The right of return and the right of choice

Galilee, October 1948, expelled Palestinians on their way to Lebanon (Photo: PalestineRemembered)

For the last fifty-five years and since Alnakba “the catastrophe” in 1948, the Palestinians have been struggling for their freedom, independence, self-determination and the right of return to their homeland. Unfortunately, because of the international power struggle and the consequences of the cold war, every single Palestinian demand or right was forced to be renegotiated, and has never been respected, honored or taken seriously.

Contrary to what many people think and believe that the Palestinian tragedy started after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it started much earlier. Palestine was occupied in 1948 and many European Jews settled in Palestine replacing its indigenous Palestinian people. The Palestinians were expelled from their homeland with the will, the blessing and the support of the international community. This was clearly first shown with the British Balfour declaration in 1917, then with the irresponsible partition resolution in 1947, and finally with the acceptance of the creation of the State of Israel within the country of Palestine, without taking into consideration the Palestinian national and political rights to a homeland and an independent country as well.

Later these policies manifested themselves more clearly through the US and various European countries’ continuous blind support and backing of the State of Israel and its aggression, both against the Palestinians and against the rest of the Arab countries. That blind support encouraged Israel in the 1967 war to drive out again hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - by force and intimidation - from the areas near the Jordan River and near the Green Line, which separates Israel from the West Bank.

On the other hand, and ironically, the Palestinians needed to prove their connection and belonging to their land and even their physical existence in Palestine prior to the creation of Israel. This presence was also questioned, suspected and doubted.

There are some very important and documented speeches from Jewish leaders, both former and present, which deny that there were Palestinians living in Palestine before the Jewish arrival. They claim that Palestine as a land without people was waiting for a people without a land to change it from a desert into a paradise flowing with milk and honey. The international community blinded their eyes and gave deaf ears to these lies. Therefore, in the eyes of the Jews later known as the Israelis, Palestinians were not in Palestine at all, and in principle they did not exist, so why give the right of return to a non-existing and invisible people.

In the eyes of the international community, there was a major recognition for the rights of Jews to establish a state on the land of Palestine for many reasons. Among them is the hidden background biblical belief that this is the land of the Jews and that they have the right to return to their “homeland.” All religious and atheist countries in the West practically accepted this myth and supported it. If this reason did not exist then there would be no justification whatsoever for the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine. Of course, the holocaust and persecution of Jews in the West played another important role in this.

Based on this, I can claim that the international community’s acknowledgment of the Palestinian right of return was not a result of principles, values and conviction that the Palestinians have a right to their country, but of humanist and technical reasons. The right of return is an ultimate, universal and protected right under international humanitarian law.

Palestinian refugees seeking refuge, on their way to Lebanon, October, 1948 (Photo: PalestineRemembered)

Any signatory country who tries to bypass this is violating its own signature. If they were serious in accepting and recognizing the Palestinian right of return, they should, at the same time, acknowledge the injustice committed against the Palestinians in 1948. This means that they should not have recognized the State of Israel without immediate recognition of the Palestinian right to a homeland as well. And they should have worked to realize this goal without delay or further negotiations. Although I honestly believe that Israel was not created by the UN resolution, as some people in the West like to think; it was created by force and aggression. If this were not the case, a Palestinian state should have been established next to Israel long ago.

For me, as a non-refugee, recognizing the right of return means the recognition of Israel’s legal and moral responsibility for what happened to the entire Palestinian nation and not only to the refugees. The new Israeli historians had revealed more information about Alnakba, the lies and the crimes committed against the Palestinians at that time. It is not acceptable any more the silence of the international community and it should held accountable to its responsibility.

The right of refugees to return to their land is an essential and main element in the Israeli /Palestinian conflict. It is not like exchanging land here and there or modifying the borders. It is more important than the Jerusalem issue and the underground resources, because we are talking about people and human beings, who have been suffering from the consequences for many years. We are not talking about dead stones, temples, churches and mosques, but about the root cause of the conflict and the future of millions of children, women and men.

The number of Palestinian refugees nowadays is around 7 million out of about 10 million Palestinians. Most of these refugees are hosted in countries which are subjected to continuous harassment and imposed political changes from the USA and Israel. With the knowledge of the international community, more than 300,000 Palestinians refugees were kicked out of most of the Gulf countries after the Gulf War. In Iraq there are about 100,000 refugees suffering the consequences of the current American occupation and its war on Iraq. The refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and maybe Libya are awaiting their destiny as well.

One of the main aims of Israel is to push the Palestinian refugees outside the area and the region as much as possible in order to prevent their cry for justice from being heard.

For Israel, recognizing the right of return for the refugees is recognition of the Palestinian nation and their right to self-determination, which contradicts the Zionist ideology in theory and practice. All their justifications for not accepting this right have been intensified mainly through the demographic threat, which might change the Jewish nature of Israel, if the refugees return in considerable numbers. Accepting this claim by the international community would automatically enhance the already growing racism inside Israel and will encourage Israel to deal with the current demographic threat in clear racist ways.

We should note that the number of Palestinians, without the return of refugees, is already increasing over the Jewish numbers inside Israel and soon both would have equal numbers. Here I refer to the Herzilya conference in 2000, where many Israeli scholars, academics, demographers and security officials came with racist solutions to the Arab demographic threat, for example, controlling the Arab birth rate, deportation and other racist measures.

The world’s acceptance of this demographic threat justification means that Israel should and must deal in any way possible with this threat based on their interests in having a pure Jewish state. This would mean turning their backs on the interests of the other citizens in the state and in the surrounding territories. How will the international community deal with this then?

The international community should be aware of this demographic factor and understand that such a concept, if it is to be accepted, is only a recipe for Israel to deport and carry out ethnic cleansing of even the Israeli Palestinians eventually and not only not accepting that Palestinian refugees return. In addition, the international community should be aware that around 80% of the Israelis are living in around 15% of Israel. The remaining 85% of the land, on which around 20% of Israelis live, is mostly land that once belonged to the Palestinian refugees and most of it is not used.

Israel should be acknowledged as a colonial power in the region and if the international community gives its full recognition, this kind of recognition should be conditioned to the way it behaves in the region and towards its residents and to what extent it is ready to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinians and help in solving it.

The right of return is an individual right, non-negotiable for anyone except the refugees themselves. The right of choice comes after the right of return has been realized and recognized. This right includes firstly the right of the Palestinian refugee to return to his/her own property and secondly the right for compensation. These two things are integrated and are not interchangeable. The right of return is secured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Hague Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and even in the Magna Carta in 1215. Bypassing all these agreements by Israel or anybody else means bypassing the history of the modern and civilized world.

In this case and based on the above mentioned agreements and covenants, even if the Palestinians were to accept the denial of their right to return to their homeland under pressure from Israel and other powerful states, the international community itself should stand up and fight. Otherwise, a dangerous precedent would be set that could negatively influence refugee issues all over the world.

People would start suspecting the measures taken in Europe and other countries to repatriate refugees living in Europe and else where to their origin countries. They should question as well; why the Germans who left Germany for Russia before the Soviet time had the right to return to Germany and why the Kazak or the Kyrgyz or the Ukrainian had the right to return to their original countries after 80 years living and settling in another country in the former Soviet Union. Why the refugees in Nepal, East Timor, Chechnya, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and Kosovo had the right of return and the list is countless and, why, only, the Palestinians should sacrifice this right and suffer the double standard values and practices, which prevail in this current world.

If the Palestinian right of return is compromised, then so should the Israeli law of return for all Jews to Israel. The two states are sharing the same resources and will both suffer from the lack of water, for instance. If we accept the Israeli law of return and deny the Palestinian right of return this means that we accept indirectly the myth which says that this is the land of the Jews, and we are the invaders. If our rights are to be compromised then this should again mean that their “rights” are also to be compromised and there should be no more Jewish immigration to this area. Even in any proposed solution which might bring an independent state to the Palestinians and if the PLO were to be replaced by a government, this government would no longer represent the refugees and the Palestinians outside. They would establish their own liberation organization to continue the struggle. Such a solution will not bring about a definitive end the struggle.

Even if the Palestinian right of return were honored and respected, the Palestinians should establish together with their friends and supporters a national and international movement for reparation, similar to the reparation trans-Atlantic slave trade movements and the reparation for holocaust survivors. They should demand from the Israelis, the Americans and the Europeans, mainly the British, to recognize, to apologize and to meet their political and moral responsibilities for their historical acts of injustice towards the Palestinians, their long misery and under-development and to consider what happened to Palestinians refugees as a crime against humanity. This matter will defiantly exceed what was stipulated in the UN resolutions and the right of return and compensation and will happen even if it takes 500 years. The future is for the victims and the oppressed.

Rifat Odeh Kassis is the Executive Director of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the President of Defense for Children International - Palestine Section.