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The disappearing Palestinian right of return

Palestinians march during a demonstration marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, also known as Day of the Catastrophe in 1948, Ramallah, West Bank on May 15, 2017 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians march during a demonstration marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, also known as Day of the Catastrophe in 1948, Ramallah, West Bank on 15 May 2017 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Although the mainstream impression regarding Palestine and Israel is one of conflict, there is silent complicity with an agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community to eliminate the possibility of the Palestinian right of return ever being implemented. Despite the right – enshrined in UN Resolution 194 – being described as a core demand in negotiations, Israel has repeatedly refused to put it into practice, even though its own membership of the UN was and remains conditional upon refugees being allowed to return to their homes.

The recent absence of opposition to Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman's comments during the Herzliya Conference seems to be the tactic employed by the international community and the PA. "We will not agree to the return of a single refugee to within the '67 borders," he insisted, to a deafening silence from Ramallah and UN headquarters in New York. A few days earlier, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released a statement pointing out that 66 per cent of Palestinians were expelled from historic Palestine during the Nakba of 1948.

While it is expected of Israel to refuse the right of return, the international community and the PA have ridiculed the concept almost beyond redemption. From refusal to engage with Palestinians in the diaspora, to the right of return becoming relegated to a mere utterance, both entities have inflicted irreparable damage upon Palestinian rights. Rhetoric may indicate a priority; however the politics behind the cycle of negotiations portrays otherwise. The Palestinian right of return as bludgeoned by the PA and the international community has become a clause that is worthy of mention only within parameters that continue to reject recognition. It has already been divested of any political meaning for Palestinians through the emphasis upon the humanitarian programme of UNRWA. In the current climate, the Palestinian right of return's devaluation is fuelling further dependency upon political entities and institutions which are not delivering on Palestinian rights.

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Just as the two-state compromise reeks of its own demise, the Palestinian right of return is disappearing as a result of the open complicity between Israel, the PA and the international community. Proclaiming rights which are dependent upon hostile entities for recognition and fulfilment was always going to be a recipe for failure. After the Nakba, Palestinians were constantly defined through Israel and the international community, resulting in an existence that hovers between convenient recognition and outright discrimination.

Failure to address the colonial expansion occurring in Palestine is one of the main reasons why the right of return is today an elusive concept. The absence of a serious political interlocutor for Palestine has resulted in disproportionate expression. Lieberman and other Israeli ministers can openly advocate against and eliminate the right of return while the international community and the PA limit their discussion to sporadic references instead of allowing Palestinian families affected by forced displacement to influence the subject by prioritising their own narratives.

Another downfall exacerbated by the international community and the PA is the association of symbolism with the right of return. Displaced Palestinians did not consider their proof of ownership solely as an item for collective memory. This degeneration is also a result of how negotiating over what are supposed to be inalienable rights became fodder for occasional commemoration. Lieberman has garnered the freedom to frame the Palestinian right of return by its disappearance, partly due to the spineless platitudes endorsed by entities claiming to work in favour of the Palestinians.

Nakba journey - Palestinians fleeing during the Nakba in 1948
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees

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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