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Debate Grows Over The "Right Of Return" Of Palestinian Refugees

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2000

An important outstanding issue which has yet to be seriously addressed in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is that of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees.  

Article 11 of the U.N. General Assembly's Resolution 194, ratified in 1948 and reaffirmed over 40 times, declares that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes, and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so...and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."  

The official Israeli position disputes the legality of the Palestinian claim and blames the Arab states for generating the Palestinian refugee problem. Furthermore, Israel says it could never accept the Palestinian right of return because it would fundamentally alter the Jewish character of the Israeli state.  

In April, Nabil Abourdeneh, an aide to Yassir Arafat, said the Palestinians would never relinquish their demand that Israel allow Palestinians to return to their homes lost in the 1948 war.  

A conference, "The Right Of Return: Palestinian Refugees and Prospects for a Durable Peace," was held at Boston University in April. Among the speakers was Israeli Professor Ilan Pappe who declared: "In the Oslo accords, the refugee issue is in a sub- clause; it is nearly invisible, which is just the way Israel wants it. The final stage of the Oslo process is now at hand, and the parameters of discussion have all been dictated solely by Israel, and Israel absolutely rejects the Palestinians right of return. Only a handful of 1967 refugees will have a nominal chance of repatriation into the area under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, and then only if Israel approves of them." He argued that, "The `peace process' will only produce more bloodshed unless restorative justice is attempted. If restorative justice was possible in South Africa...why should it not be possible in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations."  

Also in April, a U.N.-sponsored conference on the question of Palestinian refugees was held in Paris. Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist and founder in 1983 of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, proposed that Israel acknowledge its responsibility and accept the Right of Return in principle. "Most of the refugees opting for repatriation," he said, "should be settled in the State of Palestine, which must include all the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while those opting instead for compensation must receive generous payments for their lost property, as well as for loss of opportunity and education." Beyond this, Avnery also proposed a limited return of refugees to Israel proper. Another Israeli participant, Knesset Member Yossi Katz (Labor) proposed the return of 100,000 refugees to Israel as the final settlement.  

Writing in The Other Israel (May 2000), the journal of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Adam Keller declares: "It is time for Israelis to face at last what has been avoided for decades: the question of the refugees—the plight of the people whose suffering is the direct result of the creation of the state...In theory, who should better understand them than a people who base their entire claim to the land on centuries of steadfast longing, people who in their schools and nurseries teach the verse `If I forget thee, O Jerusalem...' An Israel whose democratically elected government can offer the Palestinians no more than isolated and already over-crowded enclaves will definitely live to face the Right of Return in all its unmitigated fierceness."  

In February, a symposium was held in New York on the question of Palestinian refugees sponsored by Americans for Peace Now. While Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen were far apart in their proposals, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a columnist for Moment magazine, who attended the meeting, expressed the hope that the maximalist positions each side presented were "part of a bargaining strategy."  

Writing in Moment (May 2000), she provided this assessment: "Eventually, the Palestinians must accept that complete return is impossible. That while it may be their right to return to the territories, opening the floodgates of a fledgling state to 3.5 million refugees is not to their advantage, economically or politically...And that while some may be theoretically entitled to return to their 1948 homes inside Israel, it's more important to use that right as a bargaining chip than to stand pat on the issue and scuttle the whole deal...If the Jewish people could come to terms with Germany ten years after the Holocaust...the Palestinian people can also find the will to compromise...By the same token, Israel must eventually accept that as the Oslo agreement dictates, the return of some displaced Palestinians is inevitable—not to their homes, perhaps, but to their homeland. If this strikes you as pie in the sky, bear in mind that David Ben-Gurion was ready to take back 100,000 refugees into a much smaller Israel. And if we don't start talking compromise on refugees, we might as well say kaddish for the peace process."

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