Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Who ordered herring?

In yesterday’s NY Times, Hassan M Fattah reports from Amman, ‘For Many Palestinians, ‘Return’ Is Not a Goal’. After nearly six decades in exile, he discovered that the view that ‘it may be neither possible nor desirable to go back’ is ‘being voiced, especially by younger and wealthier Palestinians’.

“The Israelis were betting that the elders would die, and the youth would forget,” said Mr. Abu Ghneim, the refugee, as he sat flanked by several other Palestinian elders who have campaigned for the right of return. “But we are here and the young haven’t forgotten. Our right to return to our homes and lands can never be replaced, not with money or anything else.”

But maybe the Israelis are right. It’s just a matter of time. Sixty years weren’t quite enough. But maybe a hundred will do. From reading Fattah’s article, you would get the impression that it is just a few surviving diehards who hold out any hope for actual implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which Fattah quotes from.

Resolution 194 says, “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 calls for them to be compensated if they choose not to return.

After all, their descendants are doing just fine.

…Abdallah Zalatimo, 41…returned to Amman in 1976, before attending college in the United States.

In the late 1980s he opened a business making Arabic sweets that has grown to include shops in several Arab countries with several million dollars in revenues. “What right do I have to ask for awda when I am here and content?”…

Fattah acknowledges

Most Palestinians who fled to Jordan were granted citizenship and today account for well over half of the country’s population. Palestinian refugees living elsewhere, however, have survived with few rights and no citizenship.

But he is content to generalise on the basis of interviews with prosperous business owners in Jordan.

Almost no Palestinian questions the demand for Israel’s recognition of the right to return; many, however, now say returning is becoming less and less feasible.

In reality, of course, it was never feasible, if by feasible we mean acceptable to an Israeli government obsessed with maintaining a Jewish majority. Indeed, on 1 December 1948, ten days before passage of Resolution 194, the UN representative of the then provisional state of Israel, Mr Shertok (later to become Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second PM) was already looking for excuses to keep the refugees out when he told the General Assembly

that the problem could be solved satisfactorily only in connexion with the final peace settlement, and that it was not a question of the rights of certain individuals but of the collective interests of groups of people. It was not enough to allow these individuals to return when and where they desired, for the question arose as to who was to assume responsibility for their integration in their new environment. The final solution, which could be worked out only after the peace settlement had been concluded must be one to which all Governments would lend their support and co-operation.

In the latest version, Fattah reports that PM Olmert and FM Livni ‘expressed reservations’ about the right of return.

Israel says that Palestinians should have the right to return to a new Palestine, not to their original homes, especially considering that their numbers have exploded since the original 711,000 people fled in 1948. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees says it has 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees.

Obviously, Israel could never absorb 4.3 million refugees, but a string of disconnected Palestinian Bantustans with no water, no economy, and no border with any country but Israel can easily do so. After all, Palestine, the country that only exists on the ever receding horizon, as Condi likes to say, will not be a Jewish and demographic state and won’t have a Jewish majority to protect. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because as everybody knows

In 2003, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in one of the most comprehensive surveys conducted on the subject, found that most Palestinians would be unlikely to move if they were granted the right of return.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting. For starters, Fattah has taken a number and reinterpreted it. The PSR survey really did find that only 10% of the some 4500 refugees they surveyed said they would return to live in Israel as Israeli citizens. But like most statistics, it’s easy to misinterpret if you ignore the context and the wording of the question.

That was one of five options. In reality, only 17% said they would stay in their current host country, which must be what Fattah means by ‘unlikely to move’. So his assertion is fundamentally false. The proportion who would move either to Israel, the Palestinian state, or a third country was actually 66%. Thirteen percent said they wouldn’t accept any of the options offered, and it’s easy to understand why.

To put the survey into context,

Based on several previous surveys showing that the overwhelming majority of the refugees (more than 95%) insist on maintaining the "right of return" as a sacred right that can never be given up, PSR surveys sought to find out how refugees would behave once they have obtained that right and how they would react under various likely conditions and circumstances of the permanent settlement.

The question was couched explicitly in terms of the Taba negotiations of January 2000.

The establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israeli recognition of UN resolution 194 or the right of return. But the two sides would agree on the return of a small number of refugees to Israel in accordance with a timetable that extends for several years. Each refugee family will be able to choose one of the following options:

1. Return to Israel in accordance with an annual quota and become an Israeli citizen

2. Stay in the Palestinian state that will be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and receive a fair compensation for the property taken over by Israel and for other losses and suffering

3. Receive Palestinian citizenship and return to designated areas inside Israel that would be swapped later on with Palestinian areas as part of a territorial exchange and receive compensation

4. Receive fair compensation for the property, losses, and suffering and stay in the host country receiving its citizenship or Palestinian citizenship

5. Receive fair compensation for the property, losses, and suffering and immigrate to a European country or the US, Australia, or Canada and obtain citizenship of that country or Palestinian citizenship.

There are a number of factors that could easily lead to the small proportion saying they would move to Israel. One of these is that only 16% of those surveyed thought that Israel would accept the proposed solution in the first place. It transpires, unsurprisingly, that the 77% who didn’t think so were right. Another is that under the Taba plan, only ‘a small number of refugees’ would get to return to Israel. So respondents might have selected other options on the basis that their need to return was not as great as some other refugees, for example, those who already have family living there. Furthermore, in the context of the Taba plan, which would have established a separate Palestinian state, the prospect of Israeli citizenship may not have seemed very inviting, in light of the treatment existing Palestinian Israeli citizens receive.

None of the options allowed for the possibility of returning to a united Palestine, which I think it is reasonable to speculate would have provided an attractive option. Finally, after sixty years in the wilderness, it seems likely that many have relinquished hope that a just solution is forthcoming and therefore selected an option that seemed a lesser evil.

A more recent qualitative study may shed some light on this. Juliette Abu Iyun and Khalid Nabris, of the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development (Panorama), in their "Time For Them to Speak and For Us to Listen": The Final Report of a Participatory Research and Education Project with Palestinian Refugees in Jalazon Refugee Camp, based on research undertaken in 2004 and 2005, found that

Most participants were sceptical about the possibility of realizing a just solution through negotiation given Israeli intransigence and unwillingness to offer serious concessions to attain peace,and the current imbalance of power including the United States' unabashed bias in favour of Israel.


In both the first and second rounds of the study [i.e. before and after an educational component], the majority of the participants expressed strict adherence to the Right of Return and rejection of any formula that does not enable them to exercise this right, though younger participants and particularly women were more open to discussing alternatives as long as the Right of Return was not compromised. However, many participants were unsure if Palestinian decision-makers share their resolve. They favored holding a referendum before action over any proposal, and regardless of the outcome, most of the participants insisted on their inalienable individual rights as refugees.

And those were refugees in Ramallah. In the 2003 PSR survey, the proportion who said they’d become Israeli citizens was thirteen percent among refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, but only five percent among the refugees in Jordan, which may shed some light on Fattah’s article, datelined Amman. Among those in Lebanon, the figure was 23%.

Finally, Fattah knows that Resolution 194 provides for the refugees to choose whether or not to return. But he has not thought carefully about what refugee choice actually entails. Others have, like BADIL, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. But I guess NY Times reporters don’t have to be any clueyer than their colleagues over in the editorial writing department. BADIL’s February 2000 Occasional Bulletin No. 04, ‘The Right of Return and the Meaning of Refugee Choice’ points out

Determination of refugee choice cannot be undertaken prior to a peace agreement, which explicitly recognizes the right of refugees to return to their homes and provides guarantees for the voluntary character of return – i.e., refugee choice. Without guarantees for implementation of the right of return as codified in a peace agreement, refugees cannot make an informed, free choice about whether they wish to return. In other words, refugee choice cannot precede recognition of the right of return by the country of origin, and provisions for its implementation.

in particular,

Refugees must be supplied with information about the conditions in their country of origin, provisions for safety and protection from the authorities in the country of origin, and details about the procedures for repatriation.

So it seems a bit premature for anybody to start celebrating the permanent exile of those 4.3 million. The conditions don’t even exist yet for them to make the informed choice required by Resolution 194, if that is to be the criterion. And in truth, 194 does not go far enough. When, in December 1948, it said, ‘at the earliest practicable date’, I don’t think it envisaged fifty-nine years of exile, and counting. Surely, a truly just solution would have to compensate the victims for that, as well as for the property losses 194 expressly provides for.

A lot of people and a lot of organisations claim that they are working for a just peace. What most of them are principally concerned to ensure is that Israel gets to retain its Jewish ‘character’. But that’s not the kind of justice that will ensure any kind of peace. Unless Israel is prepared, as it may be, to carry out its own ‘final solution’, justice for the victims of the 1948 adventure in ethnic cleansing remains an essential component of any peaceful outcome.

[Thanks to Sol Salbe for sending the NY Times article and Juliette Abu Iyun for her prompt response to my request for her report.]

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