Right of Return is Still Centre Stage

Salman Abu Sitta

It was a dazzling view. Young men wearing university T-shirts. A grand old man in his Arab dress. A woman activist who was buried as a child for three days in the ruins of Tel Zaatar. A veteran fighter from 1948 leaning on his stick. Legislators, writers, camp leaders from Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Businessmen from the Gulf and Europe.

They were about 100, except those who were turned back at the border. The invitations reflected the distribution of the Palestinian population in the world. They could have been 1,000, 10,000 or the whole 5,500,000 refugees. They were all eager to come. It was a sight which would please human rights advocates and distress political cynics.

A hundred years ago, the proportion of Arabs (Muslim & Christian) to Jews in Palestine was 46 to 1. Today in Israel it is 1 to 5.

A hundred years ago, the proportion of Arabs (Muslim & Christian) to Jews in Palestine was 46 to 1. Today in Israel it is 1 to 5.

What do they want? They wanted to say again and again what they said for the last 55 years: “We want to return home,” a basic and simple demand. They were the inhabitants of 530 primary Palestinian towns and villages, in addition to 662 secondary villages, who were expelled from their homes in the largest well-planned and meticulously executed ethnic cleansing operation in the 20th century. Their land makes up 93 percent of Israel’s area. The Jewish immigrants to Palestine could not control more than 7 percent of Israel’s area (5 percent of Palestine) under the protection and collusion of the British Mandate government.

To the Palestinian refugees who met in London on October 17th and 18th, there is ample proof that the ethnic cleansing they suffered during Al-Nakba of 1948 is still alive and well. Sharon and his likes were the perpetrators of yesterday and are still today in Gaza and the West Bank. This was one of the most dominant themes of the London conference; that the ethnic cleansing of 1948, which made two-thirds of the Palestinian people refugees, is still continuing to make refugees of the last third as well. The methods may be slightly different but the aim is the same.

The conferees did not need much convincing to adopt the manifesto of the Right of Return which reads in part: “The right of the Palestinian refugees and exiles to return to their homes is a fundamental and inalienable human right, which does not diminish with the passage of time or any political agreement. The Right of Return is also derived from the sanctity of private ownership and is not annulled by occupation or change of sovereignty. The Right of Return is basically an individual right and does not lend itself to delegation or concessions in any agreement or accord. It is also a collective right.”
Hussein Salem Miari, originally from Aakbara in Galilee, fled fighting in 1948, and now lives in Ain El Helweh refugee camp, in Saida. He holds up the key to his home in Aakbara.
In fact the Right of Return is enshrined in every international law instrument. In the Ottawa meeting of June 2003 and the Geneva Seminar of October 2003, which scores of researchers and legal experts attended, the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees was overwhelmingly recognized, in spite of feeble attempts by Israelis to discredit it. The question was about its implementation, not its validity.

The conferees were well-aware of the many attempts (more than four dozen in the last 55 years) to perpetuate and legalize their ethnic cleansing. They saw the so-called Taba pseudo-agreement, Clinton proposals and now Abed Rabbo-Beilin non-paper as a nicely wrapped package of permanent dispersion and exile. In all these proposals, the offered options are merely different addresses of exile. As one remarked, “changing the address of the camp does not make the refugee a returnee, even if the new address is in Nablus, not Beirut.” This interpretation is quite correct legally, as the Explanatory Memorandum of UN resolution 194 stipulates that the return is to the homes they were expelled from, not just to their homeland.

The audience listened attentively to a presentation of facts and figures they knew from experience: 97 percent of the registered refugees live within 100 kilometres of Palestine and half within 40 kilometres; 2 percent of Israeli Jews occupy the refugees’ land; this land is now sold to apartment building contractors; the kibbutz is dead; the Palestinians will be a majority at different times and places, no matter what Israel does, short of total extermination of Palestinians in historic Palestine. That still would leave 55 percent of the Palestinians outside Palestine still fighting for their rights. Two features mark the London conference, unlike most other Palestinian meetings, which led to its unqualified success.

When not being shot at by invading Israelis, or having their homes demolished by armoured bulldozers, Palestinian refugees often live in squalid, inhumane conditions, with no utility services.

When not being shot at by invading Israelis, or having their homes demolished by armoured bulldozers, Palestinian refugees often live in squalid, inhumane conditions, with no utility services.

First, all participants have or had strong political connections (others were independent), but no political faction tried to dominate the meeting. All were united behind the common cause: The Right of Return. Political differences were put aside. Second, the participants focussed on a plan of action for the future. They did not come to wail, complain or criticize. Even Abed Rabbo, Nusseibeh, Shikaki were mentioned in passing and with obvious neglect. Every delegation came with an action plan for their region. The deliberations were concluded by forming a follow-up committee which consists of five permanent members plus 12 regional coordinators (likely to increase) to cover the 12 regions they came from.

Emphasis was placed on reinforcing the “return culture” among the young Palestinians. There is a plan to educate the young and old in camps and cities about their rights. The need to draw on people’s goodwill in Europe was pointed out. There will be an attempt to bridge the gap between the sympathetic public and the reluctant politicians in Europe. The dormant support of Arab and Muslim countries should be activated. The machinery is there, it just needs to be turned on. The great reservoir of support from the world NGOs and the UN must be tapped. This is the largest resource which could yield immediate results.

In short, it was agreed that Palestinian civil society should be activated wherever Palestinians reside. Meagre resources and geographical dispersion will be a problem. Judging by the determination and matter-of-fact approach of the conferees, much could be done with little resources. In the final analysis, the Palestinian refugees decided they would not allow themselves to be ignored any longer.

Published Thursday, October 30th, 2003 - 01:12pm GMT

Salman Abu Sitta is general coordinator of the Palestinian Right of Return Congress.

Article courtesy of The Daily Star

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Salman Abu Sitta

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