Whose Interests Will the Abrogation of the ROR Serve?

By Hanna Kawas (in response to Elias Tuma)*

We are witnessing a calculated campaign of highly publicized attacks on the Palestinian Right of Return (ROR), aimed at confusing, demoralizing, terrorizing (physically and politically) and frustrating the Palestinian refugees and people with the sole purpose of forcing them to abrogate this right. It started with the Camp David “generous offer” and continued with Palestinian advocates such as Sari Nusaybeh, pushing to drop the ROR if Israel met other conditions, as if we are in a Bazaar, and as if what is on the line is vegetables to be traded and not inalienable rights for human beings.

This intellectual debate reminds me of the debate inside the Palestinian resistance movement after the 1973 war about being realistic and accepting the notion of the two state solution with a Palestinian state in the 22 per cent of what was left over from historic Palestine. It also reminded me of the debate that took place after the first US war on Iraq in 1991, which led to the Madrid conference and then to the Oslo process. That process led the Palestinian people to what we are witnessing now at this pivotal juncture of our history.

I always hoped that well-meaning Palestinian intellectuals and leaders generated these debates, positions and then actions, with the intention of advancing the Palestinian peoples aspirations towards achieving their inalienable rights. However, whatever the intentions, the results were clearly otherwise. Furthermore, these two examples took place at certain stages where the US-Israeli strategies for the Arab World were facing a crisis.

The first one was at the height of the Palestinian resistance movement in Lebanon, after regrouping in the wake of the Black September 1970 defeat in Jordan at the hands of the US-Israeli-Jordanian reactionary axis. It also followed a major war in 1973, where Israeli invincibility was shattered. So instead of building on these struggles and victories, we saw the defeatist Arab leaders taking over and cheaply selling the blood of the Arab martyrs, as in the case of Anwar Sadat in Egypt. On the Palestinian front, the introduction of the project to create the “mini state” on the West Bank and Gaza led to a debate about changing the strategies and tactics of the Palestinian liberation movement. The people who introduced this debate claimed that due to the October War, the balance of power had shifted, victory was near and Israel was going to be forced by the two superpowers to drop the Zionist project. (As if Zionism that lives on expansion, racism and seeks hegemony over the entire Arab world was going to surrender its role voluntarily as a US military base in the region and submit to the wishful thinking of a few Arab “intellectuals” and their backers in Moscow.)

This debate was futile and demoralizing and led to the weakening of the Palestinian liberation movement. So instead of building on the achievements of the people and their heroic fighters to weaken the enemy – the US and Israel – it gave these forces a reprieve till they found better objective conditions (the Lebanese civil war and then the 1982 invasion) to try and finish the job they started in September 1970. And, as with todays debate on the ROR, the debate over the “mini-state” happened at a time when there was no real offer on the table, no chance to implement whatever decision was reached from this lengthy and diversionary process.

The second example was the Madrid conference and the Oslo accords which came as a result of a double crises for the US-Israeli project: the US showing its true face to the Arab people during the first war on Iraq and the heroic struggle of the Palestinian people in the first Intifada.

Instead of building on the popular Arab outrage regarding the US war crimes against the Iraqi people, and the achievements of the six year long Palestinian Intifada (not to mention the escalating resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon), the Palestinian leadership opted for a fast solution that depended mainly on the goodwill of the enemy and reducing the conflict to a personal and not a historic and collective basis. The Palestinian leadership decided to terminate all forms of Palestinian struggle for the sake of a weak interim agreement with major tactical and strategic concessions. By doing so they, objectively, helped save the US and Israel from their dilemmas as a result of the war on Iraq, the Intifada and the Israeli losses in South Lebanon.

Aside from leaving the most important and crucial issues to be discussed in five years time (indefinitely), following are some of the mistakes the Palestinian leadership committed during this process.

  • Recognizing Israel before it defined its borders and without mutual recognition of a Palestinian state.
  • Recognizing Israel without any reference to the stolen Palestinian land that Israel sits on, and without a mechanism to return stolen properties that the Israeli custodian is still holding. A genuine peace would have a mechanism to compensate and return these properties to their original owners or their descendents.
  • Not clearly spelling out the Palestinian position on the Israeli settlements during the Oslo process – even Sadat succeeded in forcing Begin to accept the freeze on settlements during the Camp David negotiations.
  • Abandoning the armed struggle as a tactic and a strategy without a clear guarantee from the Israeli side of not using its superior military power against the Palestinian “sovereignty” and Palestinian civilians. This could have been implemented by positioning UN peacekeeping forces on the borders of the recognized Palestinian state.
  • Adopting the Oslo accords in the Palestine National Council (PNC) and annulling the PLO charter in the same session under pressure from Netanyahu and Clinton.

This session was held under Israeli occupation, with the Israeli gun held to the heads of the PNC members.

(We should thank Ariel Sharon for annulling the Oslo accords because what the PNC agreed on – under the Israeli gun and with the American carrot – was a strategic abandonment of our historic rights.)

The new debate on the ROR comes under similar conditions as existed during the two examples I mentioned. The second Intifada is in its third year, the US for the first time in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict is saying publicly where they stand without any concern for the ramifications to its Arab puppet regimes, the US and Israeli economic crises are at their worst in the last decade, and the continued aggression on Iraq and the upcoming US war are in defiance of overwhelming world public opinion.

So instead of drafting a programme to escalate the Intifada and to build a wide Arab front to challenge the existing US control and stop further hegemony over Arab resources and markets, some of the Palestinian and Arab intellectuals and leaders are competing with each other in trying to gain recognition and favour with the US and Israel. Others are blatantly trying to sell us the US-Israeli plans.

Within this backdrop falls the attack on the ROR in an attempt to liquidate it under the guise of recognizing reality.

Mr. Elias H. Tuma’s article “The draft constitution for a state of Palestine II” is not only an attack on the ROR, it is also a distortion of facts and a misrepresentation of the Palestinian refugees and their sufferings, struggles and aspirations.

My objective here is not to defend the draft Palestinian constitution, but rather to defend the ROR.

I made my position clear about this constitution in a message I sent to the Palestine representative to Canada Dr. Baker Abdel Munem on Jan. 30, 2003. I wrote the following:

“To draft a Palestinian constitution on the orders of the U.S. is a BIG and FATAL mistake. To draft a constitution before even having a viable state is wrong. Israel has been a state for the last 54 years and still does NOT have a constitution. Why? Not only because it does not want to define itself as a Jewish state and show the world what it is truly is, an autocratic state, a theocracy and not a democracy, but also because it would not have to define its borders. This draft constitution is part of a conspiracy to split the Palestinian people on the hope that we will never achieve a secular democratic state, or any state for that matter.”

It is also worth mentioning that the Israeli government has already declared that they could live with article 32 in the draft constitution on the Palestinian ROR.

Aluf Benn wrote in the Israeli paper Haaretz on March 4, 2003 that Israeli “government sources do admit the article concerning refugees is relatively easy for Israel to accept, since it does not refer to a mass return of refugees to Israel.”

The analysis of Mr. Tuma is based on the premise that “Under no foreseeable circumstances will Israel allow more than a token number of refugees to return to their pre-1948 villages or towns.” According to Mr. Tuma, even taking a vague position on the ROR, without a mechanism of implementing it “does not seem to be favorable to the refugees. On the contrary, it tends to complicate their problem by seeming to allow their current conditions to continue for an indefinite future.”

Also our growing number is a problem for us, according to Mr. Tuma. ” The problems facing the refugees relate to their numbers – The larger the number of refugees, the more difficult it is to negotiate their repatriation to their homes, or to resettle them elsewhere” Even if we forego our ROR, according to him our resettlement is becoming a problem.

Mr. Tuma shows lots of “concern” for us and says that, we, “The Palestinian refugees have already sacrificed two generations by waiting for a viable political-economic solution that has not been forthcoming.” This is one of the most outrageous statements I have ever heard in my lifetime.

It is we “the Palestinian refugees … who sacrificed two generations by waiting”. It was not Israeli ethnic cleansing and the western support for it that sacrificed us for the sake of their selfish interests in controlling the Arab region at any cost of human life and dignity.

For Mr. Tuma’s information, the Palestinian people did not “wait … for a viable political-economic solution”; we have been struggling since the inception of the Zionist settler colonialist project. Although they destroyed our livelihood, over 400 villages and towns, and uprooted us from our homeland, we have never stopped resisting and making our voices heard all over the world.

Mr. Tuma also asks of us as refugees to recognize reality and adopt the following:

“The most promising option, therefore, for the Palestinian refugees is to recognize the inability of the leadership to achieve a viable collective political settlement in the near future, and to individually act in their own self-interest. It is for them as individuals to seek homes wherever they can. In such homes they can become self-reliant productive citizens”.

Why can the Palestinian refugees not do the above i.e. become productive and self-reliant citizens to the best of their capabilities and still fight for the ROR, both individually and collectively. Mr. Tuma wants us to drop our internationally recognized right and to seek “individually” our “own self-interest”. He wants us to forget the injustices committed against us and give the thieves (the west and Israel) a certificate of good conduct and absolve them of their crimes against us. It is the logic of defeatism. Perhaps more energy should be spent on demanding that the Zionists abrogate the Israeli Law of Return because of the successful Jewish integration in many countries.

In fact, the Palestinian refugees have always sought homes wherever they can, although these homes have never been safe for us even in North America. The dilemma for the West and Israel is that the majority of us have never considered our second homes as permanent ones.

Mr. Tuma harps on the “self-reliant productive citizen” and in other places he accuses us, the refugees, of surviving “virtually on charity from other countries”. He adds, “Regardless how hard UNRWA tries to render aid as free of stigma, such aid is charity just the same.”

He should realize that this aid is not charity, it is but a small faction of the compensation we are entitled to. Also when we have the chance, and when the countries we live in allow us to work, we are as productive as any other people. What UNRWA distributes is a pittance of the billions from the western exploitation (theft) of our Arab resources. If the west wants to be truly charitable, please give us our rights – no more, no less.

Mr. Tuma, we have studied and understand history. We know that we cannot drop our rights and then ask for them a decade or a century later. The North American Native nations are a prime example: a number of them never ceded their territories and this is why they are now successful in many of their land claims. Even slaves did not accept their “destiny”.

We are not against any Palestinian who drops his/her ROR, this does not mean though that we are going to respect them.

Mr. Tuma goes on to doubt the resolve of the Palestinian people and the legitimacy of their cause, and accuses the Palestinians of being cowards. He says: ” These groups, as well as individual leaders, would be afraid of being tainted as traitors were they to recognize reality and agree to any compromise solution, unless ‘forced’ to do so. The lack of courage and the absence of unity among the Palestinians, and the almost complete marginalization of the refugees from decision-making, have been major obstacles in the way of a compromise solution.”

Mr. Tuma, your reality is not our reality. Although you talk about “marginalization of the refugees from decision-making”, at the same time you do not respect the feelings nor the decision of the majority of the Palestinian refugees in their endeavors and struggles to realize the ROR. If it is not the sentiment of the majority of Palestinians- refugees or otherwise- to firmly support the ROR, why should the leadership ” be afraid of being tainted as traitors”. Further, it is slanderous to accuse the Palestinians of “lack of courage”. This is an insult to those who were martyred, to those who were permanently disabled and to those who lost everything while confronting the Zionist colonialist project in Palestine, let alone to the Palestinian refugees who have endured the treason and seemingly endless collaboration of some Arab and Palestinian “leaders” and “intellectuals”.

Mr. Tuma then goes on to discredit the work of Al-Awda and states:

“However, Al-Awda leaders are efficient in holding meetings, issuing statements, and adding to the rhetoric that has little influence on the life or future of the refugees-except probably in making them feel good for the moment. Al-Awda’s statements have little prospect of being taken seriously.”

In another part of his article he also alleges that the refugees are being “misled by the sterile rhetoric of well-meaning but helpless agencies”. It would seem that he is also referring here to Al-Awda.

As a member of Al-Awda, let me make clear the following points:

  • Al-Awda is not misleading the refugees. Most of its members consider themselves as part of the Palestinian refugees, and if anything, they will not mislead themselves.
  • Al-Awda is empowering all the Palestinian people and not only the refugees and is a counter-balance to those who dream to sell out our rights and aspirations.

If anything is “sterile rhetoric”, it is the argument that betrays, questions and tries to delegitimize an internationally recognized right such as the ROR.

Mr. Tuma insists on slandering the Palestinian people and their sacrifices and struggles by stating: “In fact their victim mentality, passed from one generation to another, must have been demoralizing and wasteful of any political influence they might have been able to acquire.”

The last 100 years of our struggle is a concrete witness to Mr. Tuma’s falsehoods. Our political influence is growing and this is why the sole superpower, the US, spends so much time and resources to try to liquidate our struggles.

If anything is demoralizing, self-centered and defeatist, it is the following statement for Mr. Tuma:- “The most promising option, therefore, for the Palestinian refugees is to recognize the inability of the leadership to achieve a viable collective political settlement in the near future, and to individually act in their own self-interest.”

If the current Palestinian leadership is unable “to achieve a viable collective political settlement in the near future”, that does not mean to surrender nor does it mean we are not recognizing reality. All it means is that the conditions for our victory are not yet ripe. Perhaps we might need new leadership, we might need a new programme for liberation (at present we do NOT have even a Charter since the PNC abrogated it in their last session), we might need to mobilize, and we might need to weed out defeatism from our ranks.

But we certainly do not need to drop a sacred right that the last three generations sacrificed many things for it, including their lives, the most precious commodity on earth.

Finally Mr. Tuma concludes by trying to deceive us, as we were deceived after the 1973 war. He states:

“The draft constitution of a state of Palestine should be a living document that empowers the Palestinians. It should be a guiding light toward their freedom and growth. And it should promise only what is feasible and helpful to encourage creativity, independence, and achievement by the individual and the community. But above all else, it should help the constituents to recognize what is possible and what is not, face reality, and have the courage to deal with it.”

If we want “to recognize what is possible and what is not … and have the courage to deal with it”, then here is what we should have the courage to face:- a viable and sovereign “state of Palestine” is not in the cards at present, it is simply not possible at this stage considering the expansion of the illegal Jewish settlements, the expropriation of more Palestinian land and the existing “balance of power”. Accordingly, a draft constitution now is irrelevant and diversionary at best and dangerous at worst, as is evidenced by the divisive debate that has ensued. Mr. Tuma is the one who should “face reality, and have the courage to deal with it” for the rosy picture he is trying to paint for us is only a mirage (as if renouncing the ROR will magically solve the refugees’ burdens). It is also wishful thinking on anyone’s part that Palestinians will again fall for these tricks, including the truncated Palestinian state that George Bush and Tony Blair are promising us.

The only realistic option for us right now is to intensify our struggle on all fronts, the fight for ending the brutal Israeli occupation, the struggle for the right of return, the struggle for equality and democracy within Israel and the defense of the Palestinian refugees human rights wherever they sought refuge.

The struggle will continue till justice is served.

* Read Mr. Elias H. Tuma’s article here: THE DRAFT CONSTITUTION FOR A STATE OF PALESTINE (Page 450)