Al-Majdal Issue No. 12 (December 2001) Now Available

Publisher: BADIL Resource Center
Annual subscription fee (4 issues): US $20



Editorial: "Collective AND Individual Rights: Palestinian Statehood and the Right of Return"

Report from the 2nd Annual Strategy Workshop, Coalition for the Palestinian Right of Return (Brussels, 27-30 November 2001)

War Crimes Case Against Ariel Sharon Continues

The PLO and the Right of Return: Interview with Saji Salameh, Director General, PLO Department for Refugee Affairs

From Rights to Reality: An Introduction to Mechanisms for Return and Restitution

"From Refugees to Citizens at Home" (Excerpts from a new book by Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta)

Updates on Refugee Projection and Assistance

Editorial (excerpts):

Collective AND Individual Rights: Palestinian Statehood and the Right of Return

[...] The US vision of the broad parameters of a two-state solution to the conflict has been largely welcomed by Israel, particularly, in reference to the refugee issue. Israeli politicians, academics, as well as many activists in the so-called peace camp have long argued that a Palestinian state and the right of return are mutually exclusive - i.e., the (non-Jewish) Palestinian refugees should be absorbed by the Palestinian state rather than return to their places of origin inside Israel. The US vision, shared by Israel, would thus save the Jewish people from having to live together with Palestinians, or in their words, drowning in a sea of Palestinians.

The amount of sheer effort expended by Israeli politicians, academics and activists in designing a solution to prevent refugees from exercising their right to return begs the simple question: What is so awful about having to live together with Palestinians?

The US vision for a solution to the refugee issue also received support from an expected source. Over the course of the past several months Palestinian intellectual Dr. Sari Nusseibeh - recently appointed as the PLO point-person for Jerusalem affairs following the death of Faisal Husseini - has repeatedly emphasized to the foreign press and in the company of Israeli interlocutors such as Yossi Beilin, that a two-state solution is incompatible with the right of return. Refugees must, therefore, cede their right to return to their places of origin inside Israel. The statements have elicited strong condemnations from refugees in the region and around the world, while some Israeli politicians have rushed to embrace Nusseibeh as their new Palestinian knight in shining armor.

This vision for a solution to the refugee issue, however, is problematic on both the legal and political level. The vision clearly violates basic tenets of international human rights law. UN human rights treaty monitoring committees and major international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for example, hold that all refugees have the individual human right to return to their places of origin, including Palestinian refugees.

Moreover, there is no contradiction between collective and individual rights in international law. They are complimentary. In other words, the creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories does not negate the individual right of Palestinian refugees to return to their places of origin inside Israel.

Under international refugee law, the starting point in crafting durable solutions to refugee problems is the wishes of the refugees themselves.

At the political level, the vision contradicts the official position of the Palestinian leadership and the content of the Palestinian proposal presented during the last round of final status negotiations in Taba (January 2001). The US vision, apparently shared by Nusseibeh, is based on the assumption that Israel will never agree to the return of Palestinian refugees and therefore a different solution must be found. The US, Israel and Nusseibeh have all failed, however, to explain why Israel's refusal to allow refugees to return is more valid as a starting point for crafting a solution than the Palestinian refugees' demand (and right) to return to their villages of origin? The obvious answer it seems is the current balance of power. This elicits another obvious (unanswered) question:

Why does the balance of power provide a better set of guidelines for a solution than international law, especially since this formula - peacemaking based on the balance of power - has guided more than 50 years of UNSUCESSFUL efforts in the Middle East?

The vision also fails to square several inherent contradictions. Why, for example, does a law or right of return apply to all other refugees (and every Jew under Israel's Law of Return) but not to Palestinians? Why do other refugees, including Jews of European origin have a right to real property restitution, but Palestinians are denied the same right?

While this vision of a solution to the refugee issue has been given wide press coverage, it does little to advance a durable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue and the conflict as a whole. The vision only engenders confusion regarding the legal parameters for durable solutions to refugee problems and harbors the potential to create false expectations among Jews in Israel regarding the demands of Palestinian refugees and the official position of the Palestinian leadership. At the same time, the US vision underscores or exposes the real obstacle to a durable solution to the Palestinian refugee issue - i.e., Israel's definition of itself as a Jewish state characterized by a Jewish demographic majority and Jewish control of refugee land, which negates the possibility of Jews and Palestinians living side-by-side on the basis of equality and non-discrimination. Given the unlikelihood that the present generation of Jewish Israeli politicians will change their position on the return of refugees, it will be necessary to find ways to engage the Jewish public in Israel in ways that move beyond the simple rhetoric that the return of refugees will mean the "destruction of the state of Israel" or "national suicide."

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