Editors: Rex Brynen and Roula El-Rifai
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Pluto Press
Book Review By Ramona Wadi
The Palestinian right of return is crucial to the establishment of Palestinian identity and memory, so any discourse regarding the subject should not take place in isolation. The Palestine refugee problem: the search for a resolution (Pluto Press, 2014) incorporates this premise, bringing together various viewpoints within two main contexts: the centrality of Palestinian identity and the “reconceptualising” of the two-state solution in the absence of implementing the single state solution. No assumption of permanence with regard to negotiations is made throughout the book; indeed the analytical contributions highlight the regional instability and lack of popular Palestinian representation as impediments to achieving a solution.
The book identifies aspects that should be retained at the helm of any possible solution: forced exile and displacement as integral to the construction of Palestinian identity, a settlement which should be achieved through negotiations, availability of research and analysis to facilitate negotiations, and working towards an agreement which is sustainable. The dissemination of research is deemed restricted due to divergences in communication between policy-makers and academia and the avoidance of embarking upon research that is not in line with ongoing negotiations. Furthermore, refugees are not represented adequately in discourse pertaining to negotiations and the right of return, which creates a problem with regard to the strength of historical narratives and their influence in shaping a solution that focuses primarily on Palestinian recognition and reclamation of rights.
As described in the first chapters, the increase in research does not necessarily indicate better dissemination and implementation of possible solutions. While Israel has sought to counter research about Palestinian refugees by referring to the displacement of Jews from Arab countries, analysis highlighting the Palestinian struggle for the right of return is hampered by a lack of international coordination. Various bodies have funded and supported research, including the EU and the World Bank. However, sincere participation and support should be questioned in light of the constant support which international organisations have bequeathed to Israel.
The international community’s shaping of discourse regarding the Palestinian right of return is integral, yet should be subjected to intensive scrutiny. The proposed implementation mechanism acknowledges constrains in relation to the right of return and residency for Palestinians: “Within these constraints, the choice of the refugees needs to be maximised as much as possible.” The statement concerns the question of residence; however, constraints should also be discussed within the framework of international bodies that would collaborate upon implementation of return or choice of residency. One main concern would be the refusal of international organisations and imperialism to recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian identity and history, given the penchant for consolidating Israel’s fabricated narratives and claims to land.
Preparatory work identified as maximising Palestinians’ choice includes the gathering of evidence by Palestinians “from archives and historic records”, Israeli cooperation in allowing access to archives pertaining to claims and coordination with international organisations. However, it should be noted that in the aftermath of the Nakba, Israel took steps to obliterate evidence in order to ensure that Palestinians encounter immense difficulties in establishing ownership claims to the land.
Representation of refugees is another important issue tackled throughout the book. An initial contrast between Palestinian official representation and UNRWA’s role in highlighting the plight of Palestinian refugees depicts inconsistencies which also undermine a sustainable solution. The Palestinian Authority’s priority is the hypothetical establishment of a two-state solution, while UNRWA is said to provide a more efficient representation of Palestinian refugees and their needs. An implementation of the right to return would instigate a discussion about the future role of UNRWA and stipulated timeframes which may be detrimental to a comprehensive solution for Palestinians.
The right of return is also mired in unacceptable compromise, partly through acquiescence on behalf of Palestinian leadership. It is tied inherently to Palestinian history, although the official Palestinian representation has minimised discourse pertaining to the right of return by focusing specifically upon accountability and symbolism as opposed to a mass return. Rex Brynen quotes Yasser Arafat as stating, “We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.”
Hamas, on the other hand, insists upon a full implementation of the right of return taking into account the forced mass-displacement which started in 1948. It is Hamas that comes closer to the determination which should be asserted as part of the right of return by not only holding Israel accountable for its settler-colonial project, but also affirming that historic Palestine should be included within the discourse, something which is deftly ignored in many discussions about Palestinian refugees.
The book also expounds upon the diverging perspectives regarding the right of return. Palestinian refugees frame return “as a matter of rights, dignity and international law”. Conversely, Western discourse regarding the right of return falls within the convenience of humanitarianism. Such framing of discourse not only undermines Palestinian history and identity; it also allows Israel to maintain its dominant narrative within the international arena. Israel articulates three main concerns which have been absorbed by mainstream discourse: the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, impunity with regard to the Nakba and a permanent agreement which would eliminate the possibility of further refugee claims. A lack of agreement upon these issues is said to promulgate conflict; in reality an agreement with regard to these conditions would diminish Palestinian history, identity and memory, as well as the legitimacy of return under international law.
If the Palestinian right of return continues to be discussed externally, or as an Israeli concern, history and the loss of Palestine will become secondary issues. It is important to define 1948 as the enforced loss of Palestinian territory in order to establish the settler-colonial state. Giving prominence to the destruction wrought by settler-colonialism would have strengthened the argument in favour of nostalgia as a vital component of memory and Palestinian refugee claims. An unhindered right of return for Palestinians should focus upon reclamation of territory and an assertion of self-determination, rather than be perceived as a sequel to any peace agreement concocted by the Palestinian leadership, Israel and its international allies.
(Source / 11.03.2014)