I was born and raised in Haifa seven years after Israel was established. I joined the 150,000 or so of us who survived the ethnic cleansing in 1948 to become second-class citizens in Israel. As for the 750,000 refugees and the internally displaced, they became, in the Orwellian Israeli legal fiction, "Present Absentees," which enabled the Israeli state to confiscate their lands and possessions.
We endured military rule from 1948 through 1966 and needed permits simply to move around. I shudder to think what my parents' generation must have felt when they stood in front of an Israeli officer -- most likely a new settler from Europe -- to plead for a travel permit in their own land.
I also remember quite vividly that there were large parts of what had just been our country that we could not access -- no signs were necessary -- such as kibbutzim. Although physically we had not left Palestine, we were exiled in our own homeland.
In 1965 my family crossed the Mandelbaum Gate into the West Bank, then under Jordan's rule. We had hardly settled when the Israeli military occupied the West Bank and Gaza along with other Arab territories. Once again we became occupied natives and confronted Israeli tanks, checkpoints and a military regime.
Upon graduating from high school in Jerusalem I left to study in Beirut and then in the United States. I returned to Lebanon in the late 1970s where my parents had relocated. But fate is wily: in 1982, a few years after we settled in Beirut, Israel invaded Lebanon. Friends with a sense of humor urged us not to move to their countries.
In the 'good old days' before the civil war of 1975, Beirut, the beautiful Mediterranean city with its seductive coastal contours and cedar mountains, throbbed with political life. Beirut's coffee houses, market places, mixed neighborhoods, streets and alleyways, hotels and brothels, universities and refugee camps were interlocked in impossible paradoxes that only Beirut could embrace.
Politics seeped into everyday conversation as nationalists, Marxists and others debated and argued on university campuses and joined protests in the streets. The mood was secular amid the winds of decolonization and self-determination which had swept the region and the Third World. The presence of freedom fighters or Fedayeen signaled that the Palestinian refugees refused to disappear as the Zionist movement had hoped. Indeed, the right of return was central to the Palestine Liberation Organization's recruitment efforts.
By the late seventies, the fires of the civil war ignited in 1975 were still smoldering and portending a darker storm. And the storm did arrive in 1982 carrying a deadly Israeli arsenal. I was the mother of a six-month-old baby. The images and smells of human carnage are deeply etched in my memory. I must admit I was not very brave back then. I felt helpless: how could I protect my child while being blasted from land, air and sea?
I left Lebanon in 1984 and only returned to the region a decade later to conduct research in the refugee camps in Jordan. For Palestinian refugees, the 1993 Oslo Accord was a shattering development that caused a dramatic shift and divide in national politics. Many intellectuals, scholars and activists, who had joined the Oslo jubilations at the time, accusing those who opposed it as romantic and idealistic, have since reversed their position. Today there is copious literature on the ruinous effects of the so-called "peace process."
Since then, there has been little peace and less justice. For Palestinian refugees and exiles, the political and armed conflicts in the region caused further displacement, for example from Jordan in 1970/71, from Lebanon during the civil war and the Israeli invasion, from Libya in the 1990s, and from Gulf countries and Iraq as a consequence of the two US invasions. In most of the Arab countries, Palestinian refugees remain vulnerable to discrimination and many have a precarious legal status. Yet the predicament of the Palestinian refugees is an Israeli responsibility. While refugees struggle for rights in various host states, the blame should not be transferred to them.
Poignantly, most of the refugees live within 100 km of their homes of origin: tantalizingly proximate, but politically inaccessible. And the number of refugees and exiles has grown. At the end of 2011 the total Palestinian population was estimated at 11.2 million, almost 70 percent of which is displaced, both within and outside historical Palestine.
Under the law, we have a right of return, and this requires us to consider the nature of the future polity in what was Palestine until 1948 and is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Regardless of its shape and form, the future polity must be a model of inclusion and diversity that incorporates Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, atheists and people of diverse backgrounds. Palestinian rights do not and should not generate another calamity and a counter-process of Jewish displacement.
A growing number of studies show that a Palestinian right of return is not only just but viable, even though at this historical juncture it seems far-fetched. Only the recognition and fulfillment of this right -- all the more important as the 64th anniversary of the Nakba approaches -- will lead to justice and secure a lasting peace.
Randa Farah is a policy advisor of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario who has written widely on Palestinian, Sahrawi, and other refugee communities.