President Clinton's renewed efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations focussed attention once again on what is conventionally held to be the key sticking point in the talks: the future of Jerusalem.
But for many Palestinians this focus on Jerusalem suggests that other issues equally vital to a just peace are being neglected, or worse, may have been quietly settled on Israel's terms. Most prominent among these is the right of return for Palestinian refugees. It is to draw attention to this issue that thousands of Palestinians and their allies are rallying in Washington DC on September 16.
When Israel was created, 800,000 Palestinians fled or were deliberately forced from their homes. Over four hundred towns and villages were destroyed or depopulated, and tens of thousands of houses, stores, farms and other property were taken over by Israel. Today there are 3.7 million Palestinians registered by the UN as refugees, including survivors and their children. Over one million of them are spread among 59 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.
The refugees' right to return has long been recognized by the international community: the UN General Assembly has reaffirmed resolution 194 every year since 1948, stating that, "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Those who choose not to return are to be given compensation. The US voted for this resolution every year until 1993. Since that time, the Clinton administration has consistently tried to take the Palestinian issue out of the hands of the UN, and put it into the Israeli-Palestinian boxing ring of "direct negotiations," where might counts for everything and right for nothing.
Israel has consistently rejected the right of return, arguing that it bears no responsibility for the fate of the refugees, and that any substantial return would dilute the "Jewish character" of the state. But, this essentially racist reasoning should not be acceptable in the twenty first century.
Israel is only able to remain a "democracy" with non-Jews as second class citizens as long as Jews can always outvote the non-Jews. As the number of Palestinians grows (and it is growing fast), Israel will inevitably face the choice between genuine democracy or becoming a fully-fledged apartheid "democracy." It is in order to maintain the Jewish majority that left-wing Zionists so fervently support the creation of a separate Palestinian state, and right-wing governments never dared to annex most of the occupied West Bank, with all its inconvenient non-Jewish population.
But preventing Palestinian refugees from returning home will not long postpone the day when Palestinians and Israelis are equal in number between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. And if it was ever viable, partition--the creation of two states, with the Israeli state, inevitably dominant--is even less so today. Yasir Arafat and his cronies have a vested interest in creating a "state" which they can rule, but for many Palestinians, such a state is increasingly unappealing. The price that not even Yasir Arafat can get away with paying to have this state is giving up the right of return. The Palestinian and Israeli positions seem irreconcilable, but they are only so within the narrow US and Israeli-defined parameters of the "peace process."
In the long run, I am convinced, a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, is the only just and viable solution. As Eqbal Ahmed pointed out, we would not have supported the creation of independent black states in Mississippi and Alabama in lieu of civil rights, so why should such a solution be any more palatable in Palestine?
The worst nightmare of some Israelis is a mass return of refugees that would sweep them away. But whether genuine fear, or reckless scaremongering, this is not what the right of return means. There is, for example, plenty of room for a substantial number of Palestinians to return to their homes in the mostly Arab-populated north of the country, and many refugees, lucky enough not to be in camps will likely choose to stay where they are and accept compensation. But it must be their choice.
Israelis who believe that return would be apocalyptic conveniently forget that there are already more than one million Palestinians living as peaceful and productive citizens in Israel--albeit with second class status. Imagine what their contribution would be if they were equal, and the existential conflict between the two peoples ended in a way that both peoples considered just.
The worst nightmare for Palestinians is that a final deal will consign millions of them to a bleak future of permanent exile in camps and countries where they are not welcome. Israel's strength and high standard of living has been bought at the cost of the futures of millions of Palestinians in the same way that the comfort of apartheid South Africa's whites was bought for the misery of its blacks. It is past time to end this unjust equation in Palestine and to bring the refugees home.
About the author: Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network (A Chicago-based community service organization), was a speaker at the Palestinian Refugee Return Rally on September 16, 2000 in Washington DC. He is author of The Bitter Pill website (www.abunimah.org)