Keeping the cause alive: Is assimilation leading to annihilation of Palestinian identity?

The Arab: Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008)

Palestinian refugees are a major unifying facet of Palestinian identity and an important symbol of Palestinian history but also a major source of conflict in the peace process. Many feel that improvements in refugee camps alongside successful integration in host countries will dilute the intensity in the demand for a right for return. But is the cost of exclusion as a refugee, one worth paying for the Palestinian cause? Arwa Aburawa explores

Handala, the figure of a barefooted, ragged, young refugee is a timeless symbol of the Palestinian struggle. A creation of the cartoonist Naji Al-Ali who was assassinated in London, Handala is the eternal refugee; living a life in exile and refusing to forget his homeland Palestine. His image is scrawled across walls in refugees camps, waved on placards in protests and is a constant reminder that the experience of dispossession and exile are central to Palestinian identity. Indeed, according to the latest figures from UNRWA the total Palestinian refugee count is more than six million people.

Refugees and refugee camps have historically been at the centre of Palestinian resistance, fighting for their right of return which attracts a wide base of support. A report by the International Crisis Group adds that we shouldn’t forget that “the right of return- not statehood- formed the original raison d’etre of the contemporary national movement, notably of the dominant Fatah movement and the PLO.” (Middle East Report No.22, Feb 2004). Now, these Palestinian organisations fear that significant improvements in the harsh living conditions of refugees camps coupled with resettlement plans, will lead to assimilation amongst refugees who will consequently abandon the Palestinian cause. As Azmi Bishara reiterates, “Palestinian national struggle began among the Palestinian refugees, whose lives are the ongoing reality of the Nakba. No national strategy for resistance is possible without them”.

With this is mind, it’s obvious why many see the increased assimilation among young Palestinian refugees across the Arab states, as a real threat to the future of the Palestinian cause. Yet, from my time and experience with Palestinians living in Jordan, I’m not convinced that embracing Jordanian citizenship necessarily means abandoning Qadiyat Filistin.

Taking Jordan as an example, while the experience of Palestinian refugees may be considered unique, with 41.7% of all registered Palestinian refugees living in Jordan’s boundaries they are somewhat representative. In contrast with refugees living in Lebanon who are classed by law as foreigners, Palestinian refugees in Jordan were confirmed as equal citizens with full civil rights by 1954. Even so, they continue to experience discrimination in education and employment, especially in the well-paid and prestigious public sector. Since 1948, various schemes have been put forward for resettling the refugees across the Arab world, yet many states have been unwilling to absorb the refugees. The only exception to this has been Jordan, which receives large amounts of development assistance from the international community to help resettle and integrate the refugees.

Baqa’a camp is the largest refugee camp still in existence in Jordan and is home to over 90,000 Palestinians whose tents have since 1969-71 been converted into prefabricated shelters and gradually into concrete blocks (UNRWA). The sprawling refugee camp is always bustling with life. Children play in narrow streets, whizz past on bikes, fly their kites and run into shops which are conveniently situated at the end of every street. It’s also hard to miss the elderly ladies who gather on front door steps to chat and hurl abuse at children who come close enough to be of a nuisance: “Ya Bush! You! God ruin you and your house! Look at this mess!”

Although assimilation was expected amongst the middle and upper classes who could afford to build new lives in the metropolitan centres, it was never anticipated within the refugee camps. Yet over the years there has been a distinct change in the attitudes of third generation, young refugees who are learning to embrace their Jordanian nationality. They have replaced the posters of Arafat on their walls for images of the smiling confident King Abduallah II.

To the earlier generations, admitting any pride in Jordan and claiming that you were Jordanian if you had Palestinian heritage was almost blasphemous. History was the way that they remembered who they were: Palestinians who never forget their beloved homeland. Not like the new generations, “they’re no good” they would retort. “All they care about is themselves and the latest mobiles. They have forgotten their forefathers’ struggles and their Palestinian identity. Wallah they have lost themselves and for what?!”

Ibtisaam, a young Palestinian refugee led me by the hand into her room to show me pictures of the King Abdullah of Jordan and tapes of Omar Al-Abdullat- a nationalistic Jordanian singer- hidden under her mattress. “I love Jordan” she whispered. When I asked Ibtisaam why she loved Jordan, she replied “the King hasn’t forgotten us in the refugee camps. Look how improved the markets are now; there’s more space and asphalted roads, and in the winter, he gave us all coats and school bags. At least he’s remembered us.” Even though many feel that ‘admitting’ allegiance to a country other than Palestine is an abandonment of their identity and support for Qadiyat Filistin, this isn’t necessarily the case.

For those in refugee camps it’s always hard to integrate into the host community as they are geographically apart from the rest of society and so their ‘outsider’ status is undeniable. But if young refugees like Ibtisaam feel that they are ‘remembered’ as part of the larger nation then its natural that they will move away from a single-minded Palestinian identification. Integration is likely given the length of exile that Palestinians have been objected to. 60 years is a long time, it’s only natural that new identities and loyalties are formed when generation after generation is born and raised away from the homeland. And whilst many Palestinians are settled as part of Jordanian society, this does not in any way dilute their determination to have their right of return recognised.

As Jordanian blogger Fadi Zaghmout goes on to explain: “Palestine has always been in my heart because it was the place where my grandparents were born and lived, but it has never been my country and never would be.” Although he realises that moving back into their grandparents villages and towns may be difficult, Fadi maintains that this shouldn’t be “an excuse for Israel to escape from compensation and the right for those people to go back.” Evidently, Palestinians who fully embrace their Jordanian identity continue to support refugees right of return and compensation for their families who suffered the effects of traumatic upheaval.

It is nonetheless apparent that they are seeing the conflict from a very different perspective to their grandparents. “The Palestinian cause for me is more about people rather than land.We all have Palestine in our hearts, and we all wants the best for our nation, but humans come first. We should concentrate on achieving peace and help raising the standard of living in the West Bank and Gaza.” Thus, the Palestinian cause is no longer framed as a strictly religious and national conflict against Zionism but is now informed by beliefs in human rights as outlined by international law. This new perspective is inferred by the characterisation of the conflict as one against apartheid, in which the Palestinian refugees are refused right of return whilst any person of Jewish descent from anywhere across the world can become an Israeli citizen.

The apartheid analysis is extremely powerful as it appeals to a much wider audience which has no interest in complex politics but supports equal rights for all human beings. It is also more inclusive as it is not relying on Palestinians to fight for their rights and homeland, appealing instead to humanity and its principles. This change in the character of the Palestinian cause, promoted by Palestinians across the world – no matter what nationality they hold- and by all those who value human life and equality, is helping to bolster the Palestinian cause. The are leaving behind any divides of nationality, religion or politics and focusing on protecting people who are being denied their basic human rights. And as Zaghmout put it so eloquently, human beings come first.

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