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April 3, 2001
Right of Return speech in Connecticut

By Prof. Naseer H. Aruri



Despite the numerous meetings held between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators during the past seven years since the Oslo (DOP) was signed by Yasir Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin at the White House, the input of the community of more than 5 1/2 million Palestinian refugees has never been sought or solicited.

And despite, Arafat's millions of miles of travel to meet with leaders all over the world, not one single mile of travel has been invested by the Palestinian leadership in consulting with representatives of its refugee constituency.

Thus it has become extremely urgent that an all-Palestinian Congress of Return and Self-Determination be convened to reassert the right of return, among other fundamental rights, as the future of these rights seems rather bleak under the US-brokered "peace process" which is likely to take a new turn for the worse under Bush and Sharon.

The right of return has emerged as the single most important challenge facing Palestinian and Israeli negotiators during the year 2000, as they were summoned to reach a final status agreement prior to the end of Clinton's presidency. Paradoxically, however, while the issue continued to bedevil negotiators, it was fairly certain that it did not occupy a real place on the active agenda of the negotiations.

Hence, Palestinians everywhere began to insist that peace was not possible without return. And the issue has recently become a rallying point for Palestinians struggling for their rights. It has been placed on the public agenda not by the Palestine Authority (PA), not by the presumed heir of the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (PLO), not by the Arab League, and certainly not by the self-appointed guardian of the Middle East "peace process," (the US) but by various segments of Palestinian society. In particular, it has been grassroots organizations- older ones and recently formed ones in the refugee camps, inside Israel, and in the Palestinian diaspora- who have seized the initiative by restoring the right of return to a central place in the discourse about Palestine.

Your demonstration-the al-Awda rally of September 16, 2000 was a prime example of these people's initiatives. Similar demonstrations, most of which coincided with the 18th anniversary of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Lebanon, were also staged in the Lebanese refugee camps and in Palestine.

Numerous conferences, workshops, and rallies were held in and outside the region bringing together community leaders, activists and scholars to discuss various strategies for reviving the right of return and insuring a high place for it on whatever agenda of whatever peace talks dealing with the question of Palestine. Such gatherings and public protests are likely to be repeated over and over in variouslocations, in the region and around the world, until the right of return is dealt with in a fair and legal manner in any future settlement.

Now an important question is why does it seem that we have JUST discovered the right of return? But we all know the date of resolution 194-December 1948 was'nt it? So why don't we go back and take a historical look to see what happened.

Since the 1948 Catastrophe (al-Nakba) and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the issues of return, compensation and restitution have taken a back seat in the discussions surrounding the overall question of Palestine. During the better part of the past five decades since the creation of the refugee problem, the issue of refugees has been rendered secondary and even tertiary, despite the fact that Israel's admission to the United Nations was made contingent on its compliance with United Nations General Assembly resolution (194) of December 1948. General Assembly Resolution (273) of May 11, 1949, made Israel's admission conditional on an unambiguous commitment by Israel to "unreservedly" respect UN resolutions pertaining the Arab-Israeli conflict, including of course Resolution 194.."

Obviously, Israel was admitted to the United Nations without complying, thus keeping alive and exacerbating the refugee crisis we face today. Israel's non-compliance had impelled the General Assembly to adopt other resolutions calling on Israel to meet its obligations to the refugees. For example, Resolution (3236) of 1974 upheld the " inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted." And in 1997, Resolution 52/62 reaffirmed that the "Palestine Arab refugees are entitled to their property and to the income derived therefrom, in conformity with the principles of justice and equity."

With the emergence of the PLO and resumption of armed struggle during the sixties, the issue of the refugees, rather than becoming the central human dimension of the revolutionaries struggle to reverse the nakba, was relegated to a humanitarian-charitable issue better left to the likes of UNRWA. The armed struggle thesis posited that the refugees would be naturally accommodated in the future democratic secular state- the stated goal of the PLO.

The 1967 war exacerbated the refugee crisis by creating a new generation of refugees. At the same time, the crisis completely disappeared from the PLO agenda. The overarching objective of the PLO was global recognition of its status as sole legitimate representative of the Palestine people. Subsequently, through the sixties and seventies, PLO legitimacy and Palestinian self-determination became intertwined, indistinguishable goals. Moreover, once it became anchor and unifier of Palestinians scattered throughout the diaspora, the PLO perceived discussion of the plight of the refugees as a distraction from the "important" issues. True, the refugees remained a humanitarian concern, especially for showcasing the "social" institutions of the PLO in Lebanon. Yet from the perspective of political rights, the refugee question continued not to have any political content and force.

After 1972, as the armed struggle further gave way to a new form of diplomatic program, the refugee question became dormant. The new definition of "struggle," formulated in Arab summit conferences in Algiers, Rabat and Cairo, encouraged the PLO to promote itself together with a program of "self-determination" in a mini-Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

In return for supporting the "new" PLO with its watered-down objectives in capitals around the globe, the Arab governments demanded an unwritten quid pro quo. The PLO would drastically scale down its guerilla operations and cease its rhetoric about a democratic secular state in all of historic Palestine. In return, not only would the PLO be "rewarded" with Arab diplomatic support in far-flung countries, the Arab governments would also increase economic assistance to the organization.

Thus, for the next two decades, until the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, that un-written agreement was to occupy the combined energies of Palestinians and Arabs. During that period, all matters relating to refugees were removed from the PLO's public agenda. The PLO quest for international recognition, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and as a solid bargaining partner for the creation of a mini-state, claimed the largest portion of Arab and Palestinian resources while refugee rights and interests were set aside.

While the PLO achieved its goal of becoming the focal point of the Palestine question, ironically, it became the first Arab party to sign an agreement that effectively denied the refugees their internationally- recognized rights. Indeed, the PLO, the supposed national organization of the dispersed Palestinian people seeking to achieve their inalienable national and political rights, has for all practical purposes signed away the right of return.

But I know you will not allow that to pass. It will never pass as long as you and others working on this cause will continue the work you have embarked upon.

The downgrading of the core problem, the refugee crisis, in favor of making the PLO "sole legitimate representative" was an unsound decision. The current re-emergence of the right of return in such a vigorous manner, after almost a quarter of a century of dormancy, signifies a belated vote of no- confidence in PLO policies towards the refugees as well as a people's movement seeking redress.

The second question I want to raise is what has the so-called peace process done to the Right of Return?

If there were ever the slightest hope that the refugees could possibly attain even a modicum of their internationally- recognized rights within the context of the Oslo framework, such hopes have been absolutely dashed. Under the unwritten rules of the " peace process," it is considered a sign of intransigence were Arafat or some of his negotiators to bring up the right of return. And for Israelis across the spectrum, the return of refugees to Israel is a real demographic threat. This is totally logical since they insist, juridically, and in every other way, that their state remain an exclusively Jewish one. That would not be possible if there were not a Jewish majority. This ethos is prevalent also amonst large segments of the Jewish-Israeli "peace movement."

The Israeli public, in fact, seems united in its rejection of international law, as it pertains to the rights of the Palestinian refugees. And yet, of all the issues to be addressed in the so-called final status negotiations-borders, Jerusalem, settlements, water, refugees, the latter is certainly not only the most arduous, but also unique in that it is the only issue that links 1948 to 1967. Israel has been acting in the "peace process" as if the conflict began in 1967 and not in 1948.

The question of refugees, however, clearly encompasses the fate of the 5 1/2 million Palestinians and descendents, who lost their homes in the 531 villages and towns in Palestine in1948 and in 1967. It does not only concern that portion numbering about 3,7 million, who are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and who live in the more than sixty camps in four Arab countries and in Palestine.

And let us not forget that refugees also include those who live in the area on which the Jewish state was set up in 1948. They are internal refugees, who can see their land, but cant live on it or make use of it. They are what Israel refers to as present/absentees. Many of them live in what is a strange concept: "unrecognized villages". These villages exist, but cannot be found on any official map. They receive no municipal services whatsoever, despite the fact that their inhabitants are Israeli citizens who pay the same taxes as everyone else. They are not entitled to water and electricity, schools and health facilities, paved roads so that they can reach their villages and many more things. Instead, the ubiquitous bulldozer is ever threatening most of these villages. The present/absentees and the citizens of the unrecognized villages certainly qualify for the status of refugees.

The displaced Palestinians, who are citizens of the state of Israel, number between 150,000-200,000. They constitute a significant sector of the Palestinian community who carry Israeli citizenship in the Galilee, Naqab and in what are known as the "mixed" cities.

According to an article by Ori Nir ( HA'ARETZ, January 2001) about half of Nazareth's Arab residents are internal refugees and their descendants and more than half of Umm al Fahm's residents belong to this group. The article cites the work of Hebrew University professor, Hillel Cohen, who put the number of the abandoned villages at 162.

Conscious of Arafat's propensity for making repeated concessions, these internal refugees have organized themselves and refused to have the PA assume responsibility for their future. According to the HA'ARETZ article by Nir, Attorney Wakim Wakim, secretary of the National Council for the Defense of the Rights of Displaced Persons in Israel, said he and his colleagues do not wish to have the PA incorporate their cases into the "peace" talks. Instead, they want the internal refugees themselves to wage their own legal, public and political struggle within the framework of the state of Israel:

All these categories of refugees constitute the overwhelming majority of the overall Palestinian population, and yet they are excluded from the decisions, which will bear materially on their lives and future and also on the future and character of the Palestinian nation. One must not forget that their rights are collective and individual. And one must never forget that they are inalienable. No one can take these rights away-- not Arafat, not Bush, not Sharon.

So where do we go from here? And what is to be done?

Having effectively accepted the role of Israel's warden and sub-contractor, the Palestine Authority (PA) is hardly the national embodiment and address that the PLO once was for the Palestinian people. What can we Palestinians do in order to escape the fate of other native people who have been subjected to genocide and were forced onto reservations or Bantustans and other forms of quarantined and marginalized areas? To avoid becoming perpetual captives in isolated Gaza, or to remain forever a disenfranchised community, or wandering in the diaspora, living on the sufferance of hostile Arab governments, we may consider taking action along the following lines:

First and foremost, we must cling tenaciously to the legal framework, which has been surrendered on our behalf, but without our consultation or authorization. The state of legal limbo, which was inflicted uponus, must be terminated and our internationally -guaranteed rights must be re-affirmed. It behooves us to remember Wakim's reminder that no one must be allowed to dictate undesired terms. To that end, an assemblage of the representatives of the 5 _ million living in the diaspora and the two million in the West Bank and Gaza, would begin to undo the implied surrender, reclaim their national rights, and render all acts denying them these rights- implicitly or explicitly-in transitional arrangements or final status talks, null and void.

The Congress of Self-Determination and Return, as it may be called, is the irreducible minimal step, which we, Palestinians can take as we embark on rectifying the wrongs of Oslo. Whereas concluding the DOP had involved less than a half-dozen confidants of Arafat, meeting in secret with Israelis outside the parameters of the public scrutiny, the Conference of Return would be an open forum for all Palestinians from all walks of life, meeting within the rules of accountability. It would be a culmination of a grassroots effort with decisions by local committees and regional groupings moving from the bottom up in a democratic process and in an egalitarian spirit. It would be a non-partisan, non-ideological, non-sectarian project, aiming to manifestly uphold the right of return and self-determination.

The proposed Congress of Return would be inclusive, rather than exclusive, comprehensive rather than segmental, and people-oriented rather than elitist. Its legitimacy would be derived from the entire Palestinian nation and from the relevant international declarations and U.N resolutions, which the United States and Israel are feverishly trying to render ineffective and superfluous. The Congress would be able to undo the negations of Madeleine Albright and voice an eloquent reply to her decree that the U.N resolutions are "contentious and obsolete." We may remind her now how does it feel to be obsolete Madam contentious.

Representatives of the Palestinian people from all walks of life, from the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, from the West Bank and Gaza, from Israel proper, the United States, Australia and elsewhere, would reaffirm their rights under these Resolutions. They would re-establish the right of a reconstituted P.L.O to resolve the refugees question with Israel. We (they) would declare in unison that we and not the hand-full of operatives who met in Oslo, Cairo, Taba and other such places have the right to claim and relinquish rights. It would be an experience that would initiate the process of redress, the process of real confidence building, democratization, and the process that can give a real voice to the voiceless. al-awda.org

No Return = No Peace March and Rally, New York City, 7 April 2001
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