Palestinian refugees in Wavel refugee camp near Baalbek in Lebanon. (Arjan El Fassed)
May marked the 57th anniversary of al-Nakba (The Catastrophe), when Jews declared their state in Palestine and thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland. Today, the Palestinian refugees number more than six million, comprising nearly one-third of the global refugee population.
Aljazeera.net interviewed Salman Abu-Sitta, general coordinator of the Right of Return Congress and founder of the Palestine Land Society, on the issues surrounding al-Nakba and the fate of the refugees:
Abu-Sitta has worked tirelessly for the Palestinian Right of Return for several decades, and has over 50 publications to his credit. Al-Nakba, Abu-Sitta says, was the “largest planned ethnic cleansing in modern history”.
In this interview from his Kuwait office, Abu-Sitta reaffirmed that the Palestinian right of return is inalienable, non-negotiable, practical and feasible.
Aljazeera.net: Israeli politicians, as also some Palestinian politicians, argue that the implementation of the right of return would mean demographic suicide for Israel, that it is unrealistic and not practical.
Abu-Sitta: There is nothing in international law or in our sense of morality that says racist or ethnic exclusive considerations should overrule principles of justice. Second, from a practical point of view, the Palestinians will soon be a majority in historic Palestine. They are now at parity. If we apply the principle which the Israelis desire, it means we give them a licence to annihilate the Palestinians or expel them en masse, at any moment when they see that the [Jews] have become a minority.
The Israelis and their supporters in the West must realise that if this principle is applied, they would not have the right they enjoy now in America and Europe where they, as a minority, can flourish and be successful, and no one says that if their numbers in neighbourhoods exceed a certain amount they should be thrown out.
In addition, as I said before, there is nothing called “Jewish State” even in the [UN] Partition Plan [of 1947]. There is the state in which the community can be dominant or visible but there is no law in the world which makes a particular community overrule the other community and puts them in a second-class position.
Aljazeera.net: Let’s talk about feasibility then. How can the right of return be implemented?
Abu-Sitta: The other day I received an email from an English friend of mine and he said “it seems that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has stolen a piece of your writing”, and I said “How?” He said “go to the website and you’ll find that it quotes your statement about 80% of the Jews still living in about 15% of the area of Israel and the site calls for the Jews everywhere to come and populate Galilee and the Negev because they are still empty”.
I have found that 80% of Israeli Jews live in 15% of present-day Israel. Meanwhile, the land of the Palestinian refugees is controlled only by 1.5% of the Israeli population. And we have found by looking at maps, both old and new, that 90% of village sites are still vacant today. We also have complete records of who the refugees are, where they are today, their original villages in Palestine, and location and extent of their properties.
Now if they admit that and they are calling for more immigrants, to come to the homes and properties of the Palestinians, in the year 2005, that is a case of travesty of justice and no self-respecting civilised person in this world today should accept that.
By what scale or measure is it that the refugees in Gaza live only five kilometres away from their homes, to which they cannot return, and Israel is seeking out obscure tribes in India and Guatemala, and bringing them over in a hurry to populate the land which belongs to the refugees?
Aljazeera.net: So if it’s feasible and practical, who is undermining it and why?
Abu-Sitta: Let me remind you that refugees elsewhere have returned to their homes in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq and very soon Cyprus. So the only exception is Palestine. Why? The reason is obvious: the United States supports Israel blindly and gives it political support, money and arms. It is no wonder therefore that US foreign-policy practice is abhorred by all Muslims and Arabs - because of its double standards.
It’s no wonder that their calls for democracy in the Middle East are not taken seriously - because if democracy is to prevail, then immediately the rights of those who have been oppressed must be upheld by the very same power which calls for democracy.
In fact, the reverse is true. The rights of the Palestinians have been hindered and ignored by the US and Israel. In the case of South Africa, international pressure over the years had forced the Apartheid regime to collapse.
Now I am confident, although it may take some time. The weight of public opinion and the increasing wave of boycotts and isolation of Israel will probably make the Israeli regime’s ability to continue its racist policies untenable, if they want to remain acceptable in the world. This will take time because the US is always international censure, but in the end I have no doubt that justice will prevail and the Palestinians will regain their rights.
Aljazeera.net: In his pre-recorded speech on Nakba Day, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas told the Palestinian people: “Peace, security and stability in the Middle East are conditional on the finding of a just and agreed-upon solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, based on UN Resolution 194.” He also rejected naturalisation as an option. Do you think this represents a new, firmer stance on the refugee issue for Abbas, as many Israeli politicians read it, or was it a diplomatic way to say “we can’t promise the full right of return”?
Abu-Sitta: No Palestinian leader will remain in his position if he drops Palestinian rights, foremost of which is the right of return. If he is a leader of Palestinians, then he must address and defend their rights and to Palestinians this right is paramount, the right of return. I cannot imagine any leader dropping that right, just as I cannot imagine Sharon joining Hamas.
That said, I must point out that the language of the Arab Summit peace initiative [of 2002] is somewhat confused - it agrees “to find an agreed, just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in conformity with [UN] Resolution 194”. To talk about finding a “just solution” as agreed upon in [UN Resolution] 194 is somewhat a contradiction in terms, because there is no need to find a just solution - it is already there.
[Resolution] 194 has already determined what the solution is, and the international community has confirmed the meaning of the solution, which is the return of the refugees, therefore a “just solution” is not required.
When we say “just solution”, it means we will sit down and negotiate the meaning of a just solution and think of all kinds of alternatives which can be described as a “just solution”. And that of course, knowing the Israeli method of stretching things out over the years, will never come to fruition. But the deal breaker is when the statement says “as agreed”. As agreed by who? Probably as agreed upon with Israel. Since 1948, Israeli policy has been: Never to allow the Palestinians back to their homes because they want their homes to accommodate Jewish immigrants [settlers].
So if we expect an agreement with Israel on the return of the refugees, then we are just giving the Arab people a false impression. The statement [by Abbas] should be crystal clear: It has been repeated by the international community 135 times: the Palestinian refugees must return home. And that’s that. There is no need for inventing convoluted statements which are politically nice but practically meaningless.
Aljazeera.net: What if Israel doesn’t accept this solution?
Abu-Sitta: The answer should be, what was done in Kosovo and Bosnia. In all these cases the UN implemented the resolution even sometimes through force, using Nato soldiers under the banner of the UN.
Now I’m not a dreamer - this is not possible given the position of the US. But I am certain that steady and rising pressure of world public opinion and some governments will make Israel a pariah state as Apartheid South Africa was made out to be.
Aljazeera.net: PLO legal adviser Michael Tarazi once told Aljazeera.net: “We are not negotiating away [the refugees’] rights; we are simply negotiating the implementation of their rights. We are not insisting they all return; we are insisting they have a choice.” Are options like compensation or resettlement acceptable alternatives to the right of return?
Abu-Sitta: When people speak about these options, especially on the Palestinian side, I don’t think they mean they will barter away inalienable rights as other objects. Human rights cannot be bargained away, and when you have a right, you are entitled to use it. If you do not use it, the choice is yours. But you cannot say you have this choice or that choice, and demand that I tell you right now which one I choose.
A human right is something which is inherent in human dignity and respect for human beings. For example, a youth has a choice to go to high school. If he does not exercise this right, that does not mean it is annulled. There are millions of Turks in Germany and anyone can decide to return home anytime. Same thing with the millions of Greeks in the US, and the millions of Lebanese in Brazil. They can all go home when they decide to.
Returning home is not a season ticket that expires. It is a right that can be exercised whenever you like. It cannot be offered for a specific period or against other choices, like compensation. There is no equivalence between the right of return and compensation.
Customary compensation law is very clear: if you cause anybody harm, you have to compensate them proportional to the damage done, and for the Palestinians they insist on that after getting their right of return. In addition to all of those the reparations for war crimes must be paid. So of these three elements, right of return comes first.
What we Palestinians are ready to do after we are guaranteed the right of return and compensation is to prepare a plan on how to return, when to return, and to where. I have put forth one such proposal in my book, From Refugees to Citizens at Home.
Aljazeera.net: You’ve also recently released an atlas that was more than 10 years in the making. Why did you write it, and why is it so significant?
Abu-Sitta: In 1949, immediately after the hostilities, and the Nakba, [Israeli prime minister David] Ben Gurion formed a committee to erase all Palestinian, Arab, and historical names of Palestine and replace them with Hebrew names.
I say wiping out Palestinian, Arab and other historical names to mean that all the names that had been used by Palestinians for 5000 years is being erased. This was part of the effort to silence Palestinian history after they took Palestinian land and emptied the land of its people.
The purpose of the atlas is to reaffirm this right and to record and document 40,000 names which were in use in Palestine in 1948 and prior. In this atlas we show the locations and the names of 1300 towns and villages, 10,000 religious, cultural and historic landmarks and 20,000 place names. These names are the vocabulary of Palestinian life.
Before 1948, you could see the names of the wells, rivers, wadis (valleys), and of special places, historical events and local events. [The atlas] is so detailed that the karm, or garden, of an individual can be identified. So that is one purpose.
The other purpose is looking ahead. This atlas should be the blueprint of a future Palestine - when Palestinians return and the young generation who have not seen their homes but heard about, it can navigate through it and find where their villages were and where their lands were, so they can reconstruct Palestine.
Aljazeera.net: Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit, in a column dated May 19, said: “There is only one way to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace: 1948 in exchange for 1967. The right of self-definition in return for a surrender of the right of return. The United States must confront Abu Mazen with a clear choice: a state or a dream; peace or return.” What’s your response?
Abu-Sitta: This is like someone who has done you harm and then says: “I’ll take away your children, but give you back your house, or I’ll take your house and leave your children.” There is no bartering if human rights are taken away from you. You cannot say you are allowed to breathe but you are not allowed to eat. That kind of argument is I should say, racist - because someone takes away many or all your rights and then says: “If I return one or two of them, then the rest of them are not yours anymore.” There is no comparison or equivalence between a state of Palestine and the right of return. The state of Palestine was decreed in 1917 by the League of nations under British Mandate Class A, which recognises the independence of Palestine after some administrative assistance.
This state was prevented from coming into being because of the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist invasion of Palestine in 1948. Now this right remains with the Palestinian people in abeyance. The right to a state is a political right exercised by an authority over its people in a given piece of land, but the right of return is an inalienable basic right which cannot be negotiated or bartered away.
It applies to every Palestinian who has been expelled or was forced to leave his home in 1948: he has the right to return to that place regardless of the sovereignty applied, whether it is Israeli, Palestinian, French, or British. Therefore the right of return legally applies regardless of the political composition of the country - whether it is one state or two states. This has been clearly stated in the Partition Resolution. So it’s a big fallacy to barter the two and in fact morally wrong, legally invalid and politically wicked.
Aljazeera.net: After all these years, what’s changed for Palestinian refugees? Legalities aside, is the right of return more or less realisble today, in 2005, and does it matter?
Abu-Sitta: After 57 years, it becomes very clear that Israel is militarily too strong, that it is not willing to yield to the right of return, and that the US will continue for the foreseeable future to support it on this position.
On the bright side the Palestinians not only have not forgotten their right, but now the right of return movement all over the world is stronger than ever. It is articulated by the third generation of refugees, who are confident, well-educated and quite efficient in whatever they do compared to their simple folks 50 years ago.
Also, the world has now woken up, especially the Western world, and they do not really buy the Zionist propaganda like “Palestine is a land without people for a people without a Land”, like “there are no Palestinians”.
If you compare these two situations you’ll find that there is a stalemate: Palestinians cannot defeat Israel militarily, and Israel cannot eliminate the Palestinians completely. So what is to become of this stalemate in the future?
The force behind Israel is finite in life, while the spirit and determination of the Palestinians coupled with support is an increasing, not diminishing, force. That is why I feel there is no doubt that justice shall prevail.
Laila El-Haddad is a journalist based in Lebanon. This interview was originally published by aljazeera.net and reprinted on EI with permission.