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The Palestinians Must Have a Right of Return

January 12, 2001|HUSSEIN IBISH | Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

President Clinton's formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace is predicated on an unworkable and disastrous concept: that the world's largest group of refugees should renounce their basic human rights.

The Clinton plan proposes that--in exchange for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian "state" that lacks contiguity, control of its own borders and natural resources and is subject to unprecedented restrictions on its "sovereignty"--Palestinians renounce the right of millions refugees to return to their homes in what is now the state of Israel.

The ironies are almost overwhelming. In 1999, the Clinton administration led NATO into a brutal war with Yugoslavia in the name of enforcing the right of return for the Kosovar refugees. The same American officials and media pundits who thundered then about the inviolability of refugee rights and the immorality of dispossession and forced exile now demand that Palestinians drop their "unrealistic demands" about refugee rights. These principles, held to be both sacred and a justification for international military intervention, are now dismissed as a fantasy, a ploy and an insidious plot to destroy Israel.

Consider also the barefaced racism in the juxtaposition between Israel's Law of Return and its opposition to the Palestinian right of return. Since its founding, Israel has opened its borders, and those of the occupied Palestinian territories, to anyone it considers Jewish, but has steadfastly refused to allow Palestinians to return to their own homes and lands simply on the grounds that they are not Jewish.

Without in any way denigrating the profound attachment that Jews around the world feel for the land of Israel, it is important to note that the concepts of return expressed in the Law of Return and the right of return are fundamentally different. The return expressed in the Law of Return--every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel--is to a generalized area of religious and historic importance to the Jewish people. In sharp contrast, the right of return for Palestinians is not religious or ancestral, but is attached to specific homes and land in specific villages to which many Palestinian refugees hold legal deeds.

President Clinton is essentially asking Palestinians to forget about their homes and property and adopt a Zionist-like attitude that would see "return" as satisfied by physical presence in any part of historic Palestine. This formulation is a grand betrayal of the basic human right of refugees to return to their homes.

The right of return is guaranteed to all refugees by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention. After their expulsion in 1948, it was specifically applied to the Palestinian refugees in U.N. Resolution 194, which demands that " the refugees wishing to return to their homes" should be permitted to do so.

Indeed, the Geneva Convention prohibits the renunciation of rights that Israel and the U.S. are trying to force the Palestinians to accept. Drafted in the aftermath of World War II, the Convention recognizes that a conqueror is often able to force a subjugated people to sign away their rights. Therefore Article 8 forbids any renunciation, in whole or in part, of any of the rights it guarantees.

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Clinton plan--not the disregard it shows for the rights and interests of the Palestinian refugees themselves, or the flawed notion that "peace" and reconciliation can be based on a massive denial, indeed a renunciation, of human rights, but the deep damage it does to the very concept of universal human rights.

Fifty years ago, after the Nazi rampage in Europe, the human family committed to outlining a set of basic human rights inherent to all individuals. The Universal Declaration, Geneva Convention and Resolution 194 were all adopted in this context. However imperfect our collective efforts at enforcing these rights have been, the international community at least upheld our commitment to them in principle.

The rights of refugees, above all the right of return, are central and indispensable elements of universal human rights. It is tragic and appalling that the start of the 21st century should see the U.S. leading an effort to coerce an entire people to renounce this right.

A workable Israeli-Palestinian peace must ensure not only a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem and the right of Israel to live in peace in secure borders, but must also recognize the right of return. The specific modalities of return are a separate matter, to be determined through negotiations and mutual agreement, but the right itself must be recognized.

If their right of return is permanently abrogated, Palestinian refugees will not be the only ones to suffer. Humanity in general would be deeply impoverished if we start renouncing and repudiating rights long since upheld as inviolable, and our slow and painful quest to build a world that provides equal protection to all people will be dealt a crippling blow.

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