Refugees Are The Key

A Palestinian refugee camp in Bailabak village, southern Beirut, Lebanon. (MaanImages/Raoul Kramer)


The Bush Administration’s insistence that the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel’s existence may seek to achieve a moderate Palestinian leadership to enable a peaceful political process between the sides, but what about Israeli leadership and moderation?

For five months Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip have been subjected to an incessant Israeli military campaign that has left over 500 Palestinians dead. While the provocation of Palestinian crude rocket attacks from Gaza into Israeli towns is well cited in US media, much less emphasized is the fact that most residents of Gaza are refugees from inside what is now Israel. These refugees, along with their brethren in other parts of the region, have been denied their basic human rights solely on the grounds of their ethnicity since their displacement nearly 60 years ago. If American officials really want to advance the peace process, they should apply equal pressure to Israel to recognize Palestinian rights, starting with the refugees.

The Palestinian refugees symbolize the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The refugee problem has its roots in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which ended in the mass displacement of over 750,000 Palestinian Arabs (approximately half of the Arab population). According to historical accounts of the War, including from recent Israeli historians, Jewish Zionist forces precipitated the flight of the Palestinian Arabs as part of a campaign of population transfer. The nascent State of Israel subsequently enacted laws to expropriate the refugees’ property and bar their return. The refugees were left homeless and destitute, mostly dependent on foreign aid for survival. The subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip resulted in the further displacement of around 200,000 Palestinians.

Today there are over 5.5 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons who have never been allowed the choice to return to their homes or given redress for their losses. The continued denial of their rights encapsulates the decades-long strife, disenfranchisement and dispossession the Palestinians have suffered.

With the advent of the peace process in the early 1990s, hopes were ignited that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip would end and the plight of the refugees would be resolved. These hopes were dashed as the negotiations reached an eventual deadlock, leading to a stalemate and Israeli military onslaught on Palestinian areas that continues to plague the region.

Following the breakdown of the talks there was much debate about who was to blame for the failure. But this debate obscures the larger problem stoking the flames of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: Israel’s unwillingness to comply with the rules of international law, including the rights of the Palestinian refugees, and third party states’ failure to enforce them.

Taking the Palestinian refugee issue as a case in point, the State of Israel, which controls the key to solving their problem, has refused to recognize the right of the refugees to choose whether to return to their homes and denied any responsibility for the problem since 1948. Israel has adopted this position in violation of international law, including UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which affirmed the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes or receive compensation. The General Assembly has affirmed this most basic human right of the Palestinian refugees every year since 1948. Additionally, admission of Israel to membership in the United Nations (General Assembly Resolution 273 of May 11, 1949) requires Israel to comply with General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948. At the time, Israel stated it agreed to comply with this resolution.

Israel has defended its refusal to concede the right of return on the grounds that the massive return of Palestinian refugees would spell the death of the Jewish state. But admitting its historical responsibility to the Palestinian people and recognizing the rights of the refugees could in fact deliver security and prosperity to Israel. Indeed, Israeli recognition of these basic principles would improve the atmosphere on the ground, help create more parity between the parties, and provide a fair framework for working out the details of a peace plan for resolving the conflict.

Israel’s first Prime Minister said that “the old [refugees] will die, and the young will forget”. A few days ago, Israel’s current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explicitly stated that Palestinians must “relinquish your demand for the realization of the right of return.” Following these ill-fated desires, Israel has sought to deny or delay addressing the refugee issue. However, the amount of blood shed since 1948 proves the fallacy and the immorality of the Israeli position. Adhering to it will only lead to more bloodshed.

The rights of the Palestinian people, and in particular the refugees, should be recognized alongside any legitimate rights of the Israeli people. Ultimately, it is through the evenhanded application of international legitimacy that we may be able to get out of the current stalemate and reach real grounds for peace. Otherwise, the failed Israeli practice of “might is right” will prevail and prolong needless death and destruction on all sides.

The writer is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian city of El-Bireh in the West Bank. He co-edited with Staughton and Alice Lynd HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994) and can be reached at sbahour@palnet.com.