Palestinian refugee rights matter because they are claimed
Israel’s founding fathers had predicted that Palestinian refugees would “die or turn into human dust” (Ben Gurion); the architects of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, including some Palestinian negotiators, had hoped that the issue of Palestinian refugees could be diluted before the final round of the Oslo peace negotiations. Palestinian refugees, however, have refused to live up to these expectations. They are engaged in documentation of the history of their displaced families and communities,(1) and in building their associations and networks as a tool for participation in Palestinian political decision making.(2) They continue to rally, campaign and lobby for acknowledgment of the injustice symbolized by the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 and the right to return to their homes and properties.
Popular commemorations of the 59th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba in 2007 were coordinated by a National Committee composed of refugee and non-refugee networks of Palestinian civil society in the OPT, Israel and the exile, in addition to the major Palestinian political forces and remnants of the PLO Department for Refugee Affairs. Positions and demands raised by the National Committee reflect Palestinian language and consensus about the priorities in the post-Oslo era:
[...] As we commemorate the ethnic cleansing of our people from its land, we are aware of the scope of the dangers which confront our most important cause, the cause of the Palestinian refugees in the homeland and in the exile.
We therefore affirm:
i) Our absolute rejection of, and our determination to combat, all “initiatives”, whether Palestinian, Arab or international, which do not clearly guarantee the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and their right to restitution of their property in accordance with UN Resolution 194;
ii) The need to break the humiliating sanctions imposed on the Palestinian people, first of all by re-instating the commitment of Arab states to their obligations towards the Palestinian people and to abstain from engagement in initiatives and deals promoted by the United States;
iii) Our demand to UNRWA to reaffirm the commitment to its obligation to provide services which guarantee an adequate standard of living for Palestinian refugees;
iv) The need to reactivate the PLO Department for Refugee Affairs, and to develop its capacity to play an effective role in the protection of our people in the homeland and the exile; [...](3)
While official Israel continues to displace Palestinians and deny the Palestinian Nakba and refugees’ right of return – in 2007 Israel’s Jerusalem municipality launched official celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the “liberation and unificationofJerusalem”on15May,Nakba Day - a courageous minority of Jews in Israel has taken a different route. For several years now, Israel’s traditional Zionist “peace camp” is being challenged by a dissident voice that reminds Israelis that, in many respects, the Nakba is also the story of Jews who live in Israel, and that acknowledgment of the Palestinian right of return will not only be a first step towards correcting the historical injustice committed against the Palestinian people, but can also usher in a new beginning for Jews in the country.(4)
60 Years of Nakba require new vision and strategies
Those who hold power don’t have to bother with contradictions or try to square circles. Official Israel claims it can be both Jewish and democratic, irrespective of the fact that its legal and political system discriminates against some one million Palestinian citizens and millions of refugees and IDP. The diplomatic community, the Quartet and other “peace-brokers”, hold that that there is “no serious question about the broad outline of the final settlement”,(5) although the facts on the ground defy their blueprint of a two-state solution.
60 years into the Palestinian Nakba, however, time has come for a reality check. Israeli governments have operated a regime of military occupation in the OPT for 40 years now, i.e. double the time of Israel’s existence without such occupation (1948 – 1967). Military personnel, norms and interests dominate Israel’s political system, while institutions, norms and routines of its colonial enterprise have long been integrated into Israel’s regime and form an inherent component thereof. It is, therefore, time to ask: “Is peace without the Palestinian refugees a realistic option?” Can Israel’s occupation be ended, if the Nakba and Palestinian refugees’ right to return remain denied? Or, in other words: Aren’t military occupation and the unresolved “refugee question” two sides of the same racist political and legal regime which has obstructed just peace for generations? And, finally, “what is the vision for the struggle ahead?”
Although Palestinian refugees will not see justice on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba in 2008, this anniversary can become a meaningful event, if used to galvanize vision and energies for the struggle ahead. The 40/60 Call is a call for a new, “post-Oslo” public discourse about the unresolved “question of Palestine”, which includes and addresses the rights of the entire Palestinian people – those in Israel, in the OPT, and refugees in exile – as well as the rights of Jewish Israelis under international law. Respect and implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees is the key to just peace in the Middle East. It requires the ending of Israel’s colonial apartheid regime.
1.See, for example: www.palestineremembered.com
2.See, for example, the CIVITAS project conduced at Oxford University with the support of the European Commission: www.civitas-online.org
3. Statement on the Occasion of the 59th Anniversary of the Nakba: National Committee for the Commemoration of the Nakba, 15 May 2007 (global Palestine Right-of-Return Coalition, Council of National and Islamic Forces, Palestinian NGO Network/PNGO, Union of Arab Community-based Organizations/Ittijah, Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, National Coalition for the Defense of Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, PLO Department for Refugee Affairs/DORA).
4. See for example: www.NakbaInHebrew.org
5.’Secretary-General Tells Security Council Middle East in Profound Crisis, Calls for “New and Urgent Push for Peace”’, UN Doc. SG/SM/10796, SC/8897, Dec. 12, 2006.