This December will be remembered as the month which saw Nelson Mandela’s passing, a landmark event ending the epic life of a man who left a legacy of compassion for all who suffered injustice, not least the Palestinians. He spoke about the “injustice and gross human rights violations being perpetrated in Palestine”, and famously asserted, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians…” It is a fitting coincidence that this same month also marks the anniversary of an international attempt to reverse that most egregious and persistent of all the injustices done to Palestinians: Their displacement and dispossession in 1948.
On December 11, it will be 65 years since the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which 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 for the purpose of overseeing the reparation.
Though it was never implemented, Resolution 194 is the legal basis for the “right of return” to which Palestinians have clung for 65 years. In the decades since it was passed, the Palestinian refugees, far from going home, went on to become a semi-permanent feature of the Arab landscape, inhabiting camps, out of sight and frequently out of mind. With the world’s attention currently focused on the refugee crisis in Syria, they have slipped even further from view.
While for the Syrian refugees a possibility exists that a time could come when they might go back to their country, no such return is remotely in the cards for the Palestinians.
The Syrian crisis is truly tragic, but it is well to remember that it does not involve Syrians only. Among the 2 million Syrians estimated to have been displaced in the conflict since 2011, there are some 270,000 Palestinians, or about half the 540,000 who used to live in Syrian UN camps, made refugees now for a second time. They have attracted far less attention, but their fate is far worse. Those who fled to Lebanon or Jordan, have found little support there and cannot return to Syria since two-thirds of their camps have been destroyed or have become war zones.
While for the Syrian refugees a possibility exists that a time could come when they might go back to their country, no such return is remotely in the cards for the Palestinians. Had Resolution 194 been implemented, this question would never have arisen.
Despite that, and the decades that have passed since 1948, the resolution remains on the statute books and still provides the legal underpinning of the Palestinian right to return. Hardly anyone mentions it by name now, but it haunts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and presents an insurmountable obstacle in all peace negotiations so far. To evade it, the refugee issue has either been deferred to some undefined end date in these talks, or more recently used as a bargaining chip to obtain concessions from Israel if it were revoked.
The 2002 Arab Peace Plan referred ambiguously to a “just solution” for the refugee question without specifying it, and the current US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have proposed a token refugee return to Israel, with the rest going to the Palestinian state if it can accommodate them. In other words, the right of return would be scarified as compensation for Israel’s agreement to a peace deal.
It is Israel’s continuing obduracy in the face of Resolution 194, and of natural justice, that has brought this situation about. From the start, Israel rejected UN demands for Palestinian repatriation, even though the terms of its admission to UN membership required adherence to UN resolutions, including 194. When the UN Mediator for Palestine, Swedish diplomat Count Bernadotte, appalled by the refugees’ plight, tried to push for repatriation in line with Resolution 194, dissidents from the Israeli Irgun organisation under Menachem Begin (later Israel’s prime minister) assassinated him in September 1948.
Nothing has succeeded in shifting Israel’s opposition. In 65 years, that country has not repatriated a single refugee, nor ever acknowledged its responsibility for creating the refugee problem, or even apologised for its deeds in 1948, demanding instead that the refugees settle in other states and find compensation from international funds. This policy of denial has served Israel well. When another quarter-million Palestinians were displaced in the 1967 war, they were, likewise, never allowed back, but with less international censure this time. Over the years, slower but on-going expulsions of Palestinians from lands under Israel’s occupation, have also gone unremarked. Currently, the Israeli government is proposing to dispossess a further 40,000 Palestinians, Bedouins from the Negev, and take over their lands, the so-called Prawer Plan, thus creating more internal refugees. No international action seems forthcoming to prevent Israel from going through with this ruthless plan.
never do return. The old will die and the young will forget.”]
In ignoring the Palestinian right of return, Israel has been guided all along by its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s thinking. On July 18, 1948, he wrote in his diary, “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return. The old will die and the young will forget.”
But despite Israel’s best efforts and the betrayal of their rights by the world powers and various Arab leaderships, Palestinians have not forgotten.
In their lone fight against oblivion, comes news of an important initiative by UNRWA, the UN agency set up in 1949 to care for the Palestinian refugees, which will support them in that effort. It is not well-known that the UNRWA archive has kept a rich record of the Palestinian refugee experience in photographs, videos and films from the earliest days until now. It consists of vivid images of Palestinians in various stages of becoming refugees: forced to leave their homes in 1948; the establishment of their refugee camps in the 1950s; their second refugee exodus in 1967; the refugees in Lebanon; and the lives of the refugee communities from the 1980s to the 21st century.
Much of this priceless collection, half-a-million images chronicling the history and development of the refugee tragedy, is to be digitised and thus preserved for posterity, a massive and costly project already registered on UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register”. It will be available to writers, academics, researchers and journalists, but most of all to generations of Palestinians who will learn about their history and know it will be safe from future destruction by those, such as Israel, eager to delete the past.
Some of this has already happened. In the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008, Israel confiscated or destroyed an unknown number of UNRWA’s documents. While much of the archive was moved from place to place for safety, the digitisation project will protect it for good.
The UNRWA project was launched in Jerusalem at the end of November with a superb exhibition, “The Long Journey”, containing never before seen photographs of the refugee exodus in its earliest days, dating back to the late 1940s and 1950s. It is planned that the exhibition will go on tour, to be shown in several Arab countries, and possibly in Europe. But, wherever it goes it deserves the widest possible audience for bringing back to public consciousness an issue deliberately marginalised, neglected, and traduced for 65 years.
Ghada Karmi is the author of “Married to another man: Israel’s dilemma in Palestine”.