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Palestinian Refugees Must Be Allowed to Choose

Middle East: Israel's rejection of the right of return goes against international law.

By ELIA ZUREIK, LA Times, 08/10/2000

In 1948, 800,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled out of fear from their homes in what is now Israel, and they never have been allowed to return. Today, these refugees and their descendants number more than 4 million. More than any other factor, the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian refugees have fueled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And more than any other factor, their fate is the key to its resolution.

At the Camp David summit, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators overcame an important barrier by discussing the Palestinian refugees seriously for the first time, but they remain sharply divided on the issue. As before, Israeli officials maintain that the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem had nothing to do with Israeli policies and practices. They claim instead that the Palestinian exodus was prompted by calls from Arab leaders for Palestinians to flee--or simply by the tragedy of war--even though substantial evidence from recently declassified official Israeli sources reveals premeditated plans to expel and transfer indigenous Palestinians across the borders into other Arab states.

Even were we to assume that the Palestinian exodus was caused by the unintended consequences of war, it is still hard to see how this justifies Israel's continued prevention of the refugees' return. There are numerous examples of peoples who were displaced during war but permitted to return to their homes once peace was established, most recently in the Balkan wars. That is what refugee law prescribes, and that is the solution initially proposed by the United Nations in 1948 and reaffirmed more than 100 times since.

Israel's rejection of the right of return simply has no basis in international law or practice. The refusal to allow the return of the refugees has a deeper ideological basis: Israel wants to preserve a Jewish majority. Allowing Palestinian refugees to return might disturb Israel's "fragile demographic balance" or "change the character" of the state, to use the euphemisms of the day. Accordingly, what is--under any standard--a form of ethnic cleansing is defended by Israelis as a means of national self-preservation.

Notwithstanding the international trend toward increased mobility and pluralism and the increasing diversity in Israeli society itself--in part a result of the influx of many immigrants from the former Soviet Union--Israel continues to conceive of itself as a state for only the Jewish people.

But what of the Palestinian refugees? They are no less attached to the land of their forbears than their Jewish neighbors. United Nations data show that among the former Palestinian residents of West Jerusalem who became refugees in 1948, two-thirds still live nearby, either in East Jerusalem or in adjacent towns. Many of them can see their old neighborhoods in the distance; a few lucky ones granted permits to enter Israel can even pass by their old homes. But they are barred from returning and reclaiming their property.

Refugees farther away in Lebanon, Syria and other countries must rely only on their memories--or, for the younger generations raised in filthy, overcrowded refugee camps, their imagination. I recently read an interview with an elderly Palestinian woman living in the Ein el Hilwa camp in Lebanon. Tightly gripping the rusted key to her family's farm near Jaffa, she asked her interviewer how she should explain to her grandchildren, who had known only the stench of the camp's open sewers, what it was like to wake up to the scent of fresh lemons.

These refugees must have felt especially embittered to watch Israel admit 6,000 Lebanese affiliated with the South Lebanese Army as a reward for their collaboration during Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon, while Israel has declined to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes.

The Palestinian refugees did not choose their past; it was forced on them. If there is to be peace, however, they must choose their future. This simple idea is the essence of the Palestinian position on refugees in the ongoing negotiations with Israel.

For the right of return to have any meaning, each Palestinian refugee must be given a free choice about where to live. A sizable number probably will choose not to return to their homes in Israel, particularly if they are given the opportunity to settle elsewhere or to improve their quality of life.

Many are established in other countries and would prefer to remain in them. But the choice must be theirs and theirs alone.

Elia Zureik, a Professor of Sociology at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, Advises the Palestine Liberation Organization on Refugee Issues

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