Palestinian right of return is non-negotiable: activist

Mother and child arrive in Jordan from the Gaza strip in 1968. (UNWRA)
Updated 15 May 2018

Palestinian right of return is non-negotiable: activist

  • While the claim is inalienable, say Palestinian leaders, implementation is subject to negotiation — and various interpretations
  • The refugee problem is described by Israeli professor Ilan Pappe as 'ethnic cleansing'

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian refugee crisis began before May 15, 1948, when Israel declared itself a state on Palestinian land and began barring those who had left their homes from returning.

In many cases the new Jewish immigrants took over the homes and lands of the refugees who had temporarily left because of the violence perpetuated by underground Jewish militias.

The Zionist narrative was primarily focused on the false claims that Palestine is a “land without a people for a people without a land.” 

In the process of colonization and settlement by Jewish immigrants, Palestinians were dispossessed and made stateless.

The Palestinian refugee problem was taken up in Resolution 194, passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. It was also addressed in the Arab Peace Initiative introduced in 2002. 

Unlike various attempts by Israel and its apologists who insist the problem is insoluble, the Arab plan approaches the refugees’ case as something that can be accomplished by consensus rather than clashes.

The text on refugees in the Arab peace plan reads: “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.”

Anis F. Kassim, a Palestinian lawyer based in Jordan and the editor of the Palestine Yearbook of International Law, told Arab News that the right of return enshrined in various UN resolutions is non-negotiable and does not have an expiry date.

The UN set up the Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, on Dec. 8, 1948, with a mandate to provide humanitarian, educational and health support to Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA now has nearly five million registered refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Attempts to cancel Palestinian demands to return to their homes have at times been reflected in attempts to disband this humanitarian UN agency.

US President Donald Trump suspended financial support to UNRWA in January 2018, warning that the US may withhold future aid payments to the agency over what he called the Palestinians’ unwillingness to talk peace with Israel.

In trying to deal with the thorny issue of the right of return, Palestinian negotiators over the past decades have shown flexibility. Palestinian leaders have said that while this right is inalienable, its implementation is subject to negotiation.

Palestinian negotiators have said they want Israel to recognize its “legal and historic responsibility” for the refugee crisis.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went even further in 2012 when he said on Israeli TV that he no longer has any desire to live in the city in which he was born and raised, Safad, but would not mind visiting it. In February 2014 in Ramallah, he also told a group of 300 visiting Israelis that Palestinians are not interested in “flooding Israel with Palestinian refugees.”

Arab and Muslim countries have offered Israel a comprehensive peace plan that allows Israel a say in how the right of return is resolved.

This flexibility, however, is not universally accepted by Palestinians, and many have continued to oppose any compromise on the  issue. 

Suheil Khoury, a leading left-wing activist based in Amman, told Arab News that the Palestinian right of return is non-negotiable. 

“This is a personal and a collective right and no one has the right to concede this right except the refugees themselves.” Khoury said that PLO factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reject efforts by Fatah and other mainstream PLO factions that he feels take this sacred right lightly. 

“The right of return is the main plank in the political programs of many Palestinian factions and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice upholding this right.”

The refugee problem is described by Israeli professor Ilan Pappe as “ethnic cleansing.” Unlike the expectations of many Israelis that new generations of Palestinians will forget about Palestine, the right of return continues to take center stage at Nakba Day activities and throughout the year. Generation after generation retain memories of Palestine.

Fakher Daas is a member of the politburo of The Popular Unity Party (Hizb al Wihdeh al Shaabi) in Jordan. He is also a member of the Return Committee, which organizes rallies and protests throughout Jordan.

“Right of return committees exist throughout Jordan and conduct regular events, protests and teach-ins to ensure that new generations of Arabs are aware of this right and its ramifications,” he told Arab News. Similar committees exist throughout the world.

The right of return has also been one of the main features of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BdS) movement. It calls for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

The movement has published an article by Pappe and Karma Nabulsi fleshing out the issue.

“There is hardly a right that is more morally urgent and more legally compelling than the Palestinian right of return,” they wrote.

“Regardless of who they are, where they came from, or when they became homeless, refugees the world over have an inalienable right to return to their homes. They and their descendants retain that right until the moment of its translation into reality — when they are permitted to return, and can chose whether or not they wish to do so.”

From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi with his third wife Farah and their son Reza (left). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (right). (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2019

From tourism to terrorism: How the revolution changed Iran

  • Forty years ago on Wednesday, the shah went into exile and less than a month later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power
  • His departure paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic republic hostile to Arab Gulf states

DUBAI: Forty years ago today, Iran’s then-shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, fled the country after a 37-year reign, in the first stage of a revolution that would replace 2,500 years of monarchy with an Islamic republic.

Prior to the revolution, Iran very much resembled Western countries, with a flourishing economy and tourists flocking to the country for its breath-taking landscapes, beaches and various activities, including hiking and skiing. 

The shah’s departure, prompted by mass protests, paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in France, assuming power on Feb. 11, 1979. 

It was “a genuine social revolution against tyranny, domestic and foreign — the first represented by the shah and the second by… the US,” said Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi.

“The revolution went awry when religious leaders dominated the government, imposed its version of Islam and eliminated their partners in the revolution, including Iranian nationalists.”

Not long after Khomeini took over, the world got a taste of the new regime. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held for 444 days, after a group of Iranian students who supported the revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran. 

The Iran-Iraq war, which began in 1980 and lasted for eight years, contributed to the deterioration of Iran’s situation. 

“Fear of the new regime’s attempt to export the revolution to a Shiite-majority neighbor led Iraq to initiate the war,” Al-Shateri said. 

“However, Iran’s insistence on continuing the war until the toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein exacted a heavy cost on both countries in human and economic terms,” he added. 

“Iran had legitimate grievances against the US, but the way it tried to redress these gripes was counterproductive.”

The shah was considered one of the best customers of the US defense industry. But his Western-inspired reforms sparked turbulent social change that aggravated the clergy, while his consolidation of power and the secret police gave him the reputation of a dictator.

Opposition to his reign and corruption among Tehran’s elite created an influential alliance of radical Islamists. 

Although Pahlavi tried to modernize Iran, driving up oil prices in the early 1970s and implementing reforms in education and health care, he became alienated among Iranians and angered the conservative clergy, who helped drive his exile. 

“Iran changed significantly from before the revolution to after, from a more civil, open and decent Iran to a closed, aggressive and sectarian one,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences. 

“Post-1979 Iran is deeply sectarian, and is not only responsible for sharpening the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also wholly responsible for politicizing and militarizing it,” he added.

Iran “has funded and armed Shiite militias, and has done everything possible to strengthen them so they can challenge the nation-state, Lebanon being a clear example.” 

Post-1979 Iran does not “play by the rules of the game,” Abdulla added. “It became radical, revolutionary and sectarian, and was about to become nuclear, which is deeply destabilizing.”

He said: “Gulf states have lived with Iran for thousands of years, and they knew how to deal with it all along. They had the best possible neighborly relationship, but it has always been a difficult Iran, whether under the shah or Khomeini.”

Abdulla added: “We’ve never seen an Iran that has become the number-one terrorist country in the world except in the last 40 years.”

Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Police and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “Unlike the shah’s Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to export its revolution to other Muslim countries, especially the Arab Gulf ones.” He added: “Still, it must be remembered that the shah’s Iran was also fairly aggressive. It seized Abu Musa and the Tunbs (islands) right when the British were leaving the Trucial States and the UAE was being formed. It had also laid claim to Bahrain.” 

Furthermore, while the shah’s troops helped defend Oman against a South Yemeni-backed Marxist insurgency in the 1970s, Katz said the presence of those Iranian troops in Oman was unsettling to Saudi Arabia in particular. 

“The shah had also got the best of Iraq in their border rivalry — something that Saddam Hussein sought to reverse after the Iranian revolution,” he added. 

Before the revolution, the shah’s Iran often behaved “aggressively toward its Arab neighbors, but its close cooperation with the US against the Soviet Union, which Iran bordered and the Gulf Arab states didn’t, meant that Washington wasn’t willing to act against the shah for doing so,” Katz said. By contrast, the rise of an anti-American government after the revolution led to the US working with Arab Gulf states against Iran. 

“Because the Islamic Republic behaved in such a hostile manner, both toward the Gulf Arabs as well as the US, the 1979 revolution led to the isolation and containment of Iran for many years,” Katz said. 

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, Iran may have posed a far greater problem for the Gulf Arabs if the… revolution hadn’t taken place, because if it hadn’t and Western investment in Iran continued or even grew, there would’ve been a tendency for Tehran to assert — and the US to value — an Iranian effort to be the leader in the Gulf in collaboration with the US.”