Waiting (for the Right) to Return

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As we sat down in the courtyard of the Palestinian Circus School, not far from Birzeit University in Ramallah in the Occupied West Bank, to talk with the circus director Shadi about art and theatre, he started by telling his life story. It is not an extraordinary story. It is a story that another five million (or more) Palestinians share, yet, it puts a face on a “statistical refugee”.

by Kamal Ahamada

by Kamal Ahamada

As many of us enjoy freedom of movement, guaranteed by our red cover passports, Shadi showed us his document, which restricts much more than it allows. It’s a document issued by the state of Israel, a substitute for a passport, which allows him to travel. None of the Palestinians have a Palestinian passport, and only a few have the document that Shadi does. A document which might be taken away from him, as it is only given to residents of Jerusalem, and Shadi can no longer live there – his house was demolished and he was forced to move.

The tragedy of not being able to go home continues through generations – Shadi’s family was forced to leave their home in 1947, then he was forced to leave again as his house was demolished. The future of his children is uncertain. This is so even though a 1948 UN resolution states that:

“…the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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.” (UN Resolution 194, passed on 11th of December 1948 and reaffirmed every year since 1948)

In the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, that took place just a month ago in November 2012, it is worth remembering that the Palestinian suffering is not limited to a military operation periodically perpetuated by the Israeli Defence Forces. In fact, Israel is not only a colonial state but since its creation it has kept challenging and ignoring The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it has pledged to honour and respect by being a member of the United Nations. Up to this day, Israel has been condemned more than 65 times by the international community for its violation of human rights towards the Palestinians.

One of the most fundamental rights that is still being violated by Israel, and has been so since 1948, is the right of return for refugees. This right was reaffirmed by the UN resolution cited above. Now, as we are counting the 65th year of this right, Palestinian refugees are still being denied it. Since 1948, the right of return has become not only an essential issue when debating peace, but also a part of the identity of many Palestinian families, and an important part of the history of the Palestinian people. Even today many Palestinian families pass on the keys, from one generation to the next, to their houses in the territories where Israel has established its state.

Who are the Palestinian Refugees?

According to the UN a refugee can be defined as a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protections of that country or return there because there is a fear of persecution. Such is the way it is defined in the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees from 1951.

Al nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster. Palestinians use this word to describe the tragedy that took place in 1948 when three quarters of the Palestinian population (between 750.000-900.000 people) were forced to flee their home, and lost their land and property. Hundreds of them were massacred by the newly established Israeli state and others ran for their lives, believing that one day they would go back. This day has yet to come.

Israeli “new historians” such as Ilan Pappe clearly describe this event as an ethnic cleansing that aimed to depopulate the area of the indigenous population in order to preserve a Jewish state. More than five hundred villages inside the new state and in the West Bank and Gaza were destroyed. Indeed the great majority of Palestinians became refugees and others remained in their homeland, but as internally displaced refugees inside the new Israeli state. As for example, Shadi, the director of the circus school, tells us: “I am originally from Jerusalem, but now I am a refugee in Jerusalem. In ‘67 our family was kicked out, one house was demolished, another house was stolen by Israelis. My family fled to Jordan and when they came back they decided to live again in Jerusalem. But as refugees.” Many Palestinians face house demolition or forced transfer (especially Bedouin communities), in such a way that they become internally displaced, refugees in their own homeland.

Al Naksa is another Arabic term that describes the second big exodus of the Palestinians that were expelled from their land by force or because of fear of the Israeli army. Since 1967 Israel has continued the expulsion of Palestinians from their land through a wide variety of means. One of the most efficient policies is “voluntary transfer” or “transfer by will”, which functions through creating impossible living conditions, e.g. by destroying Palestinian houses for military or administrative reasons, or through the creation of the hundreds of checkpoints installed within the West Bank. The idea is that these policies will make the life of Palestinians so unbearable that they leave of their “own will”.
Today the Palestinian refugees represent one of the largest communities of refugees in the world, reaching more than five million people.

Why the right of return is an important issue

The right of return is a fundamental right for every human being regardless of race and religion. It is deeply rooted in International Law and the different Human Rights Charters. “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” article 13(2) of The Universal Deceleration of Human Rights for instance states.

For Israel, the return of Palestinians is unthinkable as it strongly insists that there was no forced eviction of Palestinians in 1948 and in 1967. By accepting the Palestinians’ right to come back to their homeland, Israel would somehow recognize the forced eviction of thousands of Palestinians. This return would also mean that the Jewish people would be outnumbered by Palestinians and it would therefore threaten the identity of the state as Jewish and this is a step that Israel is not ready to concede.

For Palestinians the right of return is non-negotiable and as long as their legitimate right of return to their original home is not enforced, there will always be an obstacle to peace. Indeed together with the dismantlement of the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Jerusalem being a capital of both peoples, the return of the refugees constitutes one of the conditions to ensure peace and justice in the region.

Now does that mean that the five million Palestinian refugees worldwide will all go back to Palestine? This question is simply not relevant now. But anyways this choice only belongs to the Palestinians. Paragraph 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 not only emphasizes this fundamental right but it also states that refugees have the right to choose whether or not they wish to return or receive compensation. The most important thing for the Palestinians is that Israel acknowledges its responsibility and abides by international law, and that the international community after all these years takes concrete measures to enforce the right of return of Palestinians.

Besides being a conflict of narrative, one party claiming to have more right to the land than the other, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has carried decades of violations of humanitarian standards and human rights. Whichever side one chooses to stand for, the right of return of Palestinian refugees is still one of the most critical questions in order to ensure peace and justice in the Middle East. On November 29th 2012, a great majority of the United Nation members finally recognized Palestine as a state. Will the future of the Palestinian refugees be the next major step for peace and justice in the region?