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July 24, 2002
Palestinian right of return basic to peace

By Miriam Ward


Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” The legal concept of this inalienable and universal right of every human being dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215. The right of return is included in documents such as the Hague Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

U.N. Resolution 194 specifically refers to the right of return for Palestinians made refugees in 1947-48. It stated that the refugees were entitled to choose between compensation and return to their homes. The resolution was unanimously accepted within days after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in December 1948. Israel refused to abide by Resolution 194.

In the 1967 war, the numbers of refugees increased. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out, by force or intimidation, especially from areas near the Jordan River and near the Green Line (separating Israel from the West Bank).

Of all the issues to be addressed in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is the most basic. Jewish settlements, borders, water and the status of Jerusalem are crucial and certainly must be addressed. These problems, however, have tended to overshadow the fundamental issue -- the right of return. It is the root of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 led to the dispersion and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pledged to Bosnian refugees “you will go home again in safety and in freedom.” Four days later then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright vehemently proclaimed, “We must have peace on terms that will allow the people of Kosovo, with our help, to return to their homes and rebuild their communities, and we must have accounting for the wrongs that have been done.”

Why the silence when it is a question of Palestinian refugees? Unfortunately, specious arguments denying Palestinians this sacred right of return have been promulgated, pushing the question to the back burner.

The right of return does not depend on why Palestinians left in 1948. The right of return is the right of the Palestinian people, whether one accepts the findings of Erskine Childers that no evidence exists of Arab leaders urging Palestinians to flee; or those of recent Israeli historians (Benny Morris, Simha Flappan, Benjamin Beit- Hallahmi, Ilan Lappe) that Jewish terrorist groups were responsible for the expulsion of most Palestinians; or whether Palestinians did what any civilian population does in time of war -- flee, but with the intent of returning once the fighting ends.

The subsequent influx of Jews to Israel from Arab countries does not justify denial of the right of return to Palestinians. Repatriation of Jews to their original countries should be equally enforced if they wish to return. If they do not, there is no parallel with Palestinian refugees. Population transfers are either voluntary or forcible expulsions, the latter being inconsistent with international law. No people can be expected to accept forcible expulsion without a struggle.

The argument that Palestinians should be resettled in Arab lands is paternalistic and reflects the thinking of the apartheid era in South Africa. One must also consider two facts: The Palestinian refugees did not want to remain permanently in their host countries but wanted to return to their land; and with the exception of Jordan, Arab countries have not been forthcoming in extending citizenship to Palestinians.

Some say that the return of Palestinians is impractical and that it would displace and uproot Israelis. A study of the demography of Israel shows that 78 percent of Israelis are living in 14 percent of Israel. The remaining 86 percent of the land, on which 22 percent of Israelis live, is mostly land that belonged to the refugees. If the 2,400 refugees living on one square kilometer in a Gaza refugee camp were to return to their homes in southern Palestine, no more than five percent of Jews would be affected. If the refugees encamped in Lebanon returned to their homes in the Galilee, no more than one percent of Jews would be affected.

No one would expect Israel to take back all the Palestinian refugees overnight. The implementation of the return of Palestinians would take place over a period of years within the context of safeguards such as peace agreements between Israel and neighboring countries and with Palestinians themselves.

While the right of return is being denied Palestinians, the related issue of ethnic cleansing continues in the occupied territories. According to Amnesty International, 2,650 Palestinian homes were destroyed in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem between 1987 and 1999. In addition, thousands of acres of Palestinian land have been taken to build Jewish settlements.

For 52 years Palestinians, both those who fled or were driven out and those who remained in Israel and the occupied territories, have paid a heavy price. The current intifada, which began in September 2000, has claimed the lives of nearly 400 Palestinians and 13 Israeli Palestinians, with conservative estimates of 10,000 injured. Palestinians have endured the loss of homes, land and livelihood since the peace process began in 1993. The psychic damage to thousands of Palestinian families, especially children, is catastrophic, and is well documented by Dr. Eyad Sarraj of Gaza, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

We must remind ourselves that the Palestinian problem did not start with the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan. The sad history of a brutal occupation and the popular revolt against it, beginning in 1987 through 1993 and renewed in September, are the tragic results of ignoring the original most basic issue of the dispossession and dispersion of the Palestinian people in 1948. For them this date is their nakba -- their catastrophe.

The principle of return must be applied to Palestinians. Not all will want to return, and those whose homes were in the 400 villages destroyed by Israel will have no home to return to, but restorative justice must by upheld. They should receive compensation for lost property and damage to their lives. Compensation must be borne by Israel, just as Germany has been compensating Israel, over a period of time.

An international body should devise a plan that is moral, just and practical and achieved through participation of Israelis and Palestinians. The other issues follow: borders, settlements, water and the status of Jerusalem. Naive? For one who has been an eyewitness over the past 30 years, the choice is clear. Face up to the foundational issue or there will be continued heartache and bloodshed.

Sister of Mercy Miriam Ward is co-founder of Pax Christi Burlington in Vermont. She has led some 27 study tours to biblical lands and has studied in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Her e-mail address is mward@trinityvt.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001

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