Inside a Palestinian refugee camp:
‘Returning into Israel’..... as part of daily life

Published: 29 June 2011
Briefing Number 289

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Summary:   The Palestinians claim a ‘right of return’ into Israel.  And this claim is not abstract, or symbolic.  Palestinian culture and society are constantly reinforcing the ‘right’.  This new Beyond Images Briefing reproduces a startling account of a recent visit by a Canadian writer, Rhonda Spivak, to a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem, where she sees that the idea of returning to Israel is a deep-rooted feature of Palestinian daily life.  Her account highlights that:
- The Palestinians are very far indeed from giving up on the ‘right of return’

- The ‘right’ is constantly reinforced in public places, and in schools

- Western aid donors turn a blind eye to Palestinian educational material which erases Israel’s existence altogether, and

- A senior UN official who recently publicly questioned the realism of the ‘right of return’ into Israel faced serious censure from Palestinians, and had to retract 

Key messages: The ‘right of return’ is a fundamental demand of the Palestinians.  And it is deeply rooted in Palestinian society. Not only are Palestinian leaders publicly intransigent on the issue, but Palestinian society at the ‘grassroots’ level publicly reinforces that intransigence.  The persistence of the ‘right of return’ presents a major obstacle to peace, coexistence and a viable two-state solution.   

Canadian writer Rhonda Spivak describes Palestinian refugee camp....

This Briefing reproduces an article by Canadian writer Rhonda Spivak which appeared in a little-known local Jewish publication, the Winnipeg Jewish Review in Canada, on 30 March 2011.  See

The article is self-explanatory, and summarised in the summary above.

My visit to Palestinian refugee camps

by Rhonda Spivak

published on 30 March 2011

The ‘timewarp’ in a Palestinian refugee camp.....

I have recently been to two Palestinian refugee camps run by the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNWRA) near Bethlehem.  My visit has unfortunately left me with the impression that the Palestinians as a whole are far from giving up on the right of return to their 1948 homes and villages in Israel.  I saw first hand how Palestinian refugees in UNWRA camps live in what I can only describe as a ‘time warp’, as these UNWRA camps perpetuate the illusion of them one day returning to former homes and villages in pre-1967 Israel.

For example, I was rather shocked to see that the entrance to the Aida UNWRA refugee camp has a “huge key” that says “not for sale” promoting the notion of a right of return, which cannot be bought.  (This begs the question why the West allows this to be put up in a UN refugee camp that the West funds, which only feeds the illusion of a mass right of return, which means the ultimate destruction of Israel).    

Images in the refugee camps erase Israel completely.....
Many years ago, in 1989 I co-founded a chapter of Peace Now in Winnipeg [Peace Now is a doveish grassroots movement in Israel – Beyond Images] and it was because I believed that Palestinians in UNWRA refugee camps would forego the right of return to 1948 Israel and would live in a future Palestinian state (in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) that would co-exist alongside Israel (which would have a Jewish majority).  For a two-state solution to ever be feasible, Palestinians would have to forego the full right of return.
But on my recent visit, I saw that in UNWRA Palestinian refugee camps people live in streets according to the villages they came from (ie refugees and their descendants from Jaffa all live near each other), and childrens’ sports teams are divided according to former villages (eg children who are descendants of Jaffa refugees are on one team).  All of this serves only to perpetuate the conflict by feeding the false and unrealistic notion of returning to pre-1967 Israel.  In both UNWRA refugee camps I visited there were ‘Naqba’ signs that showed maps of Palestine which included all of pre-1967 Israel.

When I was at Aida, I saw several long blocks of huge murals of all the Palestinian villages to which the refugees talk about returning.  I was struck by the fact that one of the villages in these murals, for example, depicted Be’er Sheva as a small pastoral village with several houses. (Today of course, Beer Sheva is a developed [Israeli] city of 200,000 people).

Palestinian children draw pictures of keys to their homes in Israel....

When I was at a J-Street conference in Washington last month, I met a Jewish peace activist who spent time in UNWRA’s Dehaishe refugee camp in Bethlehem where she volunteered running an art programme.  She told me that when the children were asked to draw something, rather than draw a tree or a sun or a moon – they all drew the same thing – a large key, representing the key to the home in the village where their grandparents lived in 1948, to which they would one day return.

“It was disturbing to realise that this was the first thing the children drew” the art teacher told me. For there to be a peace agreement, youth in UNWRA’s Palestinian refugee camps need to be taught to focus on moving on, upgrading their lives and resettling into homes in Bethlehem, Ramallah in the West Bank, not in pre-1967 Israel.  

Having been to UNWRA’s Palestinian refugee camp in Dehaishe, I can attest to the fact that there is a large mural of a female suicide bomber [a graduate of the school] on an UNWRA school right near the entrance to the camp.  In allowing this mural to remain, the UNWRA school glorifies terror, and perpetuates the continuation of the conflict.   The suicide bomber became the person children admire and seek to aspire to become.   Why the United States and other countries fund a UN school without requiring it to remove a huge mural of a terrorist on the school defies reason, does it not?

I also saw the street near the back of the school and noticed a number of other large murals of terrorists (‘martyrs’) who have died for the cause of liberating all of Palestine.

Globes in Palestinian schools omit Israel, US aid official admits.....

At the J-Street conference in Washington, I met George A Laudato, who works for US AID (the US agency for international development) in the Middle East bureau.  Laudato confirmed that although the US AID builds schools in UNWRA Palestinian refugee camps, US AID “does not monitor the content” of what is taught in those schools, which he acknowledged is “a problem”.  Laudato told me of a situation that “occurred 3 or 4 years ago” at an UNWRA camp he visited in Egypt.

“When I looked at one of the globes in a classroom, I realised that the globe didn’t have Israel on it at all.  All of the globes in the school were the same [missing Israel].  I knew that the American Congress wouldn’t want to be paying for this” he said.

Laudato said he stepped in and insisted that all these globes be replaced with ones that did have Israel on the map.  But Laudato emphasised that normally US AID wouldn’t have intervened in something like this.  “I did intervene because we have had a relationship in Egypt for over 30 years so I felt I could do something about replacing the maps.  But this is not the usual case.”
An UNWRA official who challenges the illusions is forced to retract.....
Andrew Whitley, the outgoing director of UNWRA’s New York office, made headlines this past autumn when he told the National Council for US-Arab relations Annual Conference on 22 October 2010 that it was time to level with the refugees:      

“If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be – for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless to preserve the rather cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes – then we are storing up trouble for ourselves.... We recognise, as I think they do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent..... it’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNWRA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue....”

When Whitley said this he was roasted over the coals by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and others in the Palestinian Authority and several days later he retracted his statement and apologised for it, clarifying that his remarks were “inappropriate and wrong” and that his remarks “did not represent UNWRA’s views”. 

The ‘Right of Return’ as an ‘individual right’ which cannot be conceded....

Many refugees claim that the Palestinian leadership cannot give up the right of return, since it is not theirs’ to give up.  They claim therefore that each refugee family can decide what they wish to do – receive a compensation package and live elsewhere, return to the West Bank / Gaza, or go back to their original villages in 1948 Israel. 

It should be noted that Lt Col Jonathan Dahoah Halevy has pointed out that Saeb Erekat, when he was PA Chief Negotiator, delivered two speeches at Fatah Conventions in Hebron and Jericho during 2009 in Arabic in which he said that “the right of return is the individual right of each refugee and cannot be conceded by anyone in negotiations”. This is also what Palestinian Huwaida Araf, one of the key organisers of last year’s flotilla to Gaza told me when she appeared in Winnipeg last week as a speaker for Israel Apartheid Week.

Who is telling the Palestinians the truth, who is challenging their illusions?
The question that needs to be answered is who in Palestinian society is coming forward to level with Palestinian refugees and their descendants to say that they aren’t going back to their Palestinian villages in Israel?
In other words, who in the PA leadership is telling the refugees in the UNWRA camps I saw near Bethlehem that it’s time to start planning on the Bethlehem area as being their permanent residence, and to begin redirecting their energies towards rebuilding their lives and their future?

Some Related Beyond Images Briefings   

Briefing 34, 24 October 2003
The Palestinian ‘right of return’

Briefing 39, January 2003
Palestinian’s leading cartoonist: Israel should not exist

Briefing 142, 1 June 2005
Negating Israel’s existence: Palestinians demand a full ‘right of return’

Briefing 276, 21 January 2011
Beyond the Naqba mindset: what a real change in Palestinian attitudes would involve.... by Shlomo Avineri

Briefing 290, 30 June 2011
The Palestinian ‘right of return: ‘moderates’ refuse to compromise