Jul 13 2000

The right of return

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Newsprint and airwaves are filled with suggestions that the two issues that might make or break the Camp David summit are Jerusalem and the refugees.

While President Arafat is sure to defend the Palestinian position that Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, I do not believe that he will be able to sign any agreement on Jerusalem without having a much bigger Arab and Islamic coalition behind him. In effect any agreement on Jerusalem will need the direct or indirect approval of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Countries. 

But while the issue of Jerusalem is asking too much of the Palestinian delegation headed by President Arafat, the issue of Palestinian refugees falls squarely within its scope of work. In addition to his title as the head of the Palestinian National Authority, Arafat is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO, established before the 1967 war, has made the return of Palestinian refugees a cornerstone of its existence.

In dealing with the right of return for nearly five million Palestinians, an important distinction must be made from the outset. Arafat will not and cannot compromise on “the right of return.” This right has been enshrined in UN Resolution 194, which was approved by the entire world including the sponsor of the present Camp David II talks, the US. Prime Minister Barak would be wise to accept this inalienable right from the start. Such a recognition can propel the talks toward the more practical issues of how this right can be realized, i.e. how many refugees will return, from which countries, and under what circumstances.

The Jewish world should be able to understand why the recognition of this right is essential for Palestinians.

After 2,000 years of exile, the founders of the State of Israel created a law legislating the right of every Jew around the world to what they call the “right to return to Eretz Yisrael.” This law gives the privilege for every person around the world with at least one Jewish grandparent to pick up his or her bags, fly to Tel Aviv, and become a citizen of the State of Israel. How much more important is the right of Palestinians who were evicted from their homes in mandatory Palestine just 50 years ago and have been denied the right to return, the right to exercise their own human right.

Fifty years ago when the State of Israel was created on the basis of UN Resolution 181 an entire people were made refugees. Four hundred Palestinian villages within the borders of present day Israel were demolished and wiped from the map. Survivors of this catastrophe called Nakba by Palestinians – are scattered in refugees camps in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Others are no longer living in refugee camps and can be found in the four corners of the world.

Much discussion has been made about how many of the Palestinian refugees will indeed opt to return.

Figures vary from 10%-90%. In the end the number of those who want to return or who are given the opportunity to return is not as important as the basic need for a clear and unambiguous recognition that every Palestinian who was forced to leave his land and home or who left during the period of war has the right to return. This means that Israel and not the international community is responsible for the implementation of this declaration. While the US and other nations might be willing to help Israel ease some of the effects of such a responsibility, it must be clear that this is an Israeli moral and financial responsibility.

Such a recognition by Barak will be a major step in defusing the tension, hurt, and anger that has been festering for more than 50 years, at the same time laying the groundwork for reconciliation between Israel and the Arabs.

If this admission is followed by the courage to take responsibility for the wrongdoing – by either making room for those wishing to return or by compensating those who prefer to stay where they are – we would certainly be on the road to real and genuine peace in the Middle East.

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