‘We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return!’ wrote Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in his diary on July 18, 1948, according to Michael Bar-Zohar’s book, Ben-Gurion: The Armed Prophet (1967).
Opposition to the Palestinian right of return clearly has a history. And while many Palestinians are not a fan of the latest ‘road map’ to MidEast Peace, Palestinians have formally accepted President Bush’s plan in the hopes that the bloodshed will end. For Israel, however, the refusal of Palestinians to give up their right of return makes the plan a no-starter.
The rights of Palestinians to return to their homes and/or land are clearly entrenched in international law. U.N. Resolution 194 says ‘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. . .’ The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 11, 1948, and has been endorsed annually since then.
Is this reasonable after several decades? Well, Israel’s Law of Return, passed by the Knesset in 1950, guarantees the right of all Jews to ‘return’ after 2,000 years.
Some say that if Palestinians return, it will mark the end of Israel and its Jewish character. Those Palestinians who opt to return will undoubtedly change the landscape, but righting the wrongs of the past ought to supercede visions of grandiose nations built to cater to one particular religion. And contrary to popular Israeli propaganda that Israel affords equal opportunity to all, close friends and family members note a system of discrimination toward Christians and Muslims.
And just how does a Palestinian leader tell their people that while the world had fought for the right of Kosovar refugees to return to their homes only a few years ago, this same right is a matter for negotiations where they are concerned?
Others raise the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, as if it is a bartering card. ‘We’ll give up our claims if you give up yours.’ But Jews who were forced out should be compensated or repatriated. This hardly negates Israel’s responsibility in ethnically cleansing Palestinians.
Many Israelis say that the refugee problem was not of their doing. Consider this quotation which was published in the New York Times in October, 1979 from the memoirs of the late Yitzhak Rabin, ‘We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, ‘What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!” Further, Israeli historians like Benny Morris now acknowledge Israel’s role in creating the mass exodus.
The 750,000 Palestinians who were forced out during the creation of Israel in 1948 all have chilling stories. Consider an excerpt from the Late Palestinian Evangelical priest Audeh Rantisi’s memoirs, ‘He refused to give up his money. Almost casually, the soldier pulled up his rifle and shot the man. He fell, bleeding and dying while his bride screamed and cried. I felt nauseated and sick. Would I ever see my home again? Would the soldiers kill my loved ones, too?’
Is there room for the refugees? Palestinian intellectual, Salman Abu Sitta did a thorough study recently: Israeli citizens currently inhabit less than 20% of Israel. There’s plenty of room.
As LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, noted, ‘Palestinian demands [for the right of return], founded on international law (rather than ethno-religious exclusivity) have been relegated to the realm of the unattainable, the unrealistic and the impossible. Their voice has become so marginalized that their most fundamental and just claims are painted as radical and outdated.’
But there is nothing radical about wanting to return to one’s home. Those who argue passionately for Israel’s Law of Return may wish to remember this. And in an era when human rights have become a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, domestic politics and well-heeled lobbying groups should take a backseat. A true peace in the Middle East will have to provide for Palestinian dignity, which includes the implementation of their right to return to their homes.
Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.