Do I have the right to exist?

The impact of the North America Nakba Tour

For two months in the spring of 2016, two stateless Palestinian women from two refugee camps in Lebanon carried their message thousands of miles to audiences throughout North America.  Mariam Fathalla, expelled from Palestine in 1948 at the age of 18 and now 86 years old, and Amena Ashkar, born 22 years ago in the Bourj el-Barajneh camp, overcame many obstacles and were unable to overcome some, but their message never waivered. Palestine runs through our veins and we intend to return and to recover every square inch of it. It is our land and no one else is entitled to it.  It was taken from us against our will, and we will go back by whatever means necessary.

The organizers, al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition, the Free Palestine Movement and the International Solidarity Movement-Northern California, took the risk that North American audiences would listen to this message with sympathy and understanding.  No effort was made to edit or change any part of the message, only to help the speakers deliver it.

Astonishingly, the presentations generated very little controversy.  In fact, most of the concern was about persons or groups that were perceived to be associated with the tour rather than the tour itself. The biggest controversy, at Stanford University, was when Amena was informed prior to speaking, that “we cannot say that Israel has no right to exist.”  Her response was “what about my right to exist? If Israel has a right to exist, then I have no right to exist.”

She promptly refused to speak and the event was cancelled.  When the issue came up under friendlier circumstances in other places, her response was nevertheless the same, and it successfully turned the issue on its head and making the discussion about Palestinian rights and the consequences for Palestinians of their expulsion and disenfranchisement.

This was a message that diverse audiences were willing and even eager to hear.  The presentations were held in churches, mosques and universities, and hosted by Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups as well as social justice organizations throughout the US.  The tour was unable to go to Canada because of a delay in issuing the visas, but the presentations went forward in five cities there nonetheless, by means of real time electronic transmission, as well as voice and video interaction with the audiences.

The tour made some important breakthroughs.  First, it brought attention to the fact that the Palestinian struggle is not just about Palestinians living in Palestine.  The majority of Palestinians are, in fact, not living in Palestine, but their voice is often marginalized for that reason.  This is even truer for stateless Palestinians living in refugee camps outside Palestine. While refugees inside Palestine have a form of citizenship through the Palestinian Authority, those outside have no citizenship at all, and therefore little opportunity to travel and interact with other communities.

Second, Amena and Mariam brought the message that they have no interest in a negotiated settlement with Israel.  Such a settlement might offer something to some Palestinians, but for Palestinians who have lost everything and cannot even visit Palestine there is no benefit.  On several occasions they made the point that all the proposed solutions are equally unrealistic because Israel would have to agree to them, which it has no intention of doing.  Resistance is therefore the only option.

Third, the tour enabled a dialog between North Americans and an exiled Palestinian community whose voice has often been cut off from the discussion of Palestinian issues.  The viewpoint of these Palestinians may present challenges to existing ideas about how to address the issues, but it also brought an awareness of a wider spectrum of Palestinian thought and experience.  This expands the understanding of what must be taken into consideration when formulating inclusive solutions for all Palestinians.

From a practical point of view, the tour experimented with traveling entirely by car, logging around 12,000 miles in two months. Although we think that it was a good decision to avoid taking an 86-year-old woman through airports several times a week, and to provide a comfortable vehicle instead, we think that future trips should perhaps not try to cover so much territory at one time.

The organizers also took a gamble that public attitudes toward Palestine in the US and Canada have broadened enough in the last decade or two to allow a constructive discussion of the issues raised by these visitors.  In the past, their views would have been considered “extreme”, and they undoubtedly still are in many quarters.  But the very favorable response to the tour indicates that more audiences are now ready to listen to them with interest and understanding.

When audiences learn about Mariam Fathalla living as a stateless Palestinian with few rights in a refugee camp in Lebanon for 68 of her 86 years and Amena Ashkar for all of her 22 years, it’s a lot easier to understand their question, “Do I have the right to exist?”  The exposure of this perspective on the Palestinian experience is the main accomplishment of the North America Nakba Tour.

Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement. Read other articles by Paul.