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The Question of Palestinian Refugees Cannot Be Avoided

meretz-usa_blogThe Question of Palestinian Refugees Cannot Be Avoided

Mitchell Plitnick, 16 December 2010

In a recent edition of the Canadian Magazine Outlook, and re-printed on the Meretz USA blog, there is a pro and con set of articles regarding the BDS movement. But in his con article, Dr. Steven Scheinberg makes a point that I think deserves much deeper exploration that goes well beyond the BDS debate.

Scheinberg discusses the Palestinian insistence on the “Right of Return (RoR),” and he says: “The assertion of the so-called “right of return” is a non-starter in any peace process, as much as an Israeli rightist call for an indivisible Jerusalem under Jewish rule.”

My own stance on RoR is one that has made me few friends on either side of the debate, and I’ll get to that view below. But first, I think it needs to be pointed out that the approach Scheinberg is pressing here is the real non-starter.

It is, of course, axiomatic that there can be no two-state solution that potentially includes millions of Palestinian refugees coming to live in Israel. But when supporters of peace take the attitude that RoR must simply be removed from the discussion, they betray a total lack of understanding of Palestinian nationalism which ultimately dooms any ideas they may come up with as to how to resolve this vexing and destructive conflict.

Without getting into a long exposition on the evolution of Palestinian nationalism, the events of 1947-1949, al-naqba, or “the catastrophe” for Palestinians were obviously fundamental to the future development of that national consciousness. And a key component of that consciousness, for better or worse, was the hope that at some future date, Palestinians who were expelled or fled during Israel’s War of Independence would be able to return to their homes.

Put simply, this is not an item that can just be removed from the table before negotiations. It can and must be discussed.

In 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then the opposition leader, told a US congressional delegation that until the Palestinians dropped RoR they could not be considered to be serious about peace. So, this problem goes much farther than one peace activist’s view.

By no means should we underestimate the point that RoR is a red line for Israelis. The overwhelming majority of Israelis, with the exception of a very small minority on the far left, would sacrifice all international support, including that of the US, and be prepared to go to war rather than risk giving millions of refugees the option of returning to Israel.

Indeed, supporters of RoR sometimes, in my experience, underestimate the depth and breadth of Israeli opposition to this idea. It is far stronger than any issues of land and, while it may not be a more passionate point for Israeli Jews (and other Jews worldwide) than Jerusalem, the consensus against any compromise on this point is far more broad than it is on any part of Jerusalem except the Wailing Wall/Temple Mount area.

While all this may make it seem like this question resembles the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, that dynamic is only strengthened when one side or the other insists that the issue must be summarily removed from the discussion in their favor.

There has been considerable speculation that most refugees would not wish to return behind the Green Line if given the choice. That is less than convincing for most Israeli Jews, but it does mean there is a potential opening for compromise that can only be found through discussion.

Similarly, Israel has, at times, suggested that it would compensate refugees and help with their resettlement, and many have speculated that if such an agreement could be reached, Israeli might be willing to accept some degree of moral responsibility for the refugee problem. Again, that falls well short of Palestinian demands, but it demonstrates that if Israeli Jews and Palestinians, as well as their respective diasporas, could have a rational series of discussions about this topic it could conceivably be resolved.

Is There a Right of Return?

One of the key foundations of RoR is UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which states that “(The General Assembly) Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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.”

Supporters of RoR generally rely on this resolution to back their claim because it comes the closest by far to capturing the Palestinian view of RoR. The problem is that a General Assembly resolution does not have any force of international law, and therefore, by itself 194 does not compel Israel to do anything.

But the right is also found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. -Article 13 [2]) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country. -Article 12). Here, the problem for advocates of RoR is that these provisions only guarantee the right to return to one’s country, not necessarily to the specific place he or she lived before they became refugees.

In my view, the sum of these parts is that return to any part of Palestine, i.e. the West Bank and Gaza, would satisfy international law regarding the refugees. Clearly, justice demands that there also be substantial compensation for Palestinian suffering and material loss, and this would be no small sum.

In my view, Israel has a heavy burden, but it does not bear the total burden. Great Britain, the United States, the UN as well as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other Arab states all had substantial roles in creating the refugee problem and perpetuating it as well. In the increasingly unlikely scenario where there is a separate Palestinian state, they will need a lot of help anyway, and helping to increase both national and personal wealth will be a needed shot in the arm in any case, so all these entities coming together to right their previous wrongs is both just and pragmatic. And for Israel’s part, finding a way to allow some refugees back behind the Green Line, perhaps by family re-unification, would be crucial in convincing Palestinians to accept less than what they are currently demanding.

In sum, my view is this: I don’t agree with the way many Palestinians interpret RoR, especially some of the more radical pro-RoR groups and I do believe that its full implementation is clearly anathema to a two-state solution. But I absolutely support the Palestinians’ right to press an issue that is fundamental to their national identity and of supreme importance to so many Palestinians. That importance is demonstrated in the eyes of so many Palestinians I have met who still keep keys to houses they lived in before 1947-49, or still have deeds or other documents of ownership of such houses. I don’t support their view, but I absolutely support their right to hold it and pursue it.

How Can This Be Discussed?

More than any other issue, RoR touches on the question of Israel’s birth. Again, it would take a long exposition to tease out all the questions around what could have been done differently in the first half of the 20th century, and I believe many mistakes were made not only by the Zionist and Arab national movements, but by the full roster of international actors.

The fact of the matter is, whether Palestinians fled or were expelled, Israel was built on the former homes of some 800,000 Arabs, who now number, with their descendants, nearly 5 million refugees. The loss and dispossession there is enormous, and it is aggravated by the fact that, again for whatever reason, many of those refugees have lived and continue to live in squalid camps.

At the same time, Israel’s very existence is a tonic to Jews, in and out of Israel, who live with a history of being chased out of one country after another until, at the time of their greatest peril during World War II, many were left with nowhere to flee to. And Israel, for better or worse, is home to millions of Jews and, as a Jewish state, a central piece of the Jewish identity for millions more. A Jewish state, as refuge and as a defining piece of Jewish identity, is a strong motivator for many Jews.

Many might argue that, for both Jews and Palestinians, the best thing would be for these national dynamics to change, on either or both sides. But until that happens, this is what we’re working with.

A realistic conversation can only be started when Jews, in and out of Israel, drop their insistence that the Palestinians simply forget about RoR, and Palestinians acknowledge that, whether they think a huge number of refugees would return behind the Green Line or not, RoR represents a potential threat to the state that Israelis worked very hard to build. These are very difficult acknowledgments for both sides, but they can be made, as I’ve seen and experienced first-hand when I’ve discussed these issues with people passionately in this question on both sides.

And for Israel especially, time is working very much against them on this point. As Israel continues to behave in a more and more bigoted fashion toward Arabs – with loyalty oaths proposed, rabbinical decrees against renting to Arabs, Israeli officials insisting that Muslim hotel workers not be allowed to work on the floors where they are staying in Washington, and the popular support for such things growing – Israel could, in the future, see a shift in the international consensus on refugees.

Right now, the bulk of the international community agrees that the way to resolve the issue of refugees is best solved through a combination of return to the West Bank and Gaza, resettlement in host or third party countries and compensation. But Israel’s recent actions as described above very much strengthens the position that anything other than full RoR is unacceptable and bigoted. Trying to pre-empt yet another final status issue before negotiation is a losing proposition for Israel, especially on this issue, which is one of the few that Israel has not lost ground on in the international arena. Yet.

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