The Politics of the Palestinian Right of Return
With Arab nationalism, and nations, dissolving everywhere, it is both ironic and mysterious that the US is expending so much capital attempting to bring yet another such state into being.
by Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky
February 24, 2014
US-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are entering a critical period. With reports suggesting Israeli acceptance of the 1967 lines and land swaps, what about Palestinian concessions? Two issues are paramount: the ‘right of return’ and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently stated, “Let me put it simply: the right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu-Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return.”
This arch in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem features a giant key, symbolizing keys kept as mementos by many of the Palestinians who left their homes in 1948. (Image source: Reham Alhelsi/Flickr)
Jamil Mizer, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) underscored the issue saying, “there is talk about the liquidation of the Palestinian refugee cause, the return of hundreds of thousands to the lands occupied in 1948, and the dismantling of the right of return of over six million Palestinian refugees in the camps, in exile and in the diaspora, who are waiting for their moment to return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled”.
Palestinians, as well as other Arabs and supporters, rarely tire of pointing out that more 60 years after the creation of Israel, Palestinians remain ‘refugees.’ It is, or should be a commonplace to point out that this is by choice, since no Arab state besides Jordan grants Palestinians citizenship. In comparative terms, the fact is also that there are no remaining ‘refugees’ from the contemporary, vastly larger and more convulsive creation of India and Pakistan, nor of course from World War II.
Palestinian identity is synonymous with three things, the ‘right of return,’ the permanent, sanctified struggle with Israel, and permanent recognition of their status as refugees, dispossessed at the hand of Israel with the connivance of the international community. A corollary demand is that the international community must sustain them as ‘refugees’ through UNRWA until the Palestinians themselves, somehow, declare the ‘refugee crisis’ resolved.
Palestinian national identity is predicated on winning a zero sum struggle with Zionism, not a vision of a state of their own. There are sentimental images of restoring the status quo ante, an imaginary Arab Palestine of plenty; indeed, the ‘right of return’ is founded on the one hand precisely in such vague sentimentality, as well as inventive interpretations of ever-motile ‘international law.’ But clear proposals for a Palestinian state and its institutions, and how that state will be grounded in a society and with social, legal, and cultural principles, remains vague. Except, of course, from Hamas, whose Muslim Brotherhood-derived goals have been both articulated and, now, tested, in Gaza. In the meantime, however, the embrace of statelessness and trauma is unending.
Unwillingness to listen to what Palestinians say in Arabic (and often English), about their political demands or national identity, much less their attitudes towards Israelis, has long been one of the most puzzling features of American and European engagement with the Middle East. Abbas’s defense of the ‘right of return’ is absolute, as is that of nearly every Palestinian politician and intellectual.
The ‘right of return’ is sometimes explained away as being symbolic rather than practical, an element of the Palestinian ‘narrative’ regarding the blameless circumstances of their diaspora. Israelis are demanded to accept both the narrative, in which they are the villains, and the possibility of the mass return of Palestinians that would, by design, end Israel as a Jewish state.
In contrast, the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state would have no practical costs for Palestinians. But it would be acknowledgment of the character and permanence of Israel, and thus is rejected outright. This cannot be admitted, indeed, the entire thrust of Palestinian public culture, from education to summer camps to TV programming, relentlessly pushes the idea that Israel is temporary and illegitimate. Statements, such as the Palestinian Authority’s Religious Affairs minister Mahmoud al-Habash’s recent demand that “every inch” of the pre-1967 territory must be turned over by Israel, including the “Buraq Wall” – better known as the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place – make deep impressions on Israelis. But they pass unnoticed by Kerry and his associates.
That these empirical facts appear not to have been factored into American peacemaking is astonishing. But the implications should be understood clearly; like Palestinian nationalism, their negotiation stance is contingent not on compromise but on struggle until victory. And the thrust of the Palestinian leadership is to be as uncompromising as possible, to keep public expectations uncompromising, and to trap future leaders and members of Palestinian society by making compromise with Israel treason.
With Arab nationalism, and nations, dissolving everywhere, it is both ironic and mysterious that the US is expending so much capital attempting to bring yet another such state into being. It failed to do so in Iraq, it abetted the dissolution of Libya and the convulsions in Egypt, and stands aside while Syria burns. And with Palestinian leaders all but stating outright that they have no plan but to struggle against Israel, the American task is Sisyphean.
Eminently sensible proposals regarding borders, Jewish communities in the West Bank and even Jerusalem are rendered irrelevant. No peace is possible until Palestinian society makes the compromise it has been unwilling to do for nearly a century, share the land. Until they do so, by their leaders giving up, however reluctantly, the ‘right of return,’ by declaring their struggle against Israel at an end, and by declaring that an independent Palestine means no Palestinian is a refugee, there will be no peace.
Messrs. Joffe and Romirowsky are fellows at the Middle East Forum and the authors of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief, Palgrave Macmillan (December 2013).