Reflections on the right of return, and speaking truth to the dispossessed

Posted: October 23, 2010 by Rex Brynen in peace process

A few days ago, in commenting on the recent very productive AUB-UNRWA conference, I suggested that “For all the attention to speaking truth to power, there was little corresponding attention to speaking truth to the dispossessed—that is, the refugees. Do they deserve feel-good slogans from refugee advocates and activists, or a frank and honest appraisal of what they might expect in any likely peace agreement?” It wasn’t an issue I raised publicly at the conference itself, for fear that it would distract from the other discussions.

In the meantime, it has been raised in the press by others. In a recent posting on the conservative Hudson New York website, Jerusalem Post journalist Khaled Abu Toameh asks the question “The Palestinian Refugees: Why Is Everyone Lying To Them?

Palestinian Authority leaders are now saying that they will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state because that would mean that they would have to give up the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians to their original homes inside Israel.

These leaders are actually continuing to deceive the refugees into believing that one day they will be permitted to move into Israel.

The Palestinian Authority, like the rest of the Arab governments, has been lying to the refugees for decades, telling them that one day their dream of returning to their villages and towns, many of which no longer exist, would be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, the refugees are continuing to live in harsh conditions in their UNRWA-administered camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

No Arab or Palestinian leader has ever dared to confront the refugees with the truth, namely that they are not going to move into Israel. On the contrary, Palestinian and Arab leaders continue to tell these people that they will go back to their former villages and towns.

Arab and Palestinian governments are lying to the refugees because they want to avoid any responsibility toward their plight. The Arab governments hosting the refugees have done almost nothing to improve the living conditions of the refugees…

The article suffers from a number of weaknesses. It implies that all of the refugees languish in squalid camps, while in fact the large majority (over 70%) of refugees do not live in camps at all, and in most areas (excepting Lebanon) there are only modest differences between refugee and non-refugee living conditions. It emphasizes the importance of telling the truth to the refugees, without raising the corresponding necessity for Israel to express its own culpability for the creation of the refugee problem. However, despite the factual errors and highly partisan tone, Abu Toameh’s piece does point to a tragic paradox: while Palestinian leaders, Palestinian negotiators, Arab host countries, and the international community all privately recognize that the vast majority of refugees will never be able to exercise the right of return, they are reluctant to express such views in public. Palestinian leaders, understandably, don’t want to be accused of selling out refugee rights. Host countries would prefer that the PLO make the concessions. The international community has generally shown a striking and dysfunctional unwillingness to articulate any detailed vision of how the conflict should be resolved, other than expressing platitudes about a two state solution.

There are myriad reasons why large-scale return to 1948 areas is unlikely. It can be argued that the legal case for a “right of return” is somewhat weaker than many refugee advocates would suggest. UN General Assembly Resolution 194, after all, only recommends return (“refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…”) and is in any case non-binding. While refugee rights can be multi-generational, they obviously do begin to fade generation after generation—indeed, to suggest otherwise would be to accept a core argument of the Zionist movement that historic dispersal was justification for establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. Some refugee rights typically also expire when another citizenship is acquired. Rights to return—such as that expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”)—do not clearly refer to one’s house or former property, but to one’s country, which in the Palestinian case might be argued to be the future state of Palestine. This isn’t to say, of course, that refugees have no rights of return. Moreover, one would hardly want to adopt the position that human rights can be overwritten simply by obstinacy and the passage of time. Was a profound injustice done in 1948? In my personal view, yes. However, the legal situation is far from unambiguous.

More importantly, however, given the realpolitik of the situation it doesn’t much matter. As I wrote in an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies more than a decade ago:

…whatever the considerable moral and legal weight of refugee claims, the “right of return”—understood in its original sense to mean the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to their homes within the 1948 territories—is one which will not, under any conceivable set of circumstances, be realized. However one evaluates the legal, moral and political character of its stance, no Israeli government will ever countenance substantially changing the demographic balance of the state—the very raison d’être of which is its Jewish character.

Yasir Arafat himself recognized this in a February 2002 op ed in the New York Times, in which he commented:

We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns. However, just as we Palestinians must be realistic with respect to Israel’s demographic desires, Israelis too must be realistic in understanding that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the legitimate rights of these innocent civilians continue to be ignored.

Palestinian negotiating efforts from Camp David to present have generally focused on winning Israeli recognition of the right of return, in exchange for practical concession on the implementation of the right such that any return flows to Israel are limited. However, to return to the original point about speaking truth to the dispossessed, this position—and the inevitable reality that arises from it, namely that most refugees will not have a practical, realizable option of return to 1948 areas in the aftermath of any future peace agreement—is something that they have been understandably reluctant to express to their refugee constituencies, as Abu Toameh notes.

This same issue was raised by Andrew Whitley, the outgoing head of UNRWA’s representative office in New York, in comments he made yesterday to the annual conference of the National Council for US-Arab Relations. The video of those comments can be found on C-SPAN, with Andrews’ general comments starting at 40:40 and his specific comments on this issue beginning at around 44:30. As quoted today in the Jerusalem Post, he noted:

“If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be — for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes — then we are storing up trouble for ourselves,” he declared.

Whitley acknowledged that few Palestinians and even officials in his own organization have been willing to publicly discuss the issue.

“We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent,” he said. “It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”

I recommend, however, that you listen to the much fuller comments on the video link above, which are a thoughtful and important contribution by someone who has spent years working on behalf of refugees.

Famously in the courtroom scene in the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise that “You can’t handle the truth!” I’m not convinced, however, that the refugees are somehow incapable of being engaged frankly. Most are quite well aware of the balance of political forces, and the likely contents of any future peace deal. Misleading them by holding out promises of the unobtainable hardly seems the most honourable way of dealing with the situation. On the contrary, it risks setting oneself up for an even greater backlash when concessions are made. Dressing up the symbolic return of very limited numbers of refugees to Israel as somehow representing a real implementation of that right (or, even worse, trying to sell as “return” the swapped Israeli territory that the new Palestinian state might obtain in a peace deal) seems potentially rather insulting. Instead, it seems far more effective to honestly express what the possible future might hold, and to honour the inevitable compromises on the refugee issue in any future peace agreement for what they would in fact be: sacrifices made by the most dispossessed segment of the Palestinian population, but sacrifices that ultimately make the dream of Palestinian self-determination in an independent state possible.

  1. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Rex. There is also nothing wrong with living in denial; we do it all the time. There is a great difference between having the right and exercising it and an even greater difference in actually giving it up. Uttering the words amounts to giving it up, it is ok not to have it but it is not ok to give it up. The issue is related to an intangible element which is that there has to be some sense of justice in whatever deal is made otherwise there it will not be acceptable. The reason why nobody utters the ‘truth’ is precisely that – that the truth is not acceptable and does not have to be.

    The important point you make about Israeli recognition may provide some element of justice in the mix, but it may also not be enough. The bottom line is that any deal should not make the refugees worse off than before, and ‘giving up’ the right of return may make them worse off because it will never be reconciled with their narrative. No peace deal is worth the ink it is written with if it is not acceptable to the refugees. Now exactly who can say what is and what is not acceptable and how can you measure that is not clear, but there are definite indications from the way the Nusseibeh-Ayalon plan and the Shikaki polls were received and even some of the nuances in the statements of PM Salam Fayad.

    The preamble of the next agreement, if it is to pass, will have to include recognition of Israeli responsibility without admitting it and recognition of the right of return. Justice can be achieved without restitution; it can be achieved by symmetry. We all know that Jews have the right to return to Israel, but we also know that 12 million Jews will not all exercise Aliya. The same can apply to Palestinians.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      We’ve very much become accustomed to the notion of Israel (symbolically) accepting the “right of return,” but I can’t imagine how that could possibly occur. First of all, Israelis overwhelming believe there is no right of return, either normatively (on which I disagree) or legally (where I think the situation is a little more complicated than either side will admit). Second, what does acceptance of a “right” mean? How might that come back to haunt Israeli decision makers in a few decades, if human rights issues become increasingly subject to some form of international justiciability? I don’t think you’ll find many international lawyers would suggest their clients acknowledge a right that they have no wish to implement.

      Consequently, we’ll need to find some clever way around that. I’ve always been rather partial to the UNGAR 194 trick that both the Clinton Parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative use. However, here too we have to be frank: we would be cloaking an agreement in the garb of UNGAR 194, while simultaneously gutting the intent of the resolution.

  2. Alfred Zelhof says:

    Can they handle TELLING the truth? regime and doctrine calculations prevent leaders of countries hosting palestinian refugees from exposing the sad and inevitable truth. It could be seen as selling the right of palestinians, like you pointed out in the article. Regional leaders survive at the expense of unconceivable objectives such as “liberalizing the occupied lands”. It is a great point that you raise in this article, they sadly need to get more realistic about the eventual return.

    Today’s refugees are no longer refugees in the strict sense of the word. Their fathers and grandfathers are, but the vast majority of them was never born in Palestine or ever been there. In fact, a lot of them are well-integrated in the hosting countries. Moreover, the feeling of belonging is necessarily fading with every generation. It is therefore time to acknowledge the fact that the right of return has sadly been sold a while ago.

    A practical solution to overcome the refugee obstacle to the peace process, would be, first for countries to offer citizenship to those with the status of refugees. Some rumors spoke about the U.S suggesting a hundred thousand citizenship opportunity to Palestinian refugees should the conflict be put to an end. The White House quickly denied that but that is exactly the kind of initiatives I expect being the most realistic to solve the refugee questions. Countries like France, Canada, the U.S along Arab countries should split the refugee population, giving them a choice of target-country and nationality. Second, and since there is no doubt that every country in this world wants to overcome the main obstacle to the israeli-arab conflict, financial compensation should be generously awarded as a form of incentive to Palestinian refugees wherever they end up residing. Finally, as part of the final settlement, the right of return to the West-Bank should not be denied to any Palestinian refugee who wishes to do so.

    I always remind the people who refuse to accept the hurtful truth and address the inevitable reality “War does not determine who is right, but who is left” – Bertrand Russell

    • Rex Brynen says:

      Alfred, while you mention a number of things that hosting countries and the international community should do, you really don’t say what Israel—the country responsible for the forced displacement of the refugees—should do for its part. Addressing Israeli responsibilities is essential, both for normative reasons, and for practical ones. Unless Israel, as the responsible party, also makes gestures on the issue (usually thought of in the form of acknowledgement, limited return, and assuming primary responsibility for compensation) others will find it politically impossible to do so.

  3. Carl Prine says:

    What I’ve noticed, Rex, is the role played by the diaspora in prolonging conflicts beyond the limits of those typically tolerated by their kinsmen on the ground.

    We saw this in Ireland before Home Rule, Sri Lanka before LTTE burned all bridges to the diaspora and imploded, not to mention the “guerrilla archipelago” roiling South Asia. It seems somewhat the same with the Palestinian diaspora.

    Forget for a moment the salient fact that several countries, for domestic reasons, need to pursue the myth of the refugees en bloc returning to Palestine (Syria’s Alawite and Baath junta needs the threat of war with Israel to invoke constant martial law, Lebanon for its own teeter-totter sectarian balancing act).

    Instead, let’s study the increasingly stance of the Palestinian diaspora on the subject of war with Israel, the need to punish the Zionist state, the racist notions of the Jews. Part of this is demographic, especially in western enclaves of Palestinian escape (younger people who have never lived much in Palestine, typically never, agitating for vengeance that they will never deliver), but it’s also because the money they send, the campus protest they provide and their espousal of Hamas goals under the guise of legitimacy are not the prices that they shall pay in any conflict with Israel.

    That burden falls on the poor people who have to languish in Gaza and who, when one talks to them, typically aren’t nearly as myopic about bumper sticker aphorisms and shouted bromides.

    To me, the great project of convincing — to be successful — not only must reach out to the camps and the several generations of Palestinians who were dispossessed in the myriad wars over the past six decades, but also the a far-flung diaspora that often feels like its living with the refugees, suffering alongside them and equally involved in their struggle, even if the recruitment, radicalization and resistance is professed really through the keyboard, the campus sit-in and the checkbook.

    Just my two dinars.

    • James Devine says:

      I wonder if this ‘unrealistic’ position is at least partially a bargaining chip; something only to be conceded when the pay-off is right. Obviously, this is a problematic strategy. It may lead to a political back-lash when the chip is cashed in, and while the negotiations are in progress, it reinforces the hard-line position in Israel. Nevertheless, it may not just be a question of weak/irresponsible leadership.

  4. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Symmetry gentlemen, symmetry. The points raised by both Alfred and Carl illustrate this perfectly, if true they apply to both Palestinians and Israelis:

    Alfred writes:
    ‘Today’s refugees are no longer refugees in the strict sense of the word. Their fathers and grandfathers are, but the vast majority of them was never born in Palestine or ever been there. In fact, a lot of them are well-integrated in the hosting countries. Moreover, the feeling of belonging is necessarily fading with every generation.’ A veteran white house correspondent was recently ‘retired’ for alluding to the paralell with Israel.

    The radical diaspora that Carl refers to also has a very familiar ring to it and implies also that giving the Palestinians US or Canadian citizenship will probably make them more radical especially when they come in contact with their equally radical ‘cousins’ in Brooklyn.

    Another illustration is thus:
    ‘Palestinians are persecuted and suffer everywhere. Everybody hates them and nobody wants them, they were expelled from most Arab countries. They are stateless and need a Palestinian state to protect them and they need a right of return.’
    Replace Palestinians with Jews in the above statement and you get a glimpse of justice by symmetry.

    This is certainly not the only instance where we have myths and conflicts between truth, peace, justice and the law.

  5. Terry Rempel says:

    Rex. I suppose one’s sense of what is “true” very much depends on one’s view of politics and power. One’s sense of the truth can be both subjective and objective. It seems to me that implicit in much of the debate over what is realistic and possible when it comes to resolving the refugee question is a sense that refugee views are merely subjective rather than objective. I would suggest, at risk of generalization, that refugee views are also objective, but based on a view of politics and power that is different from those who suggest that return is impossible because Israeli opposition to and power to deny the return of the refugees is somehow immutable. In this context the “feel good slogans” and views of refugee advocates and activists are also an expression of a different sense of what is true that reflects a different understanding of politics and power and what is both realistic and possible. It seems to me that it is the failure to acknowledge that there might be different objective understandings of what is true, rather than simply a subjective and an objective sense, that often leads to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the intentions of those whose objective sense of the truth is different from ours. There are lots of additional points to be made on issues of law, recognition, responsibility, etc. that are raised in the comment, but the differences all seem to flow from this much broader point of how and what we understand to be true and therefore what is also possible and realistic. Cheers.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      I accept that others may conceive of a “realm of the possible” that is broader than the one that I think obtainable—although I would press them to identify what it is that gives them such optimism that Israel could somehow be forced to accept refugee return on such a scale that would put in question the very purpose for which the state was established. I certainly don’t see grounds for optimism in Israeli political opinion (rather, I think most Israelis would prefer perpetual occupation and conflict to eroding the Jewish character of the state), nor in the regional or international balance of power.

      Moreover, none of the major parties believe that massive return is possible. The PLO certainly hasn’t thought so at any point since serious negotiations began in 2000, but instead has sought to achieve the recognition/modalities compromise that I discussed in the blog post (coupled with significant if symbolic refugee numbers in the 100,000+ range). I’ve been flatly told by host countries that they don’t believe that the right of return is achievable in a substantial sense, and they fully accept that sort of compromise. Indeed, the Arab Peace Initiative itself was deliberately crafted to support that possibility. None of the international community expects a full right of return (and most of them privately reject that there is a legal right that would today apply to the majority of refugees). Indeed, there is little doubt that were a compromise deal to be reached tomorrow it would obtain UNSC endorsement—and become, thereby, binding international law.

      Yet all of these actors, when confronted with the refugees, mislead them (deliberately or otherwise) about the expected contours of an agreement. By all means those who think more are possible are welcome to express that view. However, I think those who believe that compromise is inevitable should articulate that view too.

      Of course, having said all of this, I think the prospects for any peace deal in the medium term are extraordinary low at all…

  6. Carl Prine says:

    Nadim, I agree completely, and I didn’t mean to leave Israel’s problem with the diaspora out of this. While much ink often is spilled about the looming gap between North America’s Jewish children and Israeli policies, what often isn’t mentioned is the comparatively high number of diaspora Jews who become radicalized and make Aliyah to form settlements.

    Obviously, the angry 24-year-old from Brooklyn who wants to raise many children in what today is a Palestinian olive grove or an East Jerusalem tenement isn’t likely to have the same notions of tolerance or a willingness to negotiate as a third generation native of Tel Aviv who did his IDF tour protecting these very same settlers.

    And the widening divide within Israel over these issues also is problematic, but not so difficult to resolve, I think , than the headaches caused by an increasingly radicalized diaspora for both Jews and Arab Muslims.

    The Christian Arabs likely will keep voting with their visa applications, especially if they become convinced Hamas might gain a greater role in Palestinian affairs.

  7. Terry Rempel says:

    Rex. Your description of the problem illustrates the exact point I was trying to make. I suppose the other way of looking at “the realm of the possible”, however, is to ask whether it is any more realistic to expect refugees to cede what they regard as their basic rights than it is to expect Israel to accept the right of return. It’s not as if refugees generally are unaware of the challenges to a rights-based solution, or the fact that various Palestinian and Arab officials sometimes speak with two voices, saying one thing in private, and other in public. I’m all for honesty. I’m just not sure what can be gained practically in advancing a solution if Palestinian and Arab officials suddenly acknowledge publicly that they are unable to achieve what refugees have been demanding for more than 60 years, which is a recognition of their rights and a choice about to exercise them. I rather doubt that it will to a major change in refugee views while a solution that is subsequently imposed on refugees does not appear to be any more durable than one that is imposed upon Israel. While the impact of such an approach is pure speculation, it does appear to carry the risk of further weakening the Palestinian leadership, which may explain the current approach of some officials of trying to “please both worlds”. The initial reaction of some Palestinian officials to the emergence of a popular refugee movement in the 1990s, and the fear of an “alternative leadership”, exemplifies the problematic position this could create for the PLO/PA. I agree that Israeli officials should also be engaged in a discussion about recognition and responsibility, and, I would add, the overarching principles of equality and non-discrimination. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic on this issue, but I have grave doubts about whether there is any political will or appetite among the various key actors to do so.

    I tend to agree that if the parties reach a so-called compromise solution the UNSC will likely endorse it. This is by far the end of the problem, and perhaps, only the beginning. It will certainly put the UN itself in an awkward position, having originally affirmed that refugees wishing to do so should be able to return to their homes, and more recently, through the UN treaty body committees, having affirmed that Israel has a legal obligation to allow the refugees to return, restitute property, and, where that is factually impossible, as determined by an impartial tribunal, to compensate them for their losses. Admittedly, the latter conclusions comprise soft rather than hard law, but there is also an argument to be made that there is a sufficient body of soft law to date, affirming the applicability of hard law principles to the Palestinian case, for those wishing to do so to continue to pursue claims against Israel. Of course, UNSC endorsement of a compromise on those principles would significantly complicate efforts to pursue such claims, however, there also appears to be sufficient legal basis to make it impossible for Israel to achieve one of its major aims through such a compromise, which is the cessation of all further claims in relation to the refugee question, regardless of whether the PLO agrees not to support or pursue such claims. And its not like the PLO has been in the legal trenches actively pursuing those claims over the past 60 years, notwithstanding some of the excellent work done by its legal advisors through the legal support unit.

    I also agree that the likelihood of an agreement in the medium term is extremely low. By suggesting that what is true very much depends on ones view of politics and power is not to conclude that a different objective view how of politics and power functions would lead to a quick solution to the refugee question. To accept that there may be equally valid and objective views about politics, power, and ultimately change, rather is to suggest that a solution to the refugee question based on the balance of power is at face value no more realistic than a rights-based approach, based on the principles of return, restitution, compensation, choice, and the overarching principles of equality and non-discrimination. Either way it demands a major change or concession from either party, which, in the current context appear to be equally unlikely in the short to medium term. It seems that the question then becomes which approach, power or rights-based, ultimately holds the best prospect for a sustainable solution in the long-term, both among Israelis and Palestinians, and in the region at large.

  8. Abu helu musallam says:

    history is not decades, and human rights never been sold, it is easy to play with words in different meaning but truth never has different meanings. as far as I understand from all comments above I just want to say that without taking in account the future of refugees and with out giving them their rights peace never be truth. this does not mean that it is an easy task but we have to consider first to come to a durable solution .

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