Gaza Conflict Overshadows Essential Debate on the Right to Return

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Israeli troops are poised for a ground assault in Gaza, eclipsing another firestorm re-ignited in the Middle East this month when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was asked if he wanted to return to Safed, the town he fled as a refugee in 1948. Abbas replied, “I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there.”

The question came in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 television, at the start of the Israeli national election campaign, and in the heat of Abbas’ drive for recognition by the United Nations as a non-member observer state. So unsurprisingly, the comment sparked an impassioned response. On the Israeli side, President Shimon Peres applauded Abbas’s “brave and important public declaration.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the statement “very important because of its clarity.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction was frostier, saying “he has already managed to recant.”

Amongst many Palestinians, Abbas has been denounced as a traitor and a panderer for seeming to concede a sacred principle. Abbas tried to tame the fire by saying his statement reflected only his “personal position”, not a change in longstanding PLO policy backing the right of return. Perhaps by now Abbas wishes he could take the whole thing back, but he shouldn’t. However ham-fisted, his comments provide an opening for rethinking what the right of return means, and re-imagining how it might be exercised. This is not only a matter for the Palestinians. It’s a discussion for everyone with a stake in this conflict, and one that can benefit from looking at the right of return in other refugee situations. It’s a discussion that is constantly pushed aside by distrust and developments such as the renewed violence in Gaza, but it’s one that is essential to a sustainable solution to the conflict.

To date, discussions on the right of return in the Middle East have been little more than polemics, with both sides claiming they have history in their favour. Israeli leaders have typically declared that the right of return doesn’t exist, at best offering reparations as a substitute. Israel points to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey and after the partition of India to suggest that return is exceptional. Even if some refugees return, they maintain, this right does not pass down through generations. In contrast, Palestinians point to international law backstopping the right of return and the emergence of return as the so-called “preferred solution” to refugee crises. In countries as diverse as Bosnia, Tajikistan and Guatemala, refugees and their children have exercised their right to return to their countries and reclaim their homes. Why should the Palestinian case be any different?

Palestinians are correct that the right of return is well established in international law. Visiting Palestinian refugee camps such as Bourj al-Barajneh in Beirut made it abundantly clear to me that insistence on the right of return is not simply a foil for opposition to peace. It is a conviction about their experience of injustice, and a core part of Palestinian national identity. It cannot be wished away.

And yet, a closer look at other refugee situations shows a diverse range of ways to conceptualize, exercise – and delimit – the right of return. It is not an unfettered right to repossess lost lands, and for many this is not its most salient aspect.

And yet, a closer look at other refugee situations shows a diverse range of ways to conceptualize, exercise – and delimit – the right of return. It is not an unfettered right to repossess lost lands, and for many this is not its most salient aspect. For many of those displaced from Srebrenica, the right of return meant going back to bury their dead, and commemorate the genocide. For Bihari refugees displaced during the war that led to Bangladesh’s independence, the right of return meant moving to Pakistan, a country where most had never set foot, but where they felt they belonged. Mozambique’s peace agreement recognized refugees’ right to return to the country, but their right to reclaim their original lands was tempered in practice. While many Mozambicans sought shelter abroad, thousands more were displaced inside the country, often settling on refugees’ lands. Uprooting those who had lived for years on the refugees’ land would not support a just resolution to the conflict. Instead, the right of return was negotiated alongside the right to remain.

In his interview, Abbas offered a vision of the right of return that is admittedly at odds with its predominant conception amongst Palestinian refugees, but it is one amongst many possible legitimate ways of imagining the right of return. So too is conceiving of the right of return as migration to new homes in an independent Palestinian state. Abbas suggested as much in a 2011 interview, also implying that exercise of the traditional Palestinian interpretation of the right of return would come with restrictions few refugees would want to accept: “Okay, you want your right of return. It’s okay, when we come to it, we will do our best to try to fulfill your dream...But at that time, I don’t know whether the five million [refugees] will ask [to return to Israel], maybe some of them will ask for compensation and that’s it. Some of them will ask, okay, I will return back to Palestine. Some will return back to Israel. But when they think of it deeply, okay, you are going to Israel, to be a member of the Israeli society, to raise the Israeli flag…Oh no, no. We don’t go into details, no, but if somebody asks, I will answer them: If you want to go to Israel, of course, you have to be an Israeli citizen.” A large-scale survey conducted in 2003 among Palestinian refugees suggested that only 10 percent would want to return to Israel on such terms.

Challenging the orthodoxies of how the right of return is imagined on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a thankless task, particularly as Israelis and Palestinians head into another clash in Gaza. Nonetheless, Abbas’s comments are a chance to re-engage in a conversation no one wants, but everyone needs. It is only by opening the door to new and diverse conceptions of the right of return that the ever-elusive “just solution” to this conflict can be found.