Sixty years ago, my grandparents lived in the beautiful village of Beit Daras, a few kilometers north of Gaza. They were farmers and owned hundreds of acres of land.
But in 1948, in the first Arab-Israeli war, many people lost their lives defending our village from the Zionist militias. In the end, with their crops and homes burning, the villagers fled. My family eventually made its way to what became the refugee camp of Khan Yunis in Gaza. We were hit hard by poverty, humiliation and disease. We became refugees, queuing for tents, food and assistance, while the state of Israel was established on the ruins of my family’s property and on the ruins of hundreds of other Palestinian villages.
Some people may tire of hearing such stories from the past. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is one of the first sayings I learned in English. But for me, the line between past and present is not so easily broken. I raise this story today because it remains profoundly relevant to the Middle East peace process — and to help convey the deep-seated fears of Palestinian refugees that we will be asked to exonerate Israel for its actions and to relinquish our right to return home.
That cannot be allowed to happen. All refugees have the right to return. This is an individual right, long recognized in international law, that cannot be negotiated away. Palestinian refugees — and there are more than 4 million of us registered with the United Nations today — hold this right no less than Kosovar or Rwandan or any other refugees.
Of course, I understand that the clock cannot be turned back. Most of the Palestinian villages inside what is now Israel no longer exist. And experience shows that when the rights of refugees are recognized and backed by international communities, only a small portion opt to return.
But the option should be open to us. If a refugee decides to return, he or she should not be hindered. Anything less would be unacceptable to Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are refugees. Those who choose not to return must be fairly compensated for their losses.