Samah Sabawi
Al-Ahram (Opinion)
June 30, 2011 - 12:00am

I was 12 years old when for the first time in my life I became a citizen of a country -- Australia. Before that, I was a stateless Palestinian refugee. There were two laments my parents always repeated whenever they spoke of their place of origin, Palestine: if only we could have stayed and if only we could return.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2009 there were more than 10 million refugees around the world in need of assistance. This number does not include the seven million Palestinian refugees, who make up the world's largest refugee population and whose fate is the longest-standing question at the UN.

The plight of the Palestinian refugees began 63 years ago when they were forced out of their homes or fled in fear as the Israeli state established itself on the ruins of their villages and their towns. This plight has not ended, and the issue still stands unresolved today as a poignant reminder that states and governments are continuing to fail the weak and disenfranchised for the sake of political gains and posturing.

Refugees are by definition powerless: in many cases they are either stateless or have lost the protection of their nation state. They depend on international bodies to rescue them. There are two norms which guide the international community in dealing with refugee issues under the UNHCR, the first being to provide protection and assistance to refugees and the second to not return individuals to their own countries against their will or if they are at risk of persecution.

However, various human rights conventions have over the years created additional norms that work as guidelines to resolve refugee issues by providing preventive measures to make it possible for people to remain on their land. Rather than focussing on resettlement alone, these norms safeguard the rights of refugees to return to their homes if they choose to.

The concept of "preventive protection" is especially important in the case of the Palestinian refugees. The right of individuals and communities to remain in their own country is a principle which rejects the expulsion of ethnic communities, or what is now known as "ethnic cleansing." The UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed "the right of persons to remain in peace in their own homes, on their own lands and in their own countries."

The Turku/Abo Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards also provides in its Article 7 that "all persons have the right to remain in peace in their homes and their places of residence." The article also states that "no person shall be compelled to leave their own country."

Some in Israel may argue that because Palestinian refugees are not citizens of that state, they have no right to refer to the land from which they come as "their country". However, this claim has been refuted by a litany of legal and human rights experts, and, most important of all, it is refuted by the UNHCR, which defines the Palestinian population as being the indigenous people of the land.

Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation face severe measures aimed at uprooting them. One example is the practice of revoking residency rights: Hamoked, an Israeli NGO, recently filed a freedom of information request with the Israeli government and found that over 140,000 Palestinians who had left to study or work had had their residency rights revoked between 1967 and 1994.

The NGO wrote in a statement that "the mass withdrawal of residency rights from tens of thousands of West Bank residents, tantamount to permanent exile from their homeland, remains an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law."

Another example of an Israeli policy at the heart of the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis is that of house demolition. An Israeli human rights group called the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD) estimates that at least 24,813 homes have been demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967, and that, according to UN figures, during the 2009 Gaza bombing more than 4,247 Palestinian homes were destroyed.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports that Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and other buildings reached a record high in March this year. According to UNRWA, 76 buildings were demolished, leading to the displacement of 158 people, including 64 children. UNRWA puts the total number of displaced persons in the last six months alone at 333, including 175 children.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described the policy as "discrimination against one ethnic group." These actions are illegal under Article 53 of the fourth Geneva Convention, and they have been roundly criticised by the UN and other international organisations, as well as by human rights groups.

There are various other policies that drive Palestinians out of their homes, especially in Jerusalem where Palestinian neighbourhoods are targeted for evictions to make way for Jewish settlers. Once exiled, Palestinians are denied the right to return. This is illegal under international humanitarian law.

The right to return voluntarily and in safety to one's country of origin or nationality is a right enshrined in the rules of international law and also in human rights law. The UN Security Council has also affirmed "the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes." The Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed "the right of refugees and displaced persons to return, in safety and dignity, to their country of origin and or within it to their place of origin or choice."

This right is a pillar of international humanitarian law simply because it acknowledges that human beings form attachments to their native land. This is not a case that is unique to Palestinian refugees: it is one shared by indigenous people everywhere. Attachment to the land of one's origin is a natural human condition, and it is precisely why these sentiments and emotional ties are protected.

The Palestinian refugee population will continue to grow because the international community has failed to find appropriate responses to their cries for help. We must intensify our efforts to prevent an increase in the number of Palestinian refugees that Israel uproots from the land and help indigenous people maintain their right to remain on the land.

We also need to pressure Israel to make a repatriation offer to all the Palestinian refugees and to allow them to practice the right to return to their homes should they so choose. Failing to do so will set a negative precedent and could have an adverse consequence for the millions of other refugees.


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