Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2003
Issue No. 651
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Inalienable and sacred

Salman Abu Sitta* refutes efforts and surveys that undermine the Palestinian right of return

For the Palestinians, the right of return to their pre-1948 homes is sacred. For the international community, the right of return is enshrined in international law, as evidenced by the sustained affirmation of this right by the UN 135 times so far. For planners, the implementation of the right of return is quite feasible according to serious and unchallenged studies in the last decade.

Who then undermines the right of return? Israel, of course, and its supporters.

One of the basic tenets of Zionism involves taking the land of Palestine and getting rid of its people. This tenet was realised by all possible means: expulsion, massacres, closures, house demolitions, starvation, harassment and other means made possible by the great imbalance of power between the occupier and the occupied. This is called "ethnic cleansing" in modern parlance and in the language of the Statute of Rome of July 1998 which gave birth to the International Criminal Court.

Ethnic cleansing, that is expelling inhabitants from their homes, is a war crime. To prevent these once slighted inhabitants from return, no matter what the reason for their exodus, is also a war crime. That is why international law is very clear and specific on this point. It is no accident that article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN on 10 December 1948, stipulates that every person has the right to return to his home. It is also no accident that on the following day, 11 December, the UN passed the famous resolution 194, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

This posed a serious problem for Israel: fighting against this solid body of international law. For Israel, there was an additional problem. Israel's admission to the UN as a member state was conditional upon its compliance with two UN resolutions: (1) accepting a full fledged Palestinian sovereign state according to resolution 181 (Partition of Palestine), and (2) accepting the return of the refugees to "their homes" according to resolution 194.

The two conditions are both applicable separately and there could be no substitution of one for the other. Establishing a state is a sovereign act applicable to a particular territory and its inhabitants. In general, the return of refugees is an inalienable right held by any and all refugees that entitles them to return at any time to their homes, whatever sovereignty applies to the locality of these homes. The right of return can never be diminished by passage of time or by any treaty, unless and until each individual refugee agrees to willingly forfeit his right under no duress. That is the crux of the matter. That is what made Israel try so desperately since 1948 to penetrate this bedrock of international law.

In the last five decades, Israel and its supporters advanced over three dozen schemes to resettle Palestinian refugees anywhere in the world except their homes. Western emissaries came and went, threatening and bribing neighbouring states through water schemes, joint projects, financial aid or through the political rhetoric of branding them as extremist, terrorist-harbouring states or calling them a threat to world peace.

All this failed. So did five wars and innumerable Israeli raids. Millions of Arabs became destitute; hundreds of thousands were wounded, imprisoned or saw their lives shatter; tens of thousands lost their lives. Despite this hardship none of the Palestinian refugees accepted the injustice of rights deprivation. None forfeited their rights.

Then came Oslo, with the false promise of peace. Peace to Israelis means "security". Their kind of "security" means that the victims recognise the legality of what was stolen and plundered, declare the acceptance of occupation as legitimate and forgive all previous and current war crimes. Peace to the Palestinians means restoration of their rights usurped by brute force as well as insistence on application of international law. It is no wonder that the promise of peace was soon found to be a big disappointment.


Click to view caption
Palestinian refugees cross the Allenby Bridge into East Jordan from the Israeli-Occupied West Bank in 1968
Oslo has also produced another growth: probably hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the West Bank and Gaza financed by the West, particularly by the European Union. Their aim is to facilitate Palestinian social and economic development. The majority have performed good and imperative services, especially during the particularly destructive periods of the Israeli Occupation. But there are a minority who have another agenda. The condition for their financial aid is that they do not address Palestinian rights in what is today Israel; they can only deal with and advocate a policy of "realism", i.e. accepting the status quo. By definition, this contributed to efforts aimed at undermining international law by casting doubts on its applicability and discouraging the Palestinians from demanding its application.

The target of this effort is the Palestinian individual, for it is only he who can forfeit his right. Prestigious Western institutions financed seminars, workshops and the like and invited selected Palestinian individuals who are on the margin of political life. The idea was to create out of these individuals an image of a "moderate" stance which stands in contrast with those "extremists" who demand the application of international law. Some institutions changed course when they realised that mainstream opinion among the refugees opposes such an ideological terminology and the suspension of rights guaranteed under international law.

The fact remains that there are few Palestinians, probably less than a dozen, who are given prominence in the Western media and audience in diplomatic circles and who are generously funded. They conduct campaigns or surveys under the name of peace and political realism, which, in the final analysis, helps only Israel and its supporters. Absolutely none of them dare to tell the Palestinian refugees publicly in Arabic what they whisper in the ears of the Western diplomats in English or in Hebrew. The danger posed by these misguided efforts is that they feed the West with false information, almost in the same way the exiled Iraqi National Congress misled Western governments. We know the embarrassment and scandals which arose from that.

Take the case of Sari Nusseibeh who was thrust in the limelight because he forged an alliance with Ami Ayalon, the former director of the notorious Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security organisation that has been responsible for the torture and killing of Palestinian prisoners. Nusseibeh calls for dropping the right of return in favour of a dubious formulation of some entity to be called the "Palestinian State". The fallacy of this argument is clear. It only serves to undermine international law.

One wonders how a man like Nusseibeh fails not to be repulsed by the thought that his ally, Ayalon, invites him to "his" home which is in fact the stolen home of a refugee from Ijzim near Haifa. He was equally not moved when his host showed him a fig tree planted by the same now- refugee owner of the stolen house. Nusseibeh is not moved either when he is fêted at the Tel Aviv University Club in what was once the house of the Mukhtar of Shaikh Muannis village.

Yet Nusseibeh diligently holds campaigns and collects signatures to promote ideas which will never move the Israelis to restore rights and will only harm the Palestinian cause.

Then there is the case of Khalil Shikaki. He rose from oblivion to the prominence of a fancy office in Ramallah by churning out custom-made surveys under imputed professional objectivity. He too is not moved by the fact that his father and brother are still refugees in the foresaken Rafah refugee camp, nor by the fact that the Israelis with whom he dines were the determined killers of his own brother, Fathi.

His recent survey caused an uproar among the refugees and a won wide acclaim in the West.

The survey claims to serve the Taba negotiations which offer five options to the refugees: one option entitles a tiny number to return to their homes under strict conditions and many disincentives and the four other options lead to the perpetuation of ethnic cleansing, i.e. getting rid of the refugees by settling them anywhere other than their homes. Naturally, those options are accompanied by clear or implied incentives.

Shikaki's findings suggest that only ten per cent of Palestinian refugees wish to return to their homes in what is now Israel and only one per cent wish to take Israeli citizenship upon return to their homes. There are, however, many critical problems with the survey, which posed a series of questions that preclude objective results.

Take section Q4, concerning those who want to recover their right to return home. The respondent is asked if he wishes to take only Israeli citizenship. If not, the options are to remain a refugee and accept compensation. Imagine asking that of a refugee whose life has been shattered by the kind of Israel that exists today. He was not asked to return to a democratic state as stipulated in resolution 181. He was not asked if the racist laws of Israel should be repealed. He was not asked if Israel's war criminals were to be tried before he returned. Another provocative question asks the respondent if he accepts national service in Israel, i.e. serving in the Israeli army, a fantastic leap into surrealism. The question ignores the fact that the Palestinians, who are now citizens of Israel, do not, and are not required to, serve in the Israeli army. If the refugee does not accept a hypothetical service in the Israeli military the only option is that he is doomed to remain a refugee with or without compensation.

Then there is the question, if you find your house destroyed or your land confiscated, do you refuse to return and remain a refugee with or without compensation? It is unbelievable to imagine that demolition or confiscation could be an impediment to a Palestinian. The Palestinian population has increased more than sixfold since 1948 and it is natural that it would have to build many more houses, whether its old houses remained or not, as it actually has done in Beirut, Amman and Kuwait. The composer of the survey was probably unaware or uninterested in creating a survey question related to the very real cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, when all confiscated land was returned, or the case of Jewish property in Europe which was restored by the World Jewish Restitution Organisation. The effect is to alienate the respondant from considering that the exercise of his rights have a precedent in international practice.

In general, the survey suffered from two major defects. First, as it purposefully questions an inalienable right it is an ill-intentioned survey. Second, the survey is methodologically unsound and professionally unethical by leading respondents to a pre-determined path. There are even doubts that the survey was ever carried out at all in Lebanon and Jordan, at least in a credible manner, since Palestinian refugees' NGOs never noticed its execution. In an indignant response, 95 refugee societies and groups in Lebanon denounced the survey in a published statement on 22 July. In Jordan, the Committee for the Defence of the right of return, which has representation for all political parties and in all refugee camps, never heard of the survey and naturally denounced it. Shikaki responded by saying that NGOs are not academically qualified to undertake such survey. It is strange to say that about many NGOs that have produced serious and highly respected studies for years. The real explanation may lie in the fact that the selected sample is highly marginal and was probably secretly paid to "sit" for the questionnaire in secret.

The reaction to the survey was predictable. To begin with refugees stormed Shikaki's office and threw rotten eggs at him. Israeli and American headlines screamed "Only 10 per cent of the refugees wish to return", says an "eminent" pollster.

Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, along with David Mack, jumped on the idea and suggested that, since so few would return, the refugee issue could be resolved by inviting the international community (not Israel) to "help fund the permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees either in the new state of Palestine or in third countries". In exchange, the US would pay to resettle in Israel 200,000 illegal Jewish settlers now in 1967- Occupied Palestine.

As Casey P Reilly of the Palestine Centre in Washington noted, "Clearly the assault on Shikaki and his office demonstrates that many refugees will go to any length to defend their rights.... But the widespread ignorant and de- contextualised manipulation of the data only shows that those Zionists, whose prejudices have always militated against allowing Palestinians to return home, are eager to make fools of themselves. They have convinced each other that what they have wanted all along is really exactly what the victims of their hatred and prejudice want too."

Shikaki himself played differently to two audiences. He told Al-Jazeera on 19 July 2003 that over 90 per cent of the refugees insist on the right of return and that his survey was designed to "serve" the Palestinian negotiators. One wonders how? His survey in fact serves to undermine their position if they demand the right of return.

Shikaki told his audience in the US a different story. He told the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Council on Foreign Relations that the right of return is not a big issue in practical terms.

A self-hating Arab like Fouad Ajami has ready access to the US public through the iron curtain of the US media, notorious for its allergy to any criticism of Israeli racist policies or to any clear and factual promotion of the Palestinians' rights. It is no surprise therefore that US newspapers and TV shows welcome Nusseibeh and Shikaki's articles and views. Here are the good "moderate" Palestinians ready to shed their principles and rights to accommodate Israel. Of course, no mention is made of the rigid and intransigent Zionist doctrine which has never, over a century, renounced its policy of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians.

How else can one explain that the Wall Street Journal, which has rarely said a good word about the Palestinians, opened its pages to Shikaki. On 30 July 2003, that influential daily published a piece by Shikaki on something he does not believe in, "The right of return".

In the first paragraph Shikaki comes out with the false conclusion that the two-state solution has "logically advocated a division of the people with some becoming Israeli and others Palestinian". What nonsense! The tenuous legal foundation on which Israel based its declaration of "independence" is the Partition Plan of 1947 (UN resolution 181). In chapters two and three this resolution clearly stipulates the protection of the civil, religious and political rights of the Palestinians in the new Israel and the Jews in the new Palestine. Because the Jewish occupants of British Mandatory Palestine were a minority, the new Israel had almost 50 per cent of its population Palestinian, while the new Palestine had almost no Jews. Neither the UN nor international law would ever tolerate, let alone recommend, an ethno-religious racist state to be established under its patronage.

Shikaki rails at "the Arab countries that did little or nothing about the terrible refugee suffering of more than 50 years", the very same Arab countries he now expects to help Israel by settling the refugees permanently on their land. Why would he expect these states to settle these refugees? To preserve the "Jewish character" of Israel! He does not tell us what is meant by this "Jewish character" of Israel. If it is to maintain a Jewish majority forever, this is a pipe dream. Apart from the fact that the Palestinians today make up about half the population of historic Palestine, the Palestinian citizens of Israel will be a majority in 40 years. Those who accept the traditional meaning of the "Jewish character" are giving a licence to Israel to commit another Nakba, or even genocide, against the Palestinians any moment that Israel decides that the "Jewish character" is threatened.

The international community is against this notion of "Jewish character". It severely criticised it repeatedly. In May 2003, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in paragraph 18 of its Concluding Observations, censured this notion as discriminatory.

With such generous funds allocated for surveys like Shikaki's, not one report has been devoted to the absorptive capacity of Israel to receive the rightful owners of the stolen homes and lands, as was done in Bosnia and Kosovo, or to identify and repeal the racist laws of Israel. Indeed, I have not seen any serious work by Nusseibeh or Shikaki to indicate any credible knowledge of Palestine before 1948 or Israel. This type of work does not generate lucrative income. Those NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza who strayed into the forbidden territory of examining critical issues regarding the right of return had their funds withdrawn.

The fat funds are reserved for those prepared to disavow their rights, sell their land and heritage for Judas's 30 pieces of silver and abandon their kith and kin, those five million refugees afflicted with "this unhealthy obsession with idealised rights", in Shikaki's words.

All such lucrative and highly-discredited efforts aim to succeed where Israel has failed in the last five decades. The aim is to bring the refugees to despair, forfeit their rights and lay to waste their half-century of sacrifices and determination. Meanwhile, Israel would end up with a huge chunk of real estate free of charge, with owners giving it the seal of legitimacy. The expelled inhabitants of 530 towns and villages will be doomed to exile forever.

But this will never happen. A succession of refugee conferences were held in the last two months and will continue in the near future. The latest was a conference held in mid-July in London in which 300 Palestinian participants came from 14 European countries to affirm their right to return home. This gathering refutes the assumption that the refugees only want shelter, food and legal papers and willingly accept settlement elsewhere. The right of return remains sacred, legal and possible. The refugees are determined to make it happen, however long it takes.

* The writer is president of the London-based Palestine Land Society.

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