It is perverse, if not altogether surreal, that the international community persists in treating with seriousness the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that deal in some considerable measure with the “key issue” of return of refugees.
Perhaps we can attribute this to a political correctness that makes it impossible for many to challenge a concept that the Palestinians are advancing with great passion. But if there is ever going to be peace in the Middle East, self-deluding perceptions based on political correctness must be abandoned.
It’s time to get real: The “right of return” does not exist.
UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for those Palestinians considered to be “refugees,” premises the existence of the “right” rather tenuously on the lead sentence in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, paragraph 11: “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…”
But a closer look at this sentence and its broader context exposes the fatal weaknesses inherent in advancing it as the legal basis for “return”:
The immediate catch is that this is part of a resolution of the General Assembly. Yet General Assembly resolutions are no more than recommendations – devoid of the status of international law and not binding. (Only certain categories of Security Council resolutions are binding in international law.)
What is more, the citation of one sentence out of the entire resolution seriously and wilfully distorts the intent of the resolution.
The full UN Resolution 194, which passed on December 11, 1948, included a call for the formation of a Conciliation Commission and attempted to seek an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in its entirety. A careful reading of the full paragraph 11 makes it clear that it was not proposing an unconditional “right of return” — after the allusion to return, there is an instruction to the Conciliation Commission to facilitate a number of remedies, including resettlement.
If the scope of inquiry is broadened just a bit more, it is possible to further confirm that the General Assembly was not advocating return as the only or the necessary solution to the problem of the refugees. Between December 1950 and January 1952, the General Assembly passed three other resolutions – 393, 394, and 513 – that all spoke of the possibility of resettlement.
And with this we encounter yet another perversity. For GA Resolution 394 of December 14, 1950, called upon “the Governments concerned to undertake measures to ensure that refugees, whether repatriated or resettled, will be treated without any discrimination…”
But Arab states, with the single exception of Jordan, have willfully treated the Palestinian refugees resident within their borders with discrimination. This is particularly true of Lebanon and Syria, where is citizenship denied as well as rights to employment in certain fields and to certain education.
That this is a blatantly political decision is apparent. As a PLO document explained in 2000:
In order to keep the refugee issue alive and prevent Israel from evading responsibility for their plight, Arab countries—with the notable exception of Jordan—have usually sought to preserve a Palestinian identity by maintaining the Palestinians’ status as refugees.
Yet there is no outcry in this regard.
What is more, even if the sentence in resolution 194 were to be accepted as simply a recommendation, it would raise questions. For there is no serious consideration within the international community of whether the returning “refugees” would “live at peace” with their Israeli neighbors. There is, of course, not an iota of evidence to suggest that they would.
Almost 60 years ago, in 1949, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Muhammad Saleh Ed-Din, wrote:
Let it therefore be known and appreciated that, in demanding the restoration of the refugees to Palestine, the Arabs intend that they shall return as the masters of the homeland, and not as slaves. More explicitly, they intend to annihilate the state of Israel.
All the more so would this be true today, as a solid percentage of the refugees is Hamas-affiliated or supportive of Hamas positions. Hamas advocates the destruction of Israel.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of this situation is that when Resolution 194 (which passed the General Assembly) was advanced in 1948, all of the Arab states opposed it because it recognized Israel as a state. This was something they were not prepared to do. It was only after the fact that the Arabs returned to this same resolution, in order to draw on a single sentence.
This ludicrous state of affairs might be considered comical if not for the fact that it has engendered so much pain. As it is, the fostering of this ostensible “right” – which serves as the ideological basis for UNRWA – has been responsible for much human suffering and for a curtailment of the human rights of the refugees and their descendants in the camps.
The time for considering other paradigms for dealing with the Palestinian refugees is long past due.