Palestinians: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing

I have just returned from a brilliant lecture by Salman Abu Sitta, the Palestinian researcher and writer, entitled “Palestinians:Reversing Ethnic Cleansing”.

Sitta’s argument is simple, loud and clear: the right of return is a fundamental right that is not up for negotiation and the return of Palestinians to Palestine is inevitable. Further to this, the right of return is enshrined in international law through UN Resolution 194 that he rejects was a recommendation: “…the UN has affirmed resolution 194 about 135 times, a case unprecedented in UN history.”

Sitta comes out with some devastating facts that we have all heard before but to me at least still causes disbelief. “UNRWA has a budget that allocates $76 per Palestinian refugee per year, while the US in military and aid give a total of $1000 per Israeli per year.”

Sitta produced some wonderful and painstakingly detailed maps and graph (compiled into his book the Atlas of Palestine 1948). He details how now after ejecting the Palestinians from the land 27% of the this so sacred land is made up of military zones. Sitta describes how Gaza that represents 1% of the total surface area of Palestine now roughly contains the same number of people as Palestine as a whole did in 1948. Of course you have heard all this before….

The interesting part of the Sitta’s argument that I have not heard is his take on UN Resolution 194 that calls for the right of return. Sitta focuses on a third element of resolution 194 that he argues is all too often ignored. This is the creation of a mechanism to implement the right of return: the UN Conciliation Committee for Palestine (UNCCP). The UNCCP ceased functioning in 1966 and Sitta calls for the UNCCP to be reactivated for the return and rehabilitation of refugees.

Sitta is a Palestinian that really believes in the international system. Despite being denied the right to return for all these decades he still believes that by shouting and screaming Palestinians will achieve their right of return. He argues that in Europe esepcially attitudes are changing. When challenged by a German lady in the audience who did not believe this to be the case, Sitta replied that Germany is different but in Scandinavia and in Britain (the people but not the government) there has been a remarkable change in opinion. “In the 1960s in Britain I could not even say Palestine now the public are very supportive.” But of course the way British power is used is very different which Sitta stating that Blair always has a “ever ready present of cash” to block the right of return. So for the UK he may have a point that public opinion may have changed but it is no where near enough.

Salman Abu Sitta is a man that feels he can wait this one out…that return is inevitable. I can’t help feel that is wishful thinking in a hopeless situation….the reality is that return is not inevitable and the balance of power as it is and with things getting worse rather than better this long conflict is only going to get longer. But I hope I am wrong. And as I was reading just the other day South African activists never thought the day would come when in 1990 de Klerk announced the release of Mandela. I am sure this can be applied to many other major historical triumphs but….

In relation to this ever going conflict…many analysts over on Qifa Nabki are predicting that 2010 is going to be the year of a new war between Hezbollah and Israel. The environment in Lebanon seems so far from that atmosphere at the moment. And I really really hope that I am right on that one!

  1. sean said:

    I wouldn’t put much faith in the UNCCP. Not only has it been defunct for 45 years, but even back in the day, the right of return was considered a non-starter for the Israelis. Here is Moshe Sharett writing to the commission back in 1949:

    The new development on which I should like to report concerns the question of the Arab refugees. Members of the Knesset are fully aware of the basic attitude of the Government on this problem, that in the main a solution must be sought, not through the return of the refugees to Israel, but through their resettlement in other states. There has been no change in this basic attitude.

    …[T]he state of Israel cannot consider itself in any way responsible for the problem of the refugees. Israel places the responsibility for this problem and for the grim suffering it has caused fully and squarely on those who violated the U.N. decision on the solution of the Palestine problem, either through armed revolt inside the country to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel, or through invasion in order to stifle the State at birth. On the other hand, while disclaiming all responsibility for the problem, the State of Israel cannot remain indifferent to the suffering and distressed by which the problem is surrounded. The State of Israel is vitally concerned with a solution of this problem and deems it its humanitarian duty to do what it can to bring it about.

    The extent of Israel’s contribution, however, cannot be determined by the dimensions of the problem. Its scale must be measured only in terms of the security and economic capacity of the State. From bitter experience, the Government of Israel is convinced that the return of Arab refugees will involve serious economic difficulties.

    Otherwise, I missed the lecture, but I think what people mean when they say that resolution 194 is a recommendation is that it’s a General Assembly resolution, which unlike those originating in the Security Council, is unenforceable.

    Finally, given the power imbalance and the unwillingness of any other capable country to enforce any kind of solution, the refugee question is no longer a legal one. It has become a political matter that will only be solved by political means, because no list of resolutions has any weight on the ground.

    I say all this as someone who is engaged to be married to a Palestinian refugee and whose children will be Palestinians, at heart if not on paper. I wish it weren’t the case, but the fact of the matter is that in this case, international law isn’t much help, except insofar as it can be wielded as a political tool to exert pressure on Israel in the domain of public opinion.

  2. deensharp said:

    Hey Sean,

    Really interesting points. I agree with you that the UNCCP is unlikely to change anything or that international law can play any significant role. But nevertheless, Abu Sitta provided a strong argument for at least the moral imperative for what he is calling for. In questions he stated bluntly that he is looking only at the right of return and is not really concerned as to what is possible or not…

    Personally, I do not think there can be agreement or a solution as it stands through political negotiation. Not until there is a radical change in the way Israel is approached by the US and of course how the US approaches Palestinians. Personally, until this happens I would push for withdrawing completely from the political process and focus on resistance.

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