Australia/Israel Review

Essay: The Illusion of Return

Aug 1, 2011 | Geoffrey Levin

Essay: The Illusion of Return
A two-ton key at Bethlehem’s al-Ayda refugee camp

How the promotion of a dubious “right” is blocking Middle East peace

Not far from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the storied birthplace of Jesus Christ and the West Bank’s most popular tourist site, there lies a landmark of a very different kind. Sitting horizontally on a gate in front of the al-Ayda Refugee Camp is a 10-metre long iron key, weighing nearly two tons. The seemingly innocuous monument actually represents the most controversial demand made by pro-Palestinian advocates: That Israel must permit up to 5 million Palestinians to immigrate across its borders, effectively ending any chance it will endure another generation as a homeland for the Jewish people.

More troubling than the Palestinian desire for this, however, is the way Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), the United Nations, Arab officials and media have continued to foster this impossible dream, a fantasy that makes any peace agreement virtually impossible by undermining the only realistic basis for a resolution – two states for two peoples.

Background: Echoes of ’48

This demand, called the “right of return”, stems from events that occurred over 60 year ago, during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. As with every war, the fighting and subsequent events led to masses of refugees crossing borders. By the time the war ended, no Jews remained in the Jordanian-held West Bank or east Jerusalem, and nearly 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. The causes of the Palestinian refugee issue remain both contested and complex. Many Palestinians claim they were forced out by Israeli forces, and indeed, in key strategic areas, some of them were. Others fled to escape the violence, while some left at the request of invading Arab forces. Uncontestable is the fact that the 1947 UN partition plan that could have prevented the war and consequent displacements was endorsed by the Jewish leadership, and rejected unequivocally by Arab leaders who then initiated armed conflict.

It would be wrong to deny that the war of 1948 was anything less than a wholesale tragedy for the Palestinian people. While some of those exiled had taken an active role in the battle against Israel, others undoubtedly had not. Displacement is a sad reality of many wars and conflicts, and few know this better than the Jews. Over 800,000 fled the Arab world, either expelled or escaping persecution, in the years after the 1948 war – only a few years after the Holocaust left a million Jewish survivors displaced in Europe.

Other conflicts of the 1940s bequeathed even larger numbers of refugees – for instance, the 1947 partition of India created around 12.5 million refugees, and World War II resulted in over 40 million refugees – not counting the expulsion of 12-14 million German-speakers from Eastern Europe in its aftermath. While virtually none of the combined 25 million German, Indian, and Pakistani refugees ever returned to their homes, there is no German, Indian, or Pakistani refugee problem in mainstream international discourse today. Just as Germany, India, Israel, and Pakistan took responsibility for absorbing the bulk of their communities’ refugees, so too would a realistic peace process aim to create a Palestinian state where all Palestinians would be welcome. Why is it, then, that the Palestinians alone claim a “right of return” to territories beyond their future state?

While some Palestinians simply view return as a “right”, many are well aware that the implementation of the “right of return” would change the demographics of Israel enough that Palestinians would eventually become a majority and dominate the state.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, as of 2009, 5.7 million of Israel’s 7.5 million citizens were Jewish, and 1.54 million of them were Arab. Full implementation of the “right of return” would allow more than 4.6 million Palestinians to enter Israel, and would instantly render Jews a minority in the one state created to ensure Jewish self-determination. Even if only a fraction of these 4.6 million were to choose to immigrate, since Palestinian birth rates are currently considerably higher than Jewish Israeli birthrates, Palestinians would likely become a majority over time.

Israel was created because Jews, like other ethno-national groups such as Croats, Greeks, South Sudanese, and East Timorese, are entitled to self-determination in their historic homeland. Statehood ensures both physical and cultural preservation, and history has shown that minorities are far more vulnerable to persecution, discrimination and genocide. That is why the vast majority of Israelis oppose a Palestinian “right” to “return” to land within Israel’s permanent borders, and would justifiably refuse any agreement that would allow for it. Even leaving aside Israeli opposition, ‘return’ would be a logistical nightmare – there would be no room to absorb such large numbers of poor Palestinians, lacking understanding of Hebrew and Israeli culture, indoctrinated over many years to hate Israelis and Jews, and demanding a return to communities which today largely no longer exist.

Who is a Refugee? UNRWA and the Perpetuation of Refugeeism

Many view UN policy as one reason the Palestinian refugee issue has endured so long and become such a problem. Palestinian refugees are not included under either the UN Refugee Convention – the principle instrument governing refugee law – or the remit of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This is due to the existence of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – whose definition of a “refugee” includes anyone descended from those displaced in the 1948 war regardless of their current citizenship or place of birth. This is far removed from the Refugee Convention definition, which applies only to those that are unable to return to their “country of nationality” or “habitual residence” due to a fear of persecution, and lacking citizenship elsewhere.

This distinction is significant. According to UNRWA estimates, the 1948 war created 711,000 Palestinian refugees; UNRWA now claims there are nearly five million Palestinian “refugees”. If one were to apply the normal Refugee Convention definition, this number would decrease dramatically. The millions of descendants of refugees would not be included under the UN Refugee Convention, as Palestinians born in other Arab countries never had “habitual residence” in Israel. Even if one were to consider them refugees, any two-state agreement that offers all Palestinians residency in the State of Palestine would essentially negate any and all Palestinian refugee claims.

In regards to numbers – a generous estimate would assume around half of these 711,000 refugees are alive 63 years later, meaning no more than 355,000 of the 1948 refugees may be around today. But as Tzvi Fleischer pointed out in last month’s AIR, perhaps 80% of even this reduced number would not be considered refugees under the UNHCR definition. Jordan gave citizenship to the vast majority of the 41.6% of refugees that moved there, and 39.6% never left their homeland, and are internally displaced within it (in Gaza and the West Bank). This means, were the UN to apply the standard refugee definition to Palestinians, only perhaps around 71,000, or about 1.4%, of the current “refugees” would still have that status.

Beyond widening the definition of refugees for Palestinians, UNRWA has extended the refugee issue in other important ways. Most prominently, the UN has made no effort to permanently settle these Palestinians in either their countries of residence or abroad, and indeed has opposed efforts to do so. The UNHCR works tirelessly to ensure that millions of non-Palestinian refugees can re-build normal lives, whether through local integration, resettlement abroad, or repatriation. But for political reasons, UNRWA appears to have rejected the first two options when it comes to Palestinians. While the “right of return” is not officially part of UNRWA’s mandate, the organisation appears to penalise those who even suggest that, as a matter of practicality, “the right of return is unlikely to be exercised in the territory of Israel.” Andrew Whitley, the Director of UNRWA’s New York office, was forced to apologise and renounce those very words after he provoked a controversy by saying them last October. Not long after the apology, UNRWA announced that Whitley would be replaced.

Is the “Right of Return” Even a Right?

While it is understandable that many Palestinians feel they have a moral right to move to the places where their grandparents once lived, both international law and international historic precedent seem to indicate that there is no such legal right. “Right of return” advocates will frequently point to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1949, which calls for a peace settlement including a provision that “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”. But this actually forms no legal basis for any “right of return”, as it makes no mention of any “right” as such and in any case, a General Assembly resolution is purely advisory and does not have the force of law.

International laws, treaties, and conventions related to citizenship are also often cited, but do not apply, as these Palestinians were never citizens or residents of the State of Israel.

Moreover, there is no historical precedent for an internationally-mandated “right of return” in any similar context. On the contrary, past UN-backed efforts to solve other international conflicts have never included such a right. As mentioned earlier, the 13 million German refugees and the 12.5 million displaced Indians and Pakistanis never had the chance to return, nor has the international community even suggested they should have a right to do so. More recently, international court rulings and UN-backed peace proposals have rejected or ignored any “right” of “return” when discussing the conflict in Cyprus, where thousands of Greek Cypriots were displaced from the Turkish-dominated north in the early 1970s.

A Problem Prolonged: Arab Governments and Return

None of this is to deny the suffering of Palestinians designated as refugees. Many of them, particularly those in Lebanon and Syria, have difficult lives and are denied basic rights. But for them, today’s hardships have little to do with Israel. Rather, Arab governments have actively fostered the concept of the “right of return” in order to justify the denial of both citizenship and human rights to these hundreds of thousands of people. For example, both former Lebanese President Amin Gemayal, a Christian, and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Muslim, recently spoke out against granting Palestinians property rights in Lebanon, even to those who were born there. Hariri justified this by saying that “Lebanon will not abandon the Palestinians and their ‘right of return’… but in Lebanon’s duties toward the Palestinians, there is no window of naturalisation”; Syrian leaders have used similar rhetoric on the topic.

More concerning is that officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA), an entity which ostensibly aims to create a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel, sponsors advertisements and monuments that encourage Palestinians to leave their new state before it is established and move to Israel. Visitors to Ramallah cannot help but notice ‘pro-return’ posters all around the city, often shaped like postcards with phrases such as “Dear Haifa, We Are Returning – A Palestinian Refugee.” These posters are funded directly by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, Abbas and other Fatah leaders frequently make statements about the need to refuse any compromise on the “right of return”. Yet from his own negotiations with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in 2008, Abbas knows that the full “right of return” is something Israel would never accept and seems to have indicated that he understands this when talking to Israelis and Americans privately. Why, then, is Abbas selling this fantasy? Why maintain a promise that makes negotiating a final peace with Israel far more difficult by perpetuating dreams that cannot possibly be fulfilled?

Arab Media: Opposing moderation one article at a time

The Arab media frequently and explicitly tells Palestinians that they should refrain from making peace until they get a full “right of return”. For example, over the past year, al-Jazeera has published countless articles, op-eds and videos criticising those willing to make compromises for peace.

Al-Jazeera articles entitled “PA selling short the refugees” and “right of return on the bargaining table” condemn moderate Palestinians for showing any flexibility on the supposed ‘right’, while others, such as “Is right of return feasible?” and “Turning the right of return into reality” seek to convince readers that it is possible for millions of Palestinians to return to villages in Israel.

Other articles, such as “Palestinians keep dream of return alive”, try to give ‘return’ an emotional lens by interviewing elderly refugees who talk about their childhood in what is now Israel. They typically neglect to mention or unambiguously reject compromises that would limit the “right of return” to the new Palestinian state alone.

Arab media articles quote Palestinians in Lebanon saying:

“We refuse to accept other options, such as naturalisation or being sent to a third country.”

“We’re refugees in Lebanon and we would be refugees in the West Bank. So we might as well stay here. I would not consider it my home. My homeland is the village where my parents were expelled.”

“We live like dogs here. But I would still oppose going to the West Bank or Gaza. Why would I go back to any place but my hometown?”

In January 2011 alone, al-Jazeera’s English-language website published 13 articles on “right of return”, not one of them suggesting any real compromise or highlighting any pragmatic solutions. Similar articles can be found on the English-language sites of Palestinian Maan News Network, Lebanon’s Daily Star, and the Saudi-sponsored al-Arabiya, suggesting that the “right of return” is discussed similarly in the Arabic-language press, if not more frequently and more forcefully. In this way, Arab media outlets are undermining any peace process by attacking the very basis of negotiations – insisting on a condition completely incompatible with two states for two peoples.

Foreign NGOs: BDS, the “right of return”, and the quest for peace

While it is perhaps understandable, if regrettable, that Arab leaders and media push the notion of “right of return”, it is far more perplexing why non-Arabs would feel a need to do so. Yet countless European-funded NGOs that claim to be dedicated to the cause of peace also declare the “right of return” is more important than a two-state peace agreement. Most of these NGOs receive their primary funding from European governments.

According to the nonprofit group NGO Monitor, a number of NGOs that advocate the “right of return” are funded by the NGO Development Centre, an umbrella organisation that receives funding from the governments of Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Organisations receiving funding include Badil: Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (US$575,000), Adalah: The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights (US$170,000), ICHAD: The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (US$76,000), Musawa, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (US$425,000), the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights (US$445,000), and numerous others.

The numbers listed above only include money from that joint Dutch-Swiss-Swedish-Danish fund NGO Development Centre. Meanwhile, millions more are given to these organisations directly by the European Union, or by governments such as those of Finland, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. In addition, even more European money goes to NGOs that support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel, which among other things pushes a draconian boycott of all Israeli business, culture and academia until the state agrees to “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.”

Why are governments that are dedicated to peace funding organisations that encourage one side to raise impossible negotiating demands, making a peaceful settlement all the less likely? By encouraging Palestinians to maximise their demands and funding organisations that aim to force upon Israel the “right of return”, these Europeans are not only doing a disservice to Israelis, but also to Palestinians, as it undermines the peace process that is their only real hope for both statehood and improved lives for those in refugee camps.

Pragmatism Ignored

The condition of Palestinian refugees is a matter of real humanitarian concern, particularly the ongoing human rights deprivation of many Palestinians across the Arab world; and any peace deal will need to address the refugee issue on a practical level.

Recent Israeli leaders have not opposed allowing unlimited numbers of refugees the freedom to move to the new state of Palestine after an agreement. In addition, the leaked Palestine Papers and the statements of many officials showed that PA leadership was quite open in 2008 to a number of alternatives solutions to the refugee issue. An agreement could have given Palestinians a number of options – moving to the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; moving to former Israeli lands given to Palestine in the form of land swaps; being absorbed into their current host countries; being repatriated into Western states in limited numbers; and even repatriation to Israel for a small, capped number as a symbolic gesture. In addition, numerous negotiations and proposals such as the Clinton Parameters, the Geneva Initiative, and Camp David in 2000 all discussed Palestinians receiving reparations for property lost during the conflict. All of these options are on the table, offering both a just resolution to the refugee issue and a two-state solution that can ensure the peace, security, and self-determination of Jews and Palestinians alike.

But government officials, the international community, journalists and pro-peace NGOs, rather than helping prepare and condition the Palestinian people for peace and the sacrifices that accompany it, are doing the opposite. Propagating the fantasy of “return” discourages Palestinian leaders from making a realistic peace. Promising Palestinians this right will only breed frustration if any two-states for two-peoples agreement comes to fruition, and that frustration will likely lead to yet more violence. Thus, not only does advocating “return” create obstacles to a peace agreement, it could also tear apart a future agreement if one is ever reached.

Looking Forward, Not Back

Some day, the question will again come before the Palestinian leadership, as it did before Yasser Arafat in 2000: Do you want a sovereign state at peace with its neighbours, or will you continue to chase the illusion of “return” at the expense of your people’s welfare? Arafat chose the latter, bringing about another decade of war, death, and Palestinian statelessness. The end of the Israel-Palestinian conflict will depend upon whether Palestinian leaders condition themselves, and more importantly, their people, to make the concessions necessary for peace. Until then, promising millions of Palestinians that they will be able to move to Israel, a country they have never visited, to villages and houses that no longer exist, only prolongs the conflict.

The idea that in a new Palestinian state, a young Palestinian citizen, third-generation born and raised in Bethlehem, should be considered a refugee because his great-grandfather was born 10 kilometres west of Bethlehem, is absurd. While a humanitarian solution for the refugee issue must be found, it must acknowledge that Israel will not allow itself to be transformed into an Arab state. A two-state solution requires each side to relinquish their claims to the other side of the border, and the “right of return” encourages the exact opposite. Anyone who promotes this legally baseless right is unequivocally making peace – including a solution to the plight of the refugees – more distant and difficult.


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