Few images silenced the critics of our war on Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia than the images of the Kosovar refugees fleeing their villages. Their faces expressed the shock at the horrors they had witnessed.
After the successful strikes on Yugoslavia, then President Bill Clinton stood in the Stankovic Camp in Macedonia and stated, “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.”
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 Commissioner for Refugees were heading back to the Kosovo capital of Pristina.
Today, we are faced with the opportunity to ensure the right of return for another community é the Palestinians. Nearly, 54 years later, the Palestinians remain the largest group of refugees around the world, numbering more than 3.7 million. Israel’s legitimate fear is that if Palestinian Christians and Muslims were allowed to return to their native homeland, in what is now Israel, the Jewish character of Israel will change. It’s even been said that the return of Palestinian refugees would essentially threaten Israel’s existence.
It is possible that the religious character would become more multidimensional and would likely reflect the nature of the original inhabitants, but should the potential changes in Israel’s Jewish character be more important than righting the wrongs of the past? 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, this same right is a matter for negotiations where they are concerned?
Many Israelis say that the refugee problem was not of their doing. Consider this quotation which was published in the New York Times 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!'” David Ben-Gurion was one of the founders of Israel and he became Israel’s first president. Further, Israeli historians like Benny Morris now acknowledge Israel’s role in creating the mass exodus. The horrors visited on the Kosovars had indeed visited Palestinian villagers.
The next question becomes: even though the Israelis were responsible for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948, how reasonable is it for Palestinians to expect to return in 2002? To which Palestinians can respond: how reasonable is it for the Israelis to drive people out of their homes and not expect the rightful owners to return?
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.
Further, the basis for the right of Palestinian return is legal. 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, which under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”
The resolution was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 11, 1948, and has been endorsed annually since then. In addition, U.N. Resolution 237 addressed the displaced of 1967. That resolution calls on Israel to “facilitate the return of those inhabitants who had fled these areas since the outbreak of hostilities.”
Palestinian refugees are not looking to annihilate Israel. They just want their right to go home implemented by the international community.
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. Otherwise, our rhetoric in Kosovo was meaningless.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.