Clinton’s renewed efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
focussed attention once again on what is conventionally held to be the key
sticking point in the talks: the future of Jerusalem.
for many Palestinians this focus on Jerusalem suggests that other issues equally
vital to a just peace are being neglected, or worse, may have been quietly
settled on Israel’s terms. Most prominent among these is the right of return for
Palestinian refugees. It is to draw attention to this issue that thousands of
Palestinians and their allies are rallying in Washington DC on September 16.
Israel was created, 800,000 Palestinians fled or were deliberately forced from
their homes. Over four hundred towns and villages were destroyed or depopulated,
and tens of thousands of houses, stores, farms and other property were taken
over by Israel. Today there are 3.7 million Palestinians registered by the UN as
refugees, including survivors and their children. Over one million of them are
spread among 59 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.
refugees’ right to return has long been recognized by the international
community: the UN General Assembly has reaffirmed resolution 194 every year
since 1948, stating that, "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." Those who choose not to return are to be given
compensation. The US voted for this resolution every year until 1993. Since that
time, the Clinton administration has consistently tried to take the Palestinian
issue out of the hands of the UN, and put it into the Israeli-Palestinian boxing
ring of "direct negotiations," where might counts for everything and
right for nothing.
has consistently rejected the right of return, arguing that it bears no
responsibility for the fate of the refugees, and that any substantial return
would dilute the "Jewish character" of the state. But, this
essentially racist reasoning should not be acceptable in the twenty first
is only able to remain a "democracy" with non-Jews as second class
citizens as long as Jews can always outvote the non-Jews. As the number of
Palestinians grows (and it is growing fast), Israel will inevitably face the
choice between genuine democracy or becoming a fully-fledged apartheid
"democracy." It is in order to maintain the Jewish majority that
left-wing Zionists so fervently support the creation of a separate Palestinian
state, and right-wing governments never dared to annex most of the occupied West
Bank, with all its inconvenient non-Jewish population.
preventing Palestinian refugees from returning home will not long postpone the
day when Palestinians and Israelis are equal in number between the Mediterranean
Sea and the Jordan River. And if it was ever viable, partition–the creation of
two states, with the Israeli state, inevitably dominant–is even less so today.
Yasir Arafat and his cronies have a vested interest in creating a
"state" which they can rule, but for many Palestinians, such a state
is increasingly unappealing. The price that not even Yasir Arafat can get away
with paying to have this state is giving up the right of return. The Palestinian
and Israeli positions seem irreconcilable, but they are only so within the
narrow US and Israeli-defined parameters of the "peace process."
the long run, I am convinced, a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, is
the only just and viable solution. As Eqbal Ahmed pointed out, we would not have
supported the creation of independent black states in Mississippi and Alabama in
lieu of civil rights, so why should such a solution be any more palatable in
worst nightmare of some Israelis is a mass return of refugees that would sweep
them away. But whether genuine fear, or reckless scaremongering, this is not
what the right of return means. There is, for example, plenty of room for a
substantial number of Palestinians to return to their homes in the mostly
Arab-populated north of the country, and many refugees, lucky enough not to be
in camps will likely choose to stay where they are and accept compensation. But
it must be their choice.
who believe that return would be apocalyptic conveniently forget that there are
already more than one million Palestinians living as peaceful and productive
citizens in Israel–albeit with second class status. Imagine what their
contribution would be if they were equal, and the existential conflict between
the two peoples ended in a way that both peoples considered just.
worst nightmare for Palestinians is that a final deal will consign millions of
them to a bleak future of permanent exile in camps and countries where they are
strength and high standard of living has been bought at the cost of the futures
of millions of Palestinians in the same way that the comfort of apartheid South
Africa’s whites was bought for the misery of its blacks. It is past time to end
this unjust equation in Palestine and to bring the refugees home.
Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network (A Chicago-based
community service organization), is a speaker at the Palestinian Refugee
Return Rally on September 16 in Washington DC. He is authot of The Bitter Pill