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http://www.projo.com/report/stories/03981121.htm

Palestinians have a right to go home

By Janice Haydn Providence Journal, 7/18/2000

BOSTON.

MILLIONS OF Palestinian refugees around the world are anxiously waiting for President Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, to emerge from their Camp David seclusion and announce whether the final-status agreement will honor the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, in what is now Israel.

The impasse over the future of Palestinian refugees is one of the major stumbling blocks in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. For 52 years, the refugees have been living in exile, clinging to the hope of returning to their villages. But today, the Palestinian refugees fear, and rightly so, that on Sept. 13, the date on which Israel and the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority hope to conclude final status agreements, Arafat will cede to Israel's hard line and sign a document that denies them the right of return. The Palestinian Authority is going door to door in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring Arab states, polling refugees on whether they insist on returning to their home villages or if they would accept compensation for resettlement. Not surprisingly, reports indicate the vast majority of refugees will demand the right of return.

This week, to underscore that message, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have gathered at the Israeli-Lebanese border to pray, and Palestinian children from the El Amri refugee camp in the West Bank have marched to Ramallah, asking for the right of return. International support for the refugees is being mobilized, including a planned Sept.16 rally in Washington, and Sept. 17 rally in London.

More than 400 Palestinian villages were occupied and depopulated by Israel in 1948, and the Palestinians have not forgotten. The phrase "Usually a man lives in a certain place in the world, but for the Palestinian the place lives in the man" has become commonplace. The Palestinian refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants, who now total 3 million to 4 million, mostly scattered throughout the Middle East, are asking the international community to bring their scattered people together and return them to Palestine, just as many Holocaust survivors asked earlier.

As a Jew who is concerned for the future of Israelis and Palestinians alike, I know that many American Jews, as well as the Israeli and U.S. governments, have problems with Palestinian refugees recalling their history and demanding repatriation and restitution, for it challenges the comforting myths: that before Israel's creation, Palestine was a land without people; that Israel, despite the evidence, was not responsible for the 1948 flight of the Palestinians; that most Palestinians are terrorists.

By confronting these myths, we Americans might feel obligated to confront our complicity in the creation of the myths and in the rejection of internationally recognized law that calls for return.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights simply states that: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his own country." U.N. Resolution 194, ratified in December 1948, declares that: "the refugees of Palestine wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."

For over 50 years, Israel has refused to implement Resolution 194 and many similar resolutions. Israel's objection is that accepting the Palestinian right of return to their homes would alter the Jewish character of the Israeli state. It is not merely the land or the money, for hasn't Israel been able to squeeze in millions of Jewish immigrants from other countries, supply them with temporary housing, education, and subsidies, while they became absorbed into the country? In May, thanks to the generosity of Israel and the international community, particularly the United States, Prime Minister Barak welcomed the millionth immigrant to arrive from the former Soviet Union since its breakup less than a decade ago.

We Americans, especially American Jews, are neglecting the Palestinian refugees because we are not sure. Some of us are not sure we want to risk altering the Jewish character of the state. Others are not sure how to explain to our friends and families that supporting the rights of Palestinians does not mean that we are insensitive to Israel's need for security, that speaking up about the victimization of the Palestinians does not mean that we have forgotten the victims of the Holocaust, that encouraging the creation of a truly democratic state in Israel, that is, a state of all its citizens rather than a state that gives preferential treatment to some of its citizens, does not mean that we are against the Jews.

It is time to reflect on our complicity and do the right thing, based on our humanity. A year ago, 1,100 clergy and lay religious leaders signed a human-rights petition that called for, among other things, supporting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland or receive compensation, as called for by U.N. resolutions. The human-rights petition calls on President Clinton to publicly urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority to abide by international law and human-rights conventions and to link U.S. financial aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to their compliance with human-rights covenants. Shouldn't we ask the same?

Janice Hayden is Outreach Coordinator for SEARCH for Justice and Equality in Palestine/Israel, a human-rights organization based in Boston. Ms. Hayden lived in Jerusalem in 1996-1997.


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