54th Anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (15 May 2002): The Right of Return and Real Property Restitution

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54th Anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (15 May 2002)


As Palestinians in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories, over 50 percent of whom are refugees, begin to assess the massive physical damage and destruction (estimated at over US $300 million) left in the wake of Israel's most recent military campaign to crush indigenous resistance to the ongoing illegal military occupation and the denial of the right to self-determination, they are also preparing to commemorate 54 years of displacement and dispossession - al-Nakba. Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees, including internally displaced Palestinians, the right to return to their places of origin and recover their property inside Israel. A total of three-quarters of the indigenous Palestinian population are displaced either outside or inside their homeland.

Since 1948 Israel has expropriated more than 17 million dunums (17,000 sq. km) of land owned by Palestinian refugees and nearly 1 million dunums owned by Palestinians inside Israel, including internally displaced Palestinians. Since 1967, moreover, Israel has further expropriated and/or controls some 4.7 million dunums in the 1967 occupied West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. In 1948 Palestinians owned more than 90 percent of the land in historic Mandate Palestine. Today, the indigenous Palestinian Arab population owns and controls just over 10 percent of the land within the borders of their historic homeland (i.e., inside Israel and the 1967 occupied territories). At the same time, Israel has either expropriated or destroyed over 150,000 homes belonging to refugees displaced/expelled in 1948.

Return and Reconstruction

The primary reason why Israel refuses to allow the refugees to come home is that they are not Jewish. Israel has also argued, however, that because refugee homes have been destroyed or expropriated to house Jewish Israelis (referred to as secondary occupation) return is not possible. In the early 1950s, for example, Israeli officials informed the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), mandated to facilitate a durable solution for the refugees based on General Assembly Resolution 194 (i.e., voluntary return, restitution, compensation), that "the individual return of Arab refugees to their former places of residence is an impossible thing. Their houses have gone, their jobs have gone."

This argument has since become something of a mantra repeated not only by Israeli officials but also by international diplomats, analysts and academicians. Writing in the May issue of Foreign Affairs ("The Last Negotiation: How to End the Middle East Peace Process"), for example, Hussein Agha, a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University, and Robert Malley, Director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group and former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, state: "Many of the refugees presumably want to go back to their original homes. But these homes, and indeed, in many cases, the entire villages where they were located, either no longer exist or are now inhabited by Jews." The conclusion drawn is that while limited numbers of refugees may be able to return, "consistent with the exercise of Israel's sovereign powers over entry and resettlement locations", financial and other incentives will be needed to "persuade" the majority of the refugees (i.e., impose arbitrary restrictions on the basic human right to return) to "choose" some form of resettlement either in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or in a third country. Play best friv games site.

The land owned by the refugees has remained largely vacant; Jewish settlement is concentrated in a number of urban centers, while some 160,000 rural Jewish Israelis live on more than 17,000 sq. km of refugee land. In light of this fact, the argument that the destruction (or even secondary occupation) of a Palestinian refugee's home, and even village, permanently negates the right of return is at best misinformed, if not duplicitous. No one has raised the argument, for example, that Israel's destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada negates the right of the homeowner to continue living in his/her city, town or refugee camp. Nor have such arguments garnered serious consideration in other refugee cases. In Kosovo 50 percent of the housing stock was destroyed, 65 percent in Bosnia, and 80 percent in East Timor. In each of these cases the international community supported the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their places of origin. The logical solution to the problem of damaged or destroyed housing is rehabilitation and reconstruction. Five years after the Dayton peace agreement was signed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the international community had assisted with the repair and reconstruction of nearly 30,000 housing units. The experience of UNRWA in rebuilding destroyed refugee shelters in places of exile over the past five decades provides one immediate example of a model directly applicable to housing reconstruction for returnees in the Palestinian case.

The mass destruction of Palestinian refugee homes and villages in 1948 is not a credible reason to deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their places of origin inside Israel, nor can it be argued that the passage of 54 years renders claims for real property restitution irrelevant. To do so would not only violate basic principles of international law but would also essentially punish Palestinian refugees for Israel's rejection of the right of return and real property restitution. Israel's sole argument for denying Palestinian refugees their rights (and thereby obstructing a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is that the refugees are not Jewish. As numerous UN human rights treaty bodies have noted, this argument is not consistent with international human rights law including the universal norm of non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

On the occasion of the 54th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, BADIL Resource Center calls upon the international solidarity movement to:

*Educate and inform about the history and the scope of Palestinian displacement and dispossession;
*Educate and inform about Palestinian refugees' right of return, real property restitution and compensation in accordance with international law and UN Resolution 194.

Resources are available on the websites of BADIL and the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://al-awda.org)