Hundreds of red, green, black and white Palestinian flags were raised, a stunning contrast against the blue sky, spotted with the occasional cloud. Emotional chants calling for ‘al-awda’ (the right of return) filled the air. Placards bore the names of villages long gone but never forgotten.
And thus began the parade and rally of the 16th Annual March of Return, organized by The Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID).
On 16 April, as Israelis celebrated 65 years of independence, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel gathered on the land of the destroyed village of Khubbayza.
Khubbayza was once situated on 283 hectares of beautiful, hilly land. It bears the name of the wild, leafy plant which grows in abundance in the area, and is often used in Palestinian cuisine. On 12 May 1948, the small farming community was occupied by Jewish forces. The residents were forcefully expelled and the village destroyed.
Now, 65 years later, although the 67 houses which made up the village no longer exist, their stones are still scattered on the ground, hardly identifiable as the remains of homes.
But Khubbazaya is just one of approximately 530 villages that were destroyed, leaving residents as refugees. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 led to approximately 750,000 Palestinians being expelled from their villages.
According to Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, in 2007 there were approximately seven million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). To put this into context, 70 per cent of the approximately 10 million Palestinians worldwide are refugees. An estimated 250,000 are IDPs, living within Israel’s borders.
ADRID says that policies were put into place so that the return of the internally displaced to their villages would be impossible. Such procedures included declaring certain areas closed military zones, the destruction of villages, or the implementation of the Absentees Properties Law. Through this legislation, residents became identified as ‘present absentees,’ and it was made legally possible for land to be confiscated from its Palestinian owners.
According to the ADRID, ‘governments have continued to destroy our villages and desecrate our holy sites, and have transformed us from a people with land into a people without land. By means of ethnic legislation they have confiscated our land, robbed our properties, changed the historical sites of our homeland, and built on the remains of our villages.’
The March of Return rally called for the implementation of UN Resolution 194 which was passed in December, 1948. It states: ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.’
But on 16 April, in spite of the sombre reminder of what was, there was also a sense of festivity.. It was not just a day to honour the Palestinian villages, but also a day to celebrate Palestinian heritage.
The March ended with a touching performance by singer Walaa Sbeit. An IDP from the village of Iqrit, he has set up an outpost on the village lands of his ancestors.
As rally participants held hands and danced the traditional Palestinian dabke, there was a call for unity and a hope for the future in the echoes of the past.