71 YEARS OF SUFFOCATION: STORIES OF PALESTINIAN REFUGEES
Amnesty International marked the 71st anniversary of the Nakba with “70 + Years of Suffocation”, an online showcase of Palestinian refugees living in the OPT, Lebanon and Jordan who have shared their reality and experiences of being “stateless”. Award winning photographer, Tanya Habjouqa, has taken pictures that weave a relationship with the interviews, giving the reader visual context.
For over 50 years, Israel has been confiscating Palestinian land and bulldozing Palestinian homes with complete impunity. These lands are being used to build illegal settlements to house Israeli citizens, while Palestinians become homeless.
As Israel continues to suffocate the existence of Palestinians by controlling most aspects of their daily and private lives while attempting to present a reality void of its inhumane treatment of Palestinians, it’s more crucial than ever that Palestinians, the oldest and largest refugee group in the world, have platforms to be heard.
Also known as ‘the catastrophe’, Nakba Day (May 15th) commemorates the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living within the territories before 1948 were expelled or forced to flee the territory during the conflict, and are restricted from ever returning to the homes, towns and villages in which they were born.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) states that in 1950 they responded to the needs of an estimated 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today there are 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza) alone. In 2018, the United States announced a $65 million cut in funding for UNWRA, affecting the agency’s ability to provide educational programs and medical and emergency services to Palestinian refugees.
RIGHT OF RETURN
The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 states that:
“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.”
Yet Israel refuses to comply with this and other resolutions and refugee laws that maintain Palestinians’ right to return to their original homes.
This blatant disregard for international law has been routine practice for Israel, which continues to exercise restriction of movement, systematic abuse, excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests and detention against the Palestinian refugee population.
TERRORIZED BY TEAR GAS
The close proximity of a checkpoint near Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank has led to continuous confrontations between the Israeli army and Palestinian refugees, who have reported excessive use of force during Israeli army raids in the camp.
The arbitrary and reckless use of tear gas by the Israeli army is one such example. One paramedic stated that “half of the emergency calls in the Bethlehem district regarding tear gas exposure come from Aida refugee camp.”
The use of tear gas is so widespread in Aida camp that all parts of society have been affected and, as one refugee stated to Amnesty: “we all have breathing issues”. Amnesty has received testimonies from Palestinian parents, children, seniors, the disabled, paramedics, educators, students and journalists who all expressed the widespread fear and experience with tear gas.
“70 + Years of Suffocation” highlights the life of Umm Ahmad, a refugee living in Aida camp who was 4 months pregnant when a tear gas canister entered her home. This experience forced her and her children to learn precautionary survival skills.
“Now my children tell me when the soldiers are here and when they are shooting gas. We put wet towels on the doors and windows to try to protect ourselves, but this is not enough. We need gas masks and first aid training at the very least.”
The fear of tear gas has paralysed many aspects of Palestinian life, including the right to an education. Israel routinely uses tear gas in schools and in close proximity of schools, forcing educators to train students and staff on escape drills to get the children home under a barrage of tear gas. Students are forced to leave class, miss school and suffer from lack of concentration due to the physical and psychological effects of being tear-gassed.
During a protest in December, 2017, the Israeli army aimed 130 tear gas canisters at an UNRWA school:
“We spoke to the UNRWA operations office, asking them to inform the Israeli military of our whereabouts and to make them stop shooting gas at the school… but, instead of stopping, they shot more tear gas canisters at the school. We found about 130 tear gas canisters in the school yard that day.” - Reem Awaineh
A student, Ibtihaj, explained to Amnesty her inability to focus on her studies:
“During these last three days [14-16 May 2018], we were meant to break for final exams, so that we could study. But there was tear gas fired at the camp every night. I couldn’t study or focus for two days, and today I couldn’t concentrate on the exams. There is no safe space. There is only fear. I cannot focus, and I cannot study; studying is pointless.”
Refugees have reported that Israeli forces fire tear gas arbitrarily and have no particular aim: “they hit mosques, schools, homes.”
Amnesty’s “70+ years of Suffocation” shares the personal stories of these individuals and others.
GAZA: THE GREAT MARCH OF RETURN
Gaza has a population of 1.9 million people, 70% of which are refugees. It is the most densely populated area in the world.
Gaza has been under a 12-year illegal blockade of land, air and sea. This blockade prevents the movement of goods, food, medical supplies, clean water, electricity and employment and stops Palestinians from entering or leaving Gaza, stifling the economy and health of the entire region.
In 2017, the UN stated that Gaza was on the verge of being “unliveable”, due to the humanitarian crisis the blockade has created. This month, UN Commissioner General Pierre Krahenuhl stated that there was an “epidemic deterioration of mental-health conditions”.
On March 30, 2018, between 40,000 - 50,000 Palestinian refugees living in Gaza began “The Great March of Return and Breaking of the Siege”, calling for the lifting of the blockade and the return of the refugees to their original villages, which are now in modern-day Israel.
Peaceful protests were met with excessive lethal force by the Israeli army. Amnesty reports found that “the Israeli army reinforced its forces – deploying tanks, military vehicles and soldiers, including snipers, along the Gaza/Israel fence – and gave orders to shoot anyone within several hundred metres of the fence.” Soldiers shot at protestors who showed no immediate threat, leaving hundreds dead, and hundreds with severe injuries leading to amputation.
“70+ years of Suffocation” highlights many of these victims, including children, women, seniors, and the disabled.
The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry into the protests stated that Israel’s lethal force could amount to war crimes, as occupied people are to be protected.
OVER 71+ YEARS ON, IT’S TIME TO #ENDNAKBA
Amnesty International calls for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel, the West Bank or Gaza Strip, along with those of their descendants who have maintained genuine links with the area, to be able to exercise their right to return in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
The Israeli authorities must allow Palestinians to return to their original home or lands. If this is not possible – because they no longer exist, have been converted to other uses, or because of a valid competing claim – they should be allowed to return to the vicinity of their original home.
Palestinians who choose not to exercise their right to return should receive compensation for lost property, in accordance with principles of international law. Those returning should likewise be compensated for any lost property.
The international community must ensure full and consistent funding to UNRWA to ensure that millions of Palestinian refugees continue to have access to essential services.
The Lebanese and the Jordanian governments must ensure that Palestinian refugees have the right to an adequate standard of living, with dignified access to health and education services. Also, they should have the right to work and to benefit from adequate work conditions.
Raise your voice with Amnesty International, and TAKE ACTION on the SEVENTY+ YEARS OF SUFFOCATION microsite, to tell the international community:
I stand in solidarity with Palestinian refugees, who are still awaiting a just solution to attain their inalienable rights, including their right to return as defined by #UNResolution194. Over 71 years on, it’s time to #EndNakba https://nakba.amnesty.org/en/chapters/west-bank-gaza/