Mohamed Yousef Hudeib, an elderly Palestinian refugee, lives with his family at the Fawwar Refugee Camp near Hebron in the southern West Bank.
This month, 63 years ago, Zionist terrorists, known as Hagana, drove him and his family, as well as thousands of the inhabitants of the village of Dawayma, 25 kilometers west of Hebron, away.
"They told us to walk eastward, warning us that they would shoot and kill anyone that looks back. In fact, they did kill several people to show us that they are serious about their threats."
Two days earlier, on a Friday, the terrorists committed a horrible massacre at a Sufi mosque called Masjidul Darawish, killing dozens of elderly men who had come to the mosque for congregational prayers. Dozens of other refugees were massacred inside a cave outside a nearby valley in which they sought temporary shelter and a hideout.
"They took our land by force and terror. And they want us to recognize the legitimacy of what they did. But we will never ever do that. We will continue to inculcate our children, generation after generation, with unrelenting determination to return to our land, no matter how long this will take," says the elderly Palestinian, with resolve apparent in his tone of voice.
Hudeib's words echo the determination of millions of Palestinian refugees all over the globe to cling to the right of return, a goal that has acquired almost religious sanctity in the collective Palestinian consciousness. This determination is presenting politicians, including Palestinian leaders, with a real dilemma.
Salman Abu Sitta is a leading advocate of the refugees' inalienable right to return to the homes and villages from which they were uprooted at gun point in what is now Israel 63 years ago. He argues that any peace process excluding or sidestepping the right of return is doomed.
"They are trying to compensate us with a deformed state for the right of return. However, the liquidation of the right of return amounts to the liquidation of the entire Palestinian cause. In the final analysis, the right of return is the Palestinian problem. It is the crux of the matter."
Abu Sitta's reassertion of the right of return doesn't fare well with the Americans, Europeans, and of course the Israelis.
Israeli and Zionist leaders, who had sought self-assurance by arguing that "the old will die and the young will forget," view refugee demands for repatriation and restitution as a nightmare. They say that the implementation of the right of return, which is engraved in international law and UN resolutions, is unthinkable since it would end Israel's identity as a Jewish state.
To this, the Palestinians retort that the world community and international law are under no legal or moral obligation to sacrifice human rights for the sake of maintaining Israel's Jewish identity, anymore than the world was obliged to maintain apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, the uprooting of Palestinians from their ancestral homeland was a collective act of brutality with very few parallels in the history of humanity. It will remain an open wound as long as the wrongs done to these refugees are not rectified and corrected.
But the Israeli establishment doesn’t even recognise that these crimes did in fact take place. Even when conscientious Israeli academics, dubbed Israel's New Historians, speak up about these wrongs, they are vilified and threatened.
Palestinians argue that the right of return shouldn’t even be open to dispute, just as an owner’s right to recover his or her stolen property from a thief is not open to dispute. More to the point, the term "Jewish character of Israel" is nothing but a facade for the continuation of Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies against non-Jews.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, states in Article 13 that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Nonetheless, the Obama administration is reportedly trying to convince both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to accept a "final status deal" whereby Palestinians would trade the right of return for a state on the West Bank and Gaza.
The occurrence of the Nakba anniversary this year, today, Sunday 15 May, coincides with historic changes in large parts of the Arab region, changes many intellectuals and pundits contend will have a positive impact on the Palestinian cause. It also coincides with a reconciliation pact achieved between Fatah and Hamas, which for the first time in years allows the Palestinians to speak with one voice for freedom and justice.
"The implementation of the right of return wouldn't be only a victory for justice and a defeat for ethnic cleansing and fascism, but it would also be a bedrock guarantee that any future final status settlement would be durable," says Abu Sitta.