Ending seventy years of exile for Palestinian refugees – By Francesca Albanese (MONDOWEISS)


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As I write this piece 47 Palestinians have been shot dead and thousands injured in Gaza by the Israeli army since the beginning of the “Great Return March” on March 30th. The March demands the realization of the right of return of Palestine refugees to the territory from which they were displaced between 1947 and 1949.

After seventy years, most of the over 6 million Palestinian refugees continue to reside in the Middle East, the vast majority spread between Jordan, Gaza, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Some fleeing instability in the region, have moved to Europe and North America and others, more recently, further afield, to Asia and Africa. For most of them, the conflict over Palestine is all but a past event. It is at the very root of the ongoing statelessness and ‘refugeehood’ the majority of them still endure.

For Palestinians the question of “return” is an existential matter, as its realization would redress the injustice of expulsion and dispossession and help them restore their dignity as ‘a people’, often denied by successive Israeli governments. For Israelis, the return of those displaced in 1947-1949, and their descendants, is by no means less existential, as it is often portrayed as a threat to the Jewish character, and therefore survival, of the State of Israel.

The right of return

The right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and villages left behind in 1947-1949 (and from the rest of Mandate Palestine in the following years), is rooted in international law as it stood at the time. In 1948, Israel was already under an obligation to repatriate and compensate those displaced under the laws of war, which had become customary law by 1945, when it was also reaffirmed in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal Chart and then at the Nuremberg Trials. Through UN General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted in late 1948, the international community stated its will about how the conflict should be resolved. With reference to the refugees, it made the applicability of the right of return authoritatively specific to the Palestinian case, as part of the overall settlement the resolution contained. As Israel eventually signed various refugee, humanitarian and human rights conventions, its legal obligations vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees have grown stronger. In spite of this, the displacement of Palestinians from Israel continued throughout the early 1950s, and since 1967 from and within the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

The backing of international law notwithstanding, the path to fulfil the rights of Palestinian refugees appears to be as tortuous as ever.  The UNCCP, the UN body mandated to negotiate their return as part of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, has become de facto defunct since the early 1960s. Neither the Security Council, nor the various peace mediators and negotiators have succeeded to advance the issue. Within the narrow perimeter of the direct negotiations Israel-PLO, focus has progressively shifted from return to self-determination, with the view of establishing a Palestinian State. While the two rights are all but mutually exclusive, isolation around Palestinian refugees’ claims has grown thicker.

Diplomatic action from key countries has been limited to little more than lip service. Besides providing financial support to Palestinian refugees for decades, European countries have been unable to make progress towards fulfilling their stated wish for a political solution of the conflict in a way that would also address the claims of the refugees. The United States (with the exception, perhaps, of the Clinton’s administration) has long abdicated its role of refugee advocate enshrined in President Truman’s initial support for Palestinian refugees. The recent decision of the US Administration to dramatically curtail UNRWA funding is the last nail on the coffin of that role. Political convenience priming over established norms, seems to be the conclusion no one has ever dared to challenge.

Arab States have not been faring better in this respect. Commendably, they have been hosting the majority of Palestinian refugees, at times when their own capacities and resources were limited. While in some states most Palestinian refugees obtained socio-economic opportunities, either connected to citizenship (Jordan) or treatment on-par with nationals (pre-war Syria, pre-war Iraq); in some others, they have been treated as ‘aliens’, often denied of the most basic rights (Lebanon and subsequently Egypt). Improving refugees’ living conditions – was the adagio – will reduce their chances of return. Worth mentioning, this contrasts with both the obligations under the main human rights treaties most of them have progressively ratified and the fact that enjoying a decent standard of living doesn’t conflict with return. As time passed, Palestinian refugees in Arab countries resented the evolution (and stalemate) of the conflict with Israel, and often paid the brunt for the relationship Arab States-PLO. The multiple counts of displacements, and the related challenges, endured by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the region, such as Kuwait in 1991, Libya in 1995, Iraq in 2003, Syria from 2011, to name a few, speak volumes to the problem. Precarious status and progressive curtailing of their economic, social and physical wellbeing has limited the possibility of many Palestinian refugees to evolve into an accomplished, self-reliant and active diaspora, able to stand for and speak for itself. While strongly asserting the Palestinians’ right of return as the desired solution to their question, most Arab diplomacy, has substantially done little to advance this right.

Seventy years on, Palestinian refugees seem to have been trapped by their own right. Resolution 194 has been an inspiring model in resolving other refugee crises. Unlike millions of refugees who had fled conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia Herzegovina, East Timor and Central America, to name a few, for whom the UN Security Council affirmed the right to ‘safe return of the displaced to their homes’, Palestinian refugees have not seen this right coming any closer. In fact all the durable solutions afforded by international law to refugees (of which return is the most preferred one followed by local integration and resettlement) – none of which is tied to the political solution of an underlying conflict– have remained untouched to Palestinians. Other refugee situations demonstrate that the implementation of the right of return depends on political factors such as the will of the ‘country of origin’ and a firm stand by the international community. So far, Israel has been adamant in rejecting such a return, contesting its foundation, invoking security, demographic and existential concerns, and continuing to erode the grounds for its realization.  Despite this political constellation, Palestinian refugees have often been under pressure – by the PLO and Arab States – not to seek protection as refugees or stateless persons outside of the region, so that even amidst danger and violence in the region Palestinian refugees were not resettled. The recent counts of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, ready to afford a perilous journey across the Mediterranean sea in search for a more decent life, testify the short-sightedness of this approach.   

While Israel remains the only country standing against the implementation of their right of return – as well as the main responsible for the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza – it is no longer the only state whose actions’ legality and morality toward Palestinian refugees deserve scrutiny. The West’s route of disengagement, and the lack of coherence between words and deeds of some Arab states has also had a detrimental impact on the situation of Palestinian refugees and their long-term prospects.

The return of rights

Silenced politically and often legally misrepresented, the Palestinians’ right to return still offers much to be advocated for. After seventy years, Palestinian refugees need to see an end to their exile, starting with the recognition of their rights under human rights treaties both Israel and host countries have ratified. Their right to return, solidly grounded in international law, needs Western and Arab alignment for there to be any chance for it to be implemented or to be leveraged in favour of a solution to their question. Without international and regional pressure to seek acknowledgement of the plight of refugees and offer satisfaction to their claims (which does not necessarily mean accepting their return en masse), Israel will have no incentive to relinquish the status quo. Consequently, the return Palestinians are longing for will not have a chance to materialize, even in limited part. Pending a resolution to the conflict, Palestinian refugees should enjoy effective protection, and be supported to pursue solutions to their situation based on their will, independently from any political agenda.

The “Great Return March” is a sobering reminder of the conspicuous lack of political will that has been maintaining the Palestinian refugees in a status of oblivion. The ‘return’ that the refugees are invoking through the march represents much more than physical return to lost homes and villages. It is a cry for justice, a call for recognition of dignity and humanity amidst continuous negation of the most basic rights endured through long years of exile and inaction of the international community. It is also a reminder to all of us that the Palestinian question was a ‘refugee question’ first and foremost, and without a just solution for the refugees, a resolution of the conflict will not be sustainable. As Martin Luther King said, “A right delayed is a right denied”. And over 70 years of denial seem more than enough.

About Francesca Albanese

Francesca Albanese is an international lawyer based in Washington DC. After working eight years for the United Nations including in the Middle East and in Jerusalem, the heart of the conflict over Palestine, she is currently engaged in research and advocacy on various humanitarian issues including the end of the military occupation in Palestine and the full recognition of Palestinians’ fundamental rights under international law.

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