When Return is a recipe for mayhem

Last week, a ghoulish spectacle played itself out in Ramat Aviv. On the supposed site of the Arab village of Sheikh Munis, abandoned in 1948, a conference ‘realising the return’ of Palestinian refugees, arranged by the radical-left organisation Zochrot, planned the minutiae of the demise of the Jewish state. Under the guise of securing justice for Palestinian refugees (scandalously funded by European governments – but that’s another story), conference speaker after speaker charted the systematic ‘decolonisation’ of Jewish Israel.

One can picture Arab families shattering the demure chatter in the cafes in North Tel Aviv, trudging through the streets loudly demanding back homes now lived in by Israeli Jews. The ‘Israeli occupiers’ would have the right to decide to leave their homes or stay and pay the ‘Palestinian refugee owner’ the ‘market value’ of their house. The ‘Palestinian refugee owner’ would decide between recovering ‘his’ house or taking the money, with all that entailed. The children of the Israeli ‘occupiers’ would not be allowed to inherit their homes.

How gracious. This is what the ‘one-state solution’ would look like: Arabs reclaiming rights ‘misappropriated’ by the Jews.

Lest you dismiss all this talk of Return as the fantasies of a tiny minority of Israeli anarchists, let me tell you the unpalatable truth: a majority of Palestinians polled in 2011 – 89.5 percent – support a ‘right of return’ to Israel proper.

Zochrot did not for a moment pause to ask itself whether the Palestinians had a legal ‘right of return’. It took such a right for granted.

A thorough-going study of the Palestinian Right of Return by Andrew Kent, an Associate Professor at Fordham Law School, appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law in 2012. Kent examines the legal bases of Return and finds them wanting. He concludes that even if one assumes one hundred percent Israeli guilt for the Palestinian exodus, no such ‘right of return’ existed at the time. Palestinians usually refer to a right enshrined in what Kent calls ‘soft law’, such as the non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution 194, or retroactively apply recent legislation.

“Recent treaties, declarations, and state practice are used to derive a right of return for refugees displaced by war or other crises, and that right is then retroactively applied by fifty or sixty years to the conflict in 1947–49, when very different legal rules applied,” argues Kent.

Kent’s study lists 159 cases of forced migration, mass expulsion and compulsory transfer. In the 20th century, population exchange was a favoured way of solving international disputes. Return has only been applied since the 1990s – in places like Rwanda, in Serbia, in Iraq. In almost all cases, repatriation occurred soon after the refugees had fled, not decades later. There were three exceptions to the rule: refugees were still claiming a right to return in Cyprus four decades later, Kashmir six decades later, and Palestine, six decades later.

States have had their own reasons for repatriating refugees since the 1990s. There are three caveats: the returning population must have all been citizens of the country they left – which Palestinians were not. The returning population must not be so large as to create an unstable ethnic balance: the return of Palestinian refugees, together with four million descendants who have inherited refugee status, would soon destabilise Israel. Thirdly, Professor Kent points out, all instances of refugee return took place following the signing of peace agreements. (There were three exceptions – Myanmar, Togo and Mali – all under extenuating circumstances.)

Ironically, the Zochrot conference itself intimated that Return might not achieve the desired effect. In a session entitled ‘False Reconciliation’ one Serb speaker said that the Serb experience with repatriated refugees was disastrous and had to be suspended. People were being killed in disputes over tenancy rights.

Zochrot is resolute in its absolute conviction that only one side bears the blame in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The mainly Ashkenazi leftists of this organisation are deaf, dumb and blind to the injustices inflicted on the other set of refugees – the 870,000 Jews who left their homes in Arab countries around the same period. (Return to the countries that persecuted and brutally expelled them is one right these refugees will be glad to give up.)

When Levana Zamir of the Association of Jews from Egypt in Israel suggested cooperation to fight for the rights of both sets of refugees, the Zochrot conference speakers at first expressed public enthusiasm.

In the coffee break, however, they mumbled their excuses: no cooperation would be forthcoming.

One assumes they would rather stick to their sickening recipe for mayhem and strife.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)