On 6 May 1999, US President Clinton pledged to Bosnian refugees “you will go home again in safety and in freedom.” He added: “When you have gone through something as awful as this, it is very easy to have your spirit broken, to spend the rest of your life obsessed with anger and resentment. But if you do that, you have already given those who have opposed you a victory.”
The same week on May 10, Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, spoke about Kosovo refugees. “We must have peace on terms that will allow the people of Kosovo, with our help, to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. And we must have accounting for the wrongs that have been done.”
The Dayton Accords strongly supports the right of return and restitution of property for Bosnian refugees. More recently, the international community used massive force to oppose ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and implemented refugee repatriation. The same international standards and principles upheld in Bosnia and Kosovo, against ethnic cleansing and support for voluntary repatriation, must apply to all refugees regardless of their national and ethnic origins – including Palestinian refugees.
The right of Palestinian refugees to return is an inalienable, individual, human and collective right. According to international human rights law, in no case may a person be arbitrarily deprived of the right to return. A wide range of international legal instruments, including UN resolutions, international human rights conventions, humanitarian conventions, and bilateral and regional agreements, as well as general legal principles considered to be binding, recognize the right of return.
The international community has consistently and formally recognized the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, their right to their property and to the income derived from their property. Through the United Nations, it recognized that the continued displacement and dispossession of Palestinian refugees has arisen from the denial of their inalienable rights under the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and declared that full respect for the inalienable rights of the people of Palestine is an indispensable element in the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Any state whose ideology forces it to categorize its citizenry into separate segments and provides preferential treatment for one segment cannot be called democratic. Israel’s appearance as a democracy is an illusion because it is a democracy for Jews only. This is the very core of the apartheid-system operative in Israel. It is this racism described under “Israel’s character as a Jewish state” that prevents Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return, which it is legally obligated to do.
Research not only shows that the right of the refugees is legal but also possible. A study on the demography of Israel shows that 78% of Israelis are living in 14 percent of Israel and that the remaining 86% of the land in Israel is mostly land that belongs to the refugees on which 22% of the Israelis live. However, 20% live in city centers, which are mostly Palestinian such as, Beer Al Saba’, Ashdod, Majdal, Asqalan, Nazareth, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias and Safad. As for the remaining 20%, they live in kibbutzes and moshavs. They control the legacy and heritage of five million Palestinian refugees. Is there any logic to having 2,400 refugees on one square kilometer in the Gaza Strip while any one of them could look over the barbed wire and see his land practically empty?
If Gaza refugees returned to their homes in southern Palestine, no more than five percent of Jews in the center would be affected. If the refugees of Lebanon returned to their homes in the Galilee no more than one percent of Jews in the center would be affected. The total number of refugees from Gaza and Lebanon equals the number of Russian immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s to live in the homes of these refugees.
Human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. This also applies to peace. Strict adherence, de facto and de jure, to international human rights law and international humanitarian law is the prerequisite for creating trust and strengthening security in the wider sense.
Not allowing back Palestinian refugees amounts to collaboration with ethnic cleansing. The only solution that is both workable and moral is to implement the right of return for all Palestinians wishing to exercise it, no matter how inconvenient it may be for some.
The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).