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Palestinian Right of Return - The Heart of the Problem


Perhaps the most intractable obstacle to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Palestinian claim that all refugees who fled or were expelled during the Israeli war of Independence and the 6-day war have the right to return to Israel based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 - the so called "Right of Return."

Resolution 194 states in part:

the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;

Israelis oppose return of the refugees because flooding Israel with four million Palestinian refugees, even if it were practical to do so, would turn it into an Arab country, rather than a home for the Jewish people. Among Palestinians, population growth is close to 4% a year. They would constitute an absolute majority in Israel in a very few years, if not immediately.

Palestinians point out the undeniable misery of those refugees who live in refugee camps (somewhat over a million out of the estimated four million refugees), especially those living in Lebanon, the genuine desire of many to return to their homes, and the sense of grievance that must be redressed. Palestinians also claim that international law grants refugees the right to return to their homes. In fact however, most displaced persons have not been allowed to return to their homes. The Indian and Pakistani dispute was resolved by massive transfer of populations. The Germans of the Sudetensland, East Prussia and the Baltic areas have not been allowed to return to their homes either. Jewish refugees from Arab countries have not gotten either the "right of return" or even a UN resolution saying that they "should be allowed to return" or even a resolution stating that they are owed compensation under international law.

Disagreement on Right of Return was probably the main reason that the Taba negotiations failed. The Palestinians insisted that Right of Return must be anchored excplictly in the agreements. The Israelis were unwilling to do so.

The Palestinian-Israeli Webzine Bitterlemons has published a "crossfire" debate about right of return. It includes articles by Israelis Arie Lova Eliav and Yossi Alpher, an interview with Ingrid Gassner Jaradat of the Badil organization, and an article by Sari Hanafi, director of the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center. The debate is both courageous and discouraging. It is courageous because they have addressed the problem, exposing both Palestinian and Israeli views. It is discouraging, because it shows vividly that Palestinians and Israelis are miles apart on this key issue. It would have been better if Bitterlemons had found some really hard line Israelis and if they had interviewed Palestinian leader Sari Nusseibeh, who has called on Palestinians to give up the right of return, or one of the principal Palestinian signatories of the Geneva Accord. Nonetheless, the presentations are sufficient to gauge the depth of the problem.

It is important to read the interview with Ingrid Gassner Jaradat of Badil, because Jaradat makes it clear that the problem is not the refugee issue itself, but for Badil, the "problem" is the very existence of Israel. She states:

On the other hand, it is maybe the most substantial question, because it does not fit into the framework of separating Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews on territorial lines. Palestinian refugee rights are not situated in the 1967 occupied territories. In that sense it is particularly challenging because it is maybe the one issue where major concessions are required from the Israeli side so that an Israel after a peace agreement couldn't be the same as the Israel we have now.
We have to look at the right of Israel to be a Jewish state, which is situated on the level of collective rights, if there is one, i.e. whether Israel in fact under international law has a right to maintain a Jewish state.

Of course, an "Israel" that is not a national home of the Jews would not be Israel. The import of Jaradat's words is that no peace is possible without destroying Israel, and that the right of return issue is simply being used by Badil and other groups as part of their struggle to destroy Israel. Jaradat wants to accept UN Resolution 194, but she apparently rejects UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine to allow for a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. Resolution 181 should have settled the issue of whether or not "Israel in fact under international law has a right to maintain a Jewish state," but for Badil and Jaradat the issue is still open to question.

Badil's stance is not just theoretical. It has genuine practical implications. Badil and similar organizations such as Al-Awda carried on a vociferous and effective campaign to ensure that there would not be any peace agreement without right of return, which, as Jaradat says, would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The message of their campaign, as stated by a Badil official in an al Majdal Interview:

".... we stated publicly that anyone who surrenders the refugees' right of return is considered a traitor. This has influence on our leadership. I assume that public opinion and popular initiatives also influence the Palestinian negotiators, as long as we are sending a clear message. "

It certainly did have an influence on Palestinian leadership. Nobody wants to be labeled a traitor, especially since traitors in Palestinian society don't live long. Badil and similar groups have a direct responsibility for the failure of the negotiations. In effect, Badil and those who agree with them are saying, "Right of Return will mean the end of Jewish self-determination. Anyone opposed to Right of Return is a traitor." Therefore, any Palestinian who is willing to allow the existence of a Jewish state is a traitor according to Badil. Clearly, there could be no peace agreement that would satisfy Badil.

Arie Lova Eliav and Yossi Alpher, representing the Israeli side of the issue, do an able job of explaining why Israelis oppose the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Sari Hanafi does an able job of representing the Palestinian side of the issue. We cannot delude ourselves that the question can be postponed by "creative ambiguity" or cosmetic changes in wording or magic formulas, as some insist. These people are not extremists. They are moderates. In fact, Lova Eliav is far to the left of Israeli mainstream political opinion. Nonetheless, these people cannot agree about the right of return, because it touches the heart of the issue - whether or not, after all the years of struggle, Palestinians are really ready to accept a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state or not. Few Palestinians are going to say openly that Palestinians must abandon the right of return, because they would be labeled as "traitors," thanks to the efforts of Badil and similar groups. As long as they are allowed to disseminate their views under the guise of supporting a legitimate issue, and to ensure that anyone who thinks others is labeled a traitor, peace is impossible by definition.

In his letter to PM Ariel Sharon regarding the disengagement plan, President Bush stated:

It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.

Though Bush was severely criticized by Palestinians for this statement, he was only stating the obvious. If there is to be self-determination for the Palestinians, there must equally be self-determination for the Jews. Until most world leaders take this position, cynical governments can keep the refugees locked up in miderable camps, and extremist groups like Badil can continue to use the "Right of Return" issue to block peace efforts.

The Bitterlemons debate was about the wrong UN resolution. It should have been about General Assembly Resolution 181. If we cannot agree about two states for two peoples, then there is no point in discussing where to settle Palestinian or Jewish refugees or what compensation to give them, and there is no road to peace at all.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 13 comments

it was never about occupation.
it was never about borders.
it was never about checkposts.
it was never about a fence.
all those issues are negotiable.
it was always about driving the Jews from the middle east. and to that we say, 'Go to Hell'

Posted by mike levine @ 09/28/2004 06:47 PM CST

its not for a jew to call someone elses home his...this must stop!!! so we can move forward for peace.

Posted by tony D @ 09/30/2004 05:10 AM CST

It seems obvious that at the time both arabs and jews did commit exactions on people of the other side.

For instance, jews living in the West bank territory won by Jordan were expelled.

many palestinians were also expelled or disposessed (in tehcase of Arab Israeli) in the 1967 border Israel.

Why, can't both parties accept each they did things that were wrong.


Posted by Paul Fays @ 09/30/2004 11:03 PM CST

What is missing from this discussion is the fact that, in 1948, the Arab States, including Jordan, refused to accept the UN action creating the State of Israel; they gambled on WAR with the new State; they lost the gamble. They have "Lost their Rights" by ********. Anyone knows, that if you don't want to lose, you don't gamble.

Posted by Hy Finegold @ 10/03/2004 09:42 AM CST

The moment Israel considers the Arab world not hostile and not of threat those refugees on some certain terms will return to what is now Israel. As a responded said, the Arabs mostly bet on a war and always loose. Arafat had a peace dove in his hands but he squeesed to much and chocked. A terrorist very rarely can reform into a politician. ages-long hostility must have or courages leadership to overcome it or a very long process of reconciliation. One thing is sure, the more the Arabs push the Israelis with terror the more dearly they pay.

Posted by Aronas Elias @ 10/05/2004 09:43 PM CST

It was always my understanding that the right of displaced person to return to their former homes they were required to meet a couple of conditions.
First to establish that they had indeed left their alleged homes due to the conflict and that these homes are the place of their established habitation. Second formally acknowledge the right of the current state to exist and not pose a threat to it. Thirdly agree to abide by the laws of the current state
I understand that these rights of a displaced person is not transferable to the next generation.
It is my understanding that the status of Palestinian refugee is not one which accords with interantional norms, as UNWRA and others have not required anything more than the assertion by the claimant that they are refugees from the area in which Israel now exists.
It is highly unlikely that many Palestinian refugees will be able to undertake to abide by Isreali law and accept Isreal's existance.
The vast majority of Palestinian refugees are 2nd & 3rd generation whom have no been displaced by the creation of Isreal.
Many middle-class Palestinians whom left in 1947 with their cash assets would be ineligible as they were not directly displaced by war, but were emigrants by choice.
I understand that the World Council of Churches in the mid 1950's raised concerns that a signifiacnt proportion of people claiming Palestinian refigee status had no connection with Palestine, and were merely exploiting UNWRA's lax controls for providing material & financial assistance.
I rather think that the entire Palestinian refugee issue is a canard aimed at undermining any negotiations.
A final thought - if we were to disengage from thinking of the "war of Independence" or the "Nakhba" and thought more of the conflict as just another grubby civil war (which is what it really was) in which the opposing sides refused to compromise, then effectively we are left with a situation where there was population exchange requiring no resolution by the opposition.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 10/05/2004 10:11 PM CST

Your website wrote:

"Over 600,000 Jews fled or left Arab countries ..."

This is a lie. There were not that many jews in all the Arab countries of the world. Maybe 100's of jews had to leave, certainly not a number that would equate to how many Arabs had to flee Palestine.

I would ask that you amend this figure.

Posted by Moris Feldenburg @ 10/09/2004 05:20 AM CST

Feldenburg claims that there were only a few hundred Jews in Iraq, Morroco, Egypt etc. I will amend the figure to say "Muslim" rather than Arab countries, because some Egyptians and inhabitants of the Maghreb claim they are not Arabs, and Turkey and Persia are certainly not Arab countries. However, it is a fact that between 1948 and the early 1960s about 630,000 Jews fled these countries for Israel. Many others went to France or elsewhere.
I do not understand where Mr. Feldburg got his absurd idea. Every Egyptian and Iraqi and Morrocan knows that there were Jews in their country once - hundreds of thousands of Jews - and that most of them left.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 10/11/2004 11:01 AM CST

Hello, Paul!

It's been a long time. I've thought of you often and just got a bug this evening to see if you are still out there in the 'ether', and here I find you, making good sense as you often did when we had our correspondence. I'm so pleased you're still out and about!

I think the Palestinians need a new leader, if there is ever to be progress.

Best to you and your family. I hope you have all been well. We are fine here in California - except for the earthquakes and the fires! :)

Little Cat

Posted by Kit @ 10/11/2004 11:18 AM CST

Perhaps Moris Feldenburg should follow this link http://www.jimena-justice.org/
it will take him to a site about Jews from Muslim / Arab lands. I hope it enlightens him.
Perhaps also search for "Dhimmitude" on the internet ( www.dhimmitude.org) and see what writers like Bat Ye'or have to say on the subject.
The denial of the historic experience of Jews in Muslim lands by present day Muslims and their sympathisers is akin to Holocaust Denial. Denial of history does not only deny the experience of the victim, it also allows the oppressor to avoid facing the truth about themselves and the nature of their society and denies the oppressor the opportunity to progress. In addition it remains a barrier to peaceful dialogue and conflict resolution.
Here is a link to a recent Haaretz article http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/472275.html which might help further illuminate the subject for Mr. Feldenberg

Posted by Rod Davies @ 10/11/2004 09:47 PM CST

I don't know if one could say it's all about driving the Jews from the Middle East. Could a Palestinian not say it's all about driving the Palestinians from the Middle East?

Posted by Chuck J @ 10/13/2004 10:20 PM CST

Borders are nothing more than lines in the sand. However you might choose to define and divide yourselves, is nothing more than your perception. Israeli's...Palestinian's...nothing but a label to identify where you live. When from a broader perspective, we are all from the same place. We are all stading on this big rock spinning around in space together. If you suffer through conflict and wish to solve it, you must first cease to see yourselves as separate.

Posted by Scott @ 10/15/2004 06:06 AM CST

In response to Scott's comments I would say that in the Jewish / Zionist case the opposite is true. The primary driver for Zionism was how others defined Jews, and with the emergence of the modern nation state and industrialisation able to victimise Jews.
Whilst we all can wistfully talk of standing on a large spinning rock, the world has divided itself into nation states whose boundaries are clearly defined. Status in the world is based upon having a recognised nation state that conforms to these international norms. The Roma and Sinti as "Gypsies" have no nation state and thus lack a primary means to present their national / communal interests to the world. They remain reliant upon other nations to act on their behalf, much to their disadvantage.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 10/18/2004 08:48 PM CST

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