Years Of Dispossession"
By Samar Assad
17 May, 2007
For Palestinians, 15 May
represents the date when they lost 78 percent of their historic homeland
and the date that turned them into the world’s oldest and largest
refugee population. Palestinians refer to 15 May as the al-Nakba, or
catastrophe, to describe their dispossession when over 750,000 Palestinians
fled or were expelled prior to, during and after the 1948 war. This
May, Palestinians memorialize 59 years of exile as Israelis celebrate
59 years of statehood.
International refugee law
expert Susan Akram argues that the legal basis for a refugee's right
of return is established in three main bodies of law: the law of nationality
and state succession, human rights law and humanitarian law. In all
three, explains Akram, the right of return is both "a rule of customary
international law and codified in international treaties." Pointing
to numerous treaties that Israel has ratified, which bind it to recognize
and implement this right, Akram argues that Israel is the state entity
responsible for creating the refugees and is thus held responsible for
the implementation of Palestinians' right of return.
During the July 2000 Camp
David negotiations, Israel argued that it bore no responsibility for
the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem or its solution.
In December 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton, through the “Clinton
Parameters,” adopted the concept of choice, or options, but excluded
the most fundamental one: the option to exercise the right to return
Israel and the Refugees
Despite confirmation by Israeli
historians such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, who pored over hundreds
of declassified Israeli files and confirmed in minute detail that in
1948 Zionist forces committed massacres, expelled Palestinians and destroyed
their villages, Israel refuses to admit responsibility for the depopulation
of Palestinian villages and towns.
In a speech at the Technion
in Haifa in 1969, (Haaretz, 4 April 1969) former Israeli Defense Minister
Moshe Dayan confirmed: “Jewish villages were built in the place
of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages,
and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not
only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either.
Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta;
Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifies; and Kefar Yehushua in the place
of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country
that does not have a former Arab population.”
In Salman Abu Sitta’s
428-page Atlas of Palestine 1948 (London: Palestine Land Society, 2005),
close documentation of events from March 1948 to April 1949 reveal that
the brutal armed struggle that erupted in the spring of 1948 led to
the depopulation of 675 Palestinian villages. Through 27 references
from Israeli sources, Abu Sitta notes that over 70 massacres by Zionist
forces encouraged Arab flight in 1948. According to Abu Sitta’s
documents, in May 1948 there were at least 1,113 Arab Palestinian towns
and villages located mostly in urban areas around the coast. Only 99
of those towns and villages remain today.
On 23 October 1979, the New
York Times published a leaked version of former Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin’s memoirs in which he recalls, “We walked
outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question, what
is to be done with the Palestinian population? Ben-Gurion waved his
hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!’”
Israel and the Land
Many blame the dispossession
of Palestinians on Arab rejection of the Partition Plan or United Nations
Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. What is left out of this argument
is that the plan gave 55.5 percent of the land to a section of the population
(Jewish) who owned 5.4 percent of the land and constituted 32 percent
of the total population.
After Israel declared statehood
on 15 May 1948, not only did its borders incorporate more than 77 percent
of the land, including 460 Palestinian villages, its leaders gained
control of everything the British left behind. That , according to documents
in Atlas of Palestine 1948, included nearly 2,000 miles of first-class
roads, 624,000 miles of railroads, 41 railway stations, 31 airports,
33 hospitals, 15 post offices, 37 military camps (including unused ammunition
and supplies), 99 police stations and posts, 350 schools, 1,984 Christian
and Muslim religious buildings and 3,649 sources of water (wells, springs,
Absorption vs. Return
Some have argued that refugees
should be offered compensation in exchange for return. The flaw in that
argument is that the term “refugee” refers to a legal, not
economic status. Financially stable refugees and refugees with citizenship
from other countries still have the legal right to return to Israel.
In addition to the right to return, all Palestinians have a right to
compensation for their losses.
The application of international
law has enabled the return of refugees all over the world except in
Palestine, despite the fact that U.N. Resolution 194 (11 December 1948)
stipulates that “the 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.” Regarding compensation, the
resolution states that compensation should be paid for the loss of or
damage to property “which, under principles of international law
or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities
Israel defines itself as
a Jewish state and Palestinian refugees are Muslims and Christians.
Jews from around the world, even converts to Judaism, are allowed to
immigrate to Israel under the “Law of Return.” However,
defining a country in ethnic/religious terms does not exempt it from
In Bosnia, East Timor and
Kosovo and in the case of Rwanda, refugees have had their right of return
honored. In Kosovo, the right of return was considered a “non-negotiable”
issue. In Bosnia, Akram explains, more than 50 percent of all property
claims have resulted in the restitution of the homes and lands to their
owners after the conflict ended. "Most remarkable in the Bosnia
case is that restitution has been the goal of the reconstruction process
and not a penny has been paid in compensation as an alternative to restitution,"
Akram argued at a 18 July 2005 Palestine Center symposium.
Refugees in Numbers
The Resource Center for Palestinian
Residency and Refugee Rights—BADIL estimates that today there
are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons.
According to Akram, about one in three refugees in the world is Palestinian
and more than two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees.
BADIL places Palestinians
who were displaced and expelled from their homes in 1948 and their descendents
into one group. Of those, 4.3 million are registered for assistance
with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and 1.7 million are unregistered,
not eligible for assistance.
Another group is comprised
of Palestinians displaced for the first time from their homes in the
West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. They are referred to as
the “1967 displaced persons.” They and their descendents
number approximately 834,000.
BADIL identifies two internally
displaced groups—Palestinians internally displaced in 1948, who
BADIL estimates at 355,000, and the 1967 internally displaced Palestinians
of approximately 57,000.
According to BADIL, most
refugees live within 100 miles of Israel’s border. Half of the
refugees live in Jordan, one-fourth in the Occupied Palestinian Territory
and approximately 15 percent live in Syria and Lebanon. The remainder
live scattered around the world, primarily in the rest of the Arab world,
Europe and the Americas.
More than 1.3 million Palestinian
refugees live in 59 UN-administered refugee camps in the Occupied Palestinian
Territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and twelve unrecognized refugee
camps: five in the West Bank, three in Jordan and four in Syria.
According to the Palestinian
Bureau of Statistics (2004 census), there are 9.6 million Palestinians
is Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program
the Palestine Center.
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