Palestinian Refugees: The Right to Remain, the Right to Return

By Samah Sabawi

I was 12 years old when for the first time in my life I became a citizen of a country – Australia. Before that, I was a stateless Palestinian refugee. There were two laments my parents always repeated whenever they spoke of their place of origin Palestine: if only we could have stayed and if only we could return.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2009 there were more than 10 million refugees around the world in need of assistance. This number does not include the7 million Palestinian refugees, who make up the world’s largest refugee population and whose question is the longest standing at the UN.

The plight of Palestinian refugees began 63 years ago when they were forced out of their homes or fled in fear as the Israeli state established itself on the ruins of their villages and their towns and it has not ended. The fact their issue still stands today, unresolved, is a poignant reminder that states and governments will continue to fail the weak and disenfranchised for the sake of political gains and posturing.

Refugees are by definition powerless, in many cases they are either stateless or have lost the protection of their nation state. They depend on international bodies to rescue them. There are two norms which guide the way the international community deals with refugee issues under the UNHCR, the first is to provide protection and assistance to refugees, and the second is to not return individuals to their own countries against their will or if they are at risk of persecution. However, various human rights conventions have over the years created additional norms that work as guidelines to resolve refugee issues by providing preventative measures to make it possible for people to remain on their land and rather than focusing on resettlement alone, safeguarding the rights of refugees to return to their homes if they choose to.

The concept of ‘preventive protection’ is especially important in the case of Palestinian refugees. The right of individuals and communities to remain in their own country is a principle which rejects the expulsion of ethnic communities or what is now known as ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed “the right of persons to remain in peace in their own homes, on their own lands and in their own countries”. The Turku/Abo Declaration on Minimum Humanitarian Standards also provides in Article 7: 1 “All persons have right to remain in peace in their homes and their places of residence.”

Also Article 7 states : “No person shall be compelled to leave their own country”.

Some in Israel may argue that because Palestinian refugees are not citizens of the state, they have no right to refer to the land from which they come from as ‘their country’. This claim is refuted by a litany of legal and human rights experts, most important of all, it is refuted by the UNHCR which defines the Palestinian population as the indigenous people of the land.

Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation face sever measures aimed to uproot them. One example is the practice of revoking residency rights: Hamoked, an Israeli NGO filed a freedom of information request from the Israeli government and found that over 140,000 Palestinians who left to study or work had their residency rights revoked between 1967 and 1994. They wrote in a statement "The mass withdrawal of residency rights from tens of thousands of West Bank residents, tantamount to permanent exile from their homeland, remains an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law."

Another example of an Israeli policy that is at the heart of the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis is that of house demolition. An Israeli human rights group called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) estimates at least 24,813 homes were demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza since 1967, and that according to UN figures, during the 2009 Gaza bombing, more than 4,247 Palestinian homes were destroyed.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports that Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and other buildings reached a record high in March of this year. According to UNRWA, 76 buildings were demolished leading to the displacement of 158 people, including 64 children. UNRWA put the total number of displaced persons in the last six months alone to 333, including 175 children. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described the policy as “discrimination against one ethnic group”. These actions are illegal under article 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention and have been roundly criticized by the UN and other international groups, as well as by human rights organisations.

There are various other policies that drive Palestinians out of their homes, especially in Jerusalem where Palestinian neighborhoods are targeted for evictions to make way for Jewish settlers to move in. Once exiled, Palestinians are denied the right to ever return. This is also illegal under international humanitarian law.

The right to return voluntarily and in safety to one’s country of origin or nationality is a right enshrined in the rules of traditional international law and also in Human rights law. The U.N. Security Council has affirmed “the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes”. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed “the right of refugees and displaced persons to return, in safety and dignity, to their country of origin and or within it, to their place of origin or choice”.

This right is a pillar of international humanitarian law simply because it acknowledges that human beings form attachments to their native land. This is not a case that is unique to Palestinian refugees; it is one shared by indigenous people everywhere. Attachment to the land of one’s origin is a natural human condition and is precisely why these sentiments and emotional ties are protected.

The Palestinian refugee population will continue to grow because we in the international community have failed to find informed appropriate responses to their cries for help. We must intensify our efforts to prevent the increase of the number of Palestinian refugees that Israel uproots from the land and to help the indigenous people maintain their right to remain on the land. We also need to pressure Israel to make a repatriation offer to all the Palestinian refugees and to allow them to practice the right to return to their homes should they so choose. Failing to do so will set a negative precedent and can have an adverse consequence for the millions of other refugees.

– Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian Australian writer, author of Journey to Peace in Palestine and public advocate of Australians for Palestine. She is a policy advisor for Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. She took part in Refugee Week’s Hebron-Leichhardt Festival of Friendship in Sydney.

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