Haaretz has been carrying an interesting exchange on the Palestinian ‘right of return’ for refugees. The radical leftist Uri Avnery breezily ignores the rights of Jewish refugees in the discussion. While a rebuttal letter in response mentions Jewish refugees, the author makes the mistake of demanding an equal right of return for Jewish refugees to Arab lands.
I think there is a vast difference between principle and implementation. The principle cannot be denied. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred. Any future peace agreement will have to include a section affirming that Israel in principle accepts the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader would be able to sign a deal that doesn’t include this clause. I can picture the scene: After agreement is reached on this clause at the peace summit, the chairman will take a deep breath and say, “And now, my friend, let’s move on to the real problem. How are we going to resolve the refugee problem in practice?”
Uri Avnery meeting Yasser Arafat.
The following response to Uri Avnery from Joseph Grinblat appeared in Haaretz:
I agree that it is not a problem for Israel to accept the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. But not for the reason Mr. Avnery gives. The word “return” is very clear; it means going back to where one has been before. So it can apply only to the people who left Palestine, not to their descendants who were born in another country.
There are less than 100,000 survivors from the 700,000 Arabs who left Palestine and became refugees, and they should be allowed to come back to Israel if they wish to, and if they are ready to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors, as is stated in the UN 1949 declaration about Palestine refugees, which mentions only the refugees but not their descendants: “Palestine 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.”
This applied to Jewish refugees as well as to Arab refugees from the war in Palestine.
The six million descendants should have been integrated in the countries where they were born. They are not refugees from Palestine, because they have never been there. There is no other example in history where descendants of refugees are still considered to be refugees, three generations later.
Joseph Grinblat, Retired Director, Migration Studies Section,
United Nations Secretariat
Forest Hills, NY
My comment: Uri Avnery is wrong to assume that a ‘right of return’ is a sacrosanct principle of international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has never applied to Palestinian refugees. A ‘right of return’ was added at the last minute and was intended to underscore the rights of hostage populations to leave their countries. Besides, the Palestinian refugees were never citizens of Israel.
The Arab states rejected UN res 194, which also called for compensation and resettlement, while Israel did take back around 50,000 refugees in the 50s and paid some compensation.
The Arab states have violated international law by refusing to resettle their own refugees, and refusing to compensate Jewish refugees.
Besides, Avnery is wrong to say that the Arab refugees were ‘ethnically cleansed’. They fled a war zone. The Jews, on the other hand, were banished from areas which fell to the Jordanians and Egyptians. The question remains – whether anything should be owed to a population who violated international principles by waging a war of aggression.
Grinblat is right that the definition of refugee should only apply to the actual refugees and not their descendants, but is wrong to even to entertain the idea of return for 100,000.
Israel has no obligation to allow Arab refugees to return 70 years after they left.
The existence of an equal number of Jewish refugees for whom return to Arab countries is dangerous should put paid to this notion, once and for all.
The point he should be making is that an irrevocable exchange of refugees took place. Neither set should be allowed to return.