If there is one issue more than any other that successive Israeli governments have been unable to contemplate rationally, it is the Palestinian right of return. The Palestinian refugee problem lies at the heart of the creation of Israel, and raises such questions about the legitimacy of Israel's "Jewish democracy" that even to acknowledge the refugees is to open a whole can of worms that no Israeli government, and few Jewish Israelis, want to go near. That is why, even 50 years after the establishment of Israel, Ehud Barak went into the negotiations at Camp David still insisting that Israel would accept no moral or legal responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and why Jewish Israelis today speak of the right of return - if they speak of it at all - as, at best, a "so-called" "right".
Yet the right of refugees to return to the homes they fled in wartime is not some cunning ploy invented by the PLO in order to tick off the Israelis; it is an established principle of international law, which the world community has insisted must be honored in the case of other displaced people, such as Kosovars displaced in the wars accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia and the East Timorese who fled Indonesian invasion and occupation.
The right of Palestine's refugees to return to the homes they had left in the war of 1948 was made explicit in UNGAR 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, in which the General Assembly:
Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible…
The right of refugees to return to their homes is also enshrined elsewhere in international conventions governing the status of refugees in general, e.g.:
Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948, Article 13(2)
Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own….No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966, Article 12, paras 1 & 4. (The Nov 1999 Human Rights Committee General Comment on the ICPPR makes clear that in Article 12 “his own country” applies to … individuals whose country of nationality has been incorporated in or transferred to another national entity, whose nationality is being denied them...i.e. to Palestinians whose homes are now in Israel)
International protection for a refugee ceases only when he has …voluntarily re-established himself in the country which he left or outside which he remained or he is …able to return to the country of his former habitual residence
- (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1C, 28 July 1951)
When you set aside for a moment the inflammatory context of the I/P conflict, and consider what these conventions are actually saying, their provisions are common sense ones. In every war, there will be innocent civilians who flee for their lives when the fighting nears their homes, because to stay behind might well mean death for themselves and their loved ones. A person who leaves his or her home under these circumstances is not saying they give up the right to their home, or that they are not attached to their land, or that they don't ever want to come back. They are simply saying: this is my home, but if I stay here right now, I will die. So I will go somewhere else until it is safe to come back.
That is not a difficult scenario to understand, but for Israel it is important that a refugee who flees must be regarded as having renounced his right to his home, and his right ever to go home must be ridiculed as preposterous. Because turning a large part of the majority Muslim and Christian population of Palestine into refugees was the only way to make even part of Palestine into a Jewish state, and keeping them as refugees for decade after decade is the only way that that state can claim to be a democracy. A Jewish state established amidst a non-Jewish majority cannot recognise the most basic rights of the people it has displaced because, simply by coming home and exercising their right to vote, the refugees can peacefully and democratically dismantle the Zionist system that excluded them in the first place. Israelis - or specifically Jewish Israelis - have to deny and disparage the fundamental rights of Palestinian refugees not because their claims are preposterous, but because it is politically necessary in order to keep the "right sort of people" in power.
Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth, from where he is currently reporting on the cross-border hostilities between the IDF and Hizbullah. Over the past few days, he has observed Jewish Israelis fleeing their homes in northern Israel, and heading south for safer areas, beyond the range of the Katyushas. It made him wonder whether, now that Jewish Israelis are forced to flee for their lives, it might be possible to look with a little more introspection and compassion at the plight of the Palestinian refugees who once fled their homes in exactly the same way:
A final footnote – one to ponder in the quieter moments after the worst of the suffering is over. Those Israeli Jews fleeing for their lives as they head south to the quiet – so far at least – of Tel Aviv and beyond offer a small echo of events nearly six decades ago when 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes by the Israeli army.
Israeli Jews have always taken the view – and happily tell any outsiders as much – that the "Arabs" lost the right to their homes in the war of 1948 because they "fled" (in fact many were forcibly expelled, but let that drop for the moment).
The Israeli government has adopted much the same view, even refusing to allow the 250,000 of its own Arab citizens who are classified as internal refugees – their ancestors fled the fighting in 1948 but have citizenship because they stayed inside what is today Israel – to return to their original homes and land.
So how exactly should we regard those Israeli Jews now fleeing from Nahariya and Haifa? Should they lose their homes, their land, and their bank accounts just as the Palestinians did in 1948?
When the Katyushas fall quiet, those Israelis who fled south will get in their cars and, without a second thought, return to their homes in the north. They will take for granted that their homes are still theirs, and would consider absurd any suggestion that by fleeing for their lives they renounced the rights to their homes. By their actions, Jewish Israelis will show that internally they understand very well what political expediency does not allow them to admit out loud: that a person who flees for his life when his home becomes a warzone, has an natural and obvious right to go back home when the fighting dies down.