The thorny issue of refugees’ right of return can be solved
Israel last month accused 12 members of the UN Relief and Works Agency of being involved in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Following the unproven allegations, main donors including the US, UK, Germany, Japan and Australia withdrew their funding of the organization that has, since 1949, been providing for the refugees who were brutally driven out of their homes during the founding of Israel.
As usual, the Israeli story has changed as more truths were unveiled. Israel later said that the number of people suspected was not 12 but four. And Sky News reported that the claims and documents presented by the Israelis do not directly implicate UNRWA. Even the US State Department stated that it could not verify the Israeli claims, although it still found them “highly credible.” This is a bit confusing. If they were “highly credible,” why can the State Department not check them?
It is important to ask the question: Why now? Why is Israel so adamant about closing down UNRWA? What a coincidence. The Israeli effort to defund UNRWA comes just as the concept of a Palestinian state is being pushed in the public discourse. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron announced last week that his country was considering recognizing a Palestinian state. The US has put out a similar message. It is reportedly “reviewing options for the possible recognition of a Palestinian state.” What does this mean? It means that Israelis will no longer be in the driving seat and will no longer have a veto over Palestinian statehood.
As they see that Palestinian statehood might be imposed on them, they need to clear one major issue: the right of return. UNRWA is supposed to take care of Palestinian refugees until they are no longer refugees and they can return home. In a speech in July 2023, the Israeli representative at the UN, Gilad Erdan, said clearly: “There is no right of return.” From Israel’s perspective, he added, the right of return of millions of descendants of refugees is the demand to obliterate the Jewish people’s right for self-determination. Erdan blamed UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority for the perpetuation of the status of Palestinian refugees.
The argument presented by Israel is that about 800,000 Jews were also expelled from Arab countries in 1948. Hence, there was a population exchange and the chapter should be closed. However, this equivalence does not stand up to scrutiny. Arab Jews left their countries to become citizens in the newly founded state of Israel, whereas Palestinians have remained as refugees in perpetuity, as they have no state. The Israelis are worried about being overwhelmed by waves of returning Palestinians.
A Palestinian state would give political representation to all refugees who are currently stateless and have travel documents that only a few countries accept. Again, the daunting question from an Israeli perspective is: What if they all decided to return to where they came from? UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 of 1974 states “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.”
The establishment of the state of Israel involved a great deal of dispossession that needs to be recognized and addressed.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The Israelis always try to portray the mass expulsions that happened in 1948 as lawful. They were not. Of course, the UN partitioned Palestine and gave 55 percent of it to the Jews for them to establish Israel. But the partition did not give them the right to push out the inhabitants of the land. For example, my great grandfather was a subject of the Ottoman Empire. He had a house in Beirut. When the state of Greater Lebanon was established in 1920, he became a Lebanese citizen living under the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state. This did not mean that the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon had the right to come and drive him out of his home and take his place. Definitely not.
The establishment of the state of Israel involved a great deal of dispossession that needs to be recognized and addressed. People were pushed out of their private property. This dispossession created a sense of injustice that fuels the drive for resistance. It is in the interest of Israel, as well as the international community, to solve the issue in an equitable manner.
If the refugees’ actual return is difficult and is deemed a threat to the Israelis, then Palestinians should be compensated. Here, the Israelis will jump in and say: What about the Jews who left their countries in 1948? Of course, justice cannot be selective and exclusive. Justice should be for all. So, a tribunal under the UN should be put in place to compensate people who can present evidence of their property and proof that it was taken from them by force. This should include Palestinian refugees as well as Jews who left or were expelled from Arab countries in 1948. This might involve billions of dollars in compensation and might take years. However, it is a small price to pay for a sustainable peace.
Also, the Arab League should state the right of return of Jews who left in 1948. Before 1948, a third of Baghdadis were Jewish and, according to Avi Shlaim, the British-Israeli historian of Iraqi origin, they “were a very positive force in Iraqi society.” But not anymore. “What changed,” Shlaim said, “was the creation of the state of Israel.” Of course, if the Arab League were to announce the right of return, we would not expect Jewish Israelis of Arab origin to go back to Baghdad in the current conditions Iraq is experiencing. However, such a resolution would push a sense of integration among people, instead of the sense of animosity that Israel — especially the current Netanyahu government — has been fanning. They try to convince Jewish Israelis of Arab origin, as well as the international community, that Jews have been persecuted by Arab countries. This is somehow their justification for mistreating Palestinians.
The tribunal on compensation for refugees, as well as giving Arab Jews the right to return to their ancestral homelands in Arab countries, would deconstruct the false narrative of victimhood of the Israeli right. The Israeli right has been thriving on this animosity and fear, portraying to its own people that Arabs and Palestinians were oppressors of the Jewish people. To have peace and a fair settlement, this narrative needs to be deconstructed and dispossession needs to be addressed.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.