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.