Drawing the Line:
Activists Press Hard for Palestinian Refugees' Right of Return

By Laurie King-Irani
Freelance writer, former Editor of Middle East Report

It is unlikely that many of the dignitaries who gathered on the White House
lawn to witness the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993 were
thinking of the 4.5 million people in the Middle East most poorly served and
underrepresented by that dubious agreement: the Palestinian refugees.
Because of unusually bad traffic on Beirut's airport road that hot September
evening, I was unable to think of anything but Palestinian refugees as I
listened to the self-congratulatory speeches of Yasir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin
and Bill Clinton on the BBC. My brother-in-law was driving my husband to the
airport so he could participate in a human rights conference in Cyprus. We
had been living in Lebanon for just ten days, so I went along for the ride
in order to see more of Beirut, my newly adopted hometown.

To avoid traffic, my brother-in-law took a detour through Bourj Al-Barajneh,
where I saw the harsh realities of refugee life for the first time, just as
Arafat and Rabin were signing a document that relegated millions of
Palestinian refugees to a marginal sub-clause of the Oslo Accords, a
document that undercut and replaced the principles of international law and
the precedents of UN resolutions with Israel's sheer power (backed
unconditionally by the United States) to define reality, defy justice,
create facts and thus limit the options of millions of people throughout the
Middle East.

We drove through Bourj al-Barajneh's crowded, garbage-strewn lanes, past
cinderblock houses, open streams of sewage, old women sitting forlornly on
small stools in front of their tiny homes, hoping in vain to catch an
evening breeze; we passed thin young boys with the expressionless faces of
weary old men pushing wooden carts offering overripe tomatoes and wilting,
dirty lettuce for sale, their hair coated with dust, their shirts threadbare
and their shoes in tatters. It was a scene from one of Dante's circles of
hell--the circle of the forgotten and the forsaken, damned to an eternity of
hopelessness, helplessness, and disenfranchisement. "Unless these accords
answer the grievances of these refugees," I commented to my husband and his
brother, "there will never be any peace in this region!"

To see the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon first-hand is to
confront a human rights abuse that is obscene in its duration and appalling
in its enormity: To force millions of people to forego a future, the
guarantee of basic rights, identity, and hope is to subject them to a living
death; it is equivalent to committing a living holocaust. Which is crueler,
after all: to kill millions of people outright, or to consign them and their
children to unrelieved misery as vulnerable refugees generation after
generation?

Concerns about refugees' rights and the eventual political repercussions of
the denial of these rights are increasingly being voiced in the US and the
Middle East. In the last few months, the right of return of the Palestinian
refugees, a topic scheduled for a cursory--and probably
unsatisfactory--discussion in upcoming final status talks between Israel and
the Palestine National Authority (PNA), has been the subject of public
campaigns, petition drives, an international conference, and press briefings
in Washington, DC. Although cynics may dismiss these efforts as a case of
doing "too little, too late," the activism, commitment, and dedication
demonstrated by activists campaigning for the right of 4.5 million
Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is inspiring and qualitatively
different from similar and equally crucial campaigns of recent memory, such
as those to prevent house demolitions in the West Bank.

Motivated by the frightening realization that Yasir Arafat and the PNA are
more committed to consolidating and protecting their own power and privilege
in their phantasmal "state" than they are to achieving the rights enshrined
for Palestinian refugees in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 11,
1948), which resolved that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes
and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the
earliest practicable date and … compensation should be paid for the property
of those choosing not to return and for 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," activists representing a wide
variety of nations, age groups, social classes and religions (including a
number of progressive Jews, Israeli as well as American), have taken up the
standard of refugees' rights with a vigor and eloquence not seen since the
most electrifying days of the intifada. While the campaign's clearly stated
purpose it to attain the justice denied the refugees for 52 years, its
subtext is a growing challenge to the established Palestinian leadership,
the legitimacy of the Oslo Accords, and the diminution of the role of
international law in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the
convening of the Madrid conference in 1991. This challenge from the margins
of the worldwide Palestinian community, which has been progressively
fragmented since the inception of the Oslo process, seems to have put a bit
of steel into the spines of Palestinian negotiators, as Israeli veteran
journalist Danny Rubinstein noted in today's Ha'aretz ("A Brewing
Palestinian Consensus"). The PNA may finally be realizing that concessions
cannot go on forever without the loss of its own legitimacy. The right of
return is rapidly emerging as a "red line" that the Palestinian leadership
can ignore only at its political peril.

The multifaceted Right of Return campaign has been facilitated by an unusual
combination of factors. Last year's televised flight of refugees in Kosovo
awoke millions throughout the world to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and
forcible population transfers. Some commentators noted that the
Palestinians' violent eviction at the hands of the Haganah in 1948 was a
tragedy on a much larger scale than that of Kosovo. The images of terrified
women and children fleeing their villages in a driving rain, bundles of
clothes and family pictures albums clutched to their breasts, reawakened the
memories, and occasionally the consciences, of those who had forgotten or
even, in some cases, caused the nakbah. One Israeli journalist even dared to
acknowledge publicly that the Palestinian exodus had been far more horrific
than the Kosovars' experience. Unlike the Palestinians, though, the Kosovars
finally got to go home, thus pointing up inconsistencies and hypocrisies in
the implementation and interpretation of international law.
Over the last three years, the Internet has facilitated communication,
mobilization and organization of the Palestinian Diaspora across social
classes, time zones and closed borders. Internet projects in Lebanon and the
West Bank have enabled widely separated Palestinian refugees to link up and
share their stories, concerns and dreams with each other as well as with the
rest of the world. Powerful photographic exhibits and video diaries done by
refugee children have reminded the world, in images more compelling than a
thousand factual reports, of the unjust and profound suffering inflicted on
four generations of Palestinian refugees.

The Internet has also provided an immediate means of outreach and
recruitment for such organizations as the Council for Palestinian
Restitution and Repatriation (CPRR), a non-profit, non-partisan organization
established to assist Palestinians and their heirs to fully achieve their
individual and inalienable human rights to their land, natural resources and
property as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CPRR's
beautifully designed web site (http://www.rightofreturn.org) offers an
impressive array of factual information, news updates, suggestions for
successful activism, and an electronic petition demanding the right of
return. Tens of thousands of individuals and organizations throughout the
world have signed the petition, and more are signing everyday.

Perhaps the most galvanizing of all the recent efforts on advance the
refugees' right of return was an international conference held in Boston on
April 8th. Organized by the Trans-Arab Research Institute
(http://www.tari.org), a non-profit organization devoted to scrutinizing the
causes of Middle East crises and conflicts and to exploring policies and
solutions that promote stability and peace based on justice, the conference
identified the refusal of the refugees' right to return as a primary
catalyst for future conflicts and violence.

Over 600 people attended the Boston Right of Return conference, and an
additional 300 had to be turned away because of limited space in the lecture
hall. Activists, students and scholars from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon,
Jordan, France, England, the Netherlands, the US and Canada listened to a
stellar group of speakers, chief among them Dr. Edward Said, Dr. Noam
Chomsky of MIT, Alain Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique, Salman Abu Sittah,
Lamis Andoni, Robert Fisk, and a young Arab-American activist, Ali Abunimah,
who has single-handedly taken on the US news media's biased reporting of the
Middle East. The conference also featured panels of speakers representing
organizations at the front lines of providing crucial services to refugee
communities in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, and concluded with a
brainstorming session on ways to translate knowledge into action led by a
panel of young activists, one of the more inspiring events of the
conference.

More than 60 students from McGill University in Montreal had traveled
several hours by bus to attend the conference, and a wide variety of
students from the US were also in attendance. Their comments and ideas were
consistently well-informed, constructive and imaginative, and viewed in the
context of the student activism witnessed on the streets of Washington the
following week during the World Bank and IMF demonstrations, confirmed that
a new generation of capable and committed student activists is now emerging
in North America. Many attending the conference commented that it was the
first time since the end of the intifada that they had come away from an
event on Palestine feeling energized and motivated rather than depressed and
frustrated.

Dr. Naseer Aruri, president of the Trans-Arab Research Institute, noted in
his opening speech that "Palestinians are now facing their greatest
challenge since the nakbah of 1948: The final status negotiations, which
will touch on the most arduous and crucial issue of all--the refugees."
Reminding his audience that Israel prefers to act as though 1967, not 1948,
is the reference point for all issue concerning borders, demographics and
refugees, Aruri emphasized that "nearly five million Palestinians, if we
count the descendents of those who fled Palestine in 1948, lost everything,
yet they are excluded from decisions that will have a profound impact on
their individual and collective rights. No one should be allowed to take
these refugees' rights away!" Aruri's speech and many others conveyed an
implicit warning to the PNA: They have no right to bargain away the
inalienable rights of refugees who did not vote for them or grant them
power-of-attorney over their ultimate political fate. Aruri concluded by
asserting that "a true, lasting peace in the region requires the full
implementation of the right of return. Without justice for the refugees,
there can be no long-lasting peace or stability for Arabs or Israelis."

In his keynote speech, Dr. Edward Said, visibly affected by leukemia, though
as passionate and eloquent as ever, noted with some astonishment that this
conference was the first of its kind since the implementation of the Oslo
accords seven years ago. In that time, much damage has been done to
Palestinian rights, not to mention Palestinians' psyches. "It will take a
public relations miracle," Said noted, "to convince the vast majority of
Palestinians that the Oslo Accords were not an abrogation of the refugees'
right of return."

Dr. Said was unsparing in his harsh criticism of the PNA and the current
Palestinian leadership, which he accused of "selfishly placing its own greed
before the common Palestinian good…It is a scandal that there are still
Palestinian refugee camps in areas controlled and administered by the PNA!
Sewers are still open, insufficient housing continues to expand, while just
up the road, PNA officials are happily building themselves and their
families lavish villas." Referring to the upcoming final status talks, Said
indicated that Arafat's chief role now is that of a signer of documents: "He
is useful and needed by the US, Israel and the European Union as the man who
signs, who delivers his people" under the skewed and unfair terms of the
Oslo Accords.

Said also attributed Arafat's political survival to his role as "a master of
corruption and coercion. He has managed to buy off even the best people. At
least one million people's livelihoods hinge, directly or indirectly, on the
PNA's largesse, which of course makes most people hesitant to do anything to
remove this corrupt regime of stupid and selfish leaders. People in
Palestine are trapped….A new leadership must appear, therefore, from the
Diaspora, and from within the Palestinian community inside Israel,
particularly the 'internally displaced refugees.' It is these two groups
that have the most to gain from demanding and guaranteeing the
implementation of the right of return, after all, so it is time for them to
mobilize." The theme of mobilizing a new, democratic leadership capable of
countering the PNA's autocratic methods, corrupt practices and failure to
achieve even the smallest gains for the Palestinians was a common thread
that reappeared in several interventions.

One of the more sobering presentations of the conference was delivered by an
Israeli professor, Ilan Pappe, who explained how Israel has conducted a
successful campaign to exclude and deny refugee and repatriation rights. "In
the Oslo Accords, the refugee issue is in a sub-clause; it is nearly
invisible, which is just the way Israel wants it. The final stage of the
Oslo process is now at hand, and the parameters of discussion have all been
dictated solely by Israel, and Israel absolutely rejects the Palestinian
right of return. Only a handful of 1967 refugees will have a nominal chance
of repatriation into the area under the control of the Palestinian National
Authority, and then only if Israel approves of them." Pappe predicted that
another, more violent, uprising will surely follow if Israel persists in
defining all terms of the final negotiations and refusing to deal justly
with pressing issues such as refugees' rights. "The 'peace process' will
only produce more bloodshed unless restorative justice is attempted. If
restorative justice was possible in South Africa following the dismantling
of the racist apartheid regime, why should it not be possible in the
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?"

One answer to Pappe's question was supplied, indirectly, by a quote from the
martyred South African nationalist, Steven Biko, which Ali Abunimah cited in
his intervention on activism: "The most powerful tool in the hand of the
oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." Simply put, Israel has managed to
convince the PNA, many ordinary Palestinians, US opinion shapers and
decision makers, and indeed the entire international community that
implementing the right of return is nothing but an impractical dream, a
pie-in-the-sky wish on behalf of people who have completely lost touch with
hard and fast political realities. And it seems most people, even some
Palestinian academics and policy makers, have accepted Israel's definitions
of reality without question or protest.

One who has not, however, is Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, a civil engineer who has
been a member of the Palestine National Congress for 20 years. Abu Sitta's
intervention, "The Feasibility of the Right of Return," was the most
eye-opening and galvanizing presentation delivered at the Boston conference.
Based on meticulous research and an immense data bank of demographic,
geographic and economic statistics, Abu Sitta's presentation asserted that,
contrary to Israeli claims, the return of the vast majority of 1948 refugees
to the actual locations of their original villages is not only practical,
but indeed desirable if a permanent peace is to prevail.

Abu Sitta's argument begins with the real facts on the ground, not the facts
as Israel (mis)represents them. Referring to the Israeli version of reality,
which all the world has heard and unquestioningly accepted, which holds that
"Israel is fully populated and the return of the refugees would displace
existing Jewish residents," Abu Sitta asserts that this simply is not so:
"The return of the refugees is possible with no appreciable dislocation of
Jewish residents."

Dividing the area that is now Israel into three sections--Areas A, B, and
C--Abu Sitta demonstrates that most Israeli Jews now live, as they have for
decades, in the central and coastal regions, which he designates as Areas A
and B. These areas, taken together, amount to only 15% of the land. "Thus,
78% of the Jewish population of Israel lives on only 15% of the land." Area
C, representing 85% of the State of Israel, is, as Abu Sitta notes,
remarkably similar to, but not exactly consistent with, the Palestinian
areas from which 805,000 refugees were forcibly expelled during the ethnic
cleansing of 1948. Area C, most of which is in the Galilee, is now home to
approximately 800,000 urban Jews, 154,000 rural Jews and 465,000 Palestinian
citizens of Israel. "Thus, 154,000 Jews cultivate the lands of 4.4 million
Palestinian refugees who, though living less than 100 miles away, are
forbidden from returning to it." (Abu Sitta might also have noted that these
lands are now more likely to be cultivated not by Israeli Jews, but by
migrant workers from south Asia.)
Envisioning all of the possible ramifications of a return of the 1948
refugees to their original lands and villages in the Galilee, Abu Sitta
notes that the population density, assuming a return of all the refugees,
would be 482 persons per square kilometer, not quite double the current
ratio of 261 persons per square kilometer in this region. To those who might
complain that this would be too crowded and therefore not practical for the
Jewish Israelis who would remain in Area C, Abu Sittah counters "Why, then,
is it practical and acceptable that Palestinian refugees in Jabalya camp in
Gaza can live in conditions where the ratio is 4,000 persons per square
kilometer, or in the West Bank, where the ratio now stands at 880 persons
per square kilometer?" The issue of practicality is clearly a political--and
politicized--concept that Israel has strategically deployed to obfuscate and
hinder a just solution to the refugees' tragedy. Taking Abu Sitta's
rhetorical question further, is it not more practical to remove the refugees
from Lebanon (where their permanent settlement will likely destabilize a
country emerging shakily from a devastating civil war), and transport them
by bus to their original villages, less than two hours away, than it is to
fly 15% of the refugees to Canada, 10% to Sweden, 20% to Iraq, and sort
through the files of countless others to determine who will be allowed to
live in the nascent Palestinian state established on lands to which most of
the 1948 refugees have no ties? Clearly, the only thing that is impractical
or infeasible about Abu Sitta's proposed return of refugees to the Galilee
is the impact this would have on the Jewishness of Israel. Addressing this
concern, Abu Sitta stated that "the UN and the international community are
under no more obligation to protect and safeguard Zionist beliefs and
practices than they were to protect or defend Apartheid in South Africa."

Noting that the one problem unresolved by his study is the lack of
sufficient water resources in Area C to provide for the personal and
agricultural needs of a large influx of returning refugees, Abu Sitta makes
a virtue of a necessity, indicating that Israel could conclude a regional
agreement on water sharing with Syria and Lebanon in exchange for permitting
the return of the 1948 refugees. Abu Sitta observed that Israel has been
very wasteful in its use of water, and not above plundering the aquifers of
neighboring states. "Not only is the present Israeli exploitation of Arab
water subject to the censure of the international community, but the
continued pursuit of this policy will be a recipe for more wars." Instead,
he proposed a rational, "win-win" approach that would go far towards
forestalling the specter of future water wars in the Middle East: "If the
refugees return and resume their occupation in agriculture, a regional water
agreement may be concluded, thus forestalling a new war…If, however, Israel
continues to impose its control over land and water and plans further
expansion on the belligerent principle that 'water cannot be a consequence
of peace, but only a condition of peace,' then the region may well witness
another fifty years of bloodshed and destruction."

Despite Abu Sitta's meticulous research, not to mention his impeccable
credentials as a member of the Palestine National Congress, his work has yet
to attract the serious attention of the PNA and its negotiating team
responsible for refugee issues. Rather than relying on his excellent work,
or on the thorough demographic studies issued by the capable and energetic
staff of the Badil center in the West Bank, the PNA has contracted-out
studies to a right-wing firm in the United Kingdom, the Adam Smith
Institute, which, as Edward Said noted sardonically, is primarily concerned
not with social or economic justice, but with the expansion of market
liberalization in the Middle East. A US public relations firm, Arthur
Anderson, has been hired to sugar coat the PNA's next sell-out of yet
another sector of the Palestinian people: the refugees. This is all being
reimbursed by the US State Department.

If the right of return activism now percolating across North America, Europe
and the Middle East, thanks to the Internet, continues to gain momentum, the
PNA may find this its hardest sell yet.