[The right of return for Palestinians uprooted by Zionist forces
in 1948 – including their children and grandchildren – is the
central issue of justice for Palestine. Yet it often remains an
afterthought for solidarity activists. ] [[link removed]]
SOLIDARITY MEANS INSISTING ON PALESTINIAN RIGHT OF RETURN
Kristian Davis Bailey
May 14, 2020
The Electronic Intifada
_ The right of return for Palestinians uprooted by Zionist forces in
1948 – including their children and grandchildren – is the central
issue of justice for Palestine. Yet it often remains an afterthought
for solidarity activists. _
Murals painted by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon stress their right
to go home., Black for Palestine
Palestine solidarity activism has made significant gains in the US
over the last decade.
A national student movement
[[link removed]] has been built,
has been reinvigorated and a series of victories have been achieved in
the push for boycott, divestment and sanctions. These victories have
from churches and universities supporting BDS measures to the blocking
of Israeli cargo ships
For a moment it felt like the Palestine solidarity movement was on the
But Zionist groups and officials fought back through anonymous
websites that dox
activists, the proliferation of anti-BDS laws
[[link removed]] and, most recently, Donald Trump’s
Because of Trump’s order, a student or teacher who states “Israel
is a racist endeavor” – or words to that effect – can be
investigated for allegedly violating the civil rights of Jewish
people. This is exactly where the Zionist movement wants us: on the
defensive, exhausting our energy and resources.
Combating these attacks is work for groups like Palestine Legal
[[link removed]] (where I am currently employed). This
defensive work should not be the primary focus of people building
towards the complete liberation of Palestine.
It is 72 years since the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, when
approximately 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by
That period is known as the Nakba or catastrophe. And as long as the
right of return is denied, this catastrophe will continue.
We should concentrate now and in the months ahead on advocating one
democratic, decolonized state in all of historic Palestine and on the
core issue of justice for Palestine – the right of return.
Defending our beliefs
The right of return for Palestinians uprooted by Zionist forces in
1948 – including their children and grandchildren – is the central
issue of justice for Palestine. Yet it often remains an afterthought
for solidarity activists.
There are a few main reasons why that is the case.
First, the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East
Jerusalem, is the most visible form of Zionist aggression against
Palestine and is how most of the world understands the Palestinian
issue. The right of return complicates this narrative.
Second, it is difficult to incorporate the right of return into
campaigns that focus almost entirely on the occupation.
And, third, Zionist opposition to the right of return is intense,
often coming with false and distracting accusations of anti-Jewish
The first two barriers are a matter of strengthening our own internal
and public-facing work to reflect that all of historic Palestine –
including present-day Israel – is “occupied Palestinian
The third barrier is a matter of pushing through and transcending
Zionist noise: Implementing the right of return is a just, moral,
anti-racist and anti-colonial practice.
Opposition to the right of return for Palestinians is itself racist.
Activists should not be distracted by Israel’s smears.
If avoiding the return of Palestinians is one of the ultimate goals of
the Zionists’ project, why would we ever organize on their terms?
If we believe in the right of return, we must defend our beliefs over
and beyond efforts to silence us.
As the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon asserted
[[link removed]]: “We are
powerful in our own right and the justness of our positions.”
BDS campaigns should apply to all of Israel over its ethnic cleansing
and refusal of the right to return, rather than only boycotting
companies complicit in the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Maximal justice requires maximal solidarity.
Digging up a toxic tree
Palestinians living under forced exile and refugeehood, occupation and
siege are enduring far more than noise for us to be frightened by
Zionist scare tactics. Palestinians’ material lives, homes and
families are on the frontlines of destruction each second of every
The very threats Zionists claim Palestinian liberation represents form
the very core of Zionist policy in Palestine over the last 100 years:
eliminating the fundamental culture of a society, mass expulsions,
subjecting a minority population to discrimination and denying the
right to self-determination.
We must firmly resist these policies.
Focusing only on anti-occupation work serves to bolster Israel’s
larger colonial project and is a disservice to the plurality of
Palestinians who do not live under direct occupation.
Advocating for Palestinian liberation in its fullness means placing
the right of return at the center.
It means our understanding of Palestine cannot stop at the West Bank,
Gaza or even present-day Israel. It must extend to refugees in exile
who have borne the brunt of Zionist dispossession – especially to
Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or
fleeing across the Mediterranean to Greece and other parts of Europe.
There is no Palestine without the return
of Palestinian refugees to the entirety of their land.
Without the right of return, if Israel somehow says “OK – you can
have a real state in all of the West Bank and Gaza,” Israel still
walks away having stolen 78 percent of historic Palestine and denying
a majority of Palestinians their right to live on the land they’re
Israel continues to lay a unilateral claim to an ethnocratic colony
built on stolen land.
So it is incredibly convenient for Israel if we waste our energy
trying to reach the lowest hanging fruit on the tree, instead of
digging up the entire toxic tree from its roots.
It is also incredibly convenient for Israel to distract us from even
that task by forcing us to spend time explaining “criticism of
Israel is different from anti-Jewish hatred” and arguing “we have
a right to boycott.” It takes the center of the conversation away
from Palestine and instead focuses it on debates about “rights” in
There are a number of fundamental Zionist injustices. They include the
1917 Balfour Declaration, when Britain – then a dominant colonial
power – effectively approved the establishment of a Zionist state in
Palestine, the Nakba of 1948 and the 1967 seizure of the West Bank and
Gaza (as well as parts of Egypt and Syria).
If we understand these injustices – and how they endure in 2020 –
we need to put the Zionist project on the defensive for being a
racist, violent, colonial regime.
In the aftermath of Trump’s “Deal of the Century”
– “Steal of the Century” would, of course, be more accurate –
and in the face of Israeli annexation in the West Bank, the solidarity
movement can aspire to much bolder demands that transcend the
political constraints surrounding us. We are still stuck in the
frameworks set by colonizing forces: the Oslo accords, “peace”
talks, settlements, security coordination, the Palestinian Authority.
We need to use language
[[link removed]] that
describes a future with freedom and justice. Fortunately, Fatah and
the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine each gave us this
language in the 1960s.
of “fighting to create the new Palestine of tomorrow – a
democratic, non-sectarian Palestine where Jews, Muslims and Christians
will work, worship and live peacefully together while enjoying equal
rights and obligations.”
The PFLP shared
this objective of a secular state and clarified that “Israel has
insisted on portraying our war against it as a racial war aiming at
eliminating every Jewish citizen and throwing him into the sea.” A
basic strategy therefore “must aim at unveiling this
These Palestinian revolutionary organizations presented an incredibly
clear vision for one shared, democratic state – which Zionists have
sought to sabotage and obscure ever since.
It is our responsibility to help unveil these misrepresentations.
In 2018, I led a Black for Palestine (B4P) delegation
[[link removed]] of African, Arab
and Indigenous organizers from Turtle Island (what Indigenous people
and their allies call North America) and Southern Africa to visit
Palestinians and their comrades in Lebanon.
B4P understood the right of return as central to justice for Palestine
[[link removed]]. It held
that effectively advocating for the right of return required
cultivating direct relationships with Palestine’s refugees.
Lebanon was one of the last sites of historic engagement between
African and Palestinian revolutionaries.
Prominent Black activists such as Huey Newton
and June Jordan
all visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And Palestinian
revolutionaries in Lebanon trained African anti-colonial fighters
including those struggling against apartheid in South Africa.
A few of our B4P delegates visited Palestine and Jordan, where we also
met Palestinian refugees. Almost every Palestinian we encountered in
Lebanon and Jordan had never set foot in Palestine, while some of us
– with US passports – had been to all three places in the span of
This marks the fundamental injustice of Zionism: People who have no
roots in Palestine can visit and live on the land, while the people
with actual roots are subjugated and barred from entering.
In Lebanon, younger Palestinians are growing evermore desperate –
unsure of how to build a future for themselves in the camps.
They are navigating an immense amount of stress and depression and
other impacts of physical and economic war. Some are risking their
lives to flee from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to seek refuge in the West
and dying along the way.
None of this suffering is necessary when there is a clear place for
Palestinians to live in dignity.
In the same way that visiting Palestine and seeing the occupation
firsthand has a catalyzing effect on solidarity work outside, visiting
the camps in Lebanon transformed me. Some of the people I now care
most about in this world are Palestinians living in exile in Lebanon
who have more right to any inch of land in historic Palestine than any
For me, what’s at stake in the right of return is the old man who
could see where his original village was from the border of southern
Lebanon but has not set foot there in 72 years. Or the old woman who
hosted me in her family home in a refugee camp and recalled with great
detail how she and her family were displaced during the Nakba.
I had hoped we could build towards the day that she could return home,
but she died shortly after I met her in 2017.
What’s at stake in the right of return is meeting the generation who
lived through the Palestinian revolution and through a moment where
victory, and the possibility of return, seemed much closer than they
It’s the current generation of young organizers at Al Naqab Center
and the Palestinian Cultural Club in Lebanon who are working so hard
to build infrastructure for the generations after them to preserve
their heritage and continue their struggle. And it’s the young
generation before them who yearn for a future outside of the chokehold
of the refugee camps and outside of exile and forced impoverishment.
What’s also at stake is the comrade whose conversations with me
informed this article being able to have the future he deserves. His
family is originally from Deir Aban in Jerusalem but has been exiled
to Dheisheh, one of the refugee camps in the Bethlehem area, because
of the Nakba.
Thorn in Zionists’ side
We are now in the last generation of Palestinian refugees who can say
“my grandmother was born in Akka, in Lifta, in Safad” and the last
generation of Israeli settlers who must acknowledge “my grandmother
was born in Poland, in Germany, in Morocco, in Brooklyn.” We are
entering a new paradigm where the colonizers assert a claim to the
land through contemporary roots, while the colonized seem to be rooted
Those of us who believe in Palestinian liberation must ask ourselves:
How will we create a new paradigm? How will our work shift when we
name the right of return as the first justification for BDS and not
How will our work shift when we prioritize refugees and their right to
return as our main focus?
To get there we have to ask: What relationships do we have with
Palestinians living in exile and do we even know what their conditions
of struggle are? How can we support the development of a strong
Which groups are making these efforts [[link removed]] and how
can we support them?
The right of return is related to a process that is central to justice
for all colonized people in the world: reparations.
The right of return is a thorn in the side of Zionists in the same way
that reparations for colonialism and slavery are thorns in the side of
the imperial West. The same states cast the right of return and
reparations as “unrealistic” because the entire existence of these
states is predicated on our oppression.
Returning one inch of land or paying even one dollar to the colonized
exposes every colonial power to material liability for their crimes.
It exposes to the colonized that justice is possible.
Realizing the right to return of the world’s most recent victims of
colonialism gives hope and inspiration to those of us who have been
denied reparations for much longer.
So my own commitment to the right of return is in deep alignment with
by the Mozambican revolutionary Samora Machel that “solidarity is
not an act of charity but mutual aid between forces fighting for the
The world we inhabit today is the result of the dreams and nightmares
of Europe’s imagination. Our task as colonized people and the task
of our comrades is to imagine and create a new world that saves us
from the nightmare we are currently caught in.
If we accept the limited scraps offered to us by our colonizers, we
will get nothing. But if we demand the moon, we may – in our
endeavors – reach the stars.
_Kristian Davis Bailey is a writer, activist and co-founder of Black