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Right of Return for Palestinians

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By Zarefa Ali and Sadia Ahsanuddin

Pundits declared that President Obama's first trip to the state of Israel made history, for the simple reason that he asked Israelis to "[l]ook at the world" through the eyes of the Palestinians -- meaning those who are constantly subjected to Israel's military might. For Palestinians, however, it was alarming that nowhere did Obama mention the current situation of Palestinian refugees, those exiles who comprise 70 percent of the worldwide Palestinian population and whose current living conditions are deplorable.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made no secret of his intention to engage both parties in negotiations, has also neglected to mention the refugees' plight. Yet, without addressing the refugees' right to restitution, there can be no just peace.

This April, Boston University will host the Right of Return conference, which explores means of restoring justice for Palestinian refugees. At the time of Israel's independence, more than 700,000 Palestinians were compelled to flee present-day Israel because of the threat of massacre posed by Zionist militias and the simultaneous destruction as many as 530 Palestinian villages. Among Palestinians, this dispossession has come to be commemorated as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Today, there are approximately 7 million Palestinian refugees and they have largely been forgotten in the peace process. Palestinian refugees live under inhumane conditions. A series of reports published by The Lancet indicate that 59 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line, and 15 percent suffer from severe food insecurity. There is also an unusually high level of mental illness and chronic illness due to poor living conditions. Because refugees are denied citizenship in most host countries, they are also restricted from opportunities for economic progress.

The situation is similarly bleak in the Gaza Strip. In December 2012, the World Health Organization revealed that according to 2010 data, 25 percent of children 6-59 months in Gaza suffer from anemia and 9.9 percent of children under five years old suffer from chronic malnutrition (stunting). Furthermore, the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza is restricting the inflow of medical supplies, crucial for the survival of these children.

Palestinian refugees, while battling hardships, hold on to the possibility of return to homes and lands taken from them. A third-generation Palestinian refugee asserted, "I don't want to leave the camp unless I return to my homeland. I will not give up my land and my right, no matter what."

Palestinian refugees cannot be repatriated to a new state, either, primarily because their former homes and lands are in Israel and not the West Bank and Gaza, but also because Israel is making the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible through its settlement construction, the erection of the separation barrier in the West Bank, and the hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints that obstruct the movement of Palestinians. A recent United Nations Human Rights Commission report called the settlement construction outside of Israel "creeping annexation" of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This nullifies any possibility of a two-state solution. In fact, young Palestinians in the West Bank speaking to President Obama during his trip endorsed a nonviolent struggle for a single state in which all citizens -- Palestinians and Israelis -- have equal rights, hearkening back to the struggle for civil rights in this country.

Principles of international law establish that the Palestinian refugees have a right to restitution for the homes, property, and other assets they may have lost. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 affirms Palestinian refugees' right to "return to their homes" and/or to adequate compensation. The United Nations' Pinheiro Principles also affirm refugees' right to restitution, and the right of return is assured by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

But in the past 65 years, there has been no form of restitution for Palestinian refugees. Indeed, discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in political circles generally omit mention of Palestinian refugees. President Obama reinforced the silence on this topic with his failure to mention Palestinian refugees during his recent visit.

This is why discussion of the Right of Return is so important. How can the Right of Return be implemented? Disregarding the now-defunct two-state solution, possible forms of restitution may include adequate monetary compensation and/or the willingness of Israel to accommodate the return of refugees in accordance with international law.

As has been demonstrated by demographic and sociological research, such a return, gradually implemented, is possible. Of course, this would entail a shift from exclusive Jewish self-determination to inclusive self-determination, and safeguarding the rights of all people. Do the Israeli people have the courage and magnanimity to correct this historic sin? International law requires no less.


Zarefa Ali is a former researcher from Birzeit University. She is currently conducting research on Palestinian refugees and forced migration. Sadia Ahsanuddin is a Harvard University alumna and a researcher based in New York. She will be participating in the Right of Return conference as a panelist. The Right of Return conference will be held from April 6 to 7 at the Boston University Law School auditorium.