Do not sacrifice refugees’ right of return to their homeland

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Majesties, Highnesses and Excellencies,

Despite the bluntness of my words, I address you with all the respect due to your positions as leaders of the Arab nations.  Most of you may not be used to the candid talk that follows, especially coming from your own people, but there is no time to waste anymore on protocol.  I believe I speak for a majority of Arabs around the globe when I ask you: What on earth is happening to our Arab world, and why are you allowing it to happen?

Many have a hard time dealing emotionally and psychologically with what is happening in our region, especially in the Occupied Territories.  Patriotism becomes inflated, as do feelings of frustration, anger and rage.  And this is just when Israel does what it does with total impunity. 

What is possibly more aggravating is the sheer bewilderment felt when these actions remain unchallenged by those who have not just the right, but the duty to confront them.  Every time we think that you will unite and take the bull by the horns, that you will not remain inactive, you end up doing nothing.  In despair, in mock resignation, we repeat the tired old maxim that “we agree to disagree,” but few find it funny anymore.

Yes, we hear your speeches and your statements, but we expect a lot more from you.  We expect all that can be expected of true leaders, and you are required to do no less.  You are the leaders of 300 million citizens, and you are accountable to them, not the other way around.  You are the ones who should answer to your people, and not the other way around.  You are the top national civil servants serving your nation, your people.  At the very least, you owe them explanations.

Arabs are in dire straits, and yet you are still indecisive.  Palestinians are being killed, humiliated, dispossessed, and yet you are still debating initiatives and declarations.  You are now polishing “normal peace” plans, but normal peace for whom exactly?  You try to accommodate the provisions of a state that was created unjustly, that has expanded illegally, and that makes no secret of its intentions never to give back all the territories it acquired in its most recent invasion of our lands.  Why?

Nobody wants war, nobody wants more bloodshed, and nobody wants to hear how many more Palestinians became martyrs today.  Nobody really wants death for anyone, least of all for young people in the prime of their life.  Of course Arabs everywhere support them heart and soul, but what good is that?  Of course Arabs everywhere do not want them to surrender and resign themselves to this dreadful fate, but it is hard to absorb that Palestinians are asked to continue their Intifada alone, while nothing is actually being done to help them end their misery.

We do not understand why you allow Israel and its allies to dictate their conditions to you, why you allow Israeli tanks to roam Palestinian streets and why you do not raise a finger to stop them.  It’s not that Arabs are naéve, mind you, or that they don’t understand the stakes and the geopolitical considerations.  We all know what it would entail if you were to take physical action.  But surely there is a little bit more to do, something above nothing?

Arabs everywhere do not know anymore how to defend their cause in the face of such apathy.  Attempts to speak out against Israeli brutalities and Palestinian suffering are often met with questions about Arab countries’ own silence and inaction, adding to the blatant distortions of the Israeli misinformation machine.  No wonder we sometimes feel outdone.

Outrageous statements made by Israel or its allies are often not contested.  On Sunday, for example, (US Vice-President) Dick Cheney appeared on national American television, on CBS’s Face the Nation, to imply that the Arab leaders he met on his recent trip would not mind a strike on Iraq, regardless of what they said publicly.  Asked if he felt that you would not oppose a US action against Iraq, he said: “That’s correct.”  Well, is it correct?  If it isn’t, as we all think and hope, and if you do not put him in his place and deny his allegations, what is the world to believe?

Arabs and Muslims are astonished when the most preposterous suggestions go unchallenged.  What have we come to when there is open talk about “nuking” Iraq, and you do not even react?  What is the world to think when there are sardonic suggestions in the American media for a nuclear strike on Mecca, and you do not even react?

Either you are willing to simply let the world mistreat and insult Arabs and Muslims, which we all doubt, or you are not communicating your objections properly.  Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda have reached unmatched peaks, and yet you still have not been able to even concur on a mere common media strategy.  Millions of Arabs and Muslims face growing resentment and hostility, and yet you still have not agreed on how to defend your heritage or protect your values.

For over half a century, Israel has given Arabs multitudes of occasions to unite with zeal, but you chose not to take them.  Since September 2000, it has unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence against Palestinians, but you chose to allow it.  Since September 2001, it has launched a massive campaign to discredit your culture and your religion, but you chose to discount it with nebulous refutations.  In the past few weeks alone, Israel has brought its vicious occupation to new lows of inhumanity and new heights of cruelty, but you chose to endure it.

Everyone knows that you, like all Arabs, have supported the Intifada.  In words only of course, like all Arabs.  It is easy to speak of principles from the comfort of our homes, and simple to encourage uprisings when it is others who are fighting for their lives and for their dignity.  But whereas you actually have the power to do something about this, we don’t.

Which brings me to a crucial point that is of utmost concern to Arabs, a point about which only you can do something: Palestinians’ right of return.  You all know of course that all Jews, whatever their nationality, have the right to emigrate to Israel.  Theoretically, Israel could therefore be home to some 20 million Jews.  “Mere” cities easily have half or more that number of inhabitants, so it is entirely feasible.

But the despondent Palestinian refugees, in contrast, are practically used as pawns in heartless negotiations and unethical political considerations.  Are you actually considering denying the Palestinian people this basic right of return?  Just because Israel argues that they would upset its demographic balance?  Even though this right is technically granted in Resolution 194?

Denying Palestinians their right of return, regardless of the reasons dictated by Israel’s allies, means erasing their past and their future with one stroke.  Is the fate of Palestinian refugees the forfeit for Israel to grant us our other rights and to return some of our land?  Are we selling Palestinian rights out to Israel for the benefit of a few perks of “normal” peace?

Do not sacrifice the human rights of your people.  No demographic or political consideration gives you the right to relinquish a people’s right of return.  No matter what they offer instead. 

Nearly 60 years after the end of the second world war, Jews are still demanding é and receiving é compensations from the descendants of those who harmed them, on top of open access to Palestine.  And yet you, in a shorter time period, seem already willing to give away the right of millions of refugees to come back to a land many of them still remember, to homes for which many still hold keys for doors which do not exist anymore.  Jews are coming “back” to a land they have never seen, while Palestinians are barred from land they even now reminisce about.  What will history say about you if you dare throw away Palestine and the rights of its people?

You have been reduced to haggling, through his allies, with the butcher of Sabra and Chatila for the right to meet the leader of the Palestinian people.  As I write, it is still not known whether you have succeeded, nor does it really matter.  Sharon has already humiliated the whole Arab world, so much in fact that he feels confident enough to propose, conceivably in jest, that he (of all people) come to Beirut  (of all places) to present Israel’s position. 

Sharon dictates with whom the American president and vice-president can meet, while he himself seems to have a season ticket to the White House.  So what makes you think that you can compete with him if you are not united?  Stop reworking your proposals just to accommodate Israel.  You have the full right to demand basic minimum conditions before even discussing conditions of peace.

“Normal peace” for Israel means instantly dumping its products on a new consumer market of 300 million people, while they are forced to smile and accept that it simply couldn’t give all the land back, and it couldn’t bring all the Palestinians back.  This normal peace is not a just and comprehensive peace.

We are all “dying” for justice, or rather Palestinians are.  We are all anxious for peace, but not at any price.  Over the years, Arabs have gradually yielded more and more concessions and are now talking only about returning to a situation prevailing until June 4 1967.  This is rejected entirely by Israel, as is the dismantling of settlements, as is the possibility of Jerusalem returning to Palestinians, as is the possibility of Palestinians returning to Jerusalem.  To which you still are offering “normal” peace should they change their mind.  The bigger the compromise, the harsher the refusal.  If this goes on, you will eventually offer full peace for practically nothing. 

We all want to live in peace, but we cannot sell Palestinians’ basic rights.  These include a right of return, commanded by every international law and every shred of human decency.  Do not sacrifice their rights.

Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.

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