Historical omissions taint polemic about Palestinian ‘right of return’

BOOK REVIEW: The argument in War of Return that removing the Palestinian right of return will pave the way to peace ignores both history and geopolitics, writes Sam Bahour

The War of Return
by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf
All Points Books, 304 pp., $28.99

WHAT DO YOU GET when a disillusioned Israeli politician from the Left links up with a veteran Israeli journalist, also from the Left, to take on the issue of Palestinian refugees? You get Israeli Hasbara (public diplomacy propaganda) on steroids.

This was my immediate reaction while reading the recently released book, The War of ReturnHow Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace. by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf.

Adi Schwartz is a freelance journalist, a former staff writer for Haaretz and worked for Israel Hayom. Einat Wilf is an Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party (2010–2011) and Independence Party (2011–2013). She wrote in an article titled Zionism: The Only Way Forward (The Daily Beast, 2017) that “I am a Zionist because I am an atheist and a Jew.”

Their book is a frontal attack on Palestinian refugees. If you remove the one-third of the book that is repetitive and honking the Israeli state horn, you are left with a third of extremely selective references and statements that attempt to build a seemingly non-controversial case against Palestinian refugees’ right to return and the international agency overseeing them.

The last third comprises of rather useful facts and figures, along with an extensive bibliography.

What is missing from the book is as important as what is in it. What’s missing is all the other references that Palestinians’ Right of Return is based on, above and beyond the single one, UN General Assembly 194, that the authors pin their entire argument around.

The book dwells on the assumption that Israel accepted the UN Partition Plan, General Assembly Resolution 181, and the Arabs did not. So in their analysis, anything goes by Israel, and Palestinians need to just get over it. “…partition would have meant that out of the 11.5 million square kilometres encompassed by Arab states at the time, many of which were also set in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, some 15,000 square kilometres (one one-thousandth) would be allocated to the Jewish people,” they write. They conveniently lump all Arab states in one bucket and compare that area to a single intended “state” that became Israel.

Whereas the authors make a major deal about Arab rejection of General Assembly Resolution 181, treating it as a sacred text, they dismiss another General Assembly Resolution, 194, that deals with the Right of Return, making the case that it was merely a General Assembly Resolution that was non-binding.

On one page, a General Assembly resolution is a justification for aggression and on another, it has zero relevance because it is a General Assembly resolution.

The authors claim to have discovered the silver bullet to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency created in December 1949 to support the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees, and make it clear to the Palestinians, once and for all, that a return of refugees back to Israel  will never happen.

In retrospect, the book’s foreword also gave away its Hasbara slant. In the first paragraph the authors write, “Despite the horrific suicide attacks perpetrated by Palestinians on Israeli civilians following the signing of Oslo, and the assassination of Rabin, Israelis kept hoping for peace.” Attacks are attributed specifically to all Palestinians, whereas the assassination of a sitting Israeli prime minister is merely a tacked-on phrase, generic at best, assumed undertaken by Palestinians at worst.

On the subject of Palestinian refugees, the authors expose the equivalent of discovering in the year 2020 that the sun rises from the east, by acknowledging that the Palestinians are serious about the right of return for their refugees.

“What we discovered actually surprised us both. While hiding in plain sight for decades, one of the core issues in the conflict had been almost totally absent from the consciousness of both Israelis and peace-makers around the world.

“The issue of Palestinian refugees, and the Arab and Palestinian demand that those refugees be allowed to exercise what they call a ‘right of return’, attracts scant attention,” they add.

Can they be serious? The entire Palestinian national liberation movement (PLO) started as a movement of refugees, long before the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.

Another passage that made this reading a false-start was, “The Palestinian conception of themselves as “refugees from Palestine”’ and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews.”

If Palestinians are not refugees from “Palestine,” then where were they living before Israel was established – the moon?

A more interesting blind spot is its hyperfocus on a single paragraph (No. 11) of a single UN General Assembly resolution from 1948 (No. 194) which calls for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees. The authors want the reader to believe that this is the only reference that is relevant here and make the case that the resolution is flawed, thus removing any “right” of Palestinian refugees to return home.

Any mention of other parts of international law are made only in passing and with the sole goal of absolving Israel from any responsibility in creating, even partially, the refugee crisis, or refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to return after the establishment of Israel and the passing of 72 years.

For example,  the authors use an authoritative Palestinian reference multiple times, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Negotiation Affairs Department (NAD). NAD prominently lists on their website the text of paragraph 11 of Resolution 194, but it also lists much more on the same page. It states:

“The right of return for our refugees also is well-established under other international law, including:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948): “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (Art. 13(2)).
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country” (Art. 12(4)).
  • The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons: “All Refugees and displaced persons have the right to voluntarily return to their former homes, lands or places of habitual residence, in safety and dignity” (Art. 10.1).
  • “Refugees and displaced persons should be able to effectively pursue durable solutions to displacement other than return, if they so wish, without prejudicing their right to the restitution of their housing, land and property” (Art. 10.3).”

Try to find a detailed analysis of these other parts of international law in the book and you will come up empty-handed.

The book totally ignores the powerhouse Palestinian civil society movement that brought the rights of Palestinian refugees front and centre through the  Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS), launched in 2005 after the failure of the Oslo process.

BDS has, among other outcomes, demanded the following: Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194 [emphasis added]”

The authors simply ignored this third demand of the BDS.

The authors simply ignored this demand; they were more interested in making the case that the Palestinians are somehow hiding their real interest in their refugees returning to their homes.

At times, it does seem that the authors are trying the best they can to humanise their arguments, such as when they write, “In theory, of course, the Palestinians’ right to self- determination is entirely compatible with the parallel right of the Jewish people to self- determination.” But they can only humanise Palestinians if it is tucked under a false symmetry with the “Jewish people.”

The fact of the matter is that there is no symmetry, not in “self-determination” nor in trying to conflate Judaism with Zionism. That noted, the Palestinian Authority has formally recognised the State of Israel, but even that major Palestinian political concession is brushed aside by the authors as not being genuine.

Indeed, you will not find anything in this book about Israeli actions over the past seven decades. Nothing about the Palestinian villages of Ikrit and Biram inside of Israel, where internally displaced Palestinians are refused the right to return even after Israel’s High Court ruled that they have the right.

Nothing about the Israeli settlement enterprise which eats away at the land and resources earmarked for Palestine, one of the locations that the authors themselves hope many Palestinian refugees would return to instead of Israel. Nothing about the building of an illegal Separation Wall effectively wiping away the Green Line.

Nothing about past and present acts of unilateral annexation by Israel, making the two-state solution more difficult by the hour, and this from authors who claim to be supporters of a two-state solution. All of Israel’s strategic mishaps are conveniently regulated to unavoidable errors in the “heat of the battle,” a battle it seems that only one side was allowed to feel the “heat” and make mistakes.

However, I must give credit to the authors for revealing tidbits of interesting research about the course of events over the past seven decades, missteps in Palestinian strategies, and flaws in UNRWA. The latter problem is something that has been very known and public for many years and is under continuous structural repair.

I end with how I began my 2011 TEDxRamallah talk which was titled, Refugees Waiting. Peace in the Middle East – when I hear these words, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, however, I do know one thing for sure: The key to peace in the Middle East is the returning home of displaced Palestinians – whether refugees, exiles or diaspora.

There is perhaps no aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is subject to greater distortion than the so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’. The term refers to the demand, erroneously stated as a legal right, for the Palestinians (and their descendants in perpetuity) who resided in part of the British Mandate for Palestine that became Israel to return to their former homes, now 72 years after the failed Arab invasion of Israel during which they left.

On the face of it, the demand sounds like a perfectly reasonable appeal to the world’s conscience – to allow those inadvertently caught in the throes of a great regional war to return to their homes and resume their peaceful lives. The boycotts, sanctions and divestment campaign (BDS) has the ‘right of return’ as one of its three core demands.

In their new book, Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz attempt to show through calm, patient storytelling backed by historiography and a depth of evidence, that the right of return is in fact no right at all, and is instead, a thinly veiled demand for the destruction of a sovereign state.

On first examination, a book devoted to a single aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem remote, even indulgent, and surely of appeal only to those already possessing a command of the history and the issues.

But Wilf and Schwartz have shown how this one issue is in fact the issue that explains why peace between Israel and the Palestinians eludes us, why fair offers of Palestinian statehood are scoffed at, and why the Palestinian leadership has never been able to even utter the words, ‘we recognise Israel as the national home of the Jewish people’.

REVIEW IN FULL The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (Fathom)

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Photo: Palestinians receive their monthly food aid from a UN distribution centre in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 2011 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)