Right of Return Panel Challenges Assumptions

by Susan Chatman

Discussions of the Palestinian "Right of Return" have increased in recent weeks as a result of the outbreak of violence. These discussions have almost entirely taken place outside the mainstream media, since the U.S. government's pro-Israel stance leaves little room for dialogue. As an anecdote to this lack of balance, and to bring attention to the "No Return, No Justice, No Peace" marches scheduled across the U.S. on September 16, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee put together a distinguished panel to discuss the historical and personal context for the legitimacy of the Palestinians' demands. In addition, the panel was supplemented by a self-proclaimed "Arab Jew" to discuss the Mizrahi Jewish perspective.

On September 10, the panel met in Orange County, at the Unitarian Church, and consisted of Dr. Elaine Hagopian, Nader Abuljebain, and Jordan Elgrably, with moderator Michel Shehadeh. "This is not a debate with balanced representation," said Shehadeh at the outset. "This is intended to defend and raise awareness of the Palestinians' Right of Return."

Shehadeh, West Coast Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, introduced the panel as the first action of a newly formed Right of Return Taskforce and explained that it was Intended to bring the Palestinian point of view to the American public.

Jordan Elgrably, executive director of Ivri-NASAWI, opened the discussion with a provocative viewpoint. He stated, "I support UN Resolution 194 which provides for Palestinian repatriation or restitution, and a return of Israel to its June 1967 borders." In explaining a progressive Mizrahi Jewish viewpoint (Mizrahi Jews are those who lived in Arab lands prior to creation of the state of Israel), Elgrably argued that, "For many of us, Zionism proved to be racist in character. Arab Jews arriving from the 'enemy culture' often suffered discrimination, and they lost everything in their former countries. Frequently they had a better quality of living in Morocco, Iraq or Iran, for example, than what awaited them in Israel. And later, as we have seen, Israel practed racism against its non-Jewish citizens." Elgrably concluded that, "Jews have been convinced they were the sworn enemies of Arabs and that the oppressive policies of Israel were necessary, but we were hoodwinked." He made a case for working to create alliances between progressive Jews and Arabs, in order to correct the injustices that are being forced on the Palestinian people.

Dr. Elaine Hagopian, educator, author and activist, provided a historical perspective, as well as an explanation of the legal status of the Palestinian people. She lay blame for the current lack of protection for Palestinians on the actions of the United Nations. Despite the agreements made by David Ben-Gurion, a large number of Palestinians were expelled even prior to the November 1947 partition vote, and territory including West Jerusalem was captured illegally. Dr. Hagopian explained, "Ben- Gurion accepted the partition plan as a beginning. It was a tactical strategy, but he never intended to keep his promise." The tactic of acquiescing to the UN's demands, then acting contrary to these agreements are documented in the UN's own records. "Israel promised to implement [UN General Resolution ] 194, which, in part, states that Jerusalem should be placed under United Nations' control, when it became a member of the UN. Just a few months later, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital."

"The right of Palestinian self-determination is rooted in the original UN declaration creating Israel," stated Dr. Hagopian. Clearly, this right has being undermined and the current negotiations leave Arafat with very few options. The Israeli government is offering him, says Dr. Hagopian, "A weak state, no borders with Arab countries, three enclaves surrounded by Israel with all water, electrical power and borders controlled by Israel." It is difficult to reconcile this offer with a realistic effort at helping Palestine create an autonomous nation. "The American press and politicians try to make the American people believe that Israel is making concessions, when they're not. Under UN resolution 242, all occupied territories must be returned. This is the basis for the Oslo agreements."

Dr. Hagopian, who is of Syrian-American descent, noted that she is willing to speak to this cause because the people who are the origin of this problem have so much sympathy, and the Palestinians don't. "Palestine will define your moral identity," she said. She added that in addition to the importance of Palestinians speaking for themselves, it is critically important that all people who believe in promoting justice must speak out. She urged the audience to use the American political system, by contacting elected representatives. "Zionists are defining the dialogue," said Hagopian, referring to the strong Washington, D.C. lobbying arm of the organized Jewish community. She explained that it is necessary to change the perception of the Israelis as the aggrieved party, and provide a realistic framework for dialogue and negotiation that includes the perspectives of Palestinians.

Nader Abuljebain was the last speaker before the floor was opened to questions. As a Palestinian refugee born in Kuwait, he relayed his personal stories, starting with his parent's fight to defend their home in Jaffa. His father fought when the Israelis attacked shortly after the declaration of the state of Israel. The attacks started in the suburbs, with mortar shelling on residential areas. When his father was convinced by the rest of the family to flee to Egypt, they thought they were leaving for a few weeks. "It has been 52 years, and we still haven't returned," said Abuljebain. "Everyone still wants to go home...Everyone still has the legal deeds for their land, and the keys to their homes in Palestine. The pattern of the refugee movement reaffirms the desire of the Palestinian people to return. The Palestinian people have defied political genocide to keep their dream alive."  Abuljebain went on to state, "There will be no permanent peace in the Middle East without the Right of Return. Palestinians have a legitimate right to repatriation, restitution and compensation."

The remainder of the afternoon was devoted to a lively question and answer session. Many of the questions centered on what could be done. Clearly, Palestinians are protesting and organizing effectively for the first time. In order to create an effective response to the pro-Israeli bias in the press, noted representatives of the Right of Return Taskforce, much more work needs to be done. On a note of hope, and despite the years of conflict, the majority of participants expressed the potential for a democratic solution.

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Info on Palestinian Right of Return, email or visit the ADC site.

For a comprehensive document discussing possible solutions, examine the project of the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution (PICAR) on their web site.

Write Susan Chatman.

"To Stop the Violence, End the Occupation" by Hussein Ibish

Opinions expressed are solely those of their authors and do not reflect any official position taken by Ivri-NASAWI.

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