Why the right of return must be on the table
In the southern neighborhoods of Beirut, far from the highways and glass towers that compose this cosmopolitan Mediterranean city’s downtown, sits the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila. The camp is a towering complex of dilapidated apartment buildings, their concrete sides marred by bullet holes and mortar scars that speak to the decades of conflict the Palestinian people have endured.
Unlike in the Lebanese neighborhoods just beyond the refugee camps, the roads between apartment buildings here are only a few feet wide. This is because the street layout reflects the same paths that led between the tents when they were set down in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees were forced to flee their homeland and many found what should have been temporary housing in Lebanon. Most of the refugees expected to return soon to their homes in what is now Israel, a right guaranteed them under international law and United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Instead, they have lived nearly 64 years in a seemingly permanent state of poverty and dispossession, awaiting the day their right to return to their homes will be granted.
Since that time, many refugees have fought to return to their homeland, actively participating in movements for national liberation like the Palestinian Liberation Organization and others that reached a crescendo in the 1970s and 1980s. Many refugees have also looked to nonviolence, seeking to make their voices heard in Palestinian elections and other bureaucratic mechanisms. Most recently, on May 15, 2011, the 63rd anniversary of the founding of Israel, thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Syria marched to the border with Israel, reminding the world that they exist and that they must be recognized in any eventual solution to the conflict. When a few young people began throwing rocks and jumping the gates, the Israeli military opened fire on the crowds, killing around a dozen and injuring many, many more.
In May of last year, I had been teaching English in Shatila for two months and accompanied a group of my students to the border along with their families and thousands of others. Although their school was covered in maps of Palestine and they could recite with ease the villages in what is today Israel from whence they had come, they had never seen their homeland, a mere three-hour drive from Shatila. Palestine was for them an illusive dream, a land that they saw on the news but could not hope to ever approach themselves. When we reached the border with Israel that day, it was almost unreal to them, and I have little difficulty understanding why thousands marched towards the border, unable to return to the misery of the refugee camps when the verdant fields of the country their grandparents had been expelled from lay before them.
I had been standing in a group up the hill and at some distance from the border as I watched the scene unfold. It was with horror and confusion that we began to realize that the Israeli military had opened fire on the crowds of protesters who had approached the border, thwarting the potentially realizable dream of return that had captivated yet another generation of Palestinians.
Today, around 4.5 million Palestinians live as refugees, scattered across the Middle East. The one thing that unites all these refugees is their insistence on their right of return to their former homeland. Although Israel has since demolished the majority of Palestinian villages, a number still stand vacant. For many refugees, an acknowledgment of the right of return in principle and compensation for the loss of their homes would be enough, as a 2003 survey suggested. And still others hope to move to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if one were established.
Until now, however, Israel has stood in the way of these options, consistently rejecting the refugees’ right to return and suggesting that any acknowledgment of this right would be tantamount to the destruction of Israel as a “Jewish state” because it could lead to a Palestinian majority in Israel. A shifting ethnic majority is, of course, no problem for a truly democratic state. However, for one predicated on the dominance of a specific demographic, it is unthinkable.
Those who accuse supporters of the one state solution of opposing normalization are in fact, correct to a certain extent. If Israel is to remain a “Jewish state,” it will refuse to consider the possibility that Palestinian refugees have a right to return to the land that they were expelled from.
But the one state solution offers the possibility of a joint, democratic Israeli-Palestinian state. Unlike the current state of Israel, this state would not be predicated on one group’s majority status. At the very least, this option needs to be on the table because it is one of the few that allows for the possibility of the refugees becoming a part of a future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The One State Conference hosted at Harvard last weekend helped initiate that dialogue in academic circles. It is with hope that I look forward to a future dialogue that takes into account the needs, ideas, and experiences of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies. His column appears on alternate Fridays.