On the eve of the 62nd anniversary of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has written a powerful reminder of the importance of refugee rights in “comment is free” section of the Guardian website:
Before his murder in 1948, Lord Folke Bernadotte, the first UN mediator to the Arab-Israeli conflict, stated: “It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent [Palestinian] victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine.” Lord Bernadotte paid for his candour with his life as Jewish militants assassinated him under the direction of Yitzhak Shamir, the man who would later become prime minister of Israel.
Less than three months after his death, as the war of 1948 ground to a close, and nearly three-quarters of the entire indigenous Palestinian population had been displaced by Israeli forces, the UN passed general assembly resolution 194, calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and to be awarded compensation for their losses.
On Saturday, 62 years will have passed without this historic resolution being implemented despite being upheld by the UN with nearly universal consensus ever since. In fact, Israel’s own admission as a member to the United Nations was contingent on its adherence to the principles of UNGA 194, something it proceeded to disregard once membership was granted.
Contrary to what Israeli political figures would like the world to believe, the issue of Palestinian refugees is not an academic matter, the solution of which is somehow rendered moot by the passage of time and by the creation of Israeli “facts on the ground.” Palestinian displacement continues to this day through the revocation of residency cards, land confiscation, home demolitions and evictions. At the same time, Israel has barred Palestinians displaced between 1947 and 1949, and again in 1967, from returning to their homes or receiving restitution for their lost property, making Palestinian refugees the oldest and largest refugee community in the world today….
He also emphasizes Israeli responsibility for the refugee issue, correctly noting that “Even if we accept the Israeli narrative that refugees left voluntarily – which has been proven false for the vast majority – there is no doubt about the fact that when refugees attempted to return according to their legal right, they were blocked by newly drafted Israeli legislation and declared infiltrators on their own property.”
Erekat then goes on to stress that any agreement must rest on the twin pillars of property restitution and refugee return:
In accordance with past Israeli-Arab agreements based on UN resolutions – most significantly the Egypt-Israeli Camp David Accords based on UN resolution 242’s formula of land-for-peace – resolution 194must provide the basis for a settlement to the refugee issue.
Return and restitution as the remedy of choice has a strong international precedent. For example, in the context of the Dayton Accords, concluded under the auspices of the United States, the return of Bosnian refugees to their homes and restitution of their property was considered a “non-negotiable” right that was critical to crafting a durable solution. American leaders such as Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, openly called on Bosnian Muslim refugees to return en masse to their former places of residence.
In Bosnia and in Palestine, the return of refugees has been considered absolutely necessary for the stability of peace. Any deal that does not respect the rights of refugees has been viewed as bearing the seed of its inevitable failure….
In this sense, the piece is a considerably more hardline position that that articulated by Yasser Arafat in his 2002 op ed in the New York Times, when the late Palestinian leader noted “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.” The lack of flexibility compared to other statements reflects, I think, the absence of current negotiations. The statement will certainly play well in Palestinian, refugee, and refugee advocacy constituencies. Equally, it will almost certainly be seized upon by others as showing a Palestinian unwillingness to make necessary compromises. In this regard, I don’t think it is a terribly useful or well-crafted statement, only contributing to the illusion that return (to 1948 areas) and restitution are achievable on any substantial scale.
Others, I know, disagree with me on that. Given the unlikelihood of any meaningful negotiations on the refugee issue any time soon, it (sadly) probably doesn’t matter either way.