It is possible that the arguments in favour of retaining the Palestinian right of return are falling into the semantics trap which Israel has been perfecting overtly over many decades. As the Trump administration is reported to be preparing its own definition of who are to be classed as Palestinian refugees, their history and memory are once again being segmented and isolated, to the point that the people are dissociated from the political process.
Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett has declared that, “An American cancellation of the recognition of the fictitious ‘right’ of return and of the fictitious refugee-by-descent status would be a courageous and just step that uncovers layers of lies.” Calling the right of return an “invention”, he added, “Refugee status doesn’t pass by inheritance.” Unless, he might have added, you are a Jew, and thus have the “right” to go to “the Promised Land”, no matter how many generations of exile pass by.
Although with different intentions and perspectives, Palestinians have also built their rhetoric around the concept of descendants. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is specific about its services being available to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The international community has empowered Israel to promote the refugee “inheritance” narrative. By creating a dependent agency and supporting a political entity that dilutes the Palestinian right of return — the Palestinian Authority — the concept of the Palestinian refugee is now swathed in humanitarian impositions, while political rights have long been manipulated. The foundations for the latter can be found in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, a non-binding resolution that prioritises Israel’s colonisation process above the Palestinian right of return.
It is easy to see how Bennett’s statement can latch onto the groundwork laid by the UN. Just as the international organisation eliminated the colonial context, Bennett’s statement does the same. The core of the issue is not the question of inheriting refugee status; it is the complicity between Israel and the international community that has created a permanent Palestinian refugee population.
Furthermore, the restrictive parameters imposed upon Palestinians by the UN have facilitated assimilation to the “inheritance” of refugee status even among Palestinians themselves. It must be clarified that far from inheriting such status, Palestinians are victims of perpetual colonial aggression that has rendered them refugees due to the Israeli and international complicity that prevents the Palestinian right of return from being implemented. If one adds the gimmicks of the PA when it comes to refugee rights, it is clear that considerable effort has been made to sustain the international narrative despite the fact that it is in complete dissonance with legitimate Palestinian rights.
Why, then, is the refugee status discourse prevailing? Constantly defining the Palestinian right of return through Resolution 194 is one of the main reasons. Since 1948, grovelling at the UN has taken precedence over Palestinian memory. The UN has encouraged this defeatist attitude, knowing full well that the decline of the Palestinian cause from a matter of political rights to a humanitarian issue would eventually shape its own course. Meanwhile, the Palestinian right of return has navigated several trajectories from a purportedly supportive angle, becoming the subject of studies, postulation and pondering, all the while ensuring that there is no divergence from Resolution 194.
Israel, meanwhile, has manipulated the discrepancies to its advantages. Naftali Bennett’s statement is wrong as it eliminates the colonial context, yet it exposes a subtle collusion that jeopardises the rights of Palestinian refugees, because adherence to the UN, across the political spectrum professing support for Palestine, has been prioritised over the legitimate rights of a colonised, permanently and forcibly displaced Palestinian population.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.