Palestinians furious over 'right of return' agreement


ANALYSIS:PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATORS dealing with the sensitive issue of the fate of five million refugees have taken positions that have angered and alienated those living in exile in Arab countries and the global diaspora.

Palestinians are first and foremost furious over the number of potential returnees mentioned in documents leaked by al-Jazeera satellite television channel. Palestinian negotiators constantly reiterate their commitment to the “right of return” of all Palestinians driven from their homes, lands and villages when Israel was established in 1948 but have agreed that only 10,000 would be repatriated over a period of 10 years. Refugees bitterly oppose the secret adoption of decisions affecting their status and future and insist that they must have a say in what is decided.

However, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the body in charge of negotiations with Israel, abandoned any pretence of consultation with the refugees many years ago and is unlikely to ask their opinion now.

Indeed, the issue of refugees was almost certainly decided unilaterally by the PLO before the covert negotiations which produced the original Oslo Accord in August 1993. The PLO decision involved repatriation of a limited number of refugees, payment of compensation to those who did not “return” and resettlement in the rump Palestinian state.

However, on the latter point, on October 21st, 2009, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat added a new qualification when he told US diplomats that “the number returning to their own state will depend on annual absorption capacity”.

The rest could either remain in the countries hosting them or go elsewhere.

Because of the position taken by the PLO on refugees, it should have been easy to reach a deal with Israel and remove one final status issue from the list, allowing negotiators to focus on borders, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and sharing of natural resources. But this has not happened because the refugee issue has been used by both sides to score points and hinder progress in negotiations.

By insisting on the refugees’ right of return, the PLO lays the blame on Israel for their homelessness and insists that it offer compensation for their sufferings. The PLO also fends off accusations that it has abandoned the refugees and abrogated their rights.

Although Israel, which rejects responsibility for the refugees, has been told what has been decided on the refugee issue, it wrongly accuses the PLO of seeking the repatriation of all refugees. Israel rejects the refugees’ right of return on the ground that implementation of this right would diminish the Jewish composition and character of the Israeli state.

The Palestinian right of return is based on UN General Assembly resolution 194, paragraph 11, adopted in December 1948 in an emotionally charged atmosphere after United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by members of the Israeli terrorist group known as the Stern Gang.

The resolution 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 . . .” Israel argues that the return of refugees has never been “practicable” because their homes and villages were bulldozed following their expulsion or flight and that it was impossible to judge whether refugees have been prepared to “live at peace with their [Israeli] neighbours”.

Due to these qualifications in the text of the resolution, Palestinian negotiators have long recognised that this resolution does not accord Palestinians a right of return although under international law, refugees are granted the right of return to homes from which they have been expelled.