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Recognising the right of return is not optional

Fortress Europe’s tyrannical border continues to claim lives. Last week there was another terrible shipwreck in the Mediterranean which claimed the lives of dozens of desperate, fleeing refugees. It came only a week after the last tragedy, off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, which killed more than 300 fleeing Africans.


Off the coast of Malta last Friday, a ship of more than 200 Syrians and Palestinians capsized. The death toll was reported to be at least 33. The prime minister of Malta recently warned that the Mediterranean was beginning to become “a cemetery.”

All refugee stories have their own particular tragedies and hardships. The Syrians and Palestinians aboard were fleeing the civil war in Syria, which has raged on since 2011. They escaped one nightmare to find themselves in the middle of another.

As MEMO’s Daud Abdullah astutely summarised Thursday, the plight of Palestinian refugees throughout the entire region is dire and only getting worse. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and even in Jordan – wars, xenophobia, racism, official neglect and discrimination leave many Palestinians in desperate need.

This is a humanitarian emergency, which is getting worse week by week. But it is also a 65-year-old emergency.

In 1948, the state of Israel was founded in the ashes of Palestinian homes and on top of freshly dug mass-graves created by terrorist gangs of the Zionist settlers who invaded Palestine.

Since then, Israel has fought war after war to maintain this settler-colonial nightmare – and it did start almost all of them, despite claims of Israeli propaganda to the contrary.

The 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 by the nascent Israeli army have since then been cruelly neglected, pauperised, expelled, re-expelled, attacked, bombed, discriminated against, and always, always condescended to. And they and their descendent now number in the millions.

For 65 years they have been blocked from returning to their homes because of one reason: Israel’s apartheid regime throughout the entire land of Palestine. It is Zionism’s obsession with creating a “Jewish state” in a land almost entirely non-Jewish that fostered and sustains this malevolent injustice till today.

Ethnic/sectarian cleansing at the hands of militias in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and occupation, the many civil wars in Lebanon, the current civil war in Syria, the persecution and scapegoating of Palestinians in Egypt – and Israel’s many wars of offence.

For all the tragedies and hardships faced by the Palestinian people today there is one constant root, exacerbating or causing all the others in turn: Israel’s block on the refugees’ right to return to their homeland.

In every war, the office of the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has as its primary goal “to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily”.

But the UNHCR does not have primary responsibility for Palestinian refugees: there is a whole separate UN agency for them, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Millions of Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip rely on UNRWA’s services.

But its primary aim (as stated on its website) is “fostering the human development of Palestine refugees” with no mention of return. A question then, has to be asked: why is the main aim of UNRWA not instead fostering the return of Palestinians to Palestine, much of which is now claimed as “Israel”? Why are Palestinians treated differently than any other refugee?

This is the primary injustice faced by Palestinians today. And yet this ultimate, and central issue, vital to the Palestinian cause, is entirely neglected by the “peace process” scam.

Unelected Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a refugee himself, expelled as a child from Safad (in the north of what was then Palestine). But earlier this year, he went on Israeli TV and publicly claimed “we will not demand to return to Jaffa, Akka and Safad”.

This show may keep this puppet leader in the good books of his Israeli and American pay-masters, but it makes no difference to the Palestinian people.

Despite a divided Palestinian body-politic (even within the occupied territories alone) polls of Palestinians time and again show the right of return of the Palestinian refugees is the top issue of concern.

Recognising right of return is not optional: it is a must. Of course, how that right is exercised is down to individual Palestinians – many may well choose to stay where they have created new lives for themselves.

But with both civil and Israeli colonial wars raging throughout the region in recent years, many Palestinians would physically return for good if they could.

The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said this week in reference to the Malta tragedy said that the “denial of the right of return is responsible for the shipwreck of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at sea”.

They were not wrong.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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