Land, Memory, and Identity: The Palestinian Internal Refugees in Israel

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Abstract

This article describes and analyzes the processes the Internal Refugees have experienced since the establishment of the state till this day from the perspective of the struggle over the "refugee identity." While the state has tried to undermine this identity as part of its policy against the Right of Return, activists from the refugees' communities have done their best to preserve it. In the late 1980s it looked as if the state's goal of uprooting the refugee identity was achieved, but the last decade witnessed an awakening of this identity. This has a lot to do with the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but also, it is suggested here, with the very nature of "refugee identity," which has two components, of which one is positive ("my roots are there") and one is negative ("I am not from here").

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The Internal Refugees in Israel are Palestinians who were uprooted from their villages in the course of the 1948 war, but found refuge within the borders of the state and became its citizens. From 1948, up until today, they have continuously voiced their demand to return to their villages, only to be met by the refusal of all Israeli governments. For the most part, their lands were allocated to Jewish settlement. While constituting a part of the general refugee problem, the moral, political, and practical controversy about the Internal Refugees is one of the most concrete expressions of the structural conflict between the state of Israel and its Arab citizens.

This article aims to analyze the relations between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Internal Refugees from the perspective of the struggle over the "refugee identity" from 1948 war onwards. After introducing the roots of the problem of the Internal Refugees and the legal mechanisms through which Israel took over their lands, the article deals with the Israeli policy of abolishing their identity, and with the resistance of groups within these communities. The last decade is witnessing a revival of the "refugee identity," which will be presented and analyzed at the end of the paper.

The Roots of the Problem and the Denial of Return

The roots of this phenomenon are to be found in the way in which Palestinian Arabs were uprooted from areas conquered by Jewish forces in the 1948 war. Terrified by the advancing Israeli army, whole communities had left their villages and sought refuge in neighbouring villages, which had not yet been conquered, or in large towns, which they believed would never be taken by the Israelis. But most of these villages and towns were indeed conquered, and their inhabitants, as well as their "guests," were uprooted. In the rare cases where the host communities had stayed in place, the refugees from the neighbouring villages stayed with them, or at least tried to. (1) That was the case with thousands of villagers from the eastern Galilee, who concentrated in the town of Nazareth prior to its occupation. The same goes for many refugees who, relying on the close ties between the Druze leadership and the Israeli army, fled to Druze villages, hoping they would be allowed to stay. Many others found asylum in villages which had surrendered later to the Israeli army without battle, and became parts of the new state of Israel with their inhabitants. (2)

The first reaction of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was to drive the refugees who remained in the state of Israel over the border, in order to prevent them from returning to their villages. Thousands of refugees were thus expelled from the region of Ramah and Peqi'in (in upper Galilee) and from the town of Majdal (Ashkelon, on the southern coast of the state). Similarly, Israel has pressured refugees who had settled in villages in the Arab triangle to leave their new homes prior to the allocation of this area to the state of Israel (as was agreed upon in talks with Jordan held in Rhodes). (3)

In spite of the forced expulsion, according to official estimates some twenty-five thousand Internal Refugees remained within the borders of the newborn state, mainly in the Galilee, constituting about one-sixth of the total Arab population. …