When President Barack Obama delivered his much awaited speech on the “Arab Spring” last Thursday, outlining his administration’s policy on the Arab revolts and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he proposed a negotiations process that would delay discussions on Palestinian refugees.
“These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met,” he said at the State Department. “I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair.”
Obama didn’t even mention refugees once during his May 22 speech to the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But Palestinian refugees themselves are not having any of that, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow that Palestinians’ insistence on returning is “not going to happen,” as he told President Obama at the White House May 20. As the Nakba day protests that erupted on May 15 show, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and their demands to return to their homeland in what is now Israel, remain a core issue in the conflict.
Obama is “now attempting to parse away the negotiations by turning it into a very piecemeal negotiation, where first you focus on borders and security, and then leave all of the other issues to a later date,” Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit, told the Institute for Palestine Studies. “This is the policy the Israelis have been pushing for a very long period of time.”
But Palestinian refugees are not waiting on a U.S. president to show them the way forward. Through the kinds of unarmed, popular resistance that have overthrown the regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali–and that Palestinian themselves first used during their intifadas–they are reinserting themselves into the discourse on Israel/Palestine.
The next big event for refugees and their supporters will be June 5, a date that marks the start of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured and occupied the Golan Heights in Syria, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt–all of which remain in Israel’s hands, save for the Sinai.
The Ma’an News Agency reported May 21 that “masses of Palestinian refugees will march to Israel’s borders and ceasefire lines again on June 5, organizers of the May 15 ‘return rally’ said…The committee organizing the ‘return rallies’ said Saturday that the May 15 protests were ‘just the beginning.’ In a statement, the group called on all Palestinian refugees living in exile to march peacefully to the borders of historic Palestine on June 5.”
The “right to return” rallies represent the clearest sign yet that Palestinian refugees are done waiting for a peace process that has done nothing for their rights. The rallies could be looked at as a wholesale rejection of a negotiations process that has systematically shut refugees and the whole Palestinian diaspora out. And it represents a rejection of the Obama/Netanyahu line on refugees.