Right of Return

Many of the refugees living in Aida Camp today, and throughout the rest of the Palestinian territories and in other areas, are still awaiting a solution to their problem and the chance to return home. The construction of ‘the largest key in the world’ at the entrance to Aida camp is a peaceful symbolic representation of this right to return. Under international law, all individuals possess ‘the right to return’ – the right to return to their homes of origin when they have been displaced due to circumstances beyond their control. For the specific case of the Palestinian refugees, it also has basis in UN resolutions following the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

Even before the declaration of the state of Israel, there is precedent from the British Government, who administered Palestine under a Mandate from 1920 – 1948, to suggest that establishing the country as a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ should not affect the lives of the Palestinians already living there. In the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British Government declared that:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”

Following the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the United Nations passed Resolution 194 (passed December 11, 1948) dealing with the situation in the region of the British Mandate of Palestine at the time. Article 11 explicitly calls for the return of the Palestinian refugees, and is quoted below:

‘Resolves that 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.’

The refugees are still waiting for this resolution to be enacted. Though it should be noted that General Assembly Resolution are not binding, and act as advisory statements, Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949 was conditional upon its acceptance of UN resolutions, including 194. Furthermore, article 11 specifically states an obligation on the part of Israel to ensure the return of the refugees. It also states the exact place of return (their original homes) and that the return is guided by the individual choice of the refugee (‘wishing to return…).

The right to return is also recognized in article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”

It is clear under international law that a change of sovereignty does not diminish the rights of ownership, or the territory that would be termed as ‘his country.’ Furthermore, under the Law of state succession, when a geographical territory undergoes a change of sovereignty, the habitual residents of that geography should be offered nationality by the new state.

The International Law Commission, which is a UN body of legal experts, has published a series of articles on Nationality/State Succession which clarifies the status of ‘habitual residents.’ In article 14, they clearly state that ‘the status of persons concerned as habitual residents shall not be affected by the succession of States.’ Furthermore:

‘A State concerned shall take all necessary measures to allow persons concerned [i.e., habitual residents] who, because of events connected with the succession of States, were forced to leave their habitual residence on its territory to return thereto.’

The ILC also states in a later article that such residents are also presumed to have the nationality of the successor state.

It is therefore clear that the Palestinian refugees, as residents of the geographical territory of Israel prior to 1948, have the right to return to their homes, whether from a political, legal or humanitarian perspective.

The Right to Return is not only a legal right for the Palestinian refugees but one that is feasible and possible. Demographic studies have shown that 78% of the Jewish population of Israel lives on just 15% of the land, with the majority actually living in urban areas similar to those in which the Jews lived in pre-1948 Palestine. Only 154,000 rural Jews (2% of the total population) control the land which is essentially the land of the Palestinian refugees. Many villages, such as Imwas, Yalu, Beit Nuba and Kafr Bir’im in the north, are now the sites of National Parks.

For more information on ‘the right to return’ and the case of the Palestinian refugees, please refer to BADIL’s The 1948 Palestinian Refugees and the Individual Right of Return: An International Law Analysis (BADIL, 2007).

Story of a people

The center has great ambitions and plans for the future. This is evident in our vision for the ongoing establishment of the museum Story of a people. This museum would be one of its kind not only in Palestine, but also in the whole Middle East. It will present Palestinian history in five stages using the latest technologies, both 3D movies and modern audio technologies, in an all-sensory experience. The vision for this museum is to be a leading Palestinian institution that documents moments of the Palestinian history by demonstrating, through the latest technologies and collective items, how the past shaped our present.

We have already received a great deal of support for this project. We have received support and funding ($110,000) from the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad which we have used to complete initial stages of planning and infrastructure, establishing a budget for the project and creating a virtual tour of the museum, as it will appear once completed.

We aim to broaden both visitors’ perspectives and those of the residents of the camp, challenging their knowledge of themselves, their history, their journey and the wider world. Moments of the modern Palestinian history will be captured and recreated in order to give visitors a closer feeling of the reality that shaped the refugees’ lives. The museum will define the Palestinian refugees’ uniqueness through long journey of refuge and displacement.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, there will be a space for temporary art and cultural exhibitions for Palestinian artists. The museum will act as an important source of income for the local community, creating about 30 permanent jobs for the youth and others, and 100 more temporary jobs. The gift shop will also sell embroidery productions and art pieces made by the women on the camp, increasing their income for themselves and their families.

We hope that the museum will become a landmark tourist destination, one that increases the awareness of local and international communities to the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. It will inspire life-long learning, advance knowledge of our experience, and strengthen our communities. 

Why a museum?

Traditionally, Palestinians have relied upon a narrative history passed from one generation to another. It is only recently that Palestinians have started to think in the direction of documenting their history and displaying it through museums. Hence there is a shortage of museums at the national level. In the diaspora, many ‘museums’ are in fact temporary show rooms with very little original documents and items, and mainly focus on a specific topic related to an overall event taking place. Part of the reason for this shortage is the dispersed documents due to the refuge and displacement. Furthermore, wars and displacements have led to the unfortunate loss of historical documents and archives. The 1982 Lebanon War is a flagrant example, where the exile of the PLO from Lebanon led to the loss led to the loss and destruction of major components of the Revolution’s archives.

Aida Youth Activities Center has become known for its creative cultural projects that reinforce a sense a Palestinian identity and culture amongst our youth (projects such as the ‘key of return’, the embroidery project and traditional folkdance (Dabka) group). The museum will act as an educative place that encourages historical understanding and helps bridge the gap between the past and present, for both the youth of the camp and visitors.

About Aida refugee camp

Aida camp was established in 1950 between the towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Like other West Bank camps, it was established on land UNRWA leased from the government of Jordan. Aida covers a small area of 0.71 square kilometres that has not grown significantly with the refugee population. As such, it faces severe overcrowding problems. In many cases, the UNRWA installations in Aida camp also provide services for the refugees in the nearby Beit Jibrin camp. The camp is fully linked to municipal electricity and water grids, but the sewage and water networks are poor.

The original refugees in Aida camp generally hailed from 27 villages in the western Jerusalem and western Hebron areas, including Walaja, Khirbet El Umur, Qabu, Ajjur, Allar, Deir Aban, Maliha, Ras Abu Ammar and Beit Nattif. Initially, the camp started as a safe zone with the promise that the refugees could return to their villages after the conflict was over. At this time, the camp hosted 1125 refugees living in 94 tents.

The lives of those living on the camp has been troubled, not only because of their status as refugees, and the hardships this entails, but also by the traumatizing and devastating experiences of the first and second intifadas.

During the first Intifada, from 1987-1993, curfews and gunfire were frequent occurrences on the camp. Only seven years after the end of the first Intifada, increasing Palestinian dissatisfaction with peace negotiations and other events saw the rise of the second Intifada in 2000. During this time the residents of Aida camp experienced severe hardship, with every aspect of their daily lives completely hampered by the reality of military attacks. The camp was subject to frequent strikes and invasions from both land and air, in addition to severe curfew measures imposed on the camp and surrounding areas. Even when not under curfew, residents could not travel anywhere within the camp where their movement could be seen from military bases, as they would risk coming under fire.

Even within their homes, residents were not safe. As many houses were made from cinder block and inexpensive building materials, they could not sustain gunfire, in contrast to the fortified military camps and lookout posts from which the Israeli forces attacked the camp. When invading the camp, Israeli forces occupied homes, made arbitrary arrests and even bombed the walls to neighboring homes in order to travel through the camp internally, showing a disregard for injuries that could occur.

Needless to say, the impact of such events on the camp was devastating. The attacks killed, injured and traumatized many. The whole infrastructure of the camp was severely damaged, including the UNRWA schools on the camp and many of the roads, where tanks had damaged the ground and surrounding property in the camp’s narrow streets. Reconstruction was a slow process, and it was not until preparations for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the camp in 2009 that the main road, still showing signs of damage from Israeli tanks, was repaired.

The recent history of the camp is plagued by, in 2003, the construction of the Israeli separation wall, which borders the camp on two sides. Many of the working men in the camp are skilled construction workers, reliant on the Israeli job market. As the restrictions on work permits for Israel were tightened after the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, these men found it increasingly difficult to gain work. With the construction of the separation wall, they were no longer able to access the Israeli job market, and could not be absorbed into the weak Palestinian economy after losing their jobs in Israel.

As a result the unemployment levels in the camp have now increased to 43%. Currently 39% of the residents in Aida camp are living in poverty, on less than $2 a day. The wall has also cut off the camp from farmland and recreational areas for its youth. Throughout its course along the West Bank, the wall significantly deviates from the Green Line, and annexes 8.5% of the West Bank to Israeli territory. Likewise, the wall surrounding Aida camp is significantly further south than the actual Green line, and annexes the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Homa to Israeli territory. The residents of Aida camp are also sealed off from nearby East Jerusalem just kilometers away, an area of religious importance and regarded under international law as Palestinian territory. The people of Aida now live in the shadow of the 8m high concrete barrier surrounding their camp.

Aida Youth Center, as the rest of the camp, has faced many obstacles and difficulties throughout its history. It was founded to enhance the lives of the youth of the Camp, but was closed by the Israeli authorities in the late 1970s, only to reopen again and continue its work. Then, in 1998, the centre was closed for five years because Israeli tanks demolished the property, and it was completely destroyed. However, despite these problems, Aida Youth Center has continued to flourish. We reopened in 2004, after the Catholic Relief Services financed the rebuilding of the ground floor of the centre, and the refugees participated voluntarily in the construction. We are also grateful to the Arab Fund for Development who funded the construction of the first and second floors. Since reopening, the center has extended its program of activities to include culture and health activities. Our most recent achievements include creating the ‘largest key in the world’ and ‘the Gate of Return’, a 12m high structure at the entrance to the camp.