The Palestinian Right of Return (Haq Al-Awda) is one of the most sensitive and complicated aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians, who were uprooted from their own homeland and are now scattered all over the world, believe deep in their hearts that a tremendous injustice has been done to them, and that ultimate justice cannot be achieved unless they are all allowed to return to their homeland. However, many of them are convinced now that facts and realities on the ground do not make such an ultimate justice possible. Taking that into account, relative justice becomes desirable.
This Right of Return is not only a historical claim or a God-given right; it is the combination of a historical claim and a national right on the one hand, and an individual personal claim on the other. It is the claim to a specific private property, a house, a piece of land, a citrus grove, or even a particular tree. It is also the emotional attachment to some very personal memories linked to the particular property and its surroundings, within the context of the national attachment of the Palestinian people to their homeland, Palestine.
Many Palestinians were forced to leave their land and homes at gun-point, or through psychological intimidation, or simply as civilians fleeing from the battle-field, seeking refuge until all was calm, and they could return. However, they were denied this right and thus became permanent refugees, known as the Palestinian refugees of 1948, though the legitimacy of their right to return to their homes and land, or to be compensated is embodied in U.N. Resolution 194 of December 1948, and all other relevant U.N. resolutions.
Since that time, Palestinians have been living with the dream of turning the clock back to the pre-1948 situation, in other words, returning to the land and homes which were taken from them during the 1948 war and from which they were uprooted and driven away. They were not ready to accept the new reality created by the war of 1948. For them, Israel as a state did not exist, and Palestinian literature from 1948 onward referred to it as the "Zionist enemy," or the "invading enemy," and Palestine was the "robbed" or "raped" homeland.
The Palestinian refugees refused to be re-settled in any of the neighboring Arab countries, and unlike the Jewish immigrants to Israel, they refused to identify themselves with the countries where they sought refuge. Palestinians have always viewed their residence in the host countries, and even in the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as a temporary situation. The years have passed, but these refugees have not lost faith in the prospect that one day they would be going back to where they came from - to Palestine. They have waited for the results of U.N. missions, Security Council resolutions, and even for the next war to take them home.
Refugee camps became the symbol of the Palestinian national problem. Furthermore, a willingness to assimilate into any other place was seen by many Palestinians as a sign of readiness to give up or to compromise on the Right of Return, a right which they believed applied to every inch of Palestine.
Subsequently, in 1958, the Fatah movement was established, taking the first step towards an organized national struggle for the attainment of the rights of the Palestinian people, including the Right of Return. The Palestinian program called for the establishment of a democratic bi-national Palestinian state for Arabs and Jews alike on all of Mandatory Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
In the early 1970's, a new approach was developing within the circles of Palestinian intellectuals in favor of realism. They advocated compromise with Israel and sought a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by establishing a Palestinian state in part of Palestine alongside Israel, with the two peoples living side by side on the basis of mutual recognition and co-existence.
Those who adopted this approach were often labelled as traitors who were giving up their homeland and selling the national rights of their own people. A good number of the elite of Palestinian intellectuals were assassinated in different European capitals simply because they endorsed this approach, or were close advisors to Chairman Arafat, and helped to push the moderate process within the PLO. Qaleq, Khader, Hamshari, and Sartawi were among those who paid with their lives on the road to realism, moderation, and compromise.
Nevertheless, this new trend of realism took root and gradually gained the support of the majority within the Palestinian national movement, represented by the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It found its expression in 1974 when the Palestinian National Council (the PLO parliament) adopted the first of successive resolutions calling for the establishment of a "Palestinian national authority" on any part of Palestine evacuated by Israel.
This was the beginning of a long process, that of preparing the Palestinian people for a two-state solution: two states for two peoples, with Palestine alongside Israel. For the Palestinians, this was not their first choice. For years, they had been advocating the option of a democratic bi-national state, with Palestinian Arabs and Jews living together with equal rights and duties as citizens of the same state. The Jews, on the other hand, had strongly opposed the idea of a bi-national state, and insisted on a Jewish state instead. Even after being faced with growing pressure to recognize the Palestinian national rights, the Israeli Knesset, ignoring the feelings of Israel's own Arab citizens and Arab Knesset members, passed a law maintaining that Israel was the state of the Jewish people.
Israel has always rejected the return of Palestinians to their homeland claiming that their demand for this right proved they were not serious about peace. It has further viewed the implementation of this right as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state on the basis that this return would destroy the Jewish image of Israel and turn it into a bi-national state.
Consequently the Palestinians reached the conclusion that, neither the Israeli public, nor the Western world, were ready to adopt the option of a bi-national democratic state; and a Palestinian state alongside Israel became the most realistic option.
Hence, after great internal deliberations and carefully weighed considerations, the Palestinian national movement adopted the "two state" solution, not as its first choice, but as a compromise proposal in order to accommodate the Israeli demand for a Jewish state and the Palestinian national right and demand for an independent state. It was not easy to make this change.
However, November 1988 saw the culmination of this process of change as the P.N.C. declared its acceptance of the U.N. Partition Resolution 181 of November 1947, and the Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. This was not a chance combination. Indeed, the first resolution stated the principle of partition, and the second, by respecting the territorial integrity of all states in the region, and the non-acquisition of land by force, was a clear hint to Israel that the demanded withdrawal was to the borders of the 4th of June, 1967.
In December 1988, this position was reinforced by Arafat's declaration in Geneva that the PLO denounces terrorism, and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Thus, the road was paved for a reasonable settlement based on the principle of "two states for two peoples". This stance confirms not only the Palestinian position, but also that of the Arab peace initiative as expressed in the September 1982 Arab summit meeting in Fez.
Accordingly, with a realistic solution becoming more possible than ever, the Right of Return became a highly relevant topic for discussion. However, the reality of Israel's existence and its concern about staying a Jewish state, represent an obstacle to the practical application of the Right of Return for the 1948 Palestinian refugee. Yet knowing the Israeli position in that respect, does not entail that Palestinians give up their claim for return in advance. One must distinguish between, on the one hand, the "right of return" as a principle, and on the other hand, exercising that right by literally returning to Palestine as a national homeland, and to that same home, piece of land, or grove which a certain Palestinian owned before 1948, as a private individual property.
The circumstances under which the Palestinian refugees have lived since 1948, and the suffering which they have endured and are still enduring, have forced many of them to view their return as the acquisition of national independence and dignity, and not necessarily as a literal return. In other words, Palestinians continue to believe that they are entitled to their claim to the Right of Return, but they are prepared to bring it to the negotiating table. This claim can be satisfied either through the actual return of a mutually acceptable number of refugees, or a symbolic number of them, or through compensation, or even through the implementation of any other option agreed upon through the negotiations on a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
There should be no objection to the return of Palestinians to a newly-created Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This will help put an end to the suffering of Palestinian refugees in places such as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and will provide a place where returnees can be welcome after years of persecution, and living as unwelcome guests in many countries such as Lebanon.
The Palestinian state will also provide the Palestinians with a national homeland, as well as a passport, a flag, and a shelter. Those who have already settled in many corners of the world might choose not to come back, but they will inevitably sympathize with the state of Palestine, and feel proud of it. A Palestinian Law of Return will certainly be of great moral value both to them, as well as to those who will pack up their belongings and return.
At this point, one should distinguish between the 1948 refugees, the subject of this article, and the Palestinians displaced during or as a result of the 1967 War. The latter, whose permanent address is in the West Bank or Gaza, whether they were residing there at the time, or happened to be outside (working, studying or visiting), have the full right to come back. In fact, there is no reason for Israel to oppose their return since it has to withdraw from these territories in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 and within the framework of the peace process. The return of these displaced Palestinians will be worked out according to the D.O.P. by a combined committee of the PLO, Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
In conclusion, land is the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinian refugees as the main victims. As long as the problem of these refugees is not solved, the conflict will persist and the Palestinian Right of Return will remain on the agenda until it is addressed and settled in an honorable way. A comprehensive settlement must, therefore, solve the Palestinian problem in all its aspects, including the refugee problem. This does not seem impossible in the light of the moderate winds blowing from the Palestinian camp. A spirit of compromise and reconciliation is prevailing, in spite of the very hard and depressing conditions of daily life in the occupied Palestinian land caused by the harsh, repressive measures of the occupation. This historic opportunity should not be missed.