Abbas Is Mistaken in Sanctifying The Palestinian 'Right of Return'

When President Bush hosted the Annapolis conference in 2007, Israel, the Palestinians, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left hoping that some resolution to the decades-old conflict would reveal itself by the end of 2008. The likelihood of such an outcome by the end of Bush's presidency seems to be steadily evaporating, as Israel's Ehud Olmert exits office in disgrace, and Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas, though softening his rhetoric, is still adamant that "Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to their homeland," as he recently asserted in his meeting with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and that "Jerusalem and the right of return are inalienable Palestinian rights, too."  

For its part, Hamas, Abbas' political foe, was even more direct and stringent on this issue, contending that any negotiations "which disregards the basic rights of the Palestinians, and their internationally-guaranteed Right of Return will not be accepted by the Palestinian people."

All sentient observers of the Palestinian issue know that the "right of return" issue is a core tactic in rendering real peace, any viable Arab/Israeli solution, effectively impossible, that the prospect of some four or five million Palestinian refuges flooding into what is now Israel would, as University of Haifa professor Steven Plaut puts it, "derail Israel demographically and turn it into the Rwanda of the Levant."

The demand for a right of return, a notion  referred to by Abbas and his Palestinian supporters as "sacred" and an "enshrined" universal human right granted by UN resolutions and international law, in fact has no legal or diplomatic standing at all, and is part of the propaganda campaign that is based on the thinking that if Israel cannot be eradicated by the Arabs though a military war, it can be effectively destroyed by forcing it to commit demographic suicide.                                       

In the first place, the concept of the right of return uses as its core notion that the Palestinians were "victimized" by the creation of Israel, that they were expelled from a land of "Palestine" where they were the indigenous people "from time immemorial," as historian Joan Peters put it in her book of the same name. The recounting of this wistful reading of history has enabled the Palestinian cause to become the obsession of the Leftist West, Middle East Study Centers on university campuses, the United Nations, and throughout the Arab world where Jew hatred helps fuel a central, persistent myth of Zionist oppression on fellow Muslim brethren.                                                                                                                                               

More importantly, far from being either a "sacred" or, for that matter, legal right, the right of return is a one-sided concoction that deliberately misreads United Nations resolutions for political advantage, and conveniently embraces only those portions that fit the intent of Arabs to make good on their long-standing intent to "drive Israel into the sea." In continually repeating the lie that they are victims of the "Zionist regime" and that they were expelled from a country of their own and condemned to unending refugee status, the Palestinians-and their Arab enablers-have prolonged the myth of victimhood. But as Professor Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College at the University of London, and the author of Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians, points out, "this claim of premeditated dispossession is itself not only baseless, but the inverse of the truth. Far from being the hapless victims of a predatory Zionist assault, the Palestinians were themselves the aggressors in the 1948-49 war, and it was they who attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to ‘cleanse' a neighbouring ethnic community. Had the Palestinians and the Arab world accepted the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947, calling for the establishment of two states in Palestine, and not sought to subvert it by force of arms, there would have been no refugee problem in the first place."

Thus, the accusations that the creation of the State of Israel led to the eradication and dispossession of a Palestinian ‘nation,' and that Israel continues to obstruct and deny the Palestinian's right of self-determination, are spurious at best, since, as Robert Spencer, scholar of Islamic history, notes, before the 1967 war when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank, no one-including the Palestinians themselves-thought of themselves as a nation, that this "supposed national identity was invented in the 1960s in what turned about to be an extraordinarily successful ploy to adjust the paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict with the newly-minted Palestinians as the underdogs."

Nor was the land that the Palestinian Arabs fled from in what would become Israel ever land to which Palestinian refugees could ever make a legally sound claim. "None of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has ever been ‘Palestinian Land,'" says columnist and historian David Meir-Levi. "Before Israel's, the last legal sovereignty over these territories was that of the Ottoman Empire. The British Mandate was a temporary care-taker control established by the League of Nations. And from 1948 to 1967, the West bank was illegally occupied and annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip by Egypt-both in stark defiance of international law, Fourth Geneva Convention, and UN resolutions 181 and 194."

There is some irony in the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly violated both the spirit and intent of 194, that particular UN resolution containing a reference to concept of ‘return' to one's country, although two key points are characteristically ignored by those now pointing to this source as justification for their legal claim. First, Resolution 194 was the product of the UN General Assembly and "is an expression of sentiment and carries no binding force whatsoever," meaning that it is meant to make recommendations but not binding law. What it did suggest, however, was that "the 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, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which . . . should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

According to the evaluation of law professor Ruth Lapidoth of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this language precludes an interpretation of the UN resolution that supports a Palestinian claim for an unqualified right of return as opposed to a suggested one. "Though the Arab states originally rejected the resolution," she wrote (specifically because it would mean giving implicit recognition of the existence of Israel), "they later relied on it heavily and have considered it as recognition of a wholesale right of repatriation."

But according to Professor Lapidoth, "this interpretation . . . does not seem warranted: the paragraph does not recognize any ‘right,' but recommends that the refugees ‘should' be ‘permitted' to return. Moreover, that permission is subject to two conditions -that the refugee wishes to return, and that he wishes to live at peace with his neighbors," something the Arab world, even now, has clearly never seen fit to do. And there is another significant aspect of the "refugee" problem from the 1940s that everyone demanding rights of return and reparations for Palestinian refugees conveniently forgets: some 800,000-900,000 Jews, some of whom had lived in Arab lands for 2000 years and were fully integrated into those societies, were expelled and all their wealth (estimated to be about ten times that of the Palestinians, estimated to be $100 billion) confiscated as the nascent Israel was being established.

So for observers like Professor Karsh, the recommendations of Resolution 194 "could as readily apply to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were then being driven from Arab states in revenge for the situation in Palestine," and in fact were meant to, since the refugees mentioned in the resolution are purposely not defined as being either Arab or Jew. In fact, many diplomats and officials had anticipated an exchange of refugees, as has happened successfully in other similar social upheavals, where Palestinian refugees would have been absorbed in Arab states and Jewish refugees would have settled in Israel-exactly what happened to some 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Legal scholars also point out that international law grants the right to leave or return to one's country only to individuals, not as a collective right as the Palestinians claim. More importantly, no population of refugees has ever presumed that the right of return-if such a right even exists-could be claimed, not only by the original refugees, but also by all of their descendants.

Also, the Arab world has never agreed to assimilate Palestinians into their respective countries and solve the refugee problem; instead, the blame for the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians has been assigned singularly to Israel. "Among the dozens of countries to which tens of millions of refugees have fled for asylum," says Joseph E. Katz, a Middle Eastern political and religious history analyst, "the only instance in which the ‘host countries refused,' as a bloc, to assist properly, or even to accept aid in the permanent rehabilitation of their refugees, occurred in the ‘Arab states,'" violating the thinking of the resolution itself which foresaw "reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement."

No one would have imagined that, of the roughly 100,000,000 refugees created by international conflicts just since World War II, only the Palestinians would not have been resettled in the million and a half square miles of Arab land; instead, they have been made to tragically languish by their Arab brethren who still hypocritically demand their right to return only to the tiny 8000 square-mile piece of land that is now Israel.

So it is significant that people who should know better, including  Mr. Abbas, continue to promiscuously refer to the right of return as a clear, legally-binding right with which  Israel has repeatedly interfered . But the motivation is clear: prolong the myth of Palestinian victimization and grant them, as part of that mythology, exclusive international recognition and supposed legal rights. Why? "Unlike all those many millions of other people considered refugees in the late 1940s," answers Professor Plaut, "the ‘Palestinians' were the only ones for whom the ‘right of return' to their previous homes was considered an entitlement.  The reason was not a selective affection for Palestinians, but a selective hostility towards Israel and Jews."

If Palestinians could embrace the notion of a secure life in a Palestinian state that already exists, Jordan, and stop sacrificing themselves on the myth of a return to a homeland that was never and can never be exclusively their own, they may be able to live, finally, in peace with their Israeli neighbors who seek the same safety and self-determination themselves.

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, director of Boston University's Program in Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, writes frequently on law, politics, religion, housing, and culture.