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Ghada Karmi – ‘Dispossession is at the heart of the Palestinian problem’

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Palestinian activist and writer Ghada Karmi, who published a new memoir recently, reflects on the fight for Palestinian rights
Issue 2464
Ghada Karmi (left) and Ellen Siegel, demonstrate the injustice of Israel’s law of ‘return’ in 1973
Ghada Karmi (left) and Ellen Siegel, demonstrate the injustice of Israel’s law of ‘return’ in 1973

It has become fashionable for people to forget about the right to return. 

The narrative moves on from the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land in 1948, to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas/Fatah rivalry and the siege of Gaza. 

All these are very important. But I believe these preoccupations are dust in the eye, because the basis of the Palestinian story is the question of the dispossession. That is the context for the right of return.

The cover of my new book shows a key, and this image has become the iconic symbol for the Palestinian right of return. 

It is testimony to Israel’s success that it has buried this aspect of Palestinian life quite effectively. 

But today the very mention of return is still meaningful to every Palestinian in his or her heart. 

My book is not about how to get all the refugees home. It’s a consideration of return and an account of a sort of return for me.

For me physical return is impossible—I was born in West Jerusalem. The house we lived in was long taken over by Israeli families. I visited several times. Each time it was a different family living there.

So I cannot return to the home I was born in. But Palestine was a place I could return to.

I have never forgotten where I came from. I believed that this injustice could not endure and that Israel would be called to account one day.

In 2005 I thought, why don’t I go and try living there? 

I was determined I would not be another one of those researchers, observers or NGOs. 

The place is littered with well meaning people who turn up, gawp at the natives and write a report. 

I decided the best thing was to work for the Palestinian Authority (PA). I thought romantically that I would be welcomed as one of their own who wanted to help. Nothing could be further from the truth.


I arrived to find a highly bureaucratic institution. They were people who had been suffering, while people like me were seen as sitting in Hampstead cafes knowing nothing of all this. 

There were office intrigues and rivalries—the book deals with some of this, humorously I hope. It is tragic but funny. You can just think the self important officials preening themselves are total clowns. But you have to remember it’s all derived from the occupation. 

We know that every colonist in history has cultivated and looked after a particular class. It’s pretty pathetic—they are VIPs who can pass though checkpoints, in return they are left alone. 

Of course they end up oppressing the people around them, not the oppressor.

Now 4.5 million Palestinians live in refugee camps and 1.8 million live under Israeli rule. In the West Bank and Gaza together there are some 5 million and about 4 million live in exile.

More Palestinians live outside than inside. 

Yet Palestinian negotiators have been willing to use the right of return as a bargaining chip. It’s terrible.

A theme reoccurs every time we talk of Israel—it does what it does because it can, because nobody stops it. 

But I want to ask you to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In all my years in the West I have not seen a movement so promising and encouraging. 

The Palestinians want people to target Israel, and that is what we can do living on this side of the world. BDS is a wonderful tool to end Israel’s impunity.

This is an edited version of a talk Ghada Karmi gave at the Marxism 2015 festival in July. Return, a Palestinian Memoir, by Ghada Karmi Verso Books, £16.99 is available from Bookmarks

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