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The Scheme to Define Away Palestinian Refugees

In May 2012, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) made an outstanding discovery, which had escaped scores of politicians, diplomats and experts for six decades. He discovered that the number of Palestinian refugees is not five million as United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) records show, but merely 30,000. The credit for this discovery goes to AIPAC and Israel as they had advanced this “discovery” for the last four months. Kirk “took the signal” and proposed a motion to the Congress which was passed after a mild amendment. Within a week, dozens of pro-Israel and Jewish sites in the USA, Canada and Australia reported the “discovery.”  For them, defining away refugees is akin to an end-run on conflict and war. Dispossessed Palestinians will remain dispossessed Palestinians with no recourse. This interpretation is nothing more than a gimmick, which, if anything, will prolong the conflict and increase the suffering of millions of refugees.

The Palestinian refugees are neither 30,000 nor 5,000,000. They are 7,400,000 Palestinians who did not sleep in their homes for 23,400 nights because they were denied the right to return to their homes. The difference in the two numbers – 2.4 million – is because some did not wish to register with UNRWA.

Looking at the map of Palestine and comparing it with the land Israeli forces occupied in 1948/1949 (78 percent of Palestine), a tremendous increase over the 6 percent Jewish-owned in Palestine, we can identify over 530 Palestinian towns and villages depopulated by Israeli forces during al Nakba (the Catastrophe of 1948). Those forced from these villages comprise the Palestinian refugee population today.

The expulsion and forced flight of the Palestinian people is the largest, most comprehensive, meticulously executed and continuous ethnic cleansing operation in modern history.

Ethnic cleansing is a war crime and a crime against humanity according to the Sixth Principle of the Nuremberg Charter and the now widely-endorsed Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998. Similarly, the perpetuation of ethnic cleansing is a crime against international law, whether by denying the right of the refugees to return to their homes, forced re-settlement elsewhere, exile, or by any other means such as changing refugees’ status or forcing them in any way to abandon their rights.

Ethnic cleansing has been a constant Israeli policy. In the six weeks preceding the declaration of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion depopulated over 200 Palestinian villages by military force, thus creating half the total number of refugees. That was before the declaration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948 and before the end of the British Mandate, which should have protected the Palestinian citizens.  This portion of the depopulation also occurred before any Arab regular soldier set foot in Palestine in a feeble effort to rescue the Palestinians. The other half of the refugees endured expulsion by a nascent Israel in the six months that followed.

One week after declaring the state of Israel, the United Nations appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as its first Mediator. A man of impeccable record, Bernadotte was shocked at the dimensions of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.  He wrote, “It would be an offense against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine…”

On Sept 16, 1948 Bernadotte submitted his final report to the UN emphasizing the right of Palestinians to return to their homes. On the next day, he was assassinated by Jewish terrorists, including Yizhak Shamir, the future prime minister of Israel.

The UN, however, adopted his report in UN General Assembly resolution 194, which has now been affirmed by the UN over 130 times in the last 60 years.

UNGA resolution 194 calls for three actions:

1.    The return of the refugees.

2.    Their welfare until this happens.

3.    Setting up the mechanism for their repatriation and compensation.

Israel adamantly refused to allow the return of the refugees or to accept their repatriation although it made a solemn undertaking upon its admission to the UN to comply with resolution 194. Israel accepted willingly that the UN take the responsibility of caring for the refugees; otherwise, Israel would have been responsible for them. In fact, the care of the refugees by the UN was the only element of resolution 194 which Israel accepted.

When Israel reneged on its undertaking to allow the return of the refugees and they remained in their camps for the first three years of UNRWA’s mandate, the UN General Assembly extended assistance to the refugees and their descendants born in exile (literally a few kilometers away from their homes).

UNRWA remains the only applied element of resolution 194. UNRWA’s records show the refugee’s name, his village of origin and his camp of exile. Here is the body of the crime, described in full by the UN records. Undermining UNRWA, by any means, is to undermine resolution 194 and is in effect perpetuating the war crime of ethnic cleansing.

Sen. Kirk and his staff should be ashamed to be so intent on advancing the final dispossession of the Palestinian refugees.  They may think they’re clever to be defining the problem away, but they are actually laying the groundwork for more pain and dislocation in the region.  Hasn’t the US legislature had enough of contributing to upheaval and horror in the Middle East?

Salman Abu Sitta is the founder and president of Palestine Land Society which is dedicated to the documentation of the land and people of Palestine. He is the author of the compendium “Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966,” several other atlases and books, and over 300 papers and articles on the Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return.

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