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From ethnic cleansing to return: a peace process worthy of the name

This week marks the 66th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Miska, a Palestinian village whose roughly 1,000-strong population was expelled in April 1948 by Haganah forces. Located around 10 miles from Qalqilya, Miska boasted 100-200 houses, an elementary school for boys, and a mosque.

The community was targeted and destroyed by pre-Israel Defense Forces (IDF) militias, as part of a policy of “clearing out [the area’s] Arab inhabitants“. The expulsion of the villagers,according to historian Benny Morris, was carried out “with Haganah/IDF General Staff and/or cabinet-level sanction”. Everything was destroyed except the school and the mosque.

A key role in the ethnic cleansing was played by Joseph Weitz, then-senior official in the Jewish National Fund (JNF), who set in motion the “levelling” of the village through his organisation’s “branch offices”. Touring the area soon after, Weitz wrote in his diary that the valley was “all ours and Jewish hands were working in it“.

Most of Miska’s refugees ended up in camps in the West Bank and Jordan (see map). Some managed to remain in what became Israel, staying in nearby town Tira. For them, however,citizenship has not meant return.

Under the Absentee Property Law, Miska’s former residents who remained inside Israel received the Kafkaesque Israeli classification…”present absentees”: they were “present” in the country, but the law constituted them as “absent” for the purpose of property confiscation.

Miska’s land is now used for fruit groves by Jewish communal settlements Sde Warbug, Mishmeret, and Ramat HaKovesh. The ruined mosque still remains, but the school building was demolished in 2007 by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA).

The story of Miska, of the displacement of its men, women and children, is similar to that of hundreds of Palestinian villages emptied and levelled by Israeli forces in 1947-’49. Around 90% of all the Palestinians located inside the new State of Israel’s boundaries became denationalised refugees.

The massacres, expulsions and demolitions of the Nakba were followed by legislative measures designed to expropriate the lands and properties of the expelled Palestinians, while opening up the country’s borders to new Jewish immigrants (many of whom moved into new communities built on the land of destroyed villages). From 1948 to 1953, 95% of new Jewish communities were established on expelled Palestinians’ property.

Yet despite the centrality of the Nakba to the entire Palestinian question, it has been marginalised by the official ‘peace process’, is still denied by some, and is justified by others (and sometimes, incredibly, both denied and justified). On its website’s history section, Sde Warburg, one of the Jewish communities benefiting from Miska’s land, claims that Haganah forces reached Miska in 1948 “only to find it abandoned by its residents“.

Confronting this wall of denial and legislative apartheid, some Palestinians have sought to embark on a process that imagines and realises a return to their lands. In recent years, Israeli organisation Zochrot (Hebrew for remembrance) has coordinated workshops on the practical questions to do with the refugees’ return. In 2010, this included representatives of the ‘Committee of Miska expellees’, living today in Tira.

The workshop, according to a piece in Zochrot’s journal Sedek, examined “various issues connected to the return of refugees and expellees and formulated proposals conceptualizing the territorial implications of the return in order to develop a schematic outline for, and suggest a variety of, possible spatial scenarios of return”.

Author Einat Manoff wrote how, for Jewish Israelis, “experience has shown that reference to the right of return, as a theoretical concept rather than a practical plan of action, is met with anger, violence, and fear – fear that is often a result of the inability to imagine how the actual implementation of the right of return would appear and to see its inherent potential”.

Palestinians from Miska had established their committee in 2005, and conducted a visit to the site of the village to plant tree saplings that were subsequently uprooted by the authorities. The committee persisted, however, holding cultural events in the old school building, prompting Israeli authorities to surround the school with a fence. An ILA spokesperson justified the anti-“infiltration” measure as preventing “future trespassing“. Eventually, the authorities sent bulldozers to level the school building.

The work done on Miska, such as Ahmad Barclay’s project for Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) imagining a four-stage return to the village, “extends the legalistic approach to the right of return with a projective one that aims to open the political imagination towards the different forms in which a present return could take place”. This stands in contrast to the blurring of “return” in “the futile limbo of negotiations”. There have been other examples too – see the renewed activism by the Palestinians of Kufr Bir’im.

For years, think tanks and experts have laboured over policy papers and briefings on the two-state solution, proposing increasingly elaborate answers to questions of ‘viability’, ‘transportational contiguity’ and the like.

But imagine if these efforts – this time and money – were invested in and focused on creative ways to realise the Palestinian refugees’ inalienable right of return. If working groups and policy makers turned to questions of spatial decolonisation, and constitutional models for a democratic state protecting the rights of all its citizens, Palestinians and Jews.

Then we would see that the obstacle to the Palestinian refugees’ return, to the decolonisation of Palestine and implementation of the Palestinian right to self-determination, is not, in fact, ‘practical’, but instead deeply ideological – that the exclusion of an indigenous population from their homeland is motivated by the desire to protect an artificial majority created by force.

This is the work to be done – to transform a past and present of ethnic cleansing into a future of return and restoration: a peace “process” worthy of the name.

Published first on Middle East Monitor.

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