Right of return must also be choice to return


November 28, 2013
Sarah Benton


View of a street in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus, on September 12, 2013.The Palestinian refugee camp, Damascus,it has been heavily bombed by the Syrian regime forcing many of the refugees to flee again, mostly to Lebanon. Photo © Anwar Amro – AFP

The Right to Refuse: towards a Return of Palestinian Refugees

By Andreas Hackl, Footnote on Israel/Palestine
November 22, 2013

“Acknowledging ‘The Right to Refuse’”, says Israeli anthropologist Prof. Dan Rabinowitz (Tel-Aviv University), “could help resolve the Palestinian refugee issue”. But rather than suggesting a refusal of refugees return, Rabinowitz outlines an innovative plan of transitional justice, walking the fine line between pragmatism, dreams and visions.

Rabinowitz’s ideas, formulated during three decades of ethnographic work with Palestinian citizens of Israel (primarily in Nazareth) and with the Bedouins of Sinai, were crystalized when he was part of a Minerva research group that looked at the Palestinian Refugees issue, whose work was published a few years ago by the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany.

‘The idea of Palestinian refugees returning to their original locations within Israel proper’, Rabinowitz recently wrote, ‘remains unthinkable for an unshakable majority of Israelis’. At the same time, he asserts, the visions of Palestinians themselves about the right of return are informed by memories and dreams of a beautiful and idealized homeland, now demographically and geographically transformed beyond recognition.[1]

However, only recently has a conference by the NGO Zochrot in Tel Aviv shown, that realizing and a pragmatic thinking of return is nevertheless happening and considered realistic by certain experts and refugees as well as internally displaced Palestinians themselves. But what the details of a “pragmatic” and “realistic” solution could be is as much a ground of battle as the topic of “return” itself.


The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where huts are being installed to supplement or replace the tents.Photo by B. Sokol/Acnur

While there are almost 5 million refugees currently registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and an estimated 7 Palestinian refugees worldwide, Rabinowitz suggests that any negotiations on the right of return must focus on the 1.36 Million refugees who are still living in refugee camps today. They are in most urgent need of repatriation[2]. Of these Palestinian refugees, Rabinowitz suggests to focus – as a first stage – on about 200,000 elderly refugees who were born in Palestine and who live in refugee camps.

The Right to Refuse

In his address to the Zochrot conference, Rabinowitz said that the right of return should be offered to those 200,000 refugees first of all. This, if handled thoughtfully, could produce another somewhat unusual but nevertheless essential right: the right of individuals to refuse such an offer and to pass it on to other Palestinians instead. The idea is that the individual right to say “No” would then become a source of empowerment.

 Dan Rabinowitz

“According to surveys, elderly refugees are those least inclined to return”, says Rabinowitz, adding that he shares the widely held belief that in fact, most Palestinian refugees would not want to return to Israel today. By offering this right to refuse to a considerable number of refugees, and by their own refusal to accept it in spite of considerable financial losses such refusal would spell, these individuals and their families might gain a sense of closure – however partial and belated – of a trauma that has overshadowed their lives for decades.

This, Rabinowitz believes, could emancipate the issue of the Palestinian refugees from the deadlock of over-politicization it has been trapped in since 1948, and facilitate a degree of reconciliation. Saying ‘no’ to an offer to return to Israel proper would not be a sign of defeat; rather, the ability to refuse to return is premised on the refugees’ inherent right to return and reinforces it – without being contingent on their actual relocation.

“It is the ability to say no or, more precisely, do no, that becomes a precondition for autonomy and freedom,” Rabinowitz says, following Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject[3]. Because the Palestinian refugees themselves have often been dealt with as not autonomous people by politicians, they have also been denied their freedom [of] choice, and possibly the freedom to say no.

If most of the elderly refugees born in Palestine would transfer their franchise of return to other Palestinians, the numbers of those granted the Right of Return (though not necessary opt[ing] to fulfill this right) would be maximized[4]. This while the actual number of returnees would remain within a quota that is acceptable for Israel.


Elderly refugees in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo from Occupied Palestine.

Rabinowitz says that the direct link between the right and actual refugees is important here: Refugees would be able to decide for themselves for the first time in history, thereby creating a process of real reconciliation. He thinks that this way, a transparent process could take place that would help to reconcile the past in a sustainable, practical way. For example, if a quota of 200,000 returning refugees is agreed upon, but 90% of beneficiaries (180,000) refuse to go for it, 180,000 other Palestinians will then be offered to return the following year. If a cycle of offers is made every 2 years, and if only 10% of potential beneficiaries in every cycle actually accept it, in 5 cycles (10 years) up to 850,000 individual Palestinians will have been offered the choice to return.

Decouple Citizenship and Residency

A major tenet of Rabinowitz’s proposal is the decoupling of citizenship from residency.

According to this concept, Palestinians offered to become citizens of Israel, complete with the welfare package that come with it, will be able to do so without the need of actually relocating and living in Israel. Similar new forms of citizenship are already practiced elsewhere, like in Turkey, which offers citizenship status and other rights to Turks residing elsewhere, even if they are not planning to return and settle down in Turkey. In other words: an individual refugee who is offered the option to return who cannot or will not relocate to Israel could then claim her Israeli citizenship, identity card, passport, social security payments, compensation, remuneration, and other entitlements inherent in her status as a citizen without ever visiting and relocating to Israel.

In any approach to the solution, we need to “start from Palestinian and Israeli sensibilities,” says Rabinowitz. “And we need to look for morally acceptable and politically practicable solutions that could accommodate those sensibilities.”

Rabinowitz argues that any realistic approach to the issue of the refugees’ right of return combines both symbolic elements of recognition, such as the acknowledgement of the right, with practical solutions including restitution (wherever possible), remunerations for property lost and compensation for suffering over the years, as well as the right to refuse, the possibility of transferring it to relatives who wish to return, and affording rights other than the right of return by decoupling citizenship from residency.

What do you think? We encourage comments in order to begin an ongoing dialogue on this contested issue.

[1] Rabinowitz, Dan. 2010. The Right to Refuse: Abject Theory and the Return of Palestinian Refugees, in: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 36, No. 3: 494-516.

[2] Out of these 1.36 million, about 220,809 live in camps in Lebanon, 123,646 in Syria, 335,307 in Jordan 191,408 in the West Bank, and 492,299 in Gaza.

[3] For more information on abject theory, here is a short paragraph: http://faculty.washington.edu/cbehler/glossary/abjection.html

[4] The reluctance of elderly people to relocate without their families, which is valid anywhere, is particularly strong with Palestinian refugees. This is brought into relief quite clearly by Chatty and Lowendo-Hundt’s account of the immense emotional, social, and economic investment older refugees have in their offspring and their kin at large; see Dawn Chatty and Lewando-Hundt, Children of Palestine: Experiencing Forced Migration in the Middle East (Oxford, 2005).

Israel and the Palestinian Refugees, Eds: Eyal Benvenisti, Chaim Gans, Sari Hanafil, published by Springer 2007, ISBN: 978-3-540-68160-1 (Print) 978-3-540-68161-8 (Online)

Speak it aloud: Palestinian return, the Zochrot conference, October 2013.

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