Let the Palestinians Go Home

Ali Abunimah


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

not welcome.


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

website (www.abunimah.org)



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