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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Syrian Palestinians admit they don't want to "return"

BBC reporter Lina Sinjab actually asks Palestinian Arabs what they want - and, more amazingly, they answer the question honestly.
The right of return for Palestinian refugees is a major sticking point in the upcoming US-sponsored Middle East peace talks, but some younger Palestinians - having never laid eyes on their ancestral homeland - say they do not actually want to go back.

As a third-generation Palestinian growing up in Syria, Bissan al-Sharif says she feels rooted in Damascus.

"I don't know if I would leave everything and go and live [in my ancestral village] because I don't know the place," says Ms Sharif.

"It is difficult to go somewhere and start everything from scratch," she says in between drama lessons for her nine-year-old students.

Ms Sharif's family has told her about what life was like in their ancestral home, and she still wants to visit a future Palestinian state, but not necessarily to move there.

"It is an absent part of my identity," she says. "I know that I have a village in Palestine and I feel I have the right to know it. But I live here, my friends and my work are here, this is my world.

"The other side is an anonymous place to me. It is unknown."

With generations of Palestinians now having lived in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, they have established deep roots outside their ancestral homeland.

But it is rare for them to publicly admit these views.

"On the record, because it is politically incorrect to say otherwise, all of them would say 'Yes, we would return to Palestine'. But once you sit with them in private, you hear a very different point of view," says political analyst Sami Mubayyed.

"Why would a businessman leave their comfort zone? Home is where the heart and the money is."

Even the staunchest supporters of the right to return admit that they have split loyalties.

"I feel like I have two countries - Syria and Palestine," says Yasser Jamous, the 23-year-old lead singer of the Refugees of Rap.

The group is made up of five young Palestinians who grew up in Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus.

They rap about a homeland they have never visited.

Although Mr Jamous' neighbourhood is identified as a camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes.

The Palestinians who live here are well integrated into society, some even hold government posts.

On the rooftop of a community centre, young Palestinians in their 20s make round plaques imprinted with a picture of Jerusalem.

They aim to produce 60,000 to give to Palestinian families - aimed at keeping the memories of their homeland alive.
Before 1948, Palestinian Arab nationalism was weak to nonexistent. Some intellectuals pushed for the idea of a Palestinian Arab state but the vast majority of actual residents of Palestine did not think of themselves as "Palestinian." The entire concept of nationalism was a new idea, especially for those whose self-identity had been tied for centuries to their families, extended clans, and villages as well as their basic identity as Arabs. In their communal memory, they had never had any independence; rather they had always been under the rule of outsiders. As long as no one bothered their communities, they didn't see any advantage in taking on a new role of being "Palestinian."

Palestinian nationalism itself was an even newer idea; most (but not all) Palestinian Arab nationalists wanted to be part of an independent Syria rather than "Palestine" until 1920 or so, after France and Britain separated Palestine from Syria. Even the Mufti of Jerusalem pushed for Palestine to be considered "southern Syria" until it became apparent that this would never happen.

The Arabs of Palestine did not internalize that there was any difference between them and any other Arabs. Many had only arrived after Zionism took root and when the economy of Palestine improved; conversely, during the 1936-9 riots, a large number of Arabs fled Palestine and went to neighboring countries. To them, the Western-defined borders had little meaning - they were Arabs, not "Palestinian" or "Lebanese" or "Transjordanian." They expected to be able to travel to any other Arab area the way their ancestors traveled throughout the region, based on economic factors far more than any perceived ties to a specific area.

In 1948, they had the exact same expectation. They fled because they didn't think that going to a neighboring area was a big deal and because, historically, Arabs would welcome other Arabs.

That time, however, their Arab brothers started to treat them differently. There were two major reasons for this: one was because of the undeniable hardship that integrating them would cause for the already struggling new Arab states, and the other because they reminded them of the humiliation that the Arab world suffered at being decisively beaten by the despised, dhimmi Jews.

This was the real start of Palestinian Arab nationalism. It had little to do with those who wrote about the theory in the early part of the century - it was an artificial construct imposed from without by Arabs who wanted to use these hundreds of thousands of refugees as political pawns. Their misery was a weapon against Israel. As a UN representative said in 1954, "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. they want to keep it an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die."

Palestinian Arab nationalism was always a negative movement in the sense that it was more oriented towards the destruction of a state rather than the building of one. It was an artificial construct, where the only commonality that Palestinian Arabs have with each other is their second-class "refugee" status rather than any specific cultural ties. Before 1967, the movement was not interested in "liberating" the West Bank or Gaza from Arab rule - their entire focus was on Israel, as it remains today. The Arab media and Arab leadership played their roles in creating a "people" that, prior to 1948, effectively didn't exist as such.

Since the roots of Palestinian Arab nationalism are so shallow and artificial, especially compared to their very real self-identification as Arabs, it is no wonder that Arabs of Palestinian descent would happily become citizens of their host countries given the choice. Yet their "leaders" have their own self-interest in keeping them as pawns, so this fact is all but unreported. Up until now, consistently, we have only seen credulous Western reporters accept at face value the demonstratively false idea that Palestinian Arabs adamantly refuse to become citizens.

This is what makes this BBC report so amazing and important. Let's hope that this inspires more reporters to ask the real questions of Palestinian Arabs stuck in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere; let's hope that a reputable polling firm makes a survey of the real attitudes of Palestinian Arabs. The question is simple: If you were offered the chance to become an equal citizen of any Arab country, would you take it?

There can be no real solution as long as the truth is suppressed. And, sadly, many parties have colluded to suppress the truth for sixty-two years.

(h/t Media Backspin)