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Commentary. The forced displacement of about 80 percent of Gaza's inhabitants and the destruction of the entire Strip have provided the most brutal and irrefutable proof that Israel is a colonial settlement state.

The right of return beyond the nation-state

“We went to bed in 2023 and woke up in 1948,” said a message from Gaza in October 2023, coming from A., a mother, grandmother and feminist activist in Gaza. A month had passed since the bombs began to fall. A. recounted how she spent her days in the shelter where she’d found safety together with her sons, daughters and grandchildren.

She told of her compulsive attachment to the tasks she had set for herself: searching for food for the children – who were hysterical from being confined, sleepless from the nonstop sound of bombs and racked by hunger – washing clothes in whichever way one could manage and incessantly sweeping the room-sized shelter where they were all crammed.

Since October 7, it has been the 1948 Nakba – during which two-thirds of Palestinians were expelled from their lands and their villages destroyed – that symbolically stands for and describes the situation in the present day, more than ever before. It even applies more fittingly than to the events of 76 years ago, even though today’s destruction and death are of unprecedented magnitude.

Out of all the images, testimonies and videos coming out of Gaza in recent months, there is one in particular that testifies to the Nakba being more than a past moment bounded in time, but rather a temporal structure that sustained, and still sustains, the colonial project of settlement. Among the tents of the 1.5 million displaced in Rafah, a woman is showing a key, holding it tightly in her hand and pleading for the right to return with tear-filled eyes.

What she is holding is not the storied key to the house in her grandparents’ home village, which Israel destroyed in 1948 with the aim of preventing Palestinian refugees from returning. It’s not the key that for decades has symbolized haq el ‘awda, the right of return, recognized by UN Resolution 194, violated by Israel together with dozens of other resolutions.

The key is to her home in the al-Maghazi refugee camp, from which she and her family have been forced to flee to escape Israeli shelling and the army’s genocidal violence, which since October 7 has claimed at least 40,000 lives and injured more than 70,000, destroyed 80 percent of Gaza’s homes, reduced the healthcare and educational infrastructure to rubble and starved the entire civilian population. Like her, two-thirds of Gaza’s population have been refugees since 1948: their original villages lie beyond the wall, and today there are Israeli settlements and villages in their place.

The forced displacement of about 80 percent of Gaza’s inhabitants and the destruction of the entire Strip (with mass deportation plans explicitly described by Israeli politicians on a number of occasions) have provided the most brutal and irrefutable proof that Israel is a colonial settlement state whose intent is the elimination and “fossilization” of Palestinians through the destruction of the indigenous infrastructure and environment – the world and life of Palestine. This is what the Zionist project narcissistically called “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

There is no doubt that any scenario that would include justice for Palestinians today must begin with reckoning with this temporal recurrence of suffering and the loss of one’s home, from generation to generation, and take into account how the interconnected processes of displacement, destruction and elimination have been, and continue to be, the central dimensions – material, symbolic and epistemological – of the Palestinian question.

Thinking about the effect of colonial violence as a sequence of homes lost and rebuilt – including in refugee camps and in exile – instead of focusing on the mere taking away of land or deprivation of a state, helps us question the less through which many are accustomed to view the Palestinian question: Palestinians have been deprived not only, and not so much, of a nation-state, but of home, understood as a political and affective place of existence.

And yet, in exile, homes were rebuilt, refugee camps became home, the refugees struggled to survive and secure an infrastructure of existence for themselves, a present and a future for their children, while nevertheless remaining firmly anchored in their indigenousness, their genealogy of belonging to historic Palestine.

For 76 years, in these homes – now once again reduced to rubble – Palestinians have inhabited a condition of permanent impermanence, a spatio-temporal condition in which a political culture and an imaginary of radical justice have been forged, beyond the nation-state that has historically excluded them, as evidenced by the gradual abandonment or marginalization of the right of return that has ended up casting the refugees as a surplus community outside of the “two peoples, two states” project, as part of the problem rather than part of its solution.

Decade after decade, Palestinians have been victims of the impossibility of two contradictory positions: Israel is preventing them from returning, while many Arab states and the Palestinian national leadership have forced Palestinian refugees to passively accept the idea that getting access to rights and a full life in other host countries was tantamount to assimilating and giving up the right of return, thus forcing them to live in a condition of legal and material dispossession and in an endless wait.

The nation-state, the lack of rights as guests and the promise of full life through return became visible in time in all their irresolvable contradictions. A new political imaginary, chaotic and at the same time radical, has emerged among refugees, liberated from the exclusionary mythology of the nation-state and its devices (borders and rights anchored in nationality or ethnicity): “We have been here since before borders were made,” a refugee from the Chatila camp in Lebanon told me.

In the refugees’ imaginary, the right to have rights exists a priori and beyond the nation-state. And no right can invalidate one’s belonging to the indigenous reality of Palestine, which precedes and goes beyond the nation-state.

The legal and common definition of the right of return is as a reparation for a past wrong, with a return to their original homes and villages – but how does one return to what no longer exists? What does one return to? In this sense, there can only be a return if it is anchored in a vision: the politics of return is deeply visionary and “aspirational,” concerning the past as well as the future. It also includes the right to stay (or to return) in what has become home in turn, through several generations.

The camp/home is a political and affective horizon in which past, present and future are intertwined. The camp, precisely with this meaning of temporariness lengthened through generations, of a temporary home but still a home, of a presence that opposes and resists annihilation, is the structure that represents the complex political culture of refugees.

More than ever, there is a need for a de-colonial (and feminist) reading that can account for the depth of collective loss and trauma, for the terror that the Palestinian people have suffered and continue to suffer, but also for their ability to remain present, human, resisting the dehumanization of disenfranchisement and colonial and genocidal violence, not only through resistance in the public and political realm, but also through the relentless and necessary work of caring for and reconstructing the intimate and everyday sphere of existence.

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