The Returning Issue of Palestine's Refugees
It's 62 years since the UN passed a resolution on the rights of Palestinian refugees – rights Israel must recognise for peace
Before his murder in 1948, Lord Folke Bernadotte, the first UN mediator to the Arab-Israeli conflict, stated: "It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent [Palestinian] victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine." Lord Bernadotte paid for his candour with his life as Jewish militants assassinated him under the direction of Yitzhak Shamir, the man who would later become prime minister of Israel.
Less than three months after his death, as the war of 1948 ground to a close, and nearly three-quarters of the entire indigenous Palestinian population had been displaced by Israeli forces, the UN passed general assembly resolution 194, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and to be awarded compensation for their losses.
On Saturday, 62 years will have passed without this historic resolution being implemented despite being upheld by the UN with nearly universal consensus ever since. In fact, Israel's own admission as a member to the United Nations was contingent on its adherence to the principles of UNGA 194, something it proceeded to disregard once membership was granted.
Contrary to what Israeli political figures would like the world to believe, the issue of Palestinian refugees is not an academic matter, the solution of which is somehow rendered moot by the passage of time and by the creation of Israeli "facts on the ground." Palestinian displacement continues to this day through the revocation of residency cards, land confiscation, home demolitions and evictions. At the same time, Israel has barred Palestinians displaced between 1947 and 1949, and again in 1967, from returning to their homes or receiving restitution for their lost property, making Palestinian refugees the oldest and largest refugee community in the world today.
The fact that Israel bears responsibility for the creation of the refugees is beyond argument. Even if the state still claims amnesia for its deeds, Israeli historians have debunked the traditional Zionist mythology and shown how Zionist leaders prior to 1948 formulated plans to displace the indigenous Palestinian population in order to create a Jewish majority state. Such a state would have been impossible without the mass expulsion of Palestinians, given that Palestinians constituted a majority in every district of historic Palestine prior to 1948 and also owned over 90% of the land.
Even if we accept the Israeli narrative that refugees left voluntarily – which has been proven false for the vast majority – there is no doubt about the fact that when refugees attempted to return according to their legal right, they were blocked by newly drafted Israeli legislation and declared infiltrators on their own property.
This period of dispossession, known to Palestinians as al-Nakba or "the catastrophe", is the seminal Palestinian experience and source of our collective identity. In fact, the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is himself a refugee displaced from the city of Safed during the 1948 war when he was only 13-years-old.
Today, Palestinian refugees constitute more than 7 million people worldwide – 70% of the entire Palestinian population. Disregarding their legitimate legal rights enshrined in international law, their understandable grievances accrued over prolonged displacement, and their aspirations to return to their homeland, would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel completely untenable.
In accordance with past Israeli-Arab agreements based on UN resolutions – most significantly the Egypt-Israeli Camp David Accords based on UN resolution 242's formula of land-for-peace – resolution 194 must provide the basis for a settlement to the refugee issue.
Return and restitution as the remedy of choice has a strong international precedent. For example, in the context of the Dayton Accords, concluded under the auspices of the United States, the return of Bosnian refugees to their homes and restitution of their property was considered a "non-negotiable" right that was critical to crafting a durable solution. American leaders such as Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, openly called on Bosnian Muslim refugees to return en masse to their former places of residence.
In Bosnia and in Palestine, the return of refugees has been considered absolutely necessary for the stability of peace. Any deal that does not respect the rights of refugees has been viewed as bearing the seed of its inevitable failure.
When negotiations resume once again, the world must not abandon the refugees of Palestine, nor attempt to coerce their representatives to do so either.
Israel's recognition of Palestinian refugee rights and its agreement to provide reparation and meaningful refugee choice in the exercise of these rights will not change the reality in the Middle East overnight, nor will it lead to an existential crisis for Israel. What it will certainly do is mark the beginning of a new reality that will no longer be rooted in repression, denial of rights, and discrimination. In other words, it will lead to a lasting peace – the kind of peace envisaged by Lord Bernadotte and hoped for by Palestinians and Israelis alike.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010