Palestinian Refugees Must Be Allowed to Choose - Middle East: Israel's rejection
of the right of return goes against
Source: Los Angeles
Times, Thursday, August 10th, 2000.
by Elia Zureik
In 1948, 800,000 Palestinians were
expelled or fled out of fear from their homes in what is now Israel,
and they never have been allowed to return. Today, these refugees
and their descendants number more than 4 million. More than any
other factor, the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian
refugees have fueled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And more
than any other factor, their fate is the key to its resolution.
At the Camp David summit, Palestinian and Israeli
negotiators overcame an important
barrier by discussing the Palestinian refugees seriously for the
first time, but they remain sharply divided on the issue. As before,
Israeli officials maintain that the creation of the Palestinian
refugee problem had nothing to do with Israeli policies and practices.
They claim instead that the Palestinian exodus was prompted by
calls from Arab leaders for Palestinians to flee--or simply by
the tragedy of war--even though substantial evidence from recently
declassified official Israeli sources reveals premeditated plans
to expel and transfer indigenous Palestinians across the borders
into other Arab states.
Even were we to assume that the
Palestinian exodus was caused by the unintended consequences of
war, it is still hard to see how this justifies Israel's continued
prevention of the refugees' return. There are numerous examples
of peoples who were displaced during war but permitted to return
to their homes once peace was established, most recently in the
Balkan wars. That is what refugee law prescribes, and that is the
solution initially proposed by the United Nations in 1948 and reaffirmed
more than 100 times since.
Israel's rejection of the right
of return simply has no basis in international law or practice.
The refusal to allow the return of the refugees has a deeper ideological
basis: Israel wants to preserve a Jewish majority. Allowing Palestinian
refugees to return might disturb Israel's "fragile demographic
balance" or "change the character" of the state, to use the euphemisms
of the day. Accordingly, what is--under any standard--a form of
ethnic cleansing is defended by Israelis as a means of national
Notwithstanding the international
trend toward increased mobility and pluralism and the increasing
diversity in Israeli society itself--in part a result of the influx
of many immigrants from the former Soviet Union--Israel continues
to conceive of itself as a state for only the Jewish people.
But what of the Palestinian refugees?
They are no less attached to the land of their forbears than their
Jewish neighbors. United Nations data show that among the former
Palestinian residents of West Jerusalem who became refugees in
1948, two-thirds still live nearby, either in East Jerusalem or
in adjacent towns. Many of them can see their old neighborhoods
in the distance; a few lucky ones granted permits to enter Israel
can even pass by their old homes. But they are barred from returning
and reclaiming their property.
Refugees farther away in Lebanon,
Syria and other countries must rely only on their memories--or,
for the younger generations raised in filthy, overcrowded refugee
camps, their imagination. I recently read an interview with an
elderly Palestinian woman living in the Ein el Hilwa camp in Lebanon.
Tightly gripping the rusted key to her family's farm near Jaffa,
she asked her interviewer how she should explain to her grandchildren,
who had known only the stench of the camp's open sewers, what it
was like to wake up to the scent of fresh lemons.
These refugees must have felt especially
embittered to watch Israel admit 6,000 Lebanese affiliated with
the South Lebanese Army as a reward for their collaboration during
Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon, while Israel has declined
to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes.
The Palestinian refugees did not
choose their past; it was forced on them. If there is to be peace,
however, they must choose their future. This simple idea is the
essence of the Palestinian position on refugees in the ongoing
negotiations with Israel.
For the right of return to have
any meaning, each Palestinian refugee must be given a free choice
about where to live. A sizable number probably will choose not
to return to their homes in Israel, particularly if they are given
the opportunity to settle elsewhere or to improve their quality
Many are established in other countries
and would prefer to remain in them. But the choice must be theirs
and theirs alone.
Elia Zureik , a Professor of Sociology at Queen's
University, Kingston, Canada, Advises the Palestine Liberation
Organization on Refugee Issues.