One must ask why, unlike the millions of refugees who have been resettled in host countries, only the Palestinian refugees have been left to rot in camps as political pawns, pacified by the false hope of return, rather than absorbed by their brethren in neighboring countries?

The BBC Doha Debates, chaired by Tim Sebastian, are held monthly in Qatar Foundation headquarters in Doha. The debate on the motion, "This House believes the Palestinians should give up their full right of return," broadcast on April 14, 2007, provided a fascinating lesson in how public rhetoric and emotion often override logic.

In favor of giving up the right of return

Surprisingly, the panel supporters of the motion were two well-known critics of the Israeli government, Palestinian refugee Bassem Eid and Israeli Dr. Yossi Beilin. Both have been deeply involved in and have intimate knowledge of the Arab-Israel conflict.

Beilin is a left-wing member of the Israeli Knesset and chairman of the Meretz-Yachad party, which is a leading opponent of the Israeli government. He initiated the back-channel talks that resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords. In 2001 he led a move by Israeli intellectuals and academics who signed a Joint Declaration with Palestinian peers, headed by Palestinian Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Bassem Eid lives in a refugee camp. He is the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) and has received several awards for his work

Advocating the motion to give up the right of return, Bellin said no peace process would succeed without a permanent solution to the refugee issue, but that Israel could allow only a limited return of the refugees and compensate those who choose not to return.

Eid stressed the practical situation of Palestinians living in misery in refugee camps for 60 years. He said they had no confidence in the corrupt and inefficient Palestinian political leadership and their only option was to compromise their right of return in order to live decently elsewhere.  He pleaded for realism, saying that demanding the right of return was a futile exercise, which would result in keeping the Palestinian refugees imprisoned in degrading refugee camps indefinitely.

The time has come, he said, to exert pressure on Arab governments to absorb the Palestinian refugees and to end the discrimination against them, by treating them as citizens and allowing them freedom to move and work.

In favor of the right of return

Insisting on the right of return, two well-known intellectuals, Dr. Ilan Pappe and Ali Abunimah, opposed the motion. They advocated that, no matter what, Palestinian refugees and their descendants should continue demanding a right to return to Israel.

Dr Pappe of Haifa University is well known for his strong anti-Israel views and his promotion of anti-Israel academic boycotts. He actively promotes external pressure on Israel. A few years ago he was involved in a controversy over his active support of a student who had submitted a thesis containing indisputably falsified claims that Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre in the village of Tantura in 1948.

Pappe claimed that return is a right fundamental to every human being that must be protected at any cost.

Ali Abunimah was born in the United States to a Palestinian family and grew up in Europe.  He lectures frequently at colleges in the United States and is a frequent guest on local, national and international radio and television. He is a co-founder of the anti-Israel internet site, The Electronic Intifada.

Pappe and Abunimah proposed the idealistic but impractical and unattainable one-state solution where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in harmony under one government.

Ironically both Pappe and Abunimah rejected the pleas of Eid, although he is an integral part of the refugees on whose cause they were pleading. From the comfort of their homes in Israel and Chicago they rejected Eid’s reasoning that urging the downtrodden refugees to continue the unrealistic demand for return, was a cruel imposition serving only to block a resolution of the conflict, thus perpetuating their sojourn in refugee camps.

The Vote

The dynamics of this emotional political debate were revealing. The arguments of the two proponents of ‘right of return’ at all costs, won the day. The audience from their comfortable location in Doha disregarded the pleas of the refugee, Eid, and called on him and his fellow distressed refugees to remain political pawns by insisting on an unrealizable right of return.

In the final vote almost 82 percent of the audience voted to insist on a right of return rather than seek the benefits of Eid’s compromise.  Evidently scoring political points outweighed the interests of the refugees whose cause they were purporting to support.

An email follow-up

Below are some extracts from an email exchange between Eid and Abunimah published on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog.

Bassem Eid:

We are losing time in not doing what it is necessary to reach peace . . . Consider also that since Israel left Gaza in September of 2005, the Palestinians have created chaos. So who will make this right of return applicable? In January 2007 there were 17 Palestinians killed by Israelis, but there were 35 Palestinians killed by Palestinians, so, right or return or right to live?

Ali Abunimah:

Your argument is very weak Bassem. It seems to boil down to this: "Israel is strong so we should appease it and give up our struggle. The Arab states are bad and corrupt, so we should turn a blind eye to Israel's crimes."

Bassem Eid:

I am still living in a refugee camp but while I am living in a hole I must stop digging . . . I envy you because you live in Chicago. I can only imagine the wonderful life you live.

Ali Abunimah:

I don't think its right to try to reduce this to a personal issue and to try to play off my privileged position against your suffering.

Other Arab views

Eid Bassem’s views are not unique among Arabs who have the courage to express unpopular views. Saudi columnist Yousef Nasser Al-Sweidan wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, March 5, 2007, under the title "On the Impossible [Idea] of the Right of Return."

. . . Clearly, the refugee problem is mainly the result of cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live . . . which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence.
The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and were forced to emigrate after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions to become integrated in their new society . . .
[With acknowledgement to MEMRI - Special Dispatch April 12, 2007.]

Legal claims

The Palestinians claim their demand is based on a legal right in terms of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, but many legal authorities contend that this resolution does not support the claims. In fact, 194 does not specifically refer to a right of return, although Article 11 states:

. . . that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at 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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

It is relevant to note that unlike UN Security Council Resolutions, which are binding on member states, General Assembly resolutions are considered to be merely non-binding recommendations. Nevertheless it is ironic that those Arab states that now rely on 194 to claim a right of return, voted against it because they said then it did not contain such right and because it implicitly recognized Israel.

Notably, the resolution does not refer to descendants of refugees, but it does refer to all refugees, not only Arabs. It therefore includes the Jews who were forced to flee from Arab countries and abandon property estimated at over $30 billion.

Most significantly, since resolution 194 specifically applies only to refugees who wish "to live at peace with their neighbors," it cannot yet apply to the Palestinians, as evident from a 2003 survey directed by professor of political science Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey. The overwhelming majority of those refugees who wished to exercise the right of return in Israel refuse to become Israeli citizens. In addition, both Hamas and PLO charters emphatically reject peace with Israel. Article 13 of the Hamas charter specifically states that peaceful solutions and international conferences contradict the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement and that Jihad is the only solution.

The official Palestinian Media Center website confirms that promised changes to the PLO Charter have not been made. Article 9 of the PLO covenant still plainly declares that armed struggle is not merely tactical, it is the overall strategy. Article 19 rejects the 1947 UN partition, implicitly rejecting the Quartet’s proposed two-state solution. Moreover, the covenant advocates destruction of the entire Jewish state. Article 20 deems the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate null and void.

The above Arab views expose a very tragic truth to which the media and politicians continue to close their eyes.  Apart from Jordan, Israel's Arab neighbors practice a cruel form of apartheid. They deny citizenship to Palestinian refugees. They deny them freedom of movement and severely restrict the fields in which they may work. Ralph Galloway, former director of UN aid to the Palestinians in Jordan, summarized this situation succinctly. He wrote:

The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
The Palestinians: People History, Politics - Terence Prittie, p 71.

How other refugee problems have been resolved

It is frequently claimed (incorrectly) that Palestinians are the only refugees who have been unable to return to their homes, deliberately ignoring the fact that millions of refugees have indeed been resettled in host countries.

In a November 1957 paper, "Century of the Homeless Man," published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dr. Elfan Rees, Advisor on Refugees to the World Council of Churches, wrote:

No large-scale refugee problem has ever been solved by repatriation, and there are certainly no grounds for believing that this particular problem (the Palestine refugees) can be so solved…The facts we must face force us to the conclusion that for most of the world refugees the only solution is integration where they are.

In terms of Article XIII of the 1945 Potsdam declaration signed by Stalin, Truman and Atlee, approximately 15 million Germans who had well established homes and businesses in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria were forcibly relocated to Germany. They lost title to the property they left behind, and no arrangements were made to compensate them for their losses.

The creation of Pakistan similarly resulted in the relocation of millions of people. Immovable property left behind by these refugees was seized by the respective governments to help settle the incoming refugees.

All were successfully resettled in host countries and none of those many millions were entitled to claim a right to return to their ancestral homelands. One must ask why only the Palestinian refugees have been deliberately left to rot as political pawns, pacified by the false hope of return, rather than be absorbed by their brethren in neighboring countries.

It is cruelty in the extreme to tantalize these refugees with hopes they might gain something by giving up a right they in fact do not have and to make a concession not theirs to make.

Hopefully there is some light at the end of the tunnel in the courageous statements of Al-Sweidan and Bassem Eid, quoted above, who ask the Arab states to follow Israel’s example in having successfully absorbed the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost everything in fleeing from Arab countries, after the 1948 war. They reinforce the prescient views expressed much earlier by Dr. Marguerite E. Ritchie in a paper, "Revolutionary Violence and Canadian Policy," presented to the Human Rights Institute of Canada. She wrote:

Perhaps Canada is in the best possible position to urge that the Arab states, whose invasion of the territory assigned to Jewish Palestinians created the refugee problem in 1948, accept and integrate into their territory those Arab refugees who live on international dole in these UN camps.

After all, Canada includes among its most honored citizens the descendants of the United Empire Loyalists who lost their homes as a result of the American Revolution. Canada did not keep those loyalists in camps, but rewarded them for their loyalty by the gift of new land and new lives. Are the Arab states less generous towards their own brethren?

Subject for academic study

The result of the vote in the Doha debate truly provides an interesting subject for study. It is interesting to observe how an overwhelming majority of well-meaning intelligent people make decisions intended for the benefit of others which are actually contrary to the interests of those very people they sincerely intend to serve.

82% of the audience who live in comfort urged millions of refugees living in distressing conditions to forego benefits which could be traded in exchange for foregoing this possibly non-existent right of return.

That the true interests of the refugees are not served by this call is evident from the survey by professor Khalil Shikaki, referred to above. The poll disclosed that only 10% of Palestinians in refugee camps demanded to return to live in Israel, and this figure dropped further when it was realized that their original homes no longer existed and that they would have to become Israeli citizens. Most preferred other solutions as suggested by Bassem Eid and others. The complete results of the survey may be viewed here.

This episode suggests the high probability that many decision-making processes by responsible people are likely to be intuitive and seriously flawed. The lesson: politicians dealing with life and death subjects which affect large populations such as nuclear proliferation and global warming ought to take compulsory courses in structured rational decision making.

Maurice Ostroff lived in South Africa before immigrating to Israel in 1980.

Read more articles in Foreign Affairs: Israel-Palestine.
Read more articles by Maurice Ostroff