I (Still) Cannot Return

Translation / Interpretation / Caption Text

Curator's note: These three photos depict Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel holding up almost identical posters over a period of thirty years. The first two photos are of the two women opposite the Israeli embassy in London (1973 and 1992) and the third photo is taken in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC more recently

Parallel demonstrations have emerged and one may be viewed here


A Friendship Based on a Common Struggle Survives the Test of Time

By Janet McMahon- Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the occupation, we have returned to the Israeli Embassy in London to voice our protest.

In 1973, we stood in this exact spot, at the gates of the embassy, to express our opposition to six years of occupation.

Nineteen years later, we have come together again, to deliver the same message. The situation remains unchanged, the repression and violation of human rights continue.

We hope that an equitable and just solution will soon be found.

-Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel, June 4, 1992

Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel have been friends for 20 years. One a displaced Palestinian, the other an American Jew, they have shared the same goal for the two decades of their friendship-that the Palestinian people should no longer live in exile from their homeland.

In 1973, on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the two friends first stood in front of the Israeli embassy in London. Ellen had come to London following her first trip to the Middle East. She was visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut when she heard that Israeli Olympic athletes, taken hostage in Munich by Palestinian guerrillas, were killed during a rescue attempt. It also was in the refugee camps that she first heard Jaffa and Haifa referred to as cities of Palestine, not Israel. She decided to move to London "to work on the Palestinian issue."

Ghada, meanwhile, had been in exile for nearly a quarter of a century. She was only eight when her parents fled their home in the Katamon neighborhood of what is now West Jerusalem, amid "the most appalling atmosphere of terrorism." It was April 1948, a month before the state of Israel was formally established, but her neighborhood, located in the hills overlooking the city, was of great strategic value to the Zionists. Jewish terrorists even hid in her family's garden, shooting down at targeted Palestinians below.

The family fled to Damascus, believing they would return "in a matter of weeks." When, after a year, Israel still would not allow them to return to their home, her father took a job in London. As her crisp British accent testifies, Ghada attended school and received her medical degree in England, and has lived there ever since.

In 1972, Ghada created an organization called Palestine Action, which published the newspaper Free Palestine. Her aim was to place the Palestinian agenda before the eyes of the world, which at that time saw Palestinians only as hijackers and terrorists. When Ellen arrived in London that year, she looked in the phone book for Palestinian organizations and found Palestine Action. She and Ghada worked side by side for two years, until Ellen left London in 1974. They were not to see each other again for 18 years.

During those years, Ghada continued to work for the Palestinian cause. While advancing her career in Britain's national health service, she also worked with the Council for Arab-British Understanding and as a member of the University of London's Middle East Center at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She has also written numerous articles and appears often on British radio and television.

Ellen, a nurse, returned to Beirut in the 1980s to practice her profession in the same refugee camps in which she was introduced to the Palestinians and their story. She was one of the Western medical workers in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila camps who, in 1982, barely escaped with their lives when Lebanese Phalangists, protected by the Israeli invaders, massacred hundreds of men, women and children there. She returned to her home in Washington, DC, where she works as a nurse and, as a member of the Jewish Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A "Desperate" Search

Although they followed each other's progress over the years, a photo of Ghada and her daughter Salma that Ellen saw in the Palestinian paper Al Fajr prompted their reunion. The newspaper described Ghada's "desperate," as she calls it, attempt to find her childhood home during a visit to Jerusalem.

All of the old landmarks had been destroyed, and Ghada's first two tries were failures. Then an Israeli friend found some elderly Jewis residents who remembered what the neighborhood had looked like when they arrived in 1948. Ghada's home had been turned into a synagogue.

As the two friends' lives diverged during their long separation, so, apparently, has their outlook. Ellen says she "has had to make peace with Jews, to show greater understanding and sensitivity to their fears and insecurities. That," she explains, "has been a moderating influence."

Ghada, on the other hand, describes herself as "more cynical and more despairing." In 1973, she says, when she and Ellen first stood outside the Israeli embassy in London, she had "a powerful hope, a disbelief that such injustice could really last and last." In the intervening years, however, she has "come to understand that the timespan of historical process is not tailor-made to an individual's life."

Asked if they think the situation has improved for Palestinians today, however, both Ghada and Ellen immediately answer "no." For the Palestinians remaining in their own land, Ellen says, "the footage from 1968 is the same as today." This is precisely the point of their 1992 demonstration. In Ghada's words, "Nothing essential has changed, especially in the context of [Arab-Jewish] dialogue and the peace process. My right of return is still not recognized."

As I prepared this article, Ellen told me that Ghada has said she would like to hear someone apologize for what has happened to the Palestinians. When I asked Ghada whether she wanted the apology from the United Nations, specific countries, or individuals, she responded:

"The apology has to come from the Jews. Part of them actually committed the physical dispossession, and part of them supported it. I would like all of them to apologize, to say 'We're sorry we did this to you,' instead of behaving as if it were all just a misadventure or accident of fate."

For nearly 20 years, these two friends have lived on opposite sides of the ocean and experienced opposite sides of an historical tragedy, yet have shared the same goal. Each has the courage of her own convictions and works with her own people. Nevertheless, each respects the other's life and experience.

"Give my love to Ellen," said Ghada Karmi, as she hung up the telephone in her London home.

Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.