Exiled within: Between citizenship and the struggle for return for internal Palestinian refugees in Israel
The internal Palestinian refugees represent an intriguing paradox of a people who have suffered displacement and dispossession but are today citizens of the colonial state that was built on their ruins. While there are well-established studies of the (external) Palestinian refugees’ impasse, the internal Palestinian refugees, defined as present absentees, have historically been omitted from these debates. In this paper, I challenge the preconceived assumption that citizenship is the most durable solution to cease the displacement and rectify the dispossession of refugees, demonstrating that, for internal Palestinian refugees, these processes continue to be a part of their ‘lived experience’ despite the legal status afforded to them in Israel. By applying theories and practices of citizenship and re-reading the history of Palestine and Israel since 1948, I argue that the provision of citizenship has served to maintain this population in a state of absentia. To illustrate this, I analyse two policies that continue to target the Palestinian community in general and the internal Palestinian refugees specifically: the present absentee land ownership law and the compulsory state education system. While the former ensured their displacement and dispossession from their lands, the latter has systematically targeted their history and identity. Finally, I study how the internal Palestinian refugees have also resisted these policies at the grassroots level by organising commemoration activities and marches to their destroyed villages, mounting a (symbolic) movement for the right of return to re-create spaces of legitimacy and subjectivity. I demonstrate that, ultimately, these acts of citizenship contestation are also employed to actively re-connect and communicate their struggle with the wider Palestinian diaspora – countering their absence by asserting their presence.