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Reconciling Return and Rights: Palestinian Refugees and the Emergence of a "Political Society"

[Portion of mural in Aida Refugee Camp. Image by Alan Mayers via Flickr] [Portion of mural in Aida Refugee Camp. Image by Alan Mayers via Flickr]

Analyses and debates on the reconfiguration of rights, democracy, social justice, and dignity in the Arab region suffer from a chronic methodological nationalism—which perpetuates the idea that people seek and fight for rights and self-determination solely in their national state and territory, seen as the natural context for achieving a full social and political personhood. When refugees and displaced persons (short or long terms alike) are discussed, they appear by and large as volatile figures or fortuitous victims, or as an indistinct mass in need of humanitarianism, living transient non-lives and awaiting compensation and return. They are hardly ever represented as political agents. This represents a curious form of obliviousness in a region that has witnessed the movement of millions of refugees and migrants across borders over its modern history, itself a result of an endless series of conflicts, colonial and civil wars, genocides, as well as foreign invasions and occupations.[1] In certain cases, like the Armenian or the Palestinian respectively, the emergence of the refugee population pre-existed the birth of the modern nation-states in the region or was concomitant to it. These displaced men, women, and children have contributed, over the decades, to shape the spatial, political, economic, cultural, and social configurations of the countries where they have fled to. Often, they have also been the “other” against which precarious national identities and the ensuing, similarly precarious, entitlements were fabricated and distributed. Yet, and notwithstanding the constitutive and endemic nature of refugeehood in the region, debates of rights, democracy, and society-state configurations tend to still be framed within a highly territorially and nationally bounded framework. The implication is that those who lie at the margins of nation-states, like Palestinian refugees, are twice ostracized and their predicament is made even more invisible. Thinking of Palestinian refugees as living temporary or suspended lives merely awaiting return to their national territory—where they will finally achieve rights and citizenship—does not give justice to the complexity of their aspirations and claims which comprise the right to have rights, alongside the right to return to their lost land and properties. In the case of Palestinian refugees, the narrative of “avoiding tawtin” to enable “return” allows the protraction of a problematic amnesia about issues of citizenship rights, social justice, and pluralism in a region where refugees’ exclusion or suspension from rights and entitlements fit into an agenda of reinforcing hierarchical confessional, tribal, class, and gender divisions.[2]

Right to Return, Right to Dignity

For over sixty years, Palestinians have been unable to return to their original lands and/or to obtain any compensation for their material and human losses. Indeed, Israel has adamantly refused to be considered accountable for the tragedy of the Nakba, and had only been ready to accommodate, on historical Palestine, a symbolic number of first generation refugees. Simultaneously, many host countries have endorsed the idea that naturalization and access to full rights (tawtin) and even tatwir (development) would constitute a de facto assimilation of the refugee populations and would, eventually, undermine their right of return.[3] However in their daily existence, refugees question their status as an indistinct mass of beneficiaries, as stateless subjects, or as temporary citizens. Most significantly, they defy the opposition between return and rights, which they do not see as mutually exclusive political projects. 

In in different ways, Palestinian refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan articulate powerful critiques from below, which make them—in Hannah Arendt’s terms—the potential “vanguard of their people”.[4] Partha Chatterjee coined the notion “political society” to denote those new aspirations and claims that in many postcolonial contexts emerged outside—and somehow in opposition to—the earlier liberal consensus of state-civil society relations: "[…]the historical task that has been set by these movements is to work out new forms of democratic institutions and practices in the mediating field of political society that lies between civil society and the nation-state."[5]

While their idioms are still nationalist, these movements may encompass sub-, post- and trans-national allegiances, aspirations, claims, and solidarities. Attempting to take seriously Appadurai’s urge to rethink the linguistic imaginary of the nation-state, Partha Chatterjee argues that these projects are located in an interstice between civil society and the nation-state, the latter becoming one of the main terrain of contestation. Indeed, political societies are interested in a project of democracy rather than in one of modernity or modernization endorsed by the post-colonial nation-state, from which they were excluded or only partially included.

Similarly, having been left out of the post-Oslo consensus of the two-state solution, Palestinian refugees are urged to make new sense of their sixty-four years of dispossession and exile. The point of departure is the bitter disillusion with the official narrative which naturalized “rights” and “return” as divergent if not contradictory projects, posing the lack of rights as the pre-condition for refugees’ return. In most cases, third- or even fourth-generation Palestinian refugees still do not have basic rights, and their return has never been as jeopardised and distant as it is today.  In light of their current predicament, refugees are uttering a distinctively new political discourse, which is reflective of their long-term practices of attempting to achieve rights, while simultaneously claiming their right to return. This discourse is fragmented and not shaped into a coherent and collective voice, but rather signified and articulated in a variety of ways. For example, refugees critically dissect the rhetoric of tawtin pointing to the ways in which it has been mobilized to legitimize their exclusion or the temporary nature of their precarious inclusion.  Many refugees creatively formulate their own notions of tawtin, endorsing bottom-up claims for rights, but rejecting top-down imposition of citizenship. These notions run counter to the tropes of the national leadership[6] and those of the Arab host-states, and engender a new type of “temporariness,” which is not based on, but rather against, refugees’ exclusion or encapsulation. Temporariness is rooted in active practices of emplacement and displacement through which refugees symbolically and politically pursue both the right of return and the right to rights. Finally, refugees de-sacralize the exclusionary rhetoric of the Arab nation-states’ citizenship by arguing that one’s national identity, religion, or ethnicity should not be a ground for inclusion or exclusion from rights. In parallel, return is re-articulated not merely as the realization of self-determination through a Palestinian national project, or solely within a nationalist framework, but as a symbolic signifier of a wider plea for freedom and dignity. Imaginaries of return reflect intergenerational differences: for the older generation, return is conceived of and narrated as a right to their own lands from which they were forcibly estranged, but more widely to the dignity and status rooted in belonging to and owning that land and the life that being ahl al-ard (the people of the land) entitles them with. Sometimes, returning is imagined as going back to a life of coexistence and freedom. For the younger generation, return is not necessarily to their families’ villages of origin or to their land, but to the entire Palestine, to the sea, to the views or places and spaces from which they have been deprived, and yet return is also articulated as the ability to have a life project, or as an entitlement “to stay” as fully fledged citizens.

In this and other senses, Palestinian refugees’ are forming a “political society,” composed of new claims, narratives, and political practices, which they base on a broader moral and political ground than that of nationalism and the nation-state.

Jordan: Between Assimilation and Exception

Palestinians in Jordan are subject to a double paradoxical process of assimilation and exclusion or exception. Since the 1988 disengagement of Jordan from the West Bank (fak al-irtibat), Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship residing in the West Bank cross the bridge connecting the two banks with a green identification card, a color that constructs them as citizens of a fictional Palestinian sovereign state, and by virtue of which Jordan justifies its arbitrary withdrawal of their citizenship.[7] There are numerous accounts of refugees whose citizenship and raqam watani (national identification number) were confiscated, and who were given no apparent, clear, or convincing explanation, except that they are “Palestinian nationals” [sic.]. According to a report compiled by Human Right Watch, between 2004 and 2007 over 2700 Palestinians have seen their citizenship withdrawn and more than 200,000 Palestinians who fled Kuwait in 1990-91 can be subjected to the same treatment.[8]

This exercise of exception is justified through the rhetoric of tawtin, (naturalization) and the need to prevent Israel from emptying the West Bank from Palestinians (as well as by reference to the Arab League veto for dual citizenship for Arab nationals). In real terms, the effect of these hierarchies and categorizations is the construction and naturalization of differences between Palestinian and Jordanian “citizens,” the latter including some assimilated and loyal Palestinians, therefore legitimating members of the sovereign Hashemite Kingdom. These discourses tend to crystallize the identities of the holders into various degrees of Jordanianness or Palestinianness, seen as mutually exclusive entities, in contrast with the much more fluid and complex ways in which people themselves historically experienced these identities.

As Abu Fadi from the al-Wihdat refugee camp claimed in an interview:

It is not us who are doing the differentiation, it is them. They are saying “we are Jordanian” […] but we all know that the division between Jordan and Palestine is ardi, it is a territorial division. The families of the south of Palestine were the same families.

Abu Ahmad, a shopkeeper from the Hittin refugee camp recalled through a story the ways in which Jordanians differentiated the Palestinians to exclude them from the army:

When they recruited for the army, they showed an onion to them and asked them to say what it was. Those who said basala were Palestinians and did not get into the army, those who said ibsala, were Jordanian Bedouins, those they took into the army.

These stories, which may be legends, are nonetheless strikingly evocative of how Palestinians de-sacralize and contest these discursive constructions where national differences are naturalized and instrumentally mobilized to erect exclusionary boundaries. At the same time, a top-down assimilation, which they feel is aimed at depriving refugees of the legal right to return and of the refugee status, is constantly evoked as a threat. The watan is still predominantly equated with a mother, a very common allegory in Palestinian iconography, where gendered representations of the nation as a fertile land, as a mother, or as a violated spouse are constantly evoked. While for most refugees this mother/watan can never be exchanged, rights can and should be achieved in the country where one lives and not necessarily or exclusively in the watan/homeland. In this re-signification of rights as entitlements that should be independent from one’s national belonging and membership, the watan/homeland maintains its centrality as the refugees’ place of origin and of their return. In Palestine, and only there, they are ahl al-ard, a concept that carries a much wider and profound meaning than personal propriety or national identity. Being ahl al-ard points, in most accounts by dispossessed refugees, to personhood and status, to belonging and honour, to family genealogy and roots, and, ultimately, to dignity. 

Accessing rights, according to most refugees, is therefore different from the top-down tawtin, or assimilation.

“We make the border”: Resisting Assimilation in Jordan

Central in these reconfigurations are the meanings that the camp is imbued with. The reconciling of rights and return is spatially reproduced through practices of emplacement and displacement, a dynamic in which the meaning of the camp is re-articulated. In Jordan, many camps have extended outside the official territorial boundaries that delimit them, and developed in areas in close proximity. Refugees represent this moving out not as an exit, but rather as a process of extending the camp beyond its official territorial borders. The camp in this perspective becomes a flexible, symbolic, and political—rather than simply a territorial—space. It is an identity space represented by the willingness to carry a memory and a right, and not to assimilate. As Ali’s words’ convey:

My grandfather had a big family. Wihdat was too small to get all families next to each other. So the camp became bigger, like an onion. We made the borders of Wihdat. The government puts it much smaller.

As evidence of the unwillingness to assimilate, refugees have adamantly resisted the persistent attempts by the Jordanian government to transform the camps into hai, urban districts fully assimilated into the urban landscape, as this would symbolically and politically annihilate their status as refugees, their political identity, their history of suffering and temporariness which they have internalised and which stand, and, for many of them, their entitlement of return.

For a long time it was also believed that people in camps would be more linked to Palestine by virtue of their poverty and encapsulation. However, adhering to the right of return as a project is clearly transversal to camp and non-camp dwelling.[9] Many refugees in Jordan are keen to underlie the fact that their resoluteness to holding onto the right of return is disconnected from either living or not living in a territorially delineated refugee camp.

“We do not want to be Lebanese, just give us the rights!”

In Lebanon, since the exile of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1982, the life and prospect of Palestinian refugees has progressively deteriorated. Most notably, Palestinians are today suffering the exclusion from civil, social, and political rights and entitlements, institutionalized with the suspension of the Cairo agreements signed by Lebanon in 1969 and recently, and substantially only nominally, slightly alleviated. Such discrimination and exclusion from civil and social rights is legitimized through a two-fold legal and discursive expedient. On the one hand, there is the trap of the need for a clause of reciprocity, which is of course not possible for Palestinians in the absence of a sovereign nation-state. On the other hand, political rhetoric maintains this exclusion as necessary to avoid tawtin (naturalization) and ensure the right of return for Palestinians. In fact, most refugees perceptively stress that the real reasons for the ban of Palestinians from social and political rights is the preservation of a precarious sectarian “balance,” which in turn contributes to maintain Palestinians as a docile population, dependent on humanitarian aid—ultimately, a disenfranchised class subject to exploitation and easily transformed into scapegoats in case of internal and international cleavages.

Accessing rights is one of the major priorities of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. A unison claim is: “We do not want their citizenship, we do not want to be Lebanese, give us just the rights!” A variation of the theme was vividly expressed by an elderly refugee from Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, who eloquently stated: “Jinsiyyeh hiyyeh wasila” (nationality is just a means to an end, nothing more than that). In addition to the strong awareness that the negation of rights to Palestinians in Lebanon, there is also the consequence of sectarian cleavages and political arithmetic. Refugees’ narratives make constant reference to being pawns within national and sectarian political cleavages, and the narrative of their right of return as an easy scapegoat. In this quotation, Raed compellingly conveys the frustration of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, especially of the younger generation, towards the rhetoric of tawtin as expressed by the powers-that-be:

We are concerned only about practicing the rights, not about being Lebanese. But they say offering rights is tawtin. Both the Lebanese and Palestinian factions say that. The Palestinian faction’s existence depends on the difficult situation of the Palestinians. So the Palestinian factions use this in a clever way. If you want to make the camp look nice, that is tawtin. If you want to change the sewage system, that is tawtin […] And probably half of them [members of the factions] live outside of the camp.

For the older generation, who has seen the defeat of the resistance movement in Lebanon, who sacrificed their children and who now feel abandoned by the national leadership, the ways in which tawtin is mobilized to avoid granting Palestinians rights and dignity sounds like mere racism. On the other hand, the younger generation shows disenchantment and disaffection towards views that, in the current climate, sound purely hypocritical and lead to the mere political self-preservation of the factions.

In this context, younger generations of educated Palestinians are starting to express a ferocious criticism, not only towards Lebanese sectarianism and exception, but also towards Palestinian popular committees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) system, and the humanitarian logic. Popular committees are described as corrupted, lacking any accountability and political representativeness. Such criticism is expressed in various forms and languages, such as hip-hop groups and the birth of independent real grassroots organizations who wish and manage to operate outside the humanitarian aid circuits. In the Shatila refugee camp, such organizations and people, with whom we conducted interviews, include the hip-hop group Khatiba 5, and the “Refugee Dream Organization”—an organization that is actively attempting to challenge existing forms of camp governance and representation, while developing alternative, democratic, and bottom-up representative bodies that they believe can truly bring people’s needs and interests to center stage. Another small but very active organization is People-to-People, whose headquarter is located in the Sabra gathering and whose declared aim is to reactivate solidarity chains altogether bypassing the humanitarian aid system, that in their view reproduces itself rather than creates opportunities for those it alleges to help.


The urge to reconcile rights with “return” is an arena where we can see Palestinian refugees turning into a political avant-garde, pushing for new democratic state-society reconfigurations. Palestinian refugees’ practices, accounts, and analyses, developed out of a specific standpoint of marginality or suspension of the rule. They offer formidable grounds for analysing not only their own predicaments, but also the specific aporia, contradictions, and precarious nature of nationality, citizenship, and rights in the host Arab states to which they have been displaced over sixty years.

Refugees are a “subaltern” voice that strives to inscribe itself onto a new political space, by deconstructing and challenging the dominant tropes that have sustained their exclusion from rights (in Lebanon) or that have constructed and naturalized them as a “different” yet “assimilatable” population (in Jordan)—strategies they perceive are aimed at legitimizing their precarious status while simultaneously making them a politically invisible and silent community. Palestinian refugees are giving shape to an embryonic refugee political identity, a new political subjectivity that destabilizes nation-state configurations, and simultaneously unfolds the specific drawbacks of nationality and citizenship in the Middle East. Palestinian refugees articulate a powerful critique to sectarian neo-patrimonial regimes where resources and entitlements are highly layered and hierarchically distributed according to ethnicity, religious affiliation, nationality, class, gender and family status. They utter their frustration towards the lack of accountability and the corruption of their local leaderships, they loudly decry the dehumanizing humanitarianism to which they are confined.

All refugees across gender, generation, and locations share the notion that return is an individual, inalienable right, which cannot be negotiated or dismissed from above. This sacred principle does not, however, contrast with individual and collective strategies and narratives of rights and political agency from below. Palestinian refugees produce demotic narratives where rights here and now are integrated with the right to “return,” conceived as return to origin and roots, land and properties, but also to dignity and freedom. In this light, refugees contribute to the emergence of what Partha Chatterjee calls a “political society.” They operate through the frameworks of democracy and self-determination that precede and overcome the modern Arab nation-state project, which they represent as imbued with serious flaws. In this sense, refugees are precursors of the new “political” space of the Arab uprisings and the demand for social justice, dignity, and self-determination that were harboured therein. This space, albeit saturated with contradictions or uncertainties, echoes the wide disillusionment towards Arab regimes’ empty rhetoric and unfulfilled promises, proposing a vision at the core of which are the symbolic, political, and material dimensions of dignity, rights, and state-society and minorities-majorities relations in the region. 

[1] The UNHCR provides a figure of 1.8 millions refugees across the Middle East and North Africa, a figure that does not include the 4.7 millions Palestinians registered with UNRWA and the 1 million Syrians refugees engendered by the Syrian conflict.

[2] Suad Joseph (ed.), Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

[3] See the essays collected in A. Knudsen & S. Hanafi (eds.), Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space, and Place in The Levant (London: Routledge, 2011).

[4] Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in M. Robinson (ed), Altogether Elsewhere: Writers in Exile (Boston/London: Faber and Faber, 1994): pp. 111-119.

[5] Partha Chatterjee, “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?” Social Text 56 (Autumn), 1998: pp. 57-69.

[6] The Palestinian Authority (PA) has in recent times also been endorsing a rights’ agenda, but this move is viewed with suspicion by many refugees.

[7] Palestinians permanently residing in the East Bank have been given a yellow card, to differentiate them from those who reside in the West Bank under the PA, who are now seen as Palestinian nationals and in that respect not entitled to hold a Jordanian nationality. Palestinians permanently residing in the East Bank and those who came before 1948 are naturalized Jordanians.

[9] For a compelling analysis of the weak relationship between nationalism and camp dwelling in Lebanon, see Sari Hanafi, “Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon: Laboratory of Indocile Identity Formation”, in M. A. Khalidi, Manifestations of Identity: The Lived Reality of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon  (Bieurt: IFPO, 2010): pp. 45-74.

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