Clinton: Then and Now on Refugees

“We’re proud of what we did because we think it’s what America stands for, that no one ever, ever should be punished and discriminated against or killed or uprooted because of their religion or their ethnic heritage,” said President Bill Clinton as he visited the Stankovic Camp in Macedonia in June, 1999.

Less than two weeks later, President Clinton said, “I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were free to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live.” Some interpreted these comments to signify the president’s support of the right of return of the 3.7 million Palestinian refugees, although within hours of the second remark U.S. assurances were made to the Israeli Embassy that U.S. policy had not changed in this regard. That policy, according to a U.S. State Department official, is that the issue of the Palestinian right of return is to be decided in final status negotiations.

And here we are in 2001, and Clinton is pressuring the Palestinians into giving up their right of return to what is now Israel — guaranteed by international laws. In Kosovo, we saw the resolve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to make life miserable for the Serbians in Yugoslavia and the message was simple: We’ll stop the bombing when you stop driving the Albanian Muslims out of Kosovo. Whether the use of NATO military measures was necessary continues to be a topic for debate, but the decisiveness to reverse the flow of refugees from their homeland was nothing short of remarkable and exemplary. Within days, busloads of refugees, escorted by representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) were heading back to the Kosovo capital of Pristina. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees have since returned to towns and villages allover Kosovo..

What was so strikingly different between the atrocities which befell the Kosovar refugees and those that befell the Palestinians of 1948? Consider this chilling testimony, which would bring a sense of déjé vu for any Kosovar refugee.

“Outside the gate the soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to throw all valuables onto a blanket. One young man and his wife of six weeks, friends of our family, stood near me. 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, my whole body numbed by shock waves. That night I cried, too, as I tried to sleep along side thousands on the ground. Would I ever see my home again? Would the soldiers kill my loved ones, too?” –Father Rantisi of Ramallah’s Evangelical Home for Boys, author of Blessed Are the Peacemakers Much of the world’s shock and horror at Serb ethnic cleansing of Kosovars stemmed particularly from Serbian atrocities intended to frighten Kosovars away. Again, comparisons to the Palestinian nakba are haunting. The infamous massacre at Deir Yassin was cited by Israeli forces to instill fear in other Palestinians that if they did not flee, they would meet the same fate as the massacred men, women and children of that village, seized by Jewish militias in April 1948. Essentially the massacre was perpetrated by design, as were the recent Serbian atrocities. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ordered the Deir Yassin massacre, once referred to it as one of the greatest victories of Zionism because its “political and economic significanceécan hardly be overestimated.”

Dozens more massacres occurred. 750,000 Palestinians fled Palestine.

It’s true that times were different back in 1948. The CNN cameras were missing, and the world was still experiencing the guilt of its complacency during the abhorrent tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust. That is all the more reason for the U.S. to end the suffering of Palestinian refugees in 2000. The U.S. prides itself as a nation that not only is a military superpower but also a moral superpower. To merit that label, then it’s time for President Clinton to stop pressuring Palestinians into accepting what he knows is wrong. Clinton should also note that 74% of Americans support the right of return for Palestinians, according to a Zogby poll.

In an era when human rights have become a corner stone of U.S. foreign policy, President Clinton’s penchant for a legacy, domestic politics and Israel’s well-heeled lobbying groups should take a backseat. A true peace in the Middle East will have to provide for Palestinians to live with dignity. Otherwise, our rhetoric in Kosovo was meaningless.

Sherri Muzher is a Freelance writer for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Former Executive Director of the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation.

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