Volume of papers discussing aspects of the Palestinians’ right of return

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Rabi' al-Thani 05, 1423 2002-06-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 8, Rabi' al-Thani, 1423)

Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return edited by Naseer Aruri. Pub: Pluto Press, London, UK and Sterling, VA, USA, 2001. Pp: 294. Pbk: £15.99 / $22.95.

While the fundamental injustice of the establishment of a zionist state in Palestine, and the dispossession and displacement of millions of Palestinians, is clear for all to see, there are so many facets of the zionist crime and the Palestinian tragedy that some aspects tend to be overlooked as others are emphasised.

One that has been ignored for much of the last 50 years is the right of Palestinians driven from their homes to return to Palestine, to receive back the lands and properties that were stolen from them, and to be compensated for their suffering over the intervening years. There are a number of reasons for this, not least being that there seemed to be little political platform for pursuing these ends while the Palestinians’ focus was on armed struggle led by the PLO.

This is despite the fact that the problems and plight of Palestinian refugees were recognised by international bodies as soon as they emerged. When the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to admit Israel on May 11, 1949 (Resolution 273), it was contingent on a commitment from Israel to respect and implement all UN Resolutions pertaining to the Palestinians, including Resolution 194 of December 1948 affirming the Palestinians’ rights of return, compensation and restitution.

The circumstances surrounding the passing of Resolution 273 — with the US bullying, blackmailing, bribing and threatening smaller countries to ensure that it was passed, and even forcing a delay in the vote when it feared defeat — are well known. So, too, is the reality that no UN resolution of any kind can legitimise the occupation of a country and the expulsion of its people. But the legitimacy of the Resolution is not the point; the point is that the issue of the right to return was recognised as long ago as that, and yet subsequently got pushed into the background.

It moved back to centre stage of the Palestinian debate in 2000, when Palestinians forced it onto the negotiating table as Israeli and Palestinian National Authority (PNA) negotiators worked towards a "final settlement" agreement during the last year of the presidency of Bill Clinton. For most of the Oslo peace process, the PLO leadership — more concerned with creating a pseudo-state that would provide a framework within which they could exercise power than with the rights and concerns of ordinary Palestinians — had ignored the issue, preferring to concentrate on territorial issues and the Palestinians still in occupied Palestine who are their immediate political constituency.

Ordinary Palestinians, however, were not prepared to abandon the issue, seeing the Oslo process as the natural platform from which the rights of the Palestinian diaspora could be asserted. Despite the reluctance of the PNA, the PLO, Arab governments, the Arab League and the American sponsors of the peace process, grassroots Palestinian organizations in Palestine and elsewhere succeeded in forcing the issue into the forefront of popular debate on the peace process, and thus onto the negotiators’ agenda.

Israelis complain that the Palestinians introduced a new issue to the negotiations at the last minute, but this is not accurate; all the Palestinians did was make explicit a corollary of the peace process that most Palestinians had always regarded as implicit in it. The Israelis were certainly aware of it, demanding that the PNA sign away the right of return as part of the final settlement. There is ample evidence that, had grassroots Palestinians bodies not spoken out, Yasser Arafat might well have done so in the hope (probably futile) of being rewarded by concessions from the Israelis.

The book Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return, edited by Naseer Aruri, is the most substantial and detailed volume on this issue to have been produced since it returned to the forefront of Palestinian consciousness. It is a collection of 16 papers on various aspects of the issue, most of which were presented at a conference convened by the Trans-Arab Research Institute (TARI) at Boston University Law School in April 2000.

The book opens with an introduction by Edward Said, as articulate and passionate as ever when it comes to arguing the Palestinian cause. His opening sentence sums the issue up precisely: "The issue in the by-now notorious peace process has finally come down to one issue, which has been at the core of Palestinian depredations since 1948: the fate of the refugees who were displaced in 1948, again in 1967, and again in 1982 by naked Israeli ethnic cleansing."

Said is, as ever, as cutting in his criticism of the Palestinian leadership as of the Israelis, this time of their willingness to set aside the rights of the Palestinian refugees:

If there has been one thing, one particular delinquency committed by the present Palestinian leaders for me, it is their supernally gifted power of forgetting. When one of them was asked how he felt about Ariel Sharon’s accession to the foreign ministry, given that he was responsible for shedding so much Palestinian blood, this leader replied blithely: ‘We are prepared to forget history.’ That is a sentiment I can neither share nor, I hasten to add, easily forgive.

Said’s virtually unique qualities of insight, analysis, passion and articulation are well known, of course, and in this volume get only a brief airing. It is hardly surprising that the quality of few other contributions can even approach the standard he sets. As usual in such volumes, the quality of the contributions varies, but several are very useful.

The rest of the volume is divided into four sections. The first is on ‘The Historical Context’; the second ‘The Interests of the Major Actors’; the third ‘Return or Permanent Exile’, and the fourth ‘Refugee Claims and the Search for a Just Solution’.

Among the most useful papers is that of Nur Masalha on ‘The Historical Roots of the Palestinian Refugee Question’. This provides an excellent and detailed summary of the zionist efforts to force Palestinians from their lands since 1882, combining an analytical overview with detailed examples of Israeli strategy at key times, particularly 1948. It is probably the best paper available on the subject. Other useful contributions are by Naom Chomsky on ‘The United States and the Refugee Question’, Jaber Suleiman on ‘The Palestinian Liberation Organization: From the Right of Return to Bantustan’, and papers by Wadie Said and Nahla Ghandour on the experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

The final section includes papers by Ingrid Jaradat Gassner amd Naseer Aruri proposing the need for massive campaigning to assert and protect Palestinians’ right to return in the context of the final stages of the Oslo process. By the time of the conference in Boston, the process was already falling apart. Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, it has been utterly defunct, although the US and Israel are now trying to revive it in the hope that, having felt the West’s military power, the Palestinians may be more willing to sign their rights away.

Whether there will at any stage be political space and opportunities for campaigning on this issue is doubtful; but the contribution of books such as this, ensuring that it is not forgotten, is perhaps all the more important crucial for that.

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