the region as a whole. The rectification of the evils inflicted in the 1948 ethnic cleansing, and ever since, would allow, for the first time, citizens or returnees, to enjoy normal and peaceful life on a democratic and civic basis.
For this purpose, the conference suggested various projects such as educational workshops on the Nakbah, a Nakbah Museum and the institutionalization of a Nakbah day. It also called for a better coordination with the Right of Return organizations in the world, the advancement of practical programs for facilitating the return and an urgent research of detailed schema for a joined political structure that could contain the right of return. These and other proposals would form what can be called ‘The Haifa Initiative’. Preparations have begun for the Convention of the second Right of Return Conference in March 2005.
This was by all accounts a historical moment, the significance of which will be absorbed and recognized with time. But this conference has already refuted the claim that the unconditional support for the Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return is a taboo in Israel and a non-starter for peace negotiations for the two people. What the hundreds of people attending the conference showed was that a growing number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel regard the implementation of the Palestinian Right of Return as the only road to a lasting peace and reconciliation in the torn land of Palestine."
Ilan Pappe, Chair
Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Israeli Studies
Initiating NGOs: Ittijah, Zochrot, The Emil Touma Institute, and The Committee for the Internally Displaced in Israel
Right of Return and Just Peace Conference: The Final Declaration
Hundreds of participants took part in the conference. Preparation for a second conference is under way, and the work for the return of Palestinian refugees continues. Participants declare: we watch over the Right of Return, and refuse any attempt of any group to prevent this right.
With the participation of large ranks of the Palestinian population in Israel, and a remarkable involvement of progressive Jewish circles, more than 300 persons have taken part in the Right of Return and Just Peace Conference that took place in Haifa’s Al Midan-Theatre on March 26 to March 28. Many participants also joint the field trip to destroyed villages of the Palestinian Nakba, and saw the traces of the historical crime Israel is trying to cover up.
Palestinian academics from the Diaspora, as well as representatives of Palestinian Right of Return and refugee institutions in the West Bank and Gaza spoke at the conference. Guests of honor were a representative of the American Green Party, and representatives of several embassies and foreign institutions in Israel.
The conference took place on the eve of the 28th anniversary of Land Day. The symbolic date chosen by the organizers was to symbolize the strong ties between the Palestinian people’s concerns both in Israel, the occupied Palestine and the Diaspora. The conference participants aimed to find together and resist the fragmentation of their cause, most notably regarding the Right of Return. Haifa was chosen as the site of the conference because this town has seen the expulsion of 70,000 Palestinians in 1948. Choosing Haifa, the organizers sent a political message in favor of the implementation of the Right of Return and the transformation of this dream into a real item on the political and public agenda.
By proposing the Right of Return, the organizers wished to reinforce the Palestinian cause and to develop projects for the return of refugees who find themselves in a situation of statelessness. They also wished to put this question into the center of the political debate in Israel, and to counteract a historical policy in Israel that aims to delegitimize the Right of Return. In their view, these attempts are the main obstacle for a just peace.
The Right of Return and Just Peace Conference in Haifa took place simultaneously with a number of similar conferences in Europe, the United States and the Arab world. It was the result of unified efforts and coordination between numerous Palestinian refugee institutions and solidarity movements, who together aimed to face the challenges of Israeli and international peace plans that will prevent the implementation of the Right of Return. Together, the institutions aimed to reinforce a Palestinian and international movement in favor of the return of Palestinian refugees to their towns and villages, of the return of the refugees’ property, and of the implementation of international resolutions, most notable the UN resolution 194 for the return of Palestinian refugees that is based on international human rights.
The conference has affirmed the commitment of the organizers and the participants to the rights of the Palestinian people, which they are convinced is not negotiable. They have raised their united voice against each plan, whatever party may propose it, that tries to weaken the Right of Return and the rights of the Palestinian people for an end of the occupation, for freedom and independence.
The organizers of the Right of Return and Just Peace Conference are proud of the participation of their Palestinian sisters and brothers from the occupied territories and the Diaspora. They are also very proud of the greeting messages of many Palestinian institutions from the West Bank and Gaza, and refugee camps in Lebanon and in the Diaspora, who were not able to attend the conference. The conference considers these messages and the participation as a sign for the importance of a new unification of the Palestinian people, wherever they may live, under a shared aim.
The conference also appreciates the participation of progressive Israelis who aim for a Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and Internally Displaced People. They are our partners in developing this project and changing the opinion of the Israeli public, in order to build a foundation for the return project. The discussions and lectures of the conference insisted on the necessity to revive the memory, and to draw future visions on the human, legal, public and political level. They showed that there exists a potential that will be important to use for developing actions and institutional efforts, and for realizing envisioned projects.
A document book on the conference will be published as one step of future action. Also, the organizers are planning to enlarge the movement for return, inside Israel as well as in all countries of exile. Efforts shall be made to unify and coordinate different movements, and to build a central project of the Palestinian people and all those who want to join the action and show their solidarity. The conference has affirmed its rejection of all projects that will abolish, avoid and destroy the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees. The organizers affirm with unanimity that the conference has been a promising success in terms of reinforcement, enlargement and organization of an internal movement for return, and for the preparation of a second conference on Right of Return and Just Peace in spring 2005.
The conference was organized by the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian and Israeli Studies, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel, Ittijah – Union of Arab Community Based Associations, and Zochrot – Remembering the Nakba in Hebrew. In the end of the conference, further associations have declared their support and will to join the organizers in continuing the work. These organizations are the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA), Al Beit – Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Israel, the association "Another Voice in the Galilee", and several others. This final declaration has been proposed to institutions that might join the initiative. Dozens of local and international institutions are expected to sign the declaration and to join soon.
Seeing What Could Not Be Seen: Israelis and Palestinians Visit Destroyed Villages, Discuss Rights of Refugees and Displaced Persons
By: BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights
"We saw what could not be seen in other visits to the Galilee," said a Jewish Israeli after visiting six destroyed Palestinians villages in the Galilee area of Israel as part of an Israeli- Palestinian conference, March 26-28 in Haifa.
The Right of Return and Just Peace Conference, "The Haifa Initiative" brought together 300 Israeli Jews, Palestinians, internally displaced Palestinians in Israel, Palestinian and Israeli academics, and supporters of human and civil rights groups in Israel, Palestine and abroad to coordinate their efforts in advancing the rights of Palestinian refugees in general and those inside Israel in particular. A number of invited guests from the Occupied Territories were denied entry to Israel by the Israeli authorities so could not attend.
The significance of the conference will be realized with time said Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. "It has already refuted the claim that unconditional support for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is a taboo in Israel and a non-starter for peace negotiations…Those attending showed that growing numbers of Jews and Palestinians in Israel regard the implementation of the right of return as the only road to a lasting peace and reconciliation in the torn land of Palestine."
Emil Touma Institute for Israeli and Palestinian Studies, Haifa; ADRID, Association for the Defense of Displaced Persons’ Rights in Israel; Zochrot, an Israeli association for raising Jewish Israeli awareness of the Palestinian Nakba and refugee rights; and Ittijah, Union of Arab Community Based Associations sponsored the meeting.
In a joint statement to the conference, initiating NGOs vowed to protect the memory of the 1948 Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe) from its denial in Israel and abroad; put the right of return at the center of peace making in Israel and Palestine; and find an appropriate political structure to enable the return of refugees. The initiators and supporting NGOs are convinced that return is the key for a better future, not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for the region as a whole. Righting of the wrongs inflicted in the 1948 ethnic cleansing, and since, would allow all, for the first time, to enjoy normal and peaceful life on a democratic and civic basis.
For this purpose, the conference suggested various projects such as educational workshops on the Nakba, a Nakba Museum and an official Nakba day in Israel. It also called for a better coordination among the Right of Return organizations in the world, the advancement of practical programs for facilitating the return and urgent research of detailed schema for a united political structure that could contain the right of return. These and other proposals would form "The Haifa Initiative".
Preparations have begun for a second Right of Return conference in March 2005.
Right of Return and a Just Peace Conference
Haifa, March 26-28, 2004
Remarks at Conference Opening
Justine McCabe, Ph.D. representing Green party of US, Al-Awda, US
Many thanks for this opportunity to speak to you all. I bring you greetings from both the Green Party of the US and the American chapter of The Palestinian Right of Return Coalition, Al-Awda.
In the early 1970’s, as a young graduate student in anthropology, my interest in the relationship between culture and mental health led me to spend several months in Gallop, NM where I worked on the psychiatric unit of the Gallop Indian Medial Center. Patients there were from the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Native American reservations.
By American psychiatric practice, most of the patients carried diagnostic labels of depression, borderline psychosis and chronic alcohol abuse. However, to most of us, these people suffered from trauma and despair—the ever-trickling down effects of colonialism, dispossession and genocide.
I witnessed grotesque poverty and environmental devastation on the reservations to which these native peoples were virtually confined. These images left a deep impression of sadness and outrage. It became impossible to forget an often hidden historical fact—that my country was built on the destruction of other peoples, other cultures.
A couple of years later, I went to Lebanon to do my doctoral research. There I saw Palestinian refugee camps for the first time, and with them a resonance of those irrevocable images of Native American despair. While Native American ethnic cleansing had begun two centuries earlier by my government, what I saw in Lebanon was the result of an active, ongoing destruction of another culture and people, begun in my lifetime, and financially sustained by my government. It took little imagination to see that without serious international intervention, the no-man’s land fate of the native peoples of the US, would also become the reality for Palestinian refugees.
Now, to bring these experiences to this time and place.
My government has never apologized to Native Americans for these profound human betrayals; for overwhelming and devastating their lives, natural resources and cultures. Similarly, no American government has formally apologized to African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in order to help build the enormous material wealth and prosperity of the US, and to whom we continue to deny any reparations.
Consequently, there has been no truth and no reconciliation between American governments and all her peoples.
Instead, a terrible psychological and material legacy continues both within the US and in our relationships with peoples everywhere.
Domestically, these violent, formative actions and their denial have, at best, resulted in an underclass of Native and African Americans who are poor, unemployed and alienated; and at worst, they’ve helped to maintain the segregated, drug and violence-plagued neighborhoods in our inner cities, and created clients for one of our most booming industries—American prisons.
Internationally, the legacy of America’s unacknowledged dispossession of its native peoples has been the maintenance of a kind of imperial right to defy international law, to overthrow democratically-elected governments, to wage war--all in the name of a corporate globalization that defiles the earth and severs even the most sturdy organic ties among local communities and their natural and human environments.
Indeed, the US is the most militarily powerful nation in the world AND its does profess inspiringly beautiful, humanistic ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Yet, the fact remains that the US government is built on that very shaky foundation of a violent formative history—and its denial.
I believe that these unacknowledged formative acts have steadily encouraged my government to behave so imperiously and to frequently corrupt our very real democratic values.
But what does this have to do with Israel?
It has to do with that "special relationship" between Israel and the US, in which Israel is perennially likened to the US--its democratic government, the "only democracy" in the Middle East, the only real partner for the US in this region, its similar, enormous military power and dominance in the region, etc.
This "special relationship" has been manifest most concretely by the enormous material and political support given to Israel by the US since its creation—140 billion in American dollars and an inestimable amount in American patronage and clout, especially in international arenas like the United Nations.
Still, whatever else may pertain to this special relationship, it can no longer be denied that Israel is also like the US in at least one quite reprehensible way-- the treatment of its native peoples.
As an American, then, the pressing question I ask Israelis is whether you will allow your government to continue to follow our destructive example and fail to acknowledge the violence toward your own native peoples, the Palestinians? Or will Israelis turn from this American example to begin a real process of truth and reconciliation with Palestinians?
Obviously, to encourage Israel toward such a move, toward a just, sustainable peace. there must be fundamental change in that "special" US-Israeli relationship.
With regard to the American part of that relationship, we must end our support for Israel’s unjust policies. However, that will only come, I believe, with significant structural change in the American electoral system. That is, the US must move from the current corporate-dominated, two-party "duopoly" of the Republican and Democratic parties, to a multi-party system so that new voices like the Green Party—which supports Al-Awda --can be heard.
Briefly, I believe that the US Green party significantly embodies that growing force and wish in the US for electoral change toward genuine democracy and a multi-party system.
Many of you may know us as the party whose presidential candidate in 2000 was Ralph Nader. In 2001, the US Green Party was recognized by the US federal election commission as a national party; we are now the third largest party in the US—the only one growing in membership. Our steady growth is also seen in the number of Green political candidates and the over 200 Greens who have been elected to local offices and state legislatures in the US.
Significantly, we’re also part of a Global Green movement. There are Greens in over 90 countries including federations of Green Parties in Africa, the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe. While operating independently in their own countries, parties to this Green movement are united by the same four core principles: Ecological Wisdom, Grassroots Democracy, Social and Economic Justice and Non-Violence.
So, for example, building a Green Party here among Israelis and Palestinians would also be a way of joining an international network of political parties, guided by the same principles, working for peace and justice in the Middle East.
Still, the Green Party of the US recognizes that our greatest singular contribution to making peace here will come through our impact on US policy in the region.
Thus, our own commitment to those four core principles of ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy, social and economic justice and non-violence, compels us to oppose US government support for "friendly" regimes both in Israel and in the Arab world whenever those regimes violate human rights, international law and existing treaties.
And, it is those same principles that compel us to support popular movements for peace and demilitarization, especially those that reach across the lines of conflict to engage both Palestinians and Israelis of good will. The cooperation of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis here through grassroots groups like Ittijah and Zochrot in organizing this landmark conference is a most heartening example. In fact, I came to this conference to personally express the support of the Green party and Al-Awda and to join your cooperative efforts.
It is from these principles that the Green Party of the US endorses the human right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes here. And, from these values, we join Al-Awda in affirming that there can be no enduring peace between Palestinian and Israelis until this right is acknowledged and implemented.
To repeat, I have little hope that the necessary American support for that reconciliation will come from either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Instead, both Republican President George Bush and Democratic Candidate-apparent, John Kerry, will continue unequivocal support for Israel’s destructive policies.
But I do have hope that this support will come eventually and that it is being kept alive by such movements as the Green party, by Al-Awda and by this landmark conference.
So, as the Green Party calls for opening up the American electoral process as the unavoidable way to end the occupation of the US government by multinational corporations, so we call for honoring the right of Palestinians to return home as the unavoidable opening to peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is only from that place that we can begin to acknowledge that Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked by their mutual attachment to the same land.
And, from that place, that we can work as an international movement to support a practical, peaceful way for Israelis and Palestinians to live with maximum freedom in the same place.
In closing, your poet, Aharon Shabtai eloquently describes this reality for Jews and Palestinians in "Our Land"
For we belong to a single body –
Arabs and Jews.
Tel Aviv and Tulkarem,
Haifa and Ramallah –
what are they
if not a single pair of shoulders,