Sixty years ago, on 11 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed an important resolution about Israel and the Palestinians. It called on the newly formed Israeli state to repatriate the displaced Palestinians “wishing to live in peace with their neighbours…at the earliest practicable date”, and to compensate them for their losses. A Conciliation Commission was set up to oversee the repatriation of the returnees. Though never implemented and frequently ignored since then, Resolution 194 has haunted the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ever since, and has proved the most insurmountable obstacle in all peace negotiations. It is the legal basis for the ‘right of return’, to which Palestinians have clung for sixty years.
Far from this fundamental plank of the Palestinian cause being protected and preserved, it has been used like a political football between the parties, sometimes to attack, sometimes to defend, and now as something to bargain over. Through this process the discourse about the right of return has become deliberately ambiguous or vague, responding to Israel’s anxieties. To assert, against this background of appeasement, that the right of return is the sine qua non of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is viewed today as ‘unrealistic’ and old-fashioned, even an obstacle to peace, as if the passage of sixty years had disqualified the Palestinians from entitlement to their homeland. Israel, conversely, shows no such ambiguity in its perennial and unambiguous rejection of the right of return.
The latest obfuscation of this right, supposed to lure Israel to the negotiating table with the Arabs, is the Saudi (and now the Arab) peace plan, first devised in 2002. The plan, as originally drawn up, stipulated an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 1967 borders, the creation of a Palestinian state, and Jerusalem as a capital for Israel and ‘Palestine’. It also included an ambiguous condition about the return of the Palestinian refugees, but without specifying whether refugees were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created. When the plan was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002, more emphasis was placed on the refugee issue at Lebanon’s insistence, with a clause that rejected all forms of Palestinian patriation “which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries". However, no details of numbers of returnees or mechanism for their repatriation were added, even though the other clauses of the plan were unambiguous. In its current version, the Arab peace initiative speaks of achieving “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194”, without spelling out what that means.
When Israel was founded in May 1948, many Western states saw it as a moral and necessary act to compensate Jews for the damage Germany had inflicted on them. A faraway country, Palestine, in a backward region, mostly under Western control and without the capacity to resist, must have seemed an ideal refuge for the stricken European Jews. Within hours of Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 14 1948, America and the Soviet Union had recognised the new state, many others following suit. One year later on 11 May 1949, the UN General Assembly, affirming this sentiment, voted by a majority of 17 to admit Israel to membership of the world body.
Ignored in this euphoria of settling the post-war Jewish refugees and at the same time solving the centuries-old Jewish question which had plagued Europe and its Jews, was the cost to the native population of Palestine. The resulting tragedy for the Palestinian people has been endlessly documented. Despite Israeli propaganda to the contrary, it was inevitable and predictable, given the determination of Israel’s founders to create a state for Jews in a land that was not Jewish. They recognised from the beginning that they would have to reverse Palestine’s demography, by converting the existing Arab majority into a Jewish one. Zionist writings from the late nineteenth century onwards make no secret of the need to rid the land of Arabs. “We must spirit the penniless [Arab] population across the frontier…Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly”, wrote Theodore Herzl, founder of political Zionism in his diary on 12 June 1895. Yoram Bar Porath put it more bluntly to the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, on 14 July 1972, “there is no Zionism, colonialization or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.” And Rafael Eitan, Israel’s Chief of Staff, told the New York Times on 14 April 1983, “the Arabs have no right to settle on even one centimeter of Eretz Israel”.
This thinking inevitably caused the flight and expulsion in 1948 of some 750,000 native Palestinians, 90 per cent of the total. A third of them had already been evicted by Jewish forces before Israeli statehood was declared, in line with Zionist strategy. Palestinians call these catastrophic events their ‘Nakba’, commemorated each year with sorrow and anger. The refugees were dispersed between camps in the surrounding Arab countries, and exile in the wider Arab world and beyond. It was this dispersal and the apprehensions of those Arab states forced to host the refugees that formed the background to Resolution 194. Expressing Arab anxieties at the time, the Egyptian UN delegate stressed that Arab states could not be made responsible for the refugees whom Israel had expelled, and insisted that Israel repatriate them without delay.
Israel rejected these demands root and branch, even though the terms of its admission to UN membership required adherence to UN resolutions, including 194. When the UN Mediator for Palestine, the Swedish diplomat, Count Bernadotte, who was appalled by the refugees’ plight, tried to push for repatriation in line with Resolution 194, dissidents from the Israeli Irgun organisation under Menachem Begin (later Israel’s prime minister) assassinated him in September 1948. Nothing has succeeded in shifting Israel’s opposition. In sixty years, Israel has not repatriated a single refugee or even apologised for its deeds in 1948, demanding instead that the refugees settle in other states and find compensation from international funds.
Today, they and their descendants number some 5 million people, most of whom are camp dwelling refugees. According to the UN, in 2007 there were 4.5 million registered Palestinian refugees, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has never allowed them back. “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return”, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, wrote in his diary on 18 July 1948. “The old will die and the young will forget.” In fulfilment of this pledge, Israel practised a shoo-to-kill policy against Palestinians who tried to return to their land, killing thousands throughout the 1950s
But the Palestinians did not forget. Visiting a refugee camp in Beirut in 1998, I found small Palestinian children, not yet literate, reciting the names of places now in Israel they called home, declaring with childish intensity they would return. Every serious peace plan since Resolution 194 has foundered on the refugee question. The Saudi peace plan, with all its limitations, still needed to include the question of a just solution for the refugees, recognising their centrality to any durable settlement. Yet, none has succeeded to date, and the Palestinians, the longest-standing refugee community in the world, are still suspended in an anomalous existence, without rights or future. By what logic can the displaced Kosovans, say, be repatriated while Palestinians cannot?
Rectifying this injustice is a moral and practical imperative. Watering down the right if return, as various peace proponents have been trying to do, is neither legal nor just and doomed to fail. Only a solution that can reconcile the right of Palestinian return with the rights of Israeli Jews can succeed. The two-state solution, currently promoted, cannot do so. It creates a small Palestinian territory incapable of absorbing the refugees, and affirms Israel’s right to a Jewish majority, by definition excluding a refugee return. Western attempts, starting in the late 1990s, to find alternatives for the refugees other than return, have proposed absorption into their host countries, compensation, and emigration to various western states. Most Palestinians refused to fall for these blatant attempts to rob them of their rights.
There is only one solution for this sixty-year old impasse that addresses the rights of Palestinians, Israelis and the needs of justice. Only a unitary state in Israel-Palestine can encompass the returning Palestinians and ensure the continued existence of an Israeli Jewish community, however egregious their presence in that land. In this anniversary year, it is time that Resolution 194 was laid to rest, not by neglect as Israel has long been hoping, but by a new UN resolution. This will affirm the Palestinian right to return to the towns and villages their ancestors had inhabited for generations, and call for Israelis and Palestinians to share the land between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, in a secular, democratic state, where the rights of all its citizens to freedom of worship, security, and equality are enshrined in law.
Neither side can win the war over exclusive ownership of historic Palestine. Israel’s attempt to do so has only caused unending conflict and suffering. The UN made Israel and must now unmake it, not by expulsion and displacement as in 1948, but by converting its bleak legacy into a future of hope for both peoples in one state. If that happens, it will be an anniversary truly worth celebrating.
Ghada Karmi is author of ‘Married to another man: Israel’s dilemma in Palestine’.