Squandering the Palestinian right of return

Squandering the Palestinian right of return
Comment: The absence of demands that prioritise the Palestinian right of return as a political right will adversely affect the struggle of all Palestinians, writes Ramona Wadi.
6 min read
03 Feb, 2020
Trump's deal effectively erases Palestinian refugee status [AFP]
It is not without considerate planning that the US and Israel have systematically targeted the United Nations Relief and Works Organisation for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in recent years. 

From the US decision to withhold funding from the agency, to Israeli organisations lobbying UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to consider alternatives in which Israel would decide the fate of Palestinian refugees, the onslaught has been consistent, and leading to a predictable outcome.

Last week, the Trump administration revealed the so-called "Deal of the Century "- a framework for Israel to accelerate its colonial project unhindered while exploiting the Palestinians' deprivation of basic necessities to force an agreement. For Palestinian refugees, the US-Israeli narrative as laid out in the framework is lethal.

The framework does not recognise Israel's culpability in the creation of Palestinians refugees. Instead, Palestinian displacement is deprived of the context, so as to place accountability for their refugee status upon Arab countries which, according to the document, "have the moral responsibility to integrate them into their countries as the Jews were integrated into the State of Israel."

There is no equivalence between European settler-colonists and displaced Palestinians. To ensure Israel's demographic majority, the US is proposing the absorption of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state, integration into host countries, and the acceptance of 5,000 refugees per year within a 10-year time frame, into member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Upon signing the agreement, the document states, "Palestinian refugee status will cease to exist."

The framework does not recognise Israel's culpability in the creation of Palestinians refugees

"There shall be no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel." The agreement clarifies it seeks a "complete end and release of any and all claims relating to refugee or immigration status."

Neither the US nor Israel has the right to decide on the Palestinian right of return. Yet like all other issues relating to Palestinians, the right of return has become dissociated from the people it was meant to protect. Instead of a right, the concept became a weakly-worded resolution which the UN could refer to passively, while letting Israel and its allies lead and manipulate its interpretation.

The question now, is whether the Palestinian Authority and the international community will continue speaking of international law and resolutions that have blatantly failed to protect the Palestinian people's political rights?

UNGA Resolution 194 partly states that "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." The 1948 Nakba unleashed by Zionist paramilitaries upon the Palestinian population ushered in the perpetual displacement of the Palestinian people.

"For Palestinian refugees, the US-Israeli narrative as laid out in the framework is lethal"
writes Ramona Wadi [Map source: White House 'Peace to Prosperity' document]

The ongoing colonisation of Palestine ensured the absence of an "earliest practicable date". Meanwhile, the burden of peace was placed upon the Palestinian refugees to acquiesce to Zionist settler-colonialism.

The emerging state was built upon forced displacement of the indigenous population; and so what UNGA Resolution 194 achieved first and foremost, was the protection of the colonisers at the expense of the colonised and the displaced.

Decades of resistance and diplomacy later, there has been no collective effort to challenge the international community over the misleading resolution purporting to uphold the right of return for the Palestinian people.

In much the same way as the two-state paradigm; perhaps even more blindly, the resolution was paraded as a declaration of rights. The fact that the resolution did not endorse decolonisation was ignored. As a result, the UN evaded accountability and passed on the opportunity to Israel to determine the scale of damage it could inflict upon Palestinians.

Of course, the UN's attention towards Palestinian refugees was never insignificant. However, it departed from a premise of exploitation which was transferred on to UNRWA – an agency dependent upon funding from countries with diplomatic and economic ties to Israel. Its work is invaluable but since it operates at a much lesser budget from what is annually allocated to Israel by the US, for example, Palestinians are far from achieving autonomy and independence from the cycle of humanitarian aid.

Neither the US nor Israel has the right to decide on the Palestinian right of return

Responsibility here should fall squarely upon the UN, which recognised and legitimised Israel's colonial presence in Palestine while refusing to uphold the Palestinian people's right to land and return as political rights.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas may be basking in this spurious limelight after rejecting the US-Israeli concoction to strip Palestinians of their rights. His words hold no substance. Conversely, in 2013, Abbas reportedly stated that if a just agreement was offered, the PA "will not demand in the future to return to Jaffa, Acre or Haifa."

This falls in line with his political and dangerous blunder of 
forfeiting his own right of return in 2012, during an interview with Israel's Channel 2 News.

The only true bulwark supporting the Palestinian right of return is Palestinian resistance, which the PA has sought to quell on Israel's behalf by arresting, torturing and imprisoning dissenting Palestinians.

Politically, there is not one single entity that supports the Palestinian right of return, regardless of international consensus over UNGA Resolution 194.

Read more: No Palestinians present at 'sham' Trump 'Deal of the Century' unveiling

It is with hindsight perhaps, that there will be a realisation that the US availed itself of the ambiguities provided by the UN, as well as the PA's tacit approval of resolutions that primarily provide for Israel, before catering to Palestinians' political rights.

The Deal of the Century's aim to alter the Palestinian refugee narratives and claims signals one crucial detail: If implemented, a large chunk of Palestinian history, as well as the people's political rights cannot be retrieved.

US President Donald Trump cannot alter the fact that Palestinians were dispossessed as a result of systematic ethnic cleansing which created a nation of refugees. However, the absence of demands that prioritise the right of return as a political right – not mere compensation – will adversely affect the struggle of all Palestinians, not just the 1948 refugees and their descendants.

There is one option to save the Palestinian right of return which must come from the Palestinian people themselves: No more tethering to the useless jargon of UNGA Resolution 194. The Palestinian people must unite to devise their own right of return as a political objective, and hold the PA accountable for pandering to the international community's inaction.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.