By Matthew Cassel
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 16/05/2011
The thousands of mostly Palestinian refugees were smiling as they joked about the strenuous climb, and helped each other up the mountain to reach the site where they were going to stage their demonstration. Some knew it could even be dangerous, but that didn't matter as much as the rare opportunity to join together and call for their rights.
The small elevated Lebanese village just overlooking the border with Israel became a massive parking lot as buses carrying Palestinian refugees and Lebanese from across Lebanon converged for a protest commemorating what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé calls the "ethnic cleansing" by Zionist militias of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes in 1948 – what Palestinians refer to as the "Nakba", or catastrophe. Large buses had difficulties reaching the top of the mountain, and rather than wait, protesters chose to make the half-mile climb by foot.
Men and women, young and old, secular and religious, were all present. This was the first time in 63 years that Palestinian refugees would go to the border in their tens of thousands and call for their right to return home. For most, it was their first time even seeing the land that they've grown up hearing described in precise detail through the popular stories of elders old enough to remember life in what is today considered Israel.
The Israeli regime not only keeps under occupation more than 4 million people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and limits the rights of more than a million Palestinian citizens of Israel, it also denies more than 5 million refugees the fundamental right of return to the place they were forced to flee.
While Palestinians have always protested against Israeli occupation, this year, inspired by the wave of uprisings across the Arab world, Palestinians called for their own protests on 15 May, the day they commemorate the Nakba.
In Lebanon, a rally didn't go as planned. Soon after speakers began addressing the crowds in Maroun al-Ras, thousands of Palestinians broke off and headed down the opposite side of the mountain – through land littered with Israeli landmines – towards the fence on the border. There they called for their right to return, climbed and placed Palestinian flags on the fence, and many began throwing stones at soldiers they couldn't even see.
Israel is showing itself to be no different to the infamous despotic Arab regimes in its willingness to use brutal force against people demanding their rights. This was clear yesterday when more than a dozen were killed and hundreds injured in Lebanon, Syria's occupied Golan Heights, and in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. In Lebanon, 10 were killed and more than 100 injured, including Lebanese soldiers, when Israel opened fire on protesters at the border fence.
The number of refugees at the fence would have been even greater had the Lebanese army not set up a blockade halfway down the mountain preventing thousands of others from joining the protesters below.
The role of the Lebanese army in preventing Palestinians from protesting against Israel represents what many refugees in Lebanon believe is a main hindrance in order for them to return. In Lebanon, refugees live with few civil rights, many in refugee camps enclosed by barbed-wire fencing and army checkpoints. Last year, thousands protested in Beirut calling for rights in order to return.
Sunday's protest wasn't ended by Israel's force but by that of the Lebanese army. After hours at the fence, Lebanese soldiers moved in and began firing their M16s in the air non-stop, creating a stampede of frightened protesters who sprinted back up the incline. People fell on top of each other, some hurled themselves to the ground to seek cover. As the crowd continued rushing up the mountain, the army fired teargas until all were gone.
Taking a break near the top, I met two young men sitting side by side. They asked me to photograph them – one was Lebanese and the other a Palestinian refugee – to show that it wasn't only Palestinians protesting for the right of return.
I asked Mahmoud, the refugee from the Ain al-Helweh camp, what he thought of the Lebanese army, which at that point was still shooting in the air. He told me: "They're just like the Israelis. Both of them are stopping us from returning home."
I pointed out that the Israelis were killing people at the fence and asked if he thought he could return by protesting. "Let [the Lebanese army] give us the chance, and let's see what happens."
The fight with the Lebanese army highlights the complicated journey Palestinian refugees must take to achieve their rights. Not only this, but yesterday there were only a handful of international journalists covering the important demonstrations, and many commentators don't see the refugees' struggle as legitimate. Never is a refugee's right to return to the lands he/she was forced to flee brought into question, except when that refugee is a Palestinian. Often the fate of the Israeli regime is raised when considering the rights of Palestinian refugees. Yet when Egyptians, Libyans and others took to the streets in the Arab world, it wasn't a concern for the justice-supporting international community what became of the regimes they battled against. In many cases, internationals have even joined in calls for their ousting.
Yesterday Palestinians climbed back down the mountain and into their buses to return to more than a dozen refugee camps, unrecognised "gatherings" and other areas around Lebanon. After 63 years in exile, it's time that the same international solidarity offered to the various people in the Arab world be offered to Palestinian refugees in their battle for freedom.