Israel has stated one primary reason for rejecting the Palestinian refugee's right to return to their homes: it would threaten Israel's character as a Jewish state. This assertion has a familiar ring. Blacks were seen as a threat to the 'white' character of apartheid-era South Africa. Appropriately, the South African attitude met with international revulsion. It is time to reject the same sort of state sponsored racism from Israel.
Palestinians represent the largest refugee group in the world, some 4 million people according to the UN. This is equivalent to the population of Colorado. Their plight began in 1948, when some 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee before advancing Israeli forces. Zionist leaders, including Israeli founder-father David Ben Gurion, saw forcible transfer of the land's Palestinian population as a legitimate solution to the "Arab problem." Israeli historian Benny Morris has reported that in no instance did an Arab population leave their homes before an attack by Jewish forces.
On December 11, 1948 the United Nations passed Resolution 194, a document with a very specific and just solution to the refugee problem. It says "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, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." Israeli agreement to abide by this stillunimplemented resolution was a precondition for Israel's 1949 admission into the UN.
For decades the refugees have waited on justice. While they have waited, many have lived and died in filthy refugee camps. While the children of Palestine's refugees play next to and in human excrement, Israel has become the largest single recipient of US foreign aid. As a result of this huge investment, the fruit of a well-organized Washington lobby, Israelis have one of the best standards of living in the Middle East. Refugees on the other hand, are still frequently worrying about where to get their next meal. I toured refugee camps in Gaza and Jordan in 1999.
In Gaza's Beach Camp I met a family with ten children where the recently crippled father could not walk or earn a living. An aid worker told me that the family received a UN package each month that fed them for less than a week. After that they were dependent on their neighbor's good will. Of course, I, as a guest, was invited to stay for dinner. I declined and still feel shamed by such genuine hospitality.
The idea that people forced to flee their homes and raise their children in such horrible conditions will be denied the dignity of return to their homes is horrific. That the reason for this denial might be that they had the misfortune of being born as non-Jews should stop any sane person in their tracks. Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst, rightly points out, "(The refugees) have lived for 50 years like this. If you tell them now there is no right of return, it's like spitting in their faces." Be sure of one regrettable reality, a signed deal will not stop the refugees resentment at being turned into a bargaining chip from boiling over. Sacrificing their right to justice is sacrificing a lasting peace.
Zionists, followers of a political movement first articulated in the late 1800's that called for the establishment of a Jewish national home on any available territory, are acutely aware that their nation was built boot on face of another people. Given that the injustice of Jewish suffering is the primary reason presented for the need to create a state, such action seems rather hypocritical.
The tragedies of the Jewish people do not justify the Zionist transfer of that suffering to Palestinians, whose only crime is to be non-Jews. Certainly, Zionist concerns over the ethnic purity of Israel can in no way be taken as a serious reason to deny Palestinians a right to return to the land where they were born. Jewish suffering deserves a better legacy.
Fahhim Abdulhadi is director of communications for American Muslims for Jerusalem.
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