Maroun al Ras is a beautiful hillside Lebanese village on the border with Palestine. 63 years ago today, its villagers lifted their lights to welcome ethnically cleansed Palestinians, who were part of the approximately 129,000 from 531 Zionist-pillaged and destroyed villages who sought temporary refuge in Lebanon. A similar number of Palestinian expellees entered Syria a few miles to the West, and another half million were forced into Jordan and Gaza.
On Sunday May 15, 2011, in observance of Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, Maroun al Ras welcomed approximately 27% of all the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this time coming from the opposite direction heading back toward their homes in Palestine. Palestinians in Lebanon now number approximately 248,000, approximately half of whom live in 12 squalid camps (and as many so-called, unofficial “gatherings”), although 423,000 remain registered with UNWRA.
The discrepancy in numbers is explained by the fact that Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, without any of the most elementary civil rights, in gross violation of international law, Lebanon’s Constitution, and bi-lateral and multilateral agreements, tend to leave Lebanon to seek work, decent housing, and a better life, whenever they are able to secure a visa to Europe or elsewhere.
For a majority of the more than 72,000 (some estimates this morning exceed 100,000 because many refugees and supporters traveled south independently and did not register or use provided transportation) arriving from all the camps and corners of Lebanon, in more than 1,200 buses and vans, and many on foot, it was their first sighting of their country. Lebanon law has long prevented Palestinians from coming anywhere near the blue line to even look towards their stolen homes and lands or to cross the Litani River north of Tyre. This year, for one day only, the Lebanese authorities reluctantly decided not to interfere with this human rights project.
For the teenagers on the crowded bus I rode on from Shatila Camp, the stories and descriptions of Palestine told by their parents and grandparents is what they talked about.
As we approached Maroun al Ras, some of them were anxious, others silent and reflective, and some, like many teenagers from my generation about to see the Beatles or Elvis, were giddy and squealing as the bus rounded a bend in the road south of Aitayoun and we looked to the approaching hills.
“Is that my country Palestine over there?” asked Ahmad, a graduate in engineering who was born in Shatila camp. “Nam Habibi!” (“Yes Dear!”) came the reply from the microphone of our “bus mother” gripping her clip board and checking the names to keep track of her flock. This bus seemed to inflate with delirium as we all smiled and shouted. Some of the passengers had
prepared signs that read: “People want to return to Palestine,” inspired perhaps by the slogan made famous in Egypt and Tunisia, “People want the fall of the regime.”
The esprit was reminiscent of a Mississippi freedom ride James Farmer of CORE used to tell us about, and I thought of Ben Gurion’s boast from 1948 that the old will die and the young will forget Palestine. The Zionist leader could not have been more mistaken. The old, many still vital, continue to teach and inspire the young from their still-remembered stories, guaranteeing that the dream of every Palestinian shall never die.
The organizers from the camps did a tremendous job, but no one could have
anticipated the huge numbers who would participate in this truly historic and likely region-changing event that was also fueled by Facebook, Tweets and text messages.
All the Palestinian organizations and factions were united for this project.
Hezbollah kept a low profile so as to keep the focus on the Nakba. However, when the organizers discovered a shortage of buses last week, Hezbollah arranged for more, even bringing some from Syria, where more than 800 buses were used yesterday to take Palestinians from Syria’s 10 Palestinians camps, including Yarmouk, to the Syrian Golan border with occupied Palestine.
At certain points along the narrow and winding village roads in South Lebanon, the convoy would pause and Hezbollah members would appear and distribute bottles of water, fresh croissants and large chocolate-filled cookies. They also did traffic control work and provided civil defense and medical services as needed. One imagines it was their guys who erected the nifty new road signs throughout the South that showed the distance to Palestine with an arrow pointing toward Jerusalem. Whenever the buses would pass one of the signs that read in Arabic and English, for example, “Palestine: 23 km”, our bus would erupt in cheers.
The Mabarat Charity, founded by the late scholar Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was from the village of Bint Jbeil near Maron al Ras, operates several gas stations, the proceeds of which are used to support orphans, discounted gas on Nakba Day for the hundreds of buses and vans.
It is difficult to exaggerate the camaraderie, emotion, and sheer power of the event. They came to renew their commitment and send the world a message that they are determined to return to their land no matter the sacrifices required. For some coming to see Palestine, including some of those who have been forced out of their homes and off their lands, 63 years ago, it appeared to be almost a sacred and religious act.
One man, who appeared to be in his 80’s stood not far from me and gazed toward his stolen land near Akka, seen in the distance. Suddenly he slumped to the ground. Two of us elevated his legs and tried to make him comfortable on the rocky ground until first aid arrived.
My best friend in Shatila camp, Zeinab Hajj, whose father walked from his village of Amouka near Safad as a child, stared toward Safad, also visible in the distance. Tears ran down Zeinab’s cheeks as she gazed at her village. It was a common site among the old and the young. Even toddlers whose parents wanted them to witness and be part of this historic day appeared to grasp its solemnity and importance.
For the large American contingent and other international guests observing Nakba Day 2011 at Maroun al Ras, it was a majestic and cherished experience.
However as the world soon learned, 10 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers and more than 120 wounded, some critically. None of the demonstrators had weapons. Those murdered were all civilians from the camps and were shot in cold blood as they nonviolently placed Palestinian flags at the fence and gave the peace and victory sign. After Israeli troops fired on them, some threw rocks at the soldiers. Fortunately, some lives were saved by a field hospital affiliated with the group, the Martyr Salah Ghandour Hospital, from nearby Bint Jbeil.
Zionist occupation forces, some peering out from behind trees or barriers, could be clearly seen by those gathered near the blue line at Maroun Al Ras.
One knowledgeable source informed this observer that unseen Hezbollah resistance fighters at one time yesterday afternoon had as many as 32 Israelis in the cross-hairs as they silently watched what was happening but did not fire, which would only have accommodated Israel’s deadly intent.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has filed a complaint against Israel with the UN Security Council calling on it to pressure Israel to stop its hostile and provocative policies against Lebanon and hold it accountable for killing civilians. Today is a day of general strikes in the camps in mourning for the victims who were killed with funerals being held in the refugee camps of al-Bass,
Burj al-Shemali, Mieh Mieh and Ain al-Hilweh. All UNWRA schools are closed.
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah commended Lebanon’s Palestinians this morning as he explained his interpretation of Nakba Day 2011:
“You do not accept a homeland other than Palestine, and so let no one fear naturalization in Lebanon because your firm decision is to return. Your loud and clear message to the enemy is that you are determined to liberate the land no matter what the sacrifices are; and
the fate of this entity (enemy) is demise and that no initiatives, treaties or borders will protect it. Your return to Palestine is [an] inalienable right, and its realization has become closer than any other time.”
Hassan Nasrallah’s words require that Lebanon’s next Parliament, with the full, active, direct, and unequivocal support of Hezbollah, immediately repeal the racist and discriminatory 2001 law that outlaws home ownership for Palestinians in Lebanon and that Lebanon’s Palestinians be immediately granted the right to work just as all refugees do globally and all foreigners
in Lebanon enjoy.
There must be no more resistance to Palestinians being granted the elementary right to work and to own a home. Yesterday at Maroun al Ras Lebanon’s Palestinians once again earned the right to live in dignity and care for their families until The Return. As the Palestinians continue their struggle for elementary civil rights here in the inhumane camps of Lebanon, they and the advocates are heartened by Nasrallah’s words of a few hours ago:
“We are with you, and by your side. We are happy for your happiness and sad for your sadness, we carry with you the same hopes and pains, and move on together in the path of resistance so that we continue our victories and liberate all our land and sanctities.”
Hopefully, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees will, after 63 years in Lebanon, be granted internationally mandated civil rights.