Published — Tuesday 19 January 2016
Ibrahim Mahmoud is a 77-year-old man who lives with his family, which includes 11 children, in the Baharka Refugee Camp in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
During his lifetime, he became a refugee twice; once, when he was nine-years-old living in Haifa, Palestine, and the second exile was more recently in Mosul, Iraq. Just weeks before Israel declared its independence in 1948, Ibrahim lost his homeland and fled Haifa, along with tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims and Christians after Israeli militias conquered the city in a military operation they called Bi'ur Hametz, or “Passover Cleaning.”
Throughout Palestine, over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled the horrors of the militia-instigated war, and those who are still alive, along with their descendants, number over million refugees.
When Daesh militias swept into Mosul, Iraq in June 2014, Ibrahim plotted his flight, along with his whole family. Between 1948 and 2014, life was anything but kind to them. At first, they sold falafel, and Ibrahim’s children left school to join the work force at a young age. They all had cards that listed them as “Palestinian refugees,” and have never known any other identity.
When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, they granted their soldiers and the Shiite-militias a free hand in that Arab country. The once relatively thriving and peaceful Palestinian community of refugees in Iraq was shattered. Now, according to the UN Refugees Agency, no more than 3,000 Palestinian refugees are still living in Iraq, many of them in refugee camps.
Ibrahim has finally managed to escape Mosul, and is living in a dirty and crowded refugee camp within Kurdish-controlled territories in the north.
Considering his old age and faltering health, his story could possibly end there, but certainly not that of his children and grandchildren. Ibrahim’s tragedy is not unique within the overall Middle East refugee crisis. Nonetheless, if seen within its painfully protracted historical context, Palestinian exile is almost unprecedented in its complexity and duration. Few other refugee populations have struggled with exile and were defined by it, one generation after the other, as Palestinians have.
To offer a new perspective on this issue, about a year ago, I led a group of Palestinian researchers in an effort to offer a unique and modern study of Palestinian exile, where the 1948 Nakba (or Catastrophe) is examined within a larger context — of space and time — not only in Palestine itself, but throughout the region and the world, as well. The stories will appear in a book that is tentatively entitled: “Exiled.”
Since the first refugee was expelled from his land in 1948, international aid workers, politicians, journalists and, eventually, historians have examined the Palestinian experience, seemingly from all of its angles. Exile then was first seen as a political crisis that can only be fixed with the return of refugees, as instructed in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194.
When that possibility grew dim, other resolutions followed, all expressing the political contexts of each era: in 1950, 74, 82, 83, etc. Regardless of the nature of the discussion pertaining to Palestinian refugees — whether legal, political or moral — the refugees themselves were rarely consulted, except as subjects of selective and sometimes dehumanizing poll questions, drawing their conclusion from the polled refugees selecting “Yes” or “No”, or checking a box or two.
Many conclusions were drawn from various polls that were often commissioned to reach political conclusions, and each time such results are published, academic, media and political storms often ensue. For Israel, the key concern is for the Palestinians to simply disconnect from their historic homeland; for refugee advocates the struggle has always been to demonstrate that the refugees’ desire to return remain as strong today as it was nearly 68 years ago.
But between Israeli laws aimed at punishing Palestinians for commemorating their Nakba, and efforts to keep the Right of Return central to the debate, an actual disconnect happened between, for the likes of Ibrahim Mahmoud of Haifa/Mosel, along with millions like him and the rest of us. For Ibrahim, as is the case for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine itself, across the region and the world, the matter of exile is neither a political nor a legal point of view.
It is an everyday reality that has left numerous scars and manifestations on the refugees’ identities as people, their perception of themselves, of their surroundings, of “home,” their internalization of the past, their understanding of the present and their aspirations for the future.
After examining the profiles of hundreds of Palestinian refugees, reviewing hundreds of answered questionnaires and conducting thorough interviews with many, it became clear to us that, in the minds of refugees (in fact, all Palestinians), the Nakba is not a separate question to be discussed and resolved through political concessions or pressures. Neither was it a legal question, so convoluted that it needed to be assigned to the ‘final status negotiations” between Israel and the PLO — negotiations that never happened, anyway.
Even Palestinians who seem unlikely to exercise their right of return portrayed their lives with the question of Nakba and exile as an essential one. Our study was centered on the assumption that the question of identity can better be examined through the accumulation of personal narratives, which could eventually help us isolate collective common denominators, so that we can offer answers to such question as: “What are the group identifiers of Palestinians in the modern era?” “How strong is the common Palestinian identity at the age of geographic, political and ideological splits, regional turmoil and the most divisive military occupation?”
One of our findings, so far, is that Palestinians are unified by a common tragedy, including those who have had relatively stable lives and successful careers in exile; and that, neither Muslims nor Christians, despite their unique narratives and claims to identity, are, in fact, different in terms of that collective self-perception.
Throughout all the stories told and recorded, the Nakba and exile seem to hover above as the most common foundation for the modern Palestinian narrative. According to this modern narrative, the Nakba was not a historical event that existed at some time between 1947 and 48, and ended with UNGA Resolution 194, which is yet to be implemented.
It is an ongoing story, a journey that neither ended at a psychological nor at practical levels. Those who were expelled from Safad in 1948, for example, fled Jordan in 1970, then Lebanon in 1982 and, finally, from Yarmouk in 2012 are a testament that, unlike common wisdom, exile for Palestinians is not specific in time or space, but a cyclical process that is experienced by every single Palestinian, even those who would declare that they have no intentions of returning to Palestine.
In other words, the study of Palestinian exile, and the collective aspirations of the Palestinian people, when it comes to their right of return is far more complex than a simple question that can be addressed in a “Yes” or “No’ questionnaire, nor is it a matter that is open for political negotiations. It is far more encompassing and best articulated by the refugees themselves; without it, Ibrahim Mahmoud, his children and all of his descendants will always be exiled, always described as refugees.