Implementing the Right of Return

I highly recommend “The Children of Shatila”; it shows what the children in refugee camps are subjected to on a daily basis. Shafir Ahout, a well-known Palestinian politician (who was part of the Palestinian Authority until he broke off after Oslo), has written about how he became a refugee:

The family crowded onto the deck of the Greek ship, Dolores, which set sail for Beirut at sunset. And I remember watching Jaffa disappear from sight until there was nothing but water all around. It never occurred to me that I would never see it again. The sea was turbulent when we left that April evening of 1948. There was a high wind and the waves were violent, and I remember worrying about what was happening to all the small boats loaded with other refugees making their way to Lebanon and to Gaza and on to the ports of Egypt. In fact, scores were drowned. Of course I didn’t think in terms of refugees at the time. The word refugee didn’t enter the Palestinian and Arab lexicon until later a few hours later, actually, when the first busloads of the Sons of Palestine arrived in ports that were not theirs. And they found themselves strangers, even among brothers and Arabs.

I would like to juxtapose this with two powerful quotes; first, from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (as reported by Nahum Goldmann in The Jewish Paradox):

If I were an Arab, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal, we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us. But how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been anti-Semitism-the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz-but was that their fault? They see but one thing, we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, addressed Ben-Gurion in March 1949 on the moral character of the State of Israel, with reference to the Arab refugees:

We will have to face the reality that Israel is neither innocent nor redemptive and that in its creation and expansion, we as Jews have caused what we historically have suffered, a refugee population in diaspora.

These statements show powerfully the different sides within Israel. There are some who do acknowledge the injustice that has taken place.

The biggest testimony to this injustice is the existence of five million refugees. The Palestinians were displaced in two wars, in 1948 and in 1967. In 1948, about 800,000 were dispossessed about 70% of the Palestinian population at that time. Afterwards 531 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed. Many of the villages are no longer there in their infrastructure, but they do still exist in the land. 3.8 million refugees are registered with the United Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which was set up by the UN to take care of the Palestinian refugees. And the UN defines Palestinian refugees as “those people and their direct descendants who lived in Palestine for at least two years prior to 1948, and were displaced as a result of the 1948 war to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank or Gaza.” But the definition also is restricted to the areas (of which there were five) for which the UNRWA was responsible. Only Palestinians sent to those areas are registered with the UNRWA, so you have different statistics on the numbers of refugees. Those that did not go to those five areas are one million. Those displaced in 1967 are not included in the UN definition, and that’s about 600,000. And you also have those internally displaced within Israel, giving a total of 5 million refugees.

In terms of what Israel was supposed to do for the Palestinian refugees, there was UN Resolution 273 of 11 May 1949, in which Israel’s membership was contingent upon its accepting Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. So before the UN welcomed Israel as a member state of the United Nations, they were to implement 194. That was back in 1949. Today [2001], 194 is no longer acknowledged. Every time that it has been reaffirmed since 1990, the United States and Israel have consistently opposed the resolution. The Oslo Accords never mentioned 194.

More than 80% of refugees live within 100 kilometers of their village. This includes many of those in the Shatila camp. I went to Palestine in 1984, and the border between Lebanon and Israel was open. And it actually is only a two-hour drive. Of course, at the time it took us more than 12 hours because of complications with the Israeli military. But it’s very close, and the experience of people being able to see their land right across the border only magnifies the humiliation of being denied such an inalienable and basic right. There are 59 refugee camps. They are the largest refugee population in the world. One out of four refugees in the world is Palestinian. And they’re in Gaza strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Conditions are very severe, and in some cases, beyond deplorable (e.g., 90 percent unemployment in the camps of Lebanon). Most camps do not have access to jobs. In the “Children of Shatila,” Farah’s father is a computer scientist, but can only get a job (through the UNRWA) as a garbage man within the camp. You see him teaching the kids on the computer at night, and collecting garbage during the morning and talking about how he’s figured out a way to overcome the humiliation that comes when people he knows see him collecting garbage.

For myself as a Lebanese-Palestinian, it is difficult to come to terms with the way the Lebanese government has treated Palestinians. Its policy, which has been very much dictated by Syria, has been to refuse to assimilate the Palestinians in Lebanon. Marginalizing them and showing that their living conditions could become even worse has been one way to apply pressure on the international community. The problem is that the international community doesn’t really care, so you end up having people living in very bad conditions and basically ghettoized within a country that is itself deteriorating economically.

Schools have shut down;. basic material for teaching is no longer available. So the Palestinians’ relatively high literacy within the Arab world is now declining. And even if they overcome the obstacle of getting the education, actually having access to jobs is not even possible. Jordan has been the only country that has patriated Palestinians. There are about ten refugee camps in Lebanon and also in Jordan, and 27 camps in Gaza Strip and the West Bank, of which 19 are in the West Bank. 70 percent of Gaza’s population now is refugees and I think that’s an especially interesting statistic considering that the Gaza strip is the site for the Palestinian Nation. 1.8 million refugees live in Jordan; 14 percent of them inhabit ten camps and they’ve been the only ones to get citizenship. Syria has treated the Palestinians better than has the Lebanese government, but they also impose severe restrictions in terms of mobility and access to jobs.

The Palestinian right of return was granted in UN Resolution 194 (December 1948), which says that this right includes the return of properties and also includes the right to compensation, including for non-material losses. There is also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there’s the fourth UN Geneva Convention, there are UN Resolutions 3236, 5262, the Haite Convention, and the list goes on. And the UN Secretariat confirms, significantly, that “return to their homes” refers to actual land of each refugee and cannot be interpreted to mean homeland. This is especially important when we begin to discuss what the right of return would look like. The current hype is that at Camp David, Arafat did not accept what he was given even though a Palestinian Nation would be insured, but that the right of return is one of the five “No”s that Barak said over and over. He said it when he first got elected and he said it again during negotiations. That No to right of return is a huge No to 5 million Palestinians who are waiting to return to their land. Returning to Israel is not a problem; they just want to feel that they belong, even though they will be living under Israeli authority. But they have been living outside of their homeland for so long and not feeling that they have the right to anything. So even just that connection to the land is really an important psychological element.

It is important not to define the nation-state in Western Political Science terms, if we’re talking about the right of return to a nation. Obviously, from what has been happening, whatever is going to be allocated for a Palestinian nation is not going to be very much. There’s already a huge crisis within Gaza Strip in terms of overcrowding and building. And even within that, there isn’t much autonomy and sovereignty. But the attachment to the land is above all cultural, historical and psychological. How do you feel if you have to leave your home and someone comes in and lives in it? And then it becomes, even just being close to it is not good enough, you need to be back in it.

While the right of return is an inalienable, collective right of a people, it can also become, in terms of implementation, an individual right. And that’s when things can be negotiated in terms of who lives where and what you’re allowed to do and so on. Some of the Palestinians are willing to live under Israeli sovereignty. It’s a collective right but an individual’s choice. And the choice will depend on the extent of an individual’s social integration in any particular host country; it will depend on the quality of life in that host country, and on the willingness of such third countries to accept Palestinians.

As activists we discuss, often via the internet, many possible solutions. A lot of different proposals have been circulated. One idea is that in return for lifting the sanctions on Iraq, Iraq would absorb some Palestinians. There are also negotiations between the US and Canada about them dividing up how many Palestinian refugees they would each take in. There were also ideas like only 1948 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon being allowed to return. Some of the people from 1948 are nearing their last days. To expect that old men or old women, for example, would only be allowed to return without their children, there’s really not much to say to that. It’s not feasible.

The problem too is that it is seen as a zero-sum game, that somehow the right of return of Palestinian refugees is seen as the loss of Israel’s sovereignty. There is a striking contrast between the US approach to Palestinians and to refugees from other countries. On April 3, 1999, talking about the massive number of refugees from Kosovo, Tony Blair expressed this when he said that the aim was not to repatriate them to the West, but “to get them back to Kosovo where they want to be. Our commitment to those people is total, but what they actually want is to go home and to live there in peace. This time we have to make sure those people in Kosovo get back to where they want to live.” On May 6, 1999, President Clinton pledged Bosnian refugees “You will go home again in safety and freedom.” A few weeks later, he went to visit Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and on July 1, 1999 there was a press conference which I actually saw. A journalist said to Clinton (here I paraphrase), “Congratulations, you’ve done a great job with returning the Kosovo refugees. I was wondering if you will be doing the same for the Palestinians.” Clinton laughed and said, “Uff, you got me.”

Forward to January 7, 2000, to an Israel Policy Forum Gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In discussing what he was doing behind closed doors in Camp David, Clinton said:

A solution would have to be found for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered a great deal, particularly some of them. A solution that allows them to return to a Palestinian State that will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home. All Palestinian refugees who wish to live in this homeland should have the right to do so. All others who want to find new homes whether in their current locations or in third countries should be able to do so consistent with those countries’ sovereign decisions, and that includes Israel.

He went on, however, to say, “We cannot expect Israel to threaten its sovereignty” and so forth. What is missing is a recognition that this sovereignty as it is currently constituted entails a Zionist, racist state of Jewish citizens. It is not a state for all citizens as it currently stands. The question of the right of return of refugees thus calls into question the foundation of the state of Israel.

We have had to unlearn a lot of the things that came out of Oslo, because Oslo represented a fragmentation of issues and ideas, as much as that of land and people. The problem with Oslo is that its very existence negated the substance and requirements of peace. Americans need to understand the plight of Palestinian refugees. They started out as victims of war and now they continue to be victims of a process that is violating its own terms of reference. I hope we can all continue to fight for the right of return, regardless of what some politicians think is “feasible.

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