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The right of return: the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

About the author
Ghada Karmi is a research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, England, and vice-chair of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. She was born in Jerusalem, but left with her family in 1948. She was brought up in Britain, and gained a doctorate in the history of Arabic medicine from London University. Her most recent book is the memoir In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian story (Verso, 2002).

On 14 July 2003, the Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki held a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah to announce the findings of a new survey his Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research had conducted to gauge public opinion on the ‘right of return’ of Palestinian people to lands they had lost in 1948. He had barely started before an angry crowd of local people, many of them refugees, pelted him with eggs and broke up his office. He was forced to stop as his assistants cleared up the mess.

Shikaki is a respected academic and researcher with close links to think tanks and institutions in Europe and America and much of his work has been funded by grants from these sources. This attack on him drew much disapproval and adverse comment, not least from the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s own Refugee Affairs Department.

There is of course no excuse for the physical assault on Khalil Shikaki, but to understand the real significance of this event, it is necessary to appreciate how vital a role the issue of the right of return plays in Palestinian life. Shikaki surveyed a sample of 4,500 refugees from camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon. He found that, while the vast majority demanded an Israeli recognition of their right to return to their original homeland, only 10% wanted permanent residence in Israel and 54% were willing to accept compensation and homes in a Palestinian state instead. These findings, which appear to contradict the conventional view – that the refugees will accept nothing short of a return to their former homes in what is now Israel – caused shock and dismay amongst many Palestinians.

Shikaki’s findings were startlingly different from any other refugee survey conducted before. Since 1994, many studies have been carried out and each time, they have shown a majority in favour of return to Israel/Palestine. He was interpreted as saying that the refugees had given up on the right of return. In fact, that is to misrepresent him and also to ignore the limitations of his survey methodology, which, handled differently, might have yielded very different results.

The cycles of dispossession

The survey details are, however, irrelevant to the central issue, felt keenly by all Palestinians wherever they reside: that the root of their conflict with Israel is their dispossession, dispersal and the robbery of their land, starting in 1948, through 1967 and continuing ever since.

Today, Palestinian ownership of even the post-1967 territories is contested and Israeli appropriation of that land continues apace. Even at its best, Palestinian control of the West Bank was only 17% and of Gaza, 70%. Since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, none of that land is now Palestinian-controlled.

That initial act of dispossession, which destroyed Palestinian society and led to the manifold depredations that have beset the Palestinians ever since: the refugee camps, the dispersal to other countries, the statelessness, the struggle for recognition of their cause, and the fight against their current occupation and repression, is the heart and basis of the conflict. By today’s estimates, the total registered refugee Palestinian population numbers 4 million (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and Palestinian sources put it at nearly 6 million.

These sufferings have been compounded by Israel’s persistent and inflexible refusal to acknowledge any responsibility in the matter and its rejection of any notion of compensation or restitution for Palestinian losses. This is in marked contrast to Israeli demands for compensation for damage inflicted under Nazism and the holocaust. More recently, Israel has been demanding compensation from Arab countries for the losses of the Jews who left their homes there after 1948.

The Israeli campaign of denial and evasion of the nakba (as Palestinians term their dispossession) started right at the inception of the Jewish state. This ranged from ignoring Resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly, passed in December 1948 (which enjoined Israel to repatriate and compensate the refugees), to promoting an alternative narrative to explain the refugee exodus.

Thus, the received wisdom in Israeli circles was that the Palestinians had left voluntarily or in obedience to orders given them by their leaders. To this was added to the view that such things happen in war, and that the Palestinians had blown their chances by rejecting UN Resolution 181, passed in 1947, which provided for two states in Mandate Palestine: one Jewish and the other Arab. By turning this down and then attacking the nascent Israel in 1948, they had brought on themselves the fate about which they now complain.

To this were added several other considerations of doubtful relevance: that the Arab states could have helped the Palestinians, just as Israel helped its own refugees, but had abandoned them; that any Israeli settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue would have to be reciprocated by a similar Arab one of the Jewish refugees; and that there are twenty-one Arab states for Palestinians to make their homes in, whereas there is only one Jewish state.

Most recently, it has been the issue of Israel’s Jewishness that has become prominent. The argument is that Israel’s demography would be damaged by an influx of Arabs and it would cease to be a Jewish state. The Jewishness of the state is now held up as an imperative that cannot be questioned, and anything that threatens its character is to be rejected, no matter how legitimate the case.

The Israeli campaign to diminish, degrade and marginalise the Palestinian right of return has met with considerable success. The UN Security Council Resolution 242, which forms the basis of all peace proposals after 1967, spoke only of ‘a just settlement’ for the refugee problem. Consecutive proposals set out at the Madrid conference of 1991 and the Oslo agreement of 1993 placed little emphasis on the right of return. It was left to be discussed, along with other thorny issues, to a final stage that never arrived.

The Camp David talks of 2000 foundered over Yassir Arafat’s refusal to renounce the right of return, although Israel moderated its opposition at the Taba talks in January 2001. The latest proposal, the so-called roadmap, like its predecessors, is back to relegating the right of return to a later phase and in any case, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has demanded that the Palestinian side give it up as a precondition for Israel’s participation.

The call of justice

More worrying has been the western support for this campaign of negation. Although numerous international bodies reaffirmed the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and receive compensation over the last 55 years, the US and the Council of Europe have begun to state that these rules do not apply to the Palestinian case. Since 1993, the US has voted against all resolutions that affirm the right of return, and in 2002 the Council of Europe took the position that the refugee issue should be resolved through resettlement and compensation with a return limited to a future Palestinian state.

This is in marked contrast to the solution adopted for the Bosnian crisis, where (under the 1995 Dayton agreement) requirements were imposed to repatriate refugees and provide property restitution. It also contravenes the principles and spirit of the international refugee law, whose emphasis is on return and compensation.

In pursuit of this position, western donors have focused on the feasibility of refugee return to the West Bank and Gaza, the absorptive capacity of Arab host countries and western receiving states like Scandinavia, Canada and the US. The dilemma that western policy-makers face over this issue is how to reconcile the humanitarian position of refugee choice as to their future fate with reassuring Israel that this will exclude a return to Israel.

Moreover, there is the problem of persuading Arab host states to grant citizenship to the refugees. Thus, such a package would have to include financial incentives for the refugees and their putative hosts to make this solution possible, but it would also have to include a voluntary renunciation of the refugees’ right of return. No study has ever given support to such a possibility.

The Palestinian negotiators at the Taba talks in January 2001 presented a framework strategy for solving the refugee issue. Its starting point was the wish and choice of each individual refugee. It reaffirmed the right of refugees to return to what is now Israel, the voluntary character of return, the maintenance of the family unit, and the principle of property restitution for refugees and their lawful descendants and compensation for loss of property and suffering.

The Israeli response fell far short of acceding to these demands, but it was more flexible than formerly. If negotiations had continued it is possible that some sort of solution might have been worked out.

There have been many other proposals for a durable solution, not least the one propounded by the Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta. He shows that Israel is quite able economically to absorb returning Palestinians, since two-thirds of Israeli Jews live on 8% of the land and only 860,000 live on 86% of the land. It is this latter area, which is mostly agricultural, that can absorb the returning Palestinians. He proposes that the 362,000 refugees now in Lebanon be resettled there, as well as the 760,000 refuges now in Gaza. This would constitute no significant change in the ethnic composition of Israel, and could be a first step on the path of reconciliation.

There are several other proposed scenarios for resolving the refugee issue. But the problem is not the implementation of this or that solution; if it had been, the problem would have been solved long ago. It is rather the lack of political will on the part of Israel and its supporters to resolve the issue in a just and legal way.

No matter how many proposals are put forward, Israel can always veto any that include the right of Palestinians to return to their homes. The power imbalance between the two sides, and the unwillingness of the international community to call Israel to account for its transgressions against international law, means that no solution that is both adequate and just will be possible.

Hence, the only question becomes a stark one: whether a solution acceptable to Israel can be forced on the refugees, no matter what their wishes or their legitimate entitlements; or whether Israel can be made to respond to the rule of law, and indeed of common humanity, which it has flouted for so long.


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