"Outlook" – Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine Vol. 41 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2003
The Right of Return: An Inalienable Right
By Dr. Ismail Zayid
The Zionist movement, throughout its history, and as articulated by all its leaders from Theodor Herzl to Ariel Sharon, planned and effected, through massacres, intimidation and psychological warfare, a process of ethnic cleansing to expel the Palestinian people from their native land.
Theodor Herzl wrote in his diaries in 1896, "We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border ... Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly" (from R. Patai ed., The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, Vol. 1).
David Ben-Gurion, in a letter to his son Amos in 1937, confided that when the Jewish state came into being, "We will expel the Arabs and take their places. Later, Ben-Gurion, while visiting the newly conquered city of Nazareth in July 1948, exclaimed, "Why are there so many Arabs left here? Why didn’t you expel them?"
Joseph Weitz, the Jewish Agency chief representative, also stated that he and other Zionist leaders concluded in 1940 that there was "no room for both peoples together in this country". The achievement of Zionist objectives, he realized, required "a Palestine or at least Western Palestine (West of the Jordan River) without Arabs". He wrote that it was necessary "to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries – to transfer all of them, and only after such transfer would the country be able to absorb millions of our brethren".
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 brought about the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their historic homeland. This calculated policy was followed by the destruction of over 400 Palestinian towns and villages, so as to prevent the return of the refugees to their homes. These refugees, together with their children and grandchildren, number around 4 million people, living mostly in intolerable conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for the last 54 years. Their determination to return to their homes has not waned or faltered. They constitute the largest and most persistent refugee problem in the world.
The Right of Return (ROR) is sacred and legal. It is enshrined in international law and repeated UN resolutions. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country". On December 11, 1948, The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted resolution #194, of which paragraph 11 states that the General Assembly:
"Resolves that the 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 that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible ….
"Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation."
The Conciliation Commission for Palestine has given a careful interpretation of paragraph 11:
"The General Assembly has laid down the principle of the right of the refugees to exercise a free choice between returning to their homes and being compensated for the loss of or damage to their property on the one hand, or, on the other. of not returning to their homes and being adequately compensated for the value of the property abandoned by them" (Para. 38; UN Doc. A/AC. 25/w.81/Rev.2 at 20-21).
The UN Secretariat, reviewing the drafting of Resolution #194, confirmed that paragraph 11 "intended to confer upon the refugees as individuals the right of exercising a free choice as to their future" (UN Doc. A/AC.25/w.45, 1950).
It is vital to observe that the ROR is an individual right, with emphasis, in these UN resolutions, on the free choice for each refugee to exercise this right. This point is fundamental in the current political context, making it illegal and unacceptable for any other body, be it the U.S., Israel or the Palestinian Authority (PA), to bargain away this individual right. Furthermore, the emphasis in this resolution is that the refugees have the free choice to return to their homes, and not merely to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, as some political manoeuvres may imply.
In the context of Resolution #194, the international community felt a deep responsibility for this tragedy, as expressed by the UN Mediator in Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, who stated, "It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right of return to their homes" (UN Doc. A. 648, 1948). Tragically, Count Bernadotte, a man of nobility and honour, paid dearly for making this point of elemental justice. He was assassinated on September 17, 1948 in Jerusalem, by the terrorist "Stern gang", on the orders of its leader (and later prime minister of Israel) Yitzhak Shamir.
It is interesting to note that Resolution #194 has been reaffirmed by the UN over a hundred times, but "the earliest practicable date" has not yet arrived, 54 years later.
It is of relevance to point out that the implementation of Resolution #194, as well as the Partition Resolution #181, was a condition stipulated in the admission of Israel to the UN, as per Resolution #273, of May 11, 1949. Thus. it can be reasonably argued that Israel’s UN membership is illegitimate, given its refusal to implement these conditions.
The process of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was continued in 1967, when Israel expelled another 300,000 Palestinian refugees from the West Bank, many of them expelled for the second time. The UN Security Council ordered their return, as per Resolution #237 of June 14. 1967. Thirty-five years later this resolution remains unimplemented.
Another incredible aspect of the Israeli creation of refugees and denial of their ROR is the experience of Palestinian Israeli citizens. Of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, approximately 250,000 are to this day refugees in Israel. They are called, in the Orwellian Zionist lexicon, "present absentees". They acquired this label for having been away from their homes in 1948 – even if only for a single day – yet still remaining within the (pre-1967) boundaries of Israel. On the basis of this lsraeli determination, their homes and land have been illegally confiscated for the benefit of Russian and other immigrants of Jewish religion or origin. Israel, we are told, is a "Jewish state", not a state of all its citizens.
It is relevant to point out that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is not only legal but physically possible. Demographic studies show that about 78% of Israeli Jews live in 14% of Israel (within the "Green Line"). About 20% live in a few Palestinian cities, and the remaining 2% live on 86% of the land, which belongs to the refugees. (This is documented in a study by Professor Salman Abu Sitta. a specialist in demographic studies, in his paper "An End to Exile", Al-Ahram Weekly, March 9-15 2000).
The point is often raised by the State of Israel and its supporters that the return of Palestinian refugees would threaten the "Jewish character" of the State. This is a strange argument for a state that claims to be a true democracy. No democratic state would characterize itself according to the religious or ethnic affiliation of its citizens. The claim by Israel that it is the state of the Jewish people, be they in America, Russia, India or Africa, rather than a state for all its citizens, is a contradiction of all claims to democracy. Surely the Palestinian refugees, who were systematically cleansed from their native land, have a clear priority over the immigration from Russia or Argentina that Mr. Sharon is pushing for. Be that as it may, it must be emphasized that the Palestinians have a legal right to make an individual choice to return to their homes or accept compensation, as UN resolution #194 states. In all probability, a large number of Palestinian refugees would choose compensation over return, but the choice must remain theirs.
The question has also been raised whether, in the event of the implementation of the ROR, the creation of a binational state in Palestine/Israel might be the preferred outcome. I strongly believe that a binational state for Jews and Arabs, providing equal rights for all its citizens regardless of their religious or ethnic identification, is the best ultimate outcome for peace and security for all the people in the area.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that securing this elemental principle
of justice for the Palestinian refugees – the free choice to return to their
homes – is a vital element in obtaining peace and security for both Israelis
and Palestinians in this tortured land. ·
Dr. Ismail Zayid was born and grew up in Beit Nuba, Palestine, and went to school in Jerusalem. He received his medical education at the University of London, and immigrated to Canada in 1972. He is the author two books, Palestine: A Stolen Heritage and Zionism: The Myth and the Reality. He appeared in our Sept./Oct. 2001 issue with an article, "Canada Park:
Canadian Complicity in a War Crime."