[News] Why a 'right of return' is necessary

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Thu Oct 7 12:25:22 EDT 2004


Why a 'right of return' is necessary

By Sari Hanafi

The Daily Star
7 October 2004

http://dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=9038

The right of return of Palestinian refugees to their place of
origin is enshrined in four separate bodies of international law:
humanitarian law, human rights law, the law of nationality as
applied to state succession, and refugee law.

Beyond these bodies of laws, which apply to all refugees in the
world, the UN General Assembly specified the Palestinian case in
Resolution 194, paragraph 11, which sets forth a framework for a
solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, including the
possibility of return: "The refugees wishing to return to their
homes and live at peace with their neighbors 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."

To understand the importance of the refugee issue to
Palestinians, we must understand that the Palestinian nation and
Palestinian nationalism as it exists today was born following the
expulsion of over half the Palestinian population from their land
in 1948, and that one of the fundamental aspects of Palestinian
identity is "refugeehood." Such an understanding obliges us to
address the problem of the Palestinian refugees as fundamental to
any solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

There are five reasons for this: First, as long as the Israelis
do not take into consideration what happened to the Palestinians
in 1948 and the expulsion of the indigenous population from 78
percent of the land of historic Palestine, they will keep
bargaining about the remaining 22 percent (the West Bank
including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). There is no
solution to the land issue without coupling it with the refugee
issue. This may be the reason why the Oslo Accords failed.

Second, resolving the refugee issue is not just a technical
matter of absorption, nor is it a matter of reciting
international law like reciting the Koran. Rather, it involves
deconstructing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to its very
premises, to understand how its causes led to a certain kind of
colonial practice, and to recognize the need for a debate not
just to understand, but also to acknowledge and accept, historic
responsibility. This is the very precondition for true
reconciliation and mutual forgiveness, as suggested by the late
Edward Said.

Third, irrespective of whether the final resolution of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict takes the form of a two-state or a
binational state solution, the refugee issue cannot be considered
secondary. The current intifada has revealed the importance of
the refugees; they are the social and political actors most
unable to bear the impasse in the Oslo process.

Fourth, beyond the moral and symbolic value of achieving a right
of return, the right is useful in creating a framework for
providing refugees with a choice between remaining in their host
countries, returning to their places of origin or coming to a
future Palestinian state (or third countries). The right of
choice is a necessity for those who have, for half a century,
been forced to live as aliens without basic rights in miserable
camps and in states that have not always embraced them with open
arms.

Finally, if the right of return and the right of choice is
accepted, it will open many possibilities for the refugees to
choose from. The movement of refugees depends on many factors
related to their social, economic, cultural and identities. The
return of refugees does not mean that the whole refugee community
will move back to Israel. In almost all cases, the experience of
refugees across the world shows that the number of those who
return is less than those who choose other solutions. The Israeli
phobia of a return is unjustified.

Hannah Arendt, in her study of totalitarianism, reminded us of
"the decision of statesmen to solve the problem of statelessness
by ignoring it." She insisted on the necessity of examining
displacement through the prism of often xenophobic nation-states,
and she traced the political and symbolic logic that had the
effect of "pathologizing" and even criminalizing refugees. The
contemporary linkage that has been forged between Palestinian
return and a disturbance of the regional order, especially in
Israel, attests to the continuing relevance of Arendt's point.

Sari Hanafi is director of the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee
Center. This commentary appeared in bitterlemons.org, an online
newsletter.



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