Last week, the Palestinian right of return made a special news appearance. For some time, the issue has been a sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Refusal to budge on the right has been the cornerstone of any Palestinian position. Refusal to recognize it has been at the heart of any Israeli policy. Since 1993, it has been perhaps the most contentious issue, the one on which Palestinians and Israelis, even in their respective publics, are diametrically opposed. It was one of the few things we could actually agree to never agree upon. That symmetric status quo was where we always found ourselves. Until this week.
But before I get to the somewhat controversial words of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, let me briefly outline where the right of return comes from.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all United Nations member states on December 10, 1948, including Israel, states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” General Assembly Resolution 194, passed by the UN the very next day, read that Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their homes should be able to do so, adding that those who did not should be compensated justly. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, affirming the necessity for “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” In 1974, following a speech by Yasser Arafat, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3236, which “reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.” Finally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Israel in 1991, states, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”
Wow, that’s a lot of international law and declarations. One would imagine that Israel, with her wealth of great legal minds and allies, must have a well thought out, deliberate, and logical response to all of that. Well, one should not hope too enthusiastically. Israel’s response is, basically, “Well, regardless of all of that legal stuff, we just don’t wanna do it. It would kind of mess up what we’ve built over here.”
See, we Palestinians have gotten pretty tired of complaining about how international law should be protecting us. As long as the Israelis live in an alternate reality, such logical arguments don’t get us very far.
Israel has summarily disregarded any sort of rights for Palestinian refugees since 1948. She has even gone as far as to create bizarre conditions, disallowing Palestinian citizens of Israel to reclaim their properties, even if they were only gone for a short time during the events of 1948, even if they could prove ownership, and even if they still live right down the street. Israel said these persons were “absent.” Then these persons showed up shortly after being expelled from their homes, thus making them “present.” Israel then gave them the befuddling title of “present absentees.” The UN refers to them as “internally displaced.” So, we Palestinians are absent, present, internal, and displaced, all at the same time. Forgive us if we sometimes seem a bit confused.
Israel argues over the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. But she also argues over the right of return of Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. But why would Israel quarrel over the rights of refugees to return to a state she would have no sovereignty over? The answer is simple. It is because Israel has no intention of allowing any sort of Palestinian state to ever be established. As far as she is concerned, the whole of Palestine should be emptied of all Palestinians.
Finally, let us realize the most important aspect of the right of return. At its essence, the right of return is not one that can be negotiated away. It does not belong to the Palestinians collectively. Rather, it belongs individually to each of the almost 5 million registered Palestinian refugees walking the earth today.
And now I turn to Abbas. Last week, the Palestinian president told a group of 300 Israeli students visiting Ramallah, “We are not seeking to drown Israel with millions of refugees to change its structure.” This was taken by many as a sign of Abbas’ willingness to ease up on the right of return in negotiations with Israel. To those of us who have been keeping a close eye on Abbas, including his unwillingness to hold presidential elections for some time, his words came as no surprise. As a refugee himself, the Palestinian president is entitled to the same right as any of his brethren: to return to his home or to be justly compensated. It seems that he has chosen the latter.