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News ::
"Equality or exile?"
17 Jan 2002
(YellowTimes.ORG) – I met Muhammed at the Rashidieh refugee camp in south Lebanon, shortly before the ill-fated Camp David talks. A small man with silver hair and kind blue eyes, he offered to show me around this neglected abyss of sewage and degradation to which he had been...
"Equality or exile?"
on Thursday, January 17 @ 08:15:27 EST

By Sharif Nashashibi
Chairman of Arab Media Watch
www.arabmediawatch.com

(YellowTimes.ORG) – I met Muhammed at the Rashidieh refugee camp in south Lebanon, shortly before the ill-fated Camp David talks. A small man with silver hair and kind blue eyes, he offered to show me around this neglected abyss of sewage and degradation to which he had been exiled since Israel’s creation in 1948, over half a century ago. With traditional Arab hospitality far outweighing his poverty, he invited me to lunch at his home, the size of a living room with a corrugated steel shack piled high with mattresses on which his family of eleven slept. I asked him why the camp was peppered with posters of Yasser Arafat. Brandishing with pride the key to his Israeli-occupied house in the Galilee, he said the Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon, numbering almost 400,000, had faith that Arafat would bring them back home. Not knowing whether to admire Muhammed’s optimism or pity his innocence, I left Rashidieh with a broken, heavy heart.

Almost two years on, I am reminded of him. “As Palestinians, we have to come to terms with the fact that if we want a two-state solution, it is clear we are not going to be able to implement the dream of returning these millions of people,” said Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority’s official in charge of Jerusalem affairs. How these poison-tipped words, spoken recently at university lecture theatres, seminars and rallies throughout Israel, must be infecting every fiber of Muhammed’s body, crippling the hope he had desperately clung onto so for so long.

Since, under international law, the Palestinians are entitled to their own state and their right to return to their homes, Nusseibeh is in effect attempting to reward Israel for abiding by one legal duty by allowing it to flout another. He has sent shock waves throughout the eight million-strong global Palestinian community by echoing a supposedly “moderate” Israeli demand, backed by the ever-partial U.S., that if it withdraws from the illegally occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank including East Jerusalem (comprising only 22% of former Palestine), the basic rights of almost 5 million refugees should be swept under the carpet.

The words of former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower spring to mind: “Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose the conditions of its withdrawal? If so, I fear we have turned back the clock of international order.” Nusseibeh is helping Israel turn back that clock, allowing his insensitive “flexibility” to be used as a propaganda weapon to debase the refugees’ legitimate demands. No wonder then, that according to London’s The Guardian newspaper’s Middle East correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg, he is “Israel’s latest darling.”

It seems Nusseibeh, and much of the world for that matter, have fallen into a conceptual trap of denying these refugees their humanity. In the Western media, they are “obstacles to peace.” To negotiators they are a bargaining chip, to be consigned to oblivion at the stroke of a pen. To politicians, they are stubborn cattle that won’t do what they are told or go where directed. To intellectuals, they are statistics in a ruthless game of mathematics. To Israelis, they are unpleasant memories on a suppressed collective conscience. To ordinary people around the world, they are faceless, soulless creatures far from sight and further from mind.

Arafat’s negotiators have done little to rectify these negative images. During the Camp David talks, one could not escape the impression that a just resolution of the refugee problem was the least of their priorities. While there was much talk of and jubilation over the progress made on settlements, borders and Jerusalem, and while Arafat declared parrot-fashion that the Palestinian flag would be raised over the Al-Aqsa compound, there was barely a murmur about the fate of the refugees. While the Israelis and Americans chanted in unison for the right of return to be dropped, relevant proposals, assuming that some were made, were shrouded in secrecy uncharacteristic of the other final-status issues. We heard whispers of figures being bandied about, the largest being a mere 100,000 (around 2% of the refugee population) over a 20-year period.

This impression has been compounded by Arafat’s stark silence and inaction over Nusseibeh’s comments and the subsequent worldwide protests, petitions and calls to have him dismissed. Could this whole affair be a litmus test by Arafat to gauge public reaction, or worse, an attempt to condition the Palestinian people to accept the abandoning of their right of return? I dread to think so, but given his history of fruitless compromises, I dare not dismiss the possibility. It is fortunate then, that the right of return is inalienable and individual, and thus cannot be negotiated away or rejected without the refugees’ consent.

Their case is backed by international law, enshrined in UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others. As such, the right of return is exactly that – a right, not a “dream” as Nusseibeh puts it, and much more than a demand. Renowned Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta has also shown that Israel is physically, geographically and economically able to absorb these refugees. Sadly though, this has not moved the international community to act, as it has in the Balkans for instance.

There are those that worry for the Jewish character of Israel should these refugees return. It is either ignorance or amnesia shielding them from the fact that this largely imported character came about at the expense of the indigenous Arab people whose homeland was ethnically cleansed, resulting in what is today the largest, most persistent refugee population in the world. “There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population,” said former Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan in 1969.

These Arabs and their descendents languish in cramped, squalid refugee camps often within sight of their homeland, unwelcome by their hosts, unable to expand, denied basic services, and barred from all but the most menial jobs.

Israel’s “Law of Return” allows an American convert to Judaism or a Russian with one Jewish grandparent to settle in the Holy Land, providing them a hollow pretence that their claims and ties to that land are stronger and more legitimate than those of its native Arab Muslims and Christians. This state-sanctioned religious discrimination has prompted the joke that the refugees’ plight would be solved in an instant if they all converted to Judaism.

But let’s strip down these arguments, do away with laws, facts and figures, and confront those who oppose the right of return with three simple, moral questions: How would you feel if a stranger broke into your house and threw you out, making your family destitute? Would you care whether returning to your house would compromise the presence of the illegal occupier? Would you agree to share your house with that occupier? The answers to all three would be as predictable and justified as the opposition’s views are hypocritical. “There is no example in history of a people saying we agree to renounce our country, let another people come and settle here and outnumber us,” said Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1944.

This turns on its head the description of the right of return as an unimaginably painful Israeli compromise. It is in fact a historic Palestinian compromise that they are willing to share their houses and land with those that threw them out so inhumanely.

However, there are clear silver linings to Nusseibeh’s black cloud. Firstly, his remarks provoked rigorous, widespread Palestinian condemnation, a healthy sign of the passions and steadfastness that the right of return continues to invoke. This reaction would make Ben Gurion turn in his grave, for it is he who said in 1948: “We must do everything to ensure they never do return…the old will die and the young will forget.” Evidently not, for as the famous English author and philosopher George Bernard Shaw put it so succinctly: “If you break a nation’s nationality, it will think of nothing but getting it set again.”

This response is a clear warning to Israel and Arafat’s eager negotiators, and should be maximized by educating the public about the refugees’ plight and rights, as well as the violent, immoral nature of Israel’s founding. For to oppose the right of return is to support ethnic cleansing, plain and simple. As such, there will be no true peace without acknowledging and implementing this right, thereby rectifying, in the words of the UN mediator for Palestine Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948, “an offence against the principles of elemental justice.”

Nusseibeh’s proposed trade off between a Palestinian state and the right of return also resurrects perhaps the most just, viable proposal for a lasting peace – a single, bi-national state based on equality for Israelis and Palestinians, a country for its people, not a particular religious group.

Sharif Nashashibi encourages your comments: sharif_n (at) hotmail.com

YellowTimes.ORG urges its material to be reproduced, broadcasted, or rewritten as long as a link to YellowTimes.ORG is included.
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