The right of no return

11 September 2008

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Eighty-nine-year-old Mousa Ismayel was forced to leave Ismariya village near Acre in 1948 when he came to Lebanon. Sixty years later, he lives in the Ein al-Helwe refugee camp in southern Lebanon. (Matthew Cassel)


The debate on the Palestinian refugee problem has been confused and badly mishandled. While Israel maintains a consistent position, the Palestinians and the Arabs are often contradictory, vague and inconsistent.

For some unclear reason, the refugee problem has, with time, been limited to only one aspect: the right of return. This narrowed the scope of discussion to an extent that not only shifted emphasis but also played well into the hands of the Israeli hardliners who stubbornly deny all refugee rights as well as denying Israel’s responsibility in creating the refugee problem, first through the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine and then by refusing to allow refugees to come back home. Yet the refugee problem entails more rights than the right of return and should be dealt with on that basis.

The Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 provides for the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”

Because this resolution forms the core of the Arab and Palestinian position on the refugee issue, it should be recalled what the resolution, first passed by the UN General Assembly six decades ago and reaffirmed annually ever since, actually says.

In paragraph 2, it “resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors 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 to international law, or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”

The resolution therefore affirms the right of return of those who wish to do so, and provides for compensation of any loss or damage caused to all refugees, regardless of their decision whether or not to return.

The Arab emphasis on the right of return has helped the Israeli argument that the return of five million or more Palestinians to Israel would mark the end of the Jewish state. It actually placed the entire issue in a narrow frame: the fulfillment of the refugee rights can only be achieved by their wholesale return, which only implies the end of Israel.

The Palestinian refugee problem should therefore be placed in its proper perspective. Instead of solely talking about the right of return, both Palestinian and Arab discourse should emphasize refugee rights, of which the right of return, which is inalienable and fundamental, but represents only one aspect.

In fact, Resolution 194 demanded the return of those who wished to do so, not the return of all Palestinian refugees. It is also obvious that not all Palestinians who left their homes and country in the late 1940s will opt to return once their rights are settled and they are compensated properly and justly.

These realities should not however become justifications for denying the refugees their rights ahead of any serious discussion of settling the refugee problem within the requirements of international law, nor for preventing those who choose to return from doing so.

Both Arab and Palestinian positions have developed with time to become apologetic and more accommodating to Israeli “concerns” than to the legitimate Palestinian rights.

The Arab Peace Initiative is one terrible example of offering free concessions to the Israeli position without any demand for reciprocation, obviously to appease a so-called “international community” committed to the racist Israeli logic that Israel’s “right” to maintain a Jewish majority that allows it to oppress its Palestinian minority trumps the real, internationally recognized rights of refugees.

The initiative speaks about a just solution “to be agreed upon,” which simply means agreed upon by Israel, and clearly gives Israel the right to veto any proposal that it opposes. And that renders the reference to Resolution 194 — in fact renders the entire paragraph — meaningless, because Israel denies any commitment to this resolution. The wording “in accordance with” is also meant to be misleading in the sense that it would give the assurance that the resolution is mentioned, but with no clear demand of its implementation; “in accordance” means that any slight reference to the resolution would be sufficient.

Other examples include the many understandings reached between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators (such as the Taba plan and the Geneva Initiative) which offered the Palestinian refugees several options on where to go. These included a self-negating option of a “return to Israel,” but only if Israel would agree to that voluntarily — which of course it would not. Such suggestions are meant to show fake justice.

The trend had always been to scatter the Palestinians all over the world, with the rest returning to a rump Palestinian “state” if at all.

Recently, even more contradictory statements on the subject were made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week, Abbas confirmed that “Jerusalem and the right of return are inalienable Palestinian rights.”

A month earlier, again after visiting the Egyptian president, Abbas told Arab newspapers (as reported in the Israeli daily Haaretz on September 7) that “he could not demand that Israel accept all the refugees, but this need not mean that none of them would return.” Abbas reportedly added that “it is untenable for me to propose that five million refugees return to Israel because they [the Israelis] will immediately tell me that I am out to liquidate the state. But it is also untenable for me to say that none of them will return.”

But two weeks ago in Lebanon, Abbas assured the Lebanese government that he opposes settling the Palestinian refugees in that country. He said: “[T]he refugees in Lebanon are among those who will return to their soil.”

This was likely meant to please the Lebanese authorities and, of course, the refugees themselves who are deeply suspicious of international intentions towards their rights.

These contradictions and generous offers to endear their initiators to this or that party have been damaging. They have, with time, eroded the Arab and Palestinian position to the point that Israel pays no attention to any Palestinian or Arab official statements or positions on this issue.

It is time this is corrected.

The Palestinian leadership should recognize that it is not a mediator in the conflict, whose task is to offer compromises, but a party to it, whose basic duty is to defend its legitimate rights and demand their realization in full, and that should apply to the Arabs too.

Settlements may indeed involve compromises, but only as part of an agreement and a final settlement. There is no precedent that one can recall where a party to such a major conflict would only be engaged in offering proposals tailored to their adversaries’ desires and needs at the expense of their own rights.

The refugee problem is central to any possible solution of the conflict and murky plans cannot work. It is obvious that justice for the Palestinian refugees does not mean the return of all of them, but this should be their choice not offers volunteered by political opportunists and manipulators worldwide. This should also be decided as an outcome of serious negotiations not offered as free concessions in advance.

It is equally clear that those who chose not to return should be compensated fully for damages and lost property. They should also be allowed to choose where to become respected citizens, not shunted off to wherever they will be tolerated. Indeed, the European countries which helped create the Palestinian refugee problem, and which have failed in the moral and legal duties to the Palestinians ever since, should be first in line to welcome those who prefer not to return to Palestine.

The starting point must be a firm and clear Palestinian and Arab position compatible with what serves justice for the Palestinian refugees, not deceptive language that appeals to the usurper.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.