No issue has been so much at the heart of the Palestine cause, or so resistant to resolution, as the right of return. Palestinians world wide see it as the basis of their case. Enshrined in international law and historical precedent, it has acquired an almost sacred quality for Palestinians, an untouchable right that no one can dispute. Generations of refugees have been reared on the expectation of return to their homeland. Their position derives not only from natural justice, but is also underpinned legally by UN Resolution 194, passed by the General Assembly in December 1948. It called on the newly-formed Israeli state to repatriate the displaced Palestinians "wishing to live in peace with their neighbours… at the earliest practicable date", and to compensate them for their losses. A Conciliation Commission was set up to oversee the repatriation of the returnees. Though never implemented and frequently ignored since then, Resolution 194 has remained the legal basis for the "right of return".
Yet, far from this fundamental plank of the Palestinian case being recognised as such and forming the core of any final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ignoring it has become the norm in political discourse. It simply either does not feature any more, or if it does, it is mostly as a bargaining chip in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The marginalisation of this fundamental right is not new; it started soon after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began to consider the possibility of setting up "an authority" on any liberated part of Palestine. Prior to that date, Palestine's total liberation had been the PLO's aim and this would mean the return to the homeland of all displaced Palestinians. By the late 1970s, though, the idea of partial liberation had developed into the aim to create a Palestinian state. In 1988, the independent "State of Palestine" was declared by the PLO on the 1967 territories, confirming the official Palestinian acceptance of the two-state solution that has been with us ever since.
In 1992, at the Madrid peace conference that followed the Gulf war, a so-called multi-lateral track was established without reference to the refugees. After protest by the PLO the issue was included, but Israel insisted it would refer only to those displaced by the 1967 war, and not those displaced in 1948 when the state was created. The whole thing came to nothing in the end, largely due to disagreement with Israel over definitions. The 1993 Oslo Accord took UN resolutions 242 and 338 as its basis, both of which deal with the refugee issue obliquely, and make no reference to Resolution 194. The issue was relegated along with others to "final status talks" between Israel and the Palestinians which have never been held. Palestinian acceptance of the Oslo terms, as well as the two-state solution, inevitably excluded the right of return, though this was never admitted explicitly. Talks at Taba between the two sides in January 2001 were a slight improvement; the Israelis offered a recognition of Israel's moral and legal responsibility for the refugee exodus of 1948, but there would be no right of return to Israel, and the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries was brought up as if it were an equivalent issue.
A certain official prevarication about the Palestinian right of return first became apparent in 2002, when the Palestinian Authority is reported to have proposed dropping it as "an obstacle in the talks". By 2011, when the revelations about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between 1999 and 2010 were published by Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper, it became clear that the Palestinian leadership was indeed prepared to cede the right of return in its negotiations with Israel. They agreed that only a token 10,000 refugees and their families would return there, and that Israel could not be expected to compromise its Jewish character by taking in any more. These offers were made without authorisation from the Palestinian people, let alone the refugees; in fact, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told George Mitchell, US envoy to the peace talks, in 2009, "On refugees, the deal is there."
To assert against this background of appeasement that the right of return is the sine qua non of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is viewed today as "unrealistic" and old-fashioned, even an obstacle to peace, as if the passage of sixty-seven years had disqualified the Palestinians from entitlement to their homeland. Israel, conversely, shows no such ambiguity in its perennial and unambiguous rejection of the right of return. Through this process, the Arab discourse about the right of return has become deliberately vague, responding to Israel's anxieties. The latest obfuscation of this right, supposed to lure Israel to the negotiating table with the Arabs, is the Arab peace plan, first devised in 2002. The plan included an ambiguous clause about the return of the Palestinian refugees, but without specifying whether refugees were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created. No details of numbers of returnees or mechanisms for their repatriation were provided, but the plan spoke of achieving "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194."
When Israel was founded in May 1948, many Western states saw it as a moral and necessary act to compensate Jews for the damage inflicted on them by Nazi Germany. A faraway country, Palestine, in a backward region, mostly under Western control and without the capacity to resist, must have seemed an ideal refuge for the stricken European Jews. As all Arabs know, in this euphoria of settling the post-war Jewish refugees and at the same time solving the centuries-old "Jewish question" which had plagued Europe and its Jews, the West ignored the cost to the native population of Palestine.
The resulting tragedy for the Palestinian people has been documented endlessly; despite Israeli propaganda to the contrary, this was both inevitable and predictable, given the determination of Israel's founders to create a state for Jews in a land that was not Jewish. They recognised from the beginning that they would have to reverse Palestine's demography, by converting the existing Arab majority into a Jewish one. As Yoram Bar Porath put it bluntly to the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, on 14 July 1972, "There is no Zionism, colonisation or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands." Rafael Eitan, Israel's Chief of Staff, told the New York Times on 14 April 1983, "The Arabs have no right to settle on even one centimetre of Eretz Israel."
This thinking inevitably caused the flight and expulsion in 1948 of between 750,000 and 900,000 native Palestinians, three-quarters of the total population of Mandate Palestine. A third of them had already been evicted by Jewish militias before Israeli statehood was declared, in line with Zionist strategy, and it was this Palestinian dispossession that formed the background to Resolution 194. Israel rejected UN demands root and branch, even though the terms of its admission to UN membership required adherence to UN resolutions, including 194. When the UN Mediator for Palestine, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, who was appalled by the refugees' plight, tried to push for repatriation in line with Resolution 194, dissidents from the Irgun terror gang under Menachem Begin (who later became Israel's prime minister) assassinated him in September 1948. Nothing since has succeeded in shifting Israel's opposition. In sixty-seven years, it has not repatriated a single refugee or even apologised for its deeds in 1948, demanding instead that the refugees settle in other states and find compensation from international funds.
There is no doubt that this Israeli obduracy, supported by powerful Western states, has persuaded many in the Palestinian leadership to compromise on the right of return. And no wonder; every serious peace plan since Resolution 194 has foundered on the refugee question. Today, the refugee camps appear to be a permanent feature of the Arab countries in which they were established. The refugees and their descendants number some 5.8 million, living in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, suspended in an anomalous existence, all too often without rights or a future. By what logic could the displaced Kosovans be repatriated in 1999, or the displaced people of Bosnia-Hertzogovina be offered return and compensation under a strict international administration with built-in monitoring, while the Palestinians remain in limbo?
Watering down the right of return, and pandering to Israel, is not the way to solve the problem. Only solutions that can reconcile the right of Palestinian return with the existence of an Israeli Jewish community which, whether we like it or not, now exists and has acquired rights too, can succeed. The two-state solution, currently promoted, cannot do this. There is only one solution for this sixty-seven year old impasse that addresses the rights of Palestinians, Israelis and the needs of justice. Difficult as it is to envisage, only a unitary state in Israel-Palestine can encompass the returning Palestinians and ensure the continued existence of an Israeli Jewish community, however egregious their presence in that land.
Neither side can win the war over exclusive ownership of historic Palestine. Israel's attempt to do so has only caused unending conflict and suffering for Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The UN made Israel and must now unmake it, not by expulsion and displacement as in 1948, but by converting its aggressive and hate-filled legacy into a future of hope for both peoples in one state. If that happens, the Palestinians' right to return will have been fulfilled.
Ghada Karmi's latest book, 'Return: a Palestinian memoir' is published by Verso.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.