Freedom and return: a conflict between two rights?

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The Palestinian refugee problem has always been a thorny and sensitive issue. While pundits and politicians alike have formulated and reformulated different scenarios and solutions, one single and unified stance has yet to be taken. However, I believe that there are certain points that must be made within the context of the refugee problem, especially in light of the recent controversy over some of my recent statements on this issue.

First, the idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders is one that is or should be understood to mean that it is primarily within the borders of this state that the problem of resettling the refugees will be addressed. This understanding is in no way inconsistent with United Nations Resolution 194, although of course that resolution does not necessarily imply such an understanding. It also accounts for the distinction often heard by Palestinian leaders between the need to have Israel recognize “the right of return,” and the negotiated agreement between the two sides over the actual implementation of this right. Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel (but right up to the negotiations at Camp David), Israel’s position has been that it is in theory prepared to accept a partial repatriation, with the bulk of the rest of the problem addressed through material and political compensation. A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution, involving as it does a national ceding of part of the Palestinian homeland to Israel, clearly presumes that the Israeli part of the homeland will be Israeli, and not Palestinian.

My second point is to say that acceptance of this compromise, and a full realization of its political implication by the Palestinian people and/or the leadership at this point is clearly painful. Therefore, the demand for a Palestinian state, while upholding one basic principle concerning self-determination and freedom, clearly involves a painful compromise concerning the wholesale return of Palestinians and their descendants to their original homes.

Speaking in terms of history, Palestinians could have adopted one of two possible strategies: one based on individual rights, and the other on collective or national rights. A strategy based on the first approach might have been formulated in terms of the struggle for the rights of return and equality (I have long ago espoused such a strategy only to find almost total opposition to it in the mid-eighties). A strategy predicated on the basis of the second approach can be–and eventually was–formulated in terms of the struggle for the rights of self-determination and statehood. My contention is that these are two incompatible strategies, at least in terms of the practicable international framework. In terms of personal preferences, I would support the adoption of the first strategy, but I realize it has far less support, both among Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, it is my contention that, given a balance between collective and individual rights, giving weight to one clearly and logically supposes a minimization of the weight accorded to the other. Thus giving a preference to a national right clearly diminishes from the weight accorded to an individual right.

I have heard it argued that these two strategies are compatible, not contradictory. If the aim is to dissolve Israel as a state, then this is indeed true. But if so, we cannot expect Israel to be a peace-partner in any negotiations aiming to achieve that end. Therefore, to espouse those two strategies simultaneously is to opt out of the peace process in which we have been engaged for the past decade. This may be the option of some, but it is by no means clear that this is the option of the majority of the Palestinian people.

Another point that needs to be made as an elaboration in this context is that while the right of return to individuals is indeed sacrosanct, so is the national right to freedom from occupation and independence. If upholding the right of independence detracts from the right of return, upholding the latter equally detracts from the former. We therefore have a case of two sacrosanct rights from which we are compelled to choose by our political circumstance.

Finally, I am on record from the initiation of the Madrid conference as being in favor of a general referendum on any peace agreement reached with Israel. If it is possible to reach an agreement concerning our national right of independence, then this agreement, fully elaborated as to explain the future implications on individuals, whether refugees or not, should be presented for a public vote. Options should also be presented clearly and realistically.

My observations on this issue are clearly analytical, rather than legalistic or moral. They have to be so given the nature of the conflict our people are engaged in, for it is neither a conflict in court, nor before a moral judge.

Sari Nusseibeh was recently appointed to coordinate the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic efforts in the city of Jerusalem.

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