Issue No.
169, May 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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On Strike, by Ismail Shammout.
Guardian of the Fire, by Ismail Shammout.

Call to Action
By Nisreen Haj Ahmad
On my way back from Brussels to Amman, my head filled up with entangled thoughts. I spent the last two days (March 19 and 20, 2012) in UNRWA’s “Engaging Youth” conference. More than a hundred people participated, including 24 young Palestinian refugees who UNRWA brought from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. I listened to their opinions and the opinions of UNRWA, the PLO, the PA, the host countries, and donor countries. I heard conventional speeches and some thought-provoking remarks. I listened to UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi’s final statement and UNRWA’s ten obligations and followed the conference on Twitter. And here I am trying to process my entangled thoughts…

Yes, of course, UNRWA, the international community, the PLO, and host countries must seriously seek an immediate implementation of the right of return and compensation. Israel must be held accountable and be pressured to end its occupation, comply with international law, implement the right of return, and compensate Palestinian refugees. Likewise host countries must treat refugees compassionately and equitably. They should secure a decent life for the refugees with full economic and social rights. UNRWA is obliged to provide refugees with the best services and upgrade education, health, and infrastructure. It must involve the refugees in decision making and maintain constant communication with them as Grandi said in his closing remarks. Moreover, since the international community is also responsible for the conflict, they have the duty to finance UNRWA. Arab countries, especially where revolutions succeeded, must end relations with Israel and maybe even the United States, as long as there is no just and legal solution to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. In its turn the PLO has to improve its performance and its pursuit of the right of return and compensation for the refugees. It must stay strongly connected to the refugees inside and outside the camps. The PLO must also cut coordination with Israel and the United States and any other country that does not pressure Israel to implement the right of return. This is the only correct scenario at this point.

Naturally, these positions have repercussions. If UNRWA seriously seeks the implementation of the right of return, Israel will campaign against it. It may paralyse its movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It will pressure other countries to stop financing UNRWA. As a result: aid would stop. Flour would stop. Education and health services would stop. Perhaps also if the PLO and the PA adopt the positions mentioned above, Israel would stop transferring tax revenues to the PA, seize Palestinian funds, restrict the movement of PA officials, or maybe even imprison some. Likewise, if the international community and Arab countries adopt a similar position they might have to deal with substantial repercussions from the United States. Enough. The point is simple. The right position is clear and its implications are clear too. What is also clear is that during the past sixty-three years, none of these right positions mentioned above have been taken - not in the right sequence or the right degree.

So what to do? What’s next?
What can we young motivated Palestinian refugees do now? Should we continue to demand from others that they realise our right? Should we continue to wait for the materialisation of the needed “favourable conditions”? In the meantime, should we focus our efforts on our livelihood, relief work, development, creation of work opportunities, and empowerment? My friend Hassan believes that pursuing the improvement of current living conditions of refugees betrays the main goal. He also thinks that UNRWA will intentionally or by the desire of its donors always be delinquent so that the refugees stay busy with their livelihoods and not the return. I disagree with Hassan on the details but agree that continuing to demand that others get us the right of return and reparation is not the way to go. We should obtain the right of return ourselves and not continue to wait. It is true that grave injustice has been done to us but that does not mean that we are incapable of representing ourselves and doing the work. There is no reason why we ourselves cannot obtain our right.

There is a chance now. There is space and energy to act, especially among the youth. We should organise a return to our land and homes rather than organise to improve our living conditions in the camps. What shape should this collective effort take? How can we develop it to ensure that we are back on the map and in our homes?

I will answer this question in the next paragraph. First, each one of us has to be conscious of her or his personal role in achieving our goal. We have to coordinate organised collective action. And we have to decide to succeed. We know that there are two factors for the success of this effort: our conviction that we will succeed and our ability to confront the opposition. Many will oppose our effort whether publicly or privately. They will question our logic and invite us to revisit our thinking. They will claim that we don’t appreciate the current geo-politics. They will tell us that we do not understand the meaning of American and Israeli elections. They may accuse us of fragmenting the already fragmented internal Palestinian fabric or accuse us of competing with the camps’ main players since our action highlights their inaction. And if we do not retract, they will threaten to cut off aid. They may launch smear campaigns against us and accuse us of collaboration or imitation. Then they will exert more pressure; perhaps arrest some of us. And if you continue and your action grows, perhaps they will stop the aid, cut off health services and lay off the staff, cut off education services and stop teachers’ salaries so that your own people turn against you - internal resistance. In this case, building collaborative power becomes as important as building power over Israel.

During the first Intifada when schools were closed, classrooms were opened in the neighbourhoods and at homes, and land was cultivated with tomatoes and vegetables. The same collaborative power was built in other movements. Many know of Rosa Parks who mobilised African Americans to boycott the racist bus system but few know that the movement’s leadership had to develop an alternative transport for people to get to work on time without incurring extra costs. A collective transportation system was in place for the boycott to be possible. Many examples exist to demonstrate that collective power enables the activists to bear the price of the action or the repercussions of the opposition. But it is most likely that neither UNRWA nor the donor countries will cut off all aid or services because our claim is legal and legitimate. That is why the opposition may infiltrate your active community and promote a different kind of collective action: one that deprives you from your moral ground and is contradictory to your values. They will incite your members to resort to verbal or physical violence against your partners, including UNRWA, the host countries, and the PLO so that you will lose your grounds. Therefore your prerogative is to keep your activism peaceful, legal, and moral, and refrain from “attacking” your partners even though they are at that moment inactive as such.

Now how does our collective effort look? How can it be intelligent and promise success? During the past three years, we have witnessed some encouraging although dispersed initiatives. Examples include the May 2011 marches to the borders of Palestine in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan that revived the youth’s motivation. There was also the successful legal case to protect the houses of Lifta in Jerusalem from demolition in the face of Israeli attempts to build housing and shopping complexes. Current efforts are also being made to develop a registration database for Palestinians in refugee camps and the diaspora (within the framework of the National Council’s election). On a different level, the Dajani family recovered the right to restore the tomb of Dr. Dajani in Jaffa and a roundabout was named after him. There are also many comparative experiences that we can learn from all over the world. I can also suggest some ideas for our collective action but I won’t. If you are waiting for the magic recipe in order to decide to act then it is good to know that there is no such thing. Some ideas will work and others will fail. We must be convinced that such a recipe is not important. We don’t need to develop the best possible strategy and the best set of tactics for us to launch an action. What’s important is to choose to act. We will learn from our failures and successes. We will be flexible and hang in it together.

The other reason that holds me back from making suggestions is that our action programme should be developed by us collaboratively - a grassroots programme that evolves through dialogue and from experience. Not one that we import from articles or from experts. As Ziad said during a conference coffee break, “The most important thing is that any action taken must have real meaning. One that is born in the heart and is consistent with our values. One that is constantly evolving.” It also needs to be well organised. It is not just about mobilisation: getting people out on the streets and pumping up adrenalin and energy. It needs to be the steady building of grassroots leadership teams. Many teams that are similar to the neighbourhood committees initially formed in the Egyptian revolution to guard the areas at night and similar to the neighbourhood committees formed during our first Intifada. It is a structure that can expand to include many factions and institutions without being contained by any one of them. It expands beyond them to the streets and houses. Naturally the Internet will be a critical coordination tool among the refugees and the camps. It is important to say that this collective action has to be born from clear values and from the realities of our stories. As it grows it would enhance our Palestinian identity - our knowledge of our history, of our politics, and of our literature and art.

Finally, if you believe that these thoughts are naïve, I ask you, Isn’t it more naïve to wait another twenty or thirty years calling on others to deliver your rights? And if you think that this proposal is irresponsible, let me ask you, Do you not think it irresponsible to expect and subtly accept that another generation of young, vibrant Palestinians live the life of refugees? And if you think that there is a golden political opportunity within reach and that we’d better wait, wouldn’t our organised effort support your efforts in developing such an opportunity?

If, however, you find this call to action compelling, my question to you is: What will you do now? How are you going to advance this in your camp or neighbourhood? How are you going to tell your story of pain and hope - the one that motivates you and others to act? What are the values that bring us together and develop our collective identity?

Nisreen Haj Ahmad is a specialist in community organising. For more information, visit www.ahel.org.

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