Will Israel ever take responsibility for causing the Nakba?
It seemed like it never happened, but at one point this century — in Egypt in January 2001 — Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating how to carry out UN General Assembly Resolution 194. This important resolution was passed on Dec. 11, 1948, with 35 countries, including the US and the UK, voting for it. But today we are the farthest possible distance from seeing justice carried out for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
In fact, in a YouGov poll commissioned by Arab News, Palestinians said they have little expectation from either the Palestinian leadership or the current Israeli government. In the poll, two-thirds of Palestinians (66 percent) said that they did not trust any Israeli government — neither left-wing nor right-wing — to successfully reach a peace agreement with Palestine. The refugee issue is an integral part of any possible peace deal. At the same time, more than half of Palestinians (51 percent) polled said that they do not trust their current leadership to deliver a peace deal with Israel.
The original UN resolution called on Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return, stating: “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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”
Before being allowed to become a member of the UN, Israel pledged to honor this resolution, but it has reneged on that promise.
Israel has, of course, rejected the principle of the right of return and blocked the return of even a single Palestinian refugee. In fact, internally displaced Palestinian citizens of Israel are not allowed to return to their homes that have been compensated for and, like all other captured properties, are being made available to new Jewish immigrants who have no direct connection to Palestine.
As part of the 1993 Palestinian-Israel Declaration of Principles, which was signed at the White House, Israel committed to participating in five subcommittees that were to deal with the final status issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees.
In the refugee subcommittee, which was shepherded by Canada, some progress was made, but none of them reached fruition. However, two interesting nuggets did come out of the refugee subcommittee.
The most interesting part of the negotiations was the basic demand of the Palestinian side, which did not dwell on numbers but on a powerful principle. The Palestinians demanded from their Israeli counterparts a statement, in which the state of Israel would accept moral and historical responsibility for causing the Palestinian refugee problem.
The other highlight was that Israel was willing to allow the return of some refugees. The Israeli negotiators agreed at one time to the return of 100,000 refugees over 10 years, within the scope of humanitarian reasons based on family reunification needs. Ironically, that number was the same as Israel agreed to, but never fulfilled, during the 1949 Lausanne negotiations. At that time, Israel agreed to accept 13 percent of the 750,000 refugees that had been forced to flee their homes and lands. What Israeli negotiators hinted at agreeing to during the last meeting at Taba in January 2001 would be about 1.8 percent of the 5.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN today.
Israel has, of course, rejected the principle of the right of return and blocked the return of even a single Palestinian refugee.
In October 2000, Palestinians revolted in what was called the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Ariel Sharon and his soldiers’ brutality killed Palestinians who were protesting the then-opposition leader’s controversial visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound the previous month. By February 2001, when Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister, the talks had collapsed, and they have not restarted since.
One year later, the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted at the Arab League’s Beirut Summit in March 2002, made an unprecedented offer to Israel on how to solve the Palestinian refugee issue. Namely, it stated that the right of return would be honored but that its execution would be done in agreement with Israel, thus giving the Israelis veto power on how this resolution was implemented. Even that generous offer has been totally rejected by the state of Israel to this day.
To be clear, though, the issue of the right of return must be handled on two fronts: the personal and the national. The right of a refugee and his or her descendants to return and to also be compensated is a right that no one can negotiate away, including the Palestinian leadership. At the same time, the right of return must be secured on a national level. On this level, the political leadership has some space to negotiate based on the prevailing political circumstances.
As President Mahmoud Abbas has said, there are no plans to drown Israel with the return of all refugees. So, the political leadership has an obligation to secure the rights of individuals and then find a formula for which refugees will return in whatever capacity. Some suggest that the issue can be handled by giving the refugees themselves a choice. There is a strong possibility that the number of those wanting to move into Israel (rather than stay where they are, go to the state of Palestine or go to a third country) will not be huge. In the case that the number of those wanting to return to within the internationally recognized borders of Israel is more than the political leadership secured in the negotiations, then agreed criteria (for example, priority to refugees from Lebanon or refugees who have no other citizenship) could be used.
In 2023, no one expects that all 5.6 million Palestinian refugees will return to what is now the sovereign state of Israel, as recognized by the world, on the pre-June 1967 borders. However, the biggest obstacle will not be how many Palestinians will eventually return or how all refugees will be compensated. The big question that remains to be answered and that will be the linchpin to resolving the Palestinian refugee issue is the recognition of their suffering. The demand made by Palestinian negotiators in 2001 that Israel accepts its historical and moral responsibility for causing the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) is a requirement that has yet to be fulfilled. Without it, those who do go back — and the majority who do not — will continue to insist on their inalienable right of return.
- Daoud Kuttab is a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. Twitter: @daoudkuttab