The key, many of which are still held by Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948, represents the Palestinians’ right to return under international law. It remains a cherished symbol of resistance against dispossession, occupation, and subjugation by Israel.
Every day in Palestine there are new refugees, Palestinians expelled from their homes, their villages, due to construction of the Separation Wall and expansion of the settlements.
The right of return is also a human and international issue because Palestinians are the population with the largest number of refugees, some 7.5 million scattered throughout the world.
During the first half of the 20th century, Palestine was relatively an economically developed country if compared to other Arab countries, especially agriculturally. It was linked to the other Arab countries through a modern network of transport that made it an important trade centre. The heart of this reality was the village. Palestinians developed a special relationship with their land, the primary source of livelihood, while the socio-economic unity in the villages was represented by the extended family. The traditional Palestinian family was constituted by three or four generations living in the same neighbourhood and collaborating in the main domestic tasks and economic responsibilities.
Inside this unit, there was a social hierarchy at the top of which was the elder father and other males, responsible for the economic well-being of the family, while the mother and other females cared for the children and domestic tasks. A primary characteristic of the Palestinian extended family was the interdependence of its members and the social protection it provided to its members; the family unit was responsible for everything. Inside the village, as well, relations among the inhabitants were based on trust and cooperation, such that villages comprised compact socio-economic units.
In 1948, with the forced expulsion from Palestine of more than 750.000 Palestinians by the Israeli Zionist militias, these solid bonds of trust and cooperation were destroyed and families separated and scattered in different countries. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their houses and lands, escaping to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Palestinians found themselves in a completely different and new reality, living as refugees in camps lacking the pre-existing family and social bonds, and where the physical and psychological spaces were different. The extended family system disappeared as families were separated and there wasn’t sufficient space for new members, who were anyways less dependent on the family.
At the same time the hierarchical structure inside the family was modified: women in the refugee camps shared the same living conditions of men and all together, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, had to join the efforts to survive.
Even the Palestinians’ perception of space was modified. In the refugee camps everything was shared and space was no more private but social. According to the words of a girl living in a Syrian refugee camp, “our window was the window of our neighbours”. The space was delineated and it had precise borders, unlike the villages where lands had no borders and where everyone was able to find his/her own space without invading the space of the other.
From 1948 “the time of crashes” (Kanafani) began; it has been a period in which space, together with the social bonds that existed before the Nakba, have disappeared and Palestinian refugees no longer have a determined social role in a well known society.
Return is not something that is touchable and material but becomes an abstract idea, the idea of Palestine that we have always imagined in our minds. The key itself, that many children raise above their heads during the Nakba commemorations symbolises their status of refugees, doesn’t represent the material means to enter their old houses but has become a sacred image, a relic to keep and worship. The concept of present and past breaks: present is what doesn’t exist anymore and what has never existed but in the minds of refugees; the present is Palestine, the hope of returning.
The Palestinian right of return evolves beyond a political issue to a social and cultural one. It represents an idea, a dream and this is why Palestinians will never renounce it.
Thanks to Marta Fortunato, Alternative Information Center (AIC).