The Right of Return: Sacred, Legal, Possible. The Palestinian Refugees

The Right of Return: Sacred, Legal, Possible. The Palestinian Refugees
It is often said that history repeats itself. I believe it does not. It simply accumulates unfinished business, piles up debts and stacks up fortunes and misfortunes. Then there comes a day when all these accounts have to be settled. Look at our departing 20th Century. We have seen the retreat of evils imposed by man on man, such as the fading away of colonialism, the disappearance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, the collapse of communism, the unceremonious departure of apartheid, the steady but sure decline of racism – from the time when Martin Luther King could not get a hamburger on a lunch-counter until Nelson Mandela became a world leader hosted by big and small countries alike.


And yet the only people in this century, who have been subjected to all these evils combined, continue to suffer, continue to resist and continue to defy all odds to attain their basic human rights. The Palestinians have endured five major wars, innumerable raids and attacks, coup d’etats and removal of rulers in all countries adjacent to Palestine. They have suffered a life of misery, destitution, occupation and oppression. Yet they have not disappeared. They have not given up. Still, they have not recovered their rights nor restored their homes. Today, there are about 8 million Palestinians world-wide. Five million of them, or two thirds, are refugees uprooted from their homes. The peace process initiated in Oslo deals only with the 1 million people, who are the original inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank. Other Palestinians (87%), including all five million refugees, derive no benefit from the Oslo Agreement and are not likely to do so in the future. How can one think that there can be a global and final peace without taking account of the most basic rights of at least 5 million refugees?The topic I am about to discuss before you today is the right of return of the Palestinian people to their land, and the feasibility of achieving this objective with minimum effect on the existing population. I shall try, using facts and figures not emotions, to show that the Right of Return is not only sacred and legal and but possible too.The uprooting of whole people from their homes in Palestine in 1948 by a carefully executed and externally supported plan is unprecedented in modern history. This is what we call Al Nakba (the Catastrophe). Its dimensions are staggering. The inhabitants of 531 towns and villages were forcibly evicted from their homes by the Zionist forces in 1948. They represented 85% of the people in the land that became Israel. Their land, which represents 92% of Israel today, has been confiscated and administered by Israel Land Administration. Their property and their heritage have been given free for all: Russians, Ethiopians and other people as diverse as passengers in a busy transit lounge. Provided such diverse people are Jews, they were instantly welcomed to the very same homes from which the rightful owners were expelled and to which they continue to be denied the right to return.Where are the Palestinians today?
Of the total 8 million Palestinians, about 3.6 million (46%) now live within the Mandate Palestine boundaries (i.e. Israel, West Bank and Gaza), 3.3 million (42%) live in bordering Arab Countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria), and about 1.0 million (12%) live in other Arab and foreign countries. Thus, 88% of Palestinians world-wide live in or adjacent to Palestine. Today there are 4.9 million Palestinian refugees. Of those, 3.6 million are registered with UNRWA. The rest, 1.3 million, are self-supporting non-registered refugees. Thus, two thirds of all Palestinians are refugees.What is their Land?
In 1948, the land area under Jewish control was 1,682 sq. km or 8% of Israel today. The land area of Palestinian villages remaining in Israel is 1, 474 sq.km or 7% of Israel. Two thirds of their land is now confiscated by Israel. The remainder of Israel’s area, which is 17,166 sq.km, or 85% of Israel, is the property of the expelled refugees. It has all been confiscated by Israel. Thus, fully 92% of Israel’s area is Palestinian land.How could such a massive catastrophe have happened? The refugees told stories of massacres, expulsion and eviction over and over again. The West refused to believe them and preferred to believe the heroic story of David against Goliath or little Israel fighting 7 huge Arab armies. It is a crying shame that it is now left to the Israeli historians to demolish this myth and to tell the West that what the refugees always said was true.

Most of the heinous crimes of “ethnic cleansing”, which we have seen on our TV screens during the Kosovo crisis, have been committed in 1948. About 34 massacres have been reported during the Al Nakba, all part of the Israeli military campaign. Many more are still yet uncovered. The pattern is clear. Villages are surrounded from all sides except one, leaving the way open for escapees to spread the horror stories. Young men are shot against a wall, thrown in a well or burnt alive. Their houses are burnt and later demolished. Even bacteriological warfare was used by poisoning wells and infecting drinking water with malaria and typhus. That was the case in Gaza in the summer of 1948 as Ben Gurion admitted in his diary. Evidence is overwhelming that the depopulation of Palestinian land, hence the creation of the so-called “refugee problem”, is the direct result of a total war waged against the Palestinians by the Israelis during and after the British mandate, using military and psychological means. In brief, they wanted the land, not the people. They wanted a fulfilment of the myth that Palestine was a “land without people”.

In the years of agony that followed Al Nakba in 1948 there was not a single, more basic or stronger driving force for the Palestinians than their quest for their right of return. There are three aspects to the Right of Return which makes it compelling and inevitable. It is sacred, legal and possible.

First, the will and determination of the Palestinians. To them, the Right of Return is sacred. In spite of being dismembered and dispersed in the four corners of the earth, Palestinians continue to maintain a monolithic structure, based on the family and the village. They intermarry across countries on a family or a neighbourhood basis. A grandchild of a 1948 refugee identifies himself as belonging to his original village. On the national level, societies or syndicates for professions, trades, women, students, creative artists and others, representing the Palestinian people, are functioning in many countries. That was the raison d’être of the PLO. It was basically a refugees’ organisation.

Second, the Right of Return has a solid legal basis. To begin with, neither the Balfour Declaration of 1917, nor the UN Partition Plan of 1947 is binding on the Palestinians. They were not a party to them. None of these can grant them any new rights or deprive them of their basic rights.

In recognition of the rights of the Palestinians, the United Nations adopted Resolution 194 on December 11, 1948. Paragraph 11 states:

“(The General Assembly)… resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of, or damage to, property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible”.

This Resolution was affirmed over 110 times since 1948. It represents the universal, sustained and unwavering will of the international community. The exception is, of course, Israel and the US since 1994.

Some notes on this Resolution may be in order. The refugees should return “at the earliest practicable date”, which is the cessation of hostilities, i.e. in the period from February 1949 upon signing of the Armistice Agreement with Egypt, to July 1949 upon signing it with Syria. The delay of the refugees’ return from this date is a continuous violation of the Right of Return. The liability for this violation and its consequences rest with the Israelis.

Those who choose to return are also entitled to compensation for “loss of and damage to their property” whether gardens, houses, shops or personal belongings. Restitution of their land, homes and property (restoration to original owners) should be made and it is what the refugees are demanding. Thus, they have the Right of Return plus compensation. Those who do not wish to return are entitled to compensation for their land as well as their other property and the damages they have suffered. The short reference to the Right of Return as “return or compensation” is therefore misleading. The compensation includes the exploitation of their property for 51 years, and the anguish they have suffered for this period, in accordance with the procedures adopted in the case of Nazi victims, and as accepted by the Compensation Law articulated by the UN for a number of cases. War Crimes are dealt with by the UN in a separate, well-developed body of law, starting from Nuremberg Principles in 1946 and ending with the Statute of Rome in 1998.

The liability for compensation extends to “the governments or authorities responsible”. These include the Provisional Government of Israel in 1948, the consecutive Governments of Israel, the Jewish Agency, the Haganah, the Irgun and Stern gangs, the Jewish National Fund and others in Israel and abroad.

The Right of Return does not derive its validity merely from UN Resolutions. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right of every individual to leave and return to his country. The Right of Return to one’s home is so basic that it has been stated in Magna Carta (Ch. 42) in 1215. The Geneva Civilian Convention of 1949 prohibits “individual or mass forcible transfers … regardless of motive”. There is a growing body of international, regional and national legislation, which affirms the right of return. The Right of Return is affirmed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In fact the Human Rights Law has superseded local laws in Europe if they were at variance with it.

A state, such as Israel, which declares its sovereignty on parts of Palestine, cannot deny the inhabitants of that country their nationality and domicile. Such a state has an obligation to offer these inhabitants the nationality and protection afforded by it to its own chosen citizens without discrimination on the basis of religion or any other consideration. In international law, sovereignty dictates that land and people go together. You cannot wipe out the people and keep the land.

The Principle of Self-Determination guarantees, inter alia, the right of ownership and domicile in one’s own country. This principle was adopted by the UN in 1947. In 1969 and thereafter, it was explicitly applied to the Palestinian People, including “the legality of the Peoples’ struggle for Self-Determination and Liberation”. Resolution 3236 adopted by the UN on November 22, 1974 is “one of the most fundamental actions” taken by this international body to reaffirm “the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted and calls for their return”.

Last but not least, the Right of Return derives its strength from the sanctity of private ownership which cannot be extinguished by new sovereignty or occupation and does not have a statute of limitation. In this sense the Right of Return cannot be delegated to a national authority or bargained away in a political deal or treaty. All actions, laws or agreements which diminish the individual’s rights, other than those surrendered by the individual himself, are null and void. My advice to cornered leaders therefore is: ‘watch out, no backroom deals. These will not work in law and in fact’.

We come now to the third aspect of the Right of Return. With such overwhelming support of law for the Right of Return, we hear voices, well intentioned or self-serving perhaps that exclaim: but is the return of the refugees feasible? They say “that Palestinian towns and villages … have disappeared… (and) … it would be difficult to re-establish these former sites”.

The claim that it is not possible to re-establish former sites is factually erroneous. There is no land better documented than Palestine. In the period 1920-1947, the Survey of Palestine produced detailed maps for the whole of Palestine. The land area and ownership of each town and village are recorded on maps and government registers. In 1964, the UN prepared ownership records for 500,000 owners describing the area and location of each property. After the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948, these very same maps, with their Arabic names erased and replaced by Hebrew names, were used by Israel. The Israel Land Administration, which leases Palestinian land to Jews, has complete records of every plot of land. Today advanced technology such as the satellite mapping system makes the retrieval and comparison of old and new data quite feasible and accurate.

Then comes the question: where would the Palestinians return to? What is to be done with all those multi-national immigrants who were brought to Israel to live in Palestinian homes? The answer lies in examining Israel’s demography.

Demographic analysis of Israel shows that the concentration of Jews today is largely in and around pre-1948 Jewish land and that the expropriated Palestinian land is still sparsely populated. As surprising as this may seem, serious research proves this point. Let me explain a bit further. For this purpose, let us divide Israel into 3 areas.

68% of the Jewish population in Israel live in an area of 1,628 sq. km. (8% of Israel). Let us call this area A. Just to remind you, this area is almost the same area in which Jews lived in pre-1948 Palestine.

Another 10% of the Jews live together with 20% of the Palestinians in Israel in an area of approximately 1,500 sq. km. (7% of Israel). Again for the purpose of our discussion, let’s call this Area B. This mixed area is almost the same in size as the land of the Palestinians remaining in Israel. Thus the undisputed fact is that about 80% of the Jews in Israel live in 15% of Israel.

The remaining part, which we shall call Area C, has a total area of 17,325 sq. km. and is essentially the land of the 4.9 million Palestinian refugees. Apart from a few urban centres (mostly Palestinian towns originally) in which urban Jews live, only 200,000 rural Jews control and exploit this vast Palestinian land.

The striking fact is that this small number of rural Jews who confiscated the heritage of about 5 million Palestinians is almost the same as the number of settlers in the West Bank.

The irony is that those rural Jews are the residents of the Kibbutz, which is now ideologically outdated and economically bankrupt. The image of Kibbutz pioneer, the picture of the Israeli fighter, slinging his gun on his shoulder and driving his tractor into the sunset, is dying out. There are constant desertions from the Kibbutz. Almost three-quarters of the Kibbutz are loaded with debts and unable to survive. Most of you have read about the tragic conditions in Gaza Strip where over one million people live in a tiny stretch of land at a density of over 4,000 persons per sq. km. Across the barbed wire they can look at their empty land controlled by the Kibbutz at a density of a mere 3 persons/sq. km. Why can’t the refugees return home?

Let me test two scenarios which, in my opinion, can diffuse two volatile dynamites in the Middle East. The subject is vitally important, so please bear with me as I roll out some figures. The first scenario is the return of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This is most worrying and is now constantly in the news because of their depressing working and living conditions. The second scenario is the return of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, where over one million people are crammed in 360 sq. km. with no hope of a future. Although the entire issue of the refugees must be resolved, these two explosive situations must be addressed without delay.

If Lebanon refugees return to their homes in Galilee and elsewhere, the impact would be hardly felt by the Israelis. The density of the whole new population would only increase by 1% in Jewish Area A, 6% in mixed Area B, and by 17% in Area C to which most of the refugees would return. The much-tooted concern for Jewish majority would not be warranted. They would remain above 50% even in areas when Jewish concentration is the lowest. The Jews who may barely feel the effect of the return are those few rural Jews who lease refugee’s land. Of course, the urban Jews will continue to live and flourish in towns.

While Lebanon refugees could return to a largely Arab territory in Israel, with minimum effect on the Jews, the Gaza refugees would return to an almost totally empty land. As I said before,, the rural Jews who exploit their land are spread at a density of 3 persons/sq. km. The density of population in Gaza is one thousand times more. According to Israeli statistics, there are few Jews – barely 60,000 – rural Jews in the southern half of Israel in an area of 14,000 sq. km. In addition, there are 553,000 urban Jews, two-thirds of whom live in 3 Palestinian towns (Beer Sheba, Ashdod and Majdal-Ashqelon) and another 24% live in 3 new towns. These urban Jews are engaged in industry, education and services. The return of the refugees would be of benefit to those Jews and vice versa, and as such, would be a positive element. After the return of Gaza refugees, the density of the total population in Israel would increase by only 6% in Area A, 5% in Area B and 32% in Area C to which the refugees return. Once again as in the case of Lebanon refugees, the Jews would still be over 50% in Area C where they are least in number.

One of the painful twists of history is that the number of Gaza and Lebanon refugees, who have been denied the right to return home, is almost exactly the same as the number of Russian immigrants that have been freely admitted to Israel throughout this decade. While the return of the refugees will bring peace and stability to the Middle East, the Russian immigration is a cause of tension in Israel itself and, as studies have shown, could trigger a new major conflict about water.

If the Right of Return is implemented and Palestinians return to their homes, hardly any infringement on the Jews’ Lebensraum (living space) would occur. The Palestinians, mostly farmers, would return to their fields which they had tilled for centuries. Their efforts would compensate for the drop in Israel’s agricultural production from 11% of GNP (1950) to only 3.5% (1993). Already the farmers in Gaza, in spite of being deprived of economic support and of water supply, produce superior and cheaper agricultural products.

The Israelis claim that, if the refugees were to return, Israel would lose its Jewish character. There is no place, or a future, in the civilised world for a state that is based on such exclusivity. Israel must choose between being a Jewish or a democratic state. It cannot claim to be both. In the words of a noted jurist, “The Jewish character is really a euphemism for the Zionist discriminatory statutes of the State of Israel which violate the human rights provisions… The UN is under no more of a legal obligation to maintain Zionism in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in the Republic of South Africa”.

The Palestinians have no obligation to the Israelis to lose their homes and identity and continue to suffer in the Diaspora, in order to provide the Jews with a second home. The last 50 years showed clearly that it was the Palestinians who had no home except in Palestine, while only 4 million Jews out of 12 chose to live in Israel. On the contrary, the Israelis have an obligation to the Palestinians, which must be fulfilled, to account for their dispossession and the crimes committed against them. The Right of Return to the Palestinians is a dire necessity. To the Jews, it is an option, a luxury.

The notion of maintaining Jewish supremacy is also short sighted and impractical. The Palestinians today constitute 45% of the total population in historic Palestine, between the river and the sea, and the Jews 55%. It is only a question of time when the Palestinians attain a majority regardless of how many Jews continue to immigrate to Israel. Their immigration will sooner or later dry up. What then would Israel do? Continue to maintain the only remaining apartheid system? It is absolutely clear that the denial of the refugees’ right to return home in order to maintain the Jewish ‘purity’ of Israel is immoral, illegal and simply impractical.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
We all are painfully aware of the trail of blood and destruction initiated 82 years ago by the ill-fated Balfour Declaration. In that Declaration, those who did not own promised those who did not deserve, to inherit the homes of those who did not know.

In this House, 76 years ago, in July 1923, 110 members of the House of Commons submitted a petition to the cabinet to reverse the folly of the Balfour declaration. In it they urged that “the whole population of Palestine, with its 93 percent Arabs, should be consulted and a form of government agreed upon in harmony with their wishes”. It continued to say “To impose on an unwilling people the Dominating Influence of another race is a violation of human rights”, condemned in the covenant of the League of Nations.

But the ardent Zionists in the Middle East Department, such as Shuckburgh, Ormsby-Gore and the notorious Meinertzhagen, carried the day. The result was 80 years of bloodshed, half a dozen wars, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, millions of innocent people made homeless, five countries occupied and all governments in the region toppled. If Balfour were alive today, what would he have said to answer for this tragedy?

But the British government of today can and should say and do a lot to redress this colossal injustice. First it must uphold the international law. It must insist on the implementation of the Right of Return according to UN resolution 194.

Britain, in the UN and through the Security Council, supported by diplomacy the right of return in Tajikstan, Abkhazia, Namibia and Cyprus. Why not in Palestine?

Britain, in the UN and through the Security Council, implemented by military force the UN resolutions, including the right of return, in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. Why not in Palestine?

Britain in co-ordination with the European Union should face Israel with the necessity of implementing the right of return, should refuse Israel’s contention that the subject is a taboo, should examine the modality of return, and should explore the capacity of Galilee and the South to absorb the returning refugees. Britain should express its objection to Barak four no’s as a threat to peace, as a recipe for war and a sure way to prolong suffering. Britain should build on the fact, long demonstrated in the last 50 years, that peace is much cheaper in human and material cost than war and conflict. The historic role played by Britain in Palestine makes it imperative that Britain should lead, not follow, in restoring Palestinians rights. This duty is long overdue. The Palestinian children await the fulfilment of this duty and no doubt will continue to struggle for it in the 21st Century.

Five million people today wait for their right to return home. If, by a miracle, 99% of these refugees were to surrender their right to return, and only 1% were ready to resist that by force, this would mean a militia of 50,000 motivated individuals, enough to cause serious trouble to any hostile government in the region. The Palestinians will not go away, disappear or accept to be carted away to settle elsewhere. Their plight has shaped the history of the Middle East and will continue to do so in the next century. It behooves fair-minded people and governments concerned with peace and stability to support their Right of Return actively and by every effective means. For it would be an illusion, a dangerous and costly illusion, to think that peace can prevail in the Middle East, indeed in our global village, without implementing the most basic of rights, to return home.

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