The first Palestinian Right of Return Conference to occur in the United States took place at Boston University in 2000. The conference, which featured prominent academics such as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, was an effort by proponents of Palestinian rights to advocate for a mitigation of the historical tragedy that happened to the Palestinian people in 1948. Thirteen years later, Boston-area students, activists and academics have organized another conference at the same university because of this continuing catastrophe and the urgent need for a just political solution for Palestinian refugees.
In January, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sought permission from Israel to allow 150,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict into the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel responded with the condition that allowing Palestinian refugees into the OPT would be dependent upon the refugees’ relinquishing their right to return to what is today Israel proper. Abbas rejected this condition as the matter is to be discussed in final status negotiations. Israel’s cynical reaction, jeopardizing the lives of Palestinian refugees, shows a renewed attempt to obscure the moral legitimacy that underpins the right of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants to reclaim their inalienable right to return to historic Palestine.
In 1948, during the creation of Israel, around 750,000 Palestinians were either expelled or forced to flee by Zionist militia forces in an act that can only be described as ethnic cleansing. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), these refugees currently number around five million, and are dispersed all over the world, including within the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli attempts to prevent refugee return, such as this recent Syrian case, are not novel, but do lie at the foundation of the modern Israeli state, all while refugees continue to languish under deplorable conditions with precarious political status in the Occupied Territories and the Arab states.
Although the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees is enshrined in international law, such as in UN Resolution 194 which stipulates that Palestinian refugees may return to their homes and/or be compensated for all property lost, Israel has continued to deny this Right’s legitimacy and implementation for almost 65 years. Thus, the probing question that must be asked here is: Why is Israel so adamant in its refusal of the Right of Return? The answer lies at the core of the Israeli state’s ideology of Zionism, based on an insistence on a Jewish demographic majority that has had and continues to have destructive ramifications for non-Jewish inhabitants that live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an area with an historically non-Jewish majority.
Israel portrays itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, when in fact it is an ethnocracy that systematically discriminates against non-Jewish populations through legal and institutional systems of control and exclusion, granting legal rights and privileges to some while denying them to others. These systems of institutionalized racism include but are not limited to discrimination against non-Jews in regards to education, access to land, and political participation.
Within such a political system, the return of Palestinian refugees would create a demographic shift ending the Jewish majority in the state and would thus jeopardize the Zionist project of maintaining a state based on ethno-religious supremacy. For this reason, Israel has rejected the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and will continue to do so if it remains unchallenged.
The Peace Process between Israelis and Palestinians has largely failed to bring about a just solution in the Holy Land that would include the Right of Return, and instead has galvanized Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), thereby continuing a system built on Palestinian dispossession. The Palestinian Authority instituted after the Oslo Accords with the ostensible mission of governing the OPT has failed in representing the aspirations of the Palestinian population, both within the OPT and the diaspora, and in aiding their struggle for the Right of Return and self-determination. If anything, it has allowed Israel the ability to continue its denial of this Right.
As aptly argued by Edward Said 13 years ago, this failure on the part of official channels precipitates the urgency that these matters be taken into the hands of non-governmental actors through independent planning and organizing. This is the framework from which the current upcoming Right of Return Conference at Boston University emerges; from an impetus to plan rather than debate the realization of the Palestinian Right of Return. Through examining the legal, cultural, discursive and spatial dynamics of a political order that facilitates this Right, this conference asserts the applicability of this goal, thus countering those who voice its supposed inapplicability.
The Right of Return must continue to be demanded as a practical means for healing the historical wounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than keeping it an abstract notion. Indeed, a future that allows for the realization of the Right of Return and equal rights for all is a future that will see a possible end to the conflict as we know it.