Whose Land Is It?

The Palestinian Right to Return

Revolutionary Worker #1087, January 21, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

The "right of return" is a central issue in the Palestinian struggle. The masses of Palestinian people insist that they will never give up this right. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Barak recently expressed the state of Israel's official stand: "Insisting on the right of return puts a question mark over the very raison d'etre [reason for existence] of Israel--we will never agree to it." And in recent "peace negotiations," the U.S.--which claims to be an "honest broker" between the Palestinians and Israel--has called on Yasser Arafat and Palestinian negotiators to openly "waive" the right of return.

What is the Palestinian right of return--and why is this such a key question?

Israel's Foundation--the Dispossession of an Entire Nation

The very fact that the right of return is an issue points to a crucial truth: the Palestinians are a people who have been dispossessed of their homeland. The majority of Palestinian people today are refugees--living under Israeli military occupation, in nearby countries, or in other parts of the world. The right of return means the right of the Palestinian to regain the land that was unjustly and violently taken away from them by oppressive powers.

The Israelis promote myths to cover up the truth and justify the existence of their state. They claim that the Palestinian people were never forced out of their land and homes but "left" of their own will. Or they say that before the arrival of the Zionist settlers, Palestine was a barren desert--"a land without people for a people without land."

In truth, the Palestinian people had lived in the area and worked the land for centuries before the establishment of the Israeli state. Israel was founded by Zionist Jews from Europe, with imperialist backing. When Zionist settlers first began arriving in the late 1800s to colonize historic Palestine (what is now Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank), there were small Jewish communities that had long existed in the area; but Jews had not been a large part of the population in Palestine for some two thousand years.

The Zionists based their colonization movement on the claim that Jews were god's "chosen people" and that Palestine was the land god promised them. Many Jews did not share this view--they saw themselves as part of the life and struggles of the people in the countries where they lived. The Zionist ideology reflected the interests of bourgeois Jews in Europe, and from the beginning the Zionist plan was expulsion and conquest--with the help of the British imperialists and later the U.S.

In November 1947, the U.S. helped push through a United Nations resolution partitioning Palestine into a Zionist state and an Arab state. At that time, Palestinians outnumbered Zionist settlers two to one and owned 92 percent of the land. But the UN partition gave Israel 54 percent of the land.

When the Palestinians and Arab countries refused to accept this partition, the Zionists carried out military attacks against Palestinian communities. A Palestinian refugee remembered what happened to him and his family: "There were several terrible attacks on Jaffa in April 1948. In the first one, some Zionists rolled a barrel of TNT into the town center which crashed through the crowded Al Hamra cinema. As the survivors rushed out, they were mown down with Bren guns by Zionists.... On April 25, it all came to a head. They attacked from the north and east with heavy cannons and machine guns. Everyone left their homes and fled.... In the end we found a truck and our family with three others all climbed on. We had one suitcase with us: everything else was left at home... When we got to Sbeel Abu Nabout we were attacked by a group of Zionists. The girl who was sitting on my knees was shot in the legs. I was hit in the arm.... It took us seven hours to get to Majdal where we slept the night. Early next morning we traveled on to Gaza. There we were: us and a suitcase." (from the book Stateless in Gaza)

On May 14, 1948, the Zionists declared the establishment of the state of Israel and launched a war against Palestinians. The Israeli armed forces had modern weapons supplied by the imperialists, and they also used brutal tactics to spread terror among the people. At Deir Yassin, Israeli forces massacred 250 defenseless villagers, including 100 women and children. As the word of the Deir Yassin atrocity spread, and as Israel carried out other attacks, many Palestinians fled their homes in panic.

By the time the war ended in January 1949, over 800,000 Palestinians--two-thirds of the entire population--had been forced into exile in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan. Israel seized 77 percent of the land and began systematically destroying Palestinian villages--about 400 villages were simply razed to the ground.

Continuing Zionist Colonialism

Zionist aggression and expansion continued after the 1948 war--and is still going on today. In 1967 Israel launched the so-called Six Day War--aimed at grabbing more land and establishing Israel as a regional power. Israel seized the remaining 23 percent of historic Palestine --the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem--along with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Syria's Golan Heights.

As Israel expanded its territory through the 1967 war, another wave of Palestinians were forced to flee--many for the second time. Over 300,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza and forced into exile.

Today, there are over four million Palestinian refugees living outside of what is now Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. As Palestinian scholar Edward Said notes, the Palestinian refugees are "now the largest and longest existing such population anywhere." Over three million Palestinians live in poor, crowded refugee camps. The main refugee concentrations outside of historic Palestine are in Jordan, with 1.5 million refugees; Lebanon, with 400,000; and Syria, with 385,000. There are also Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. They make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population and are considered Israeli citizens--but they are victims of blatant discrimination and oppression.

After 1967 Israel established a harsh military occupation to rule over the West Bank and Gaza--depriving Palestinians of their basic rights and putting their economy under siege. Israeli forces have destroyed many Palestinian homes in the name of "collective punishment" or as penalty for "illegal construction." They have seized Palestinian land for their military and for their settlers. By 1988 Israel had confiscated over 52 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of Gaza while destroying thousands of Palestinian homes.

Since the U.S.-led "peace process" began in the early 1990s, the number of Zionist settlers in the West Bank has almost doubled--to about 200,000. Saree Makdisi, a professor at University of Chicago, points out: "The expansion of settlement activity has been far more extensive under 'peace-seeking' Labor governments than under 'hawkish' Likud ones: under Rabin and Peres, settler populations grew by 50 percent; under Barak by a further 13 percent--nine new settlements have been started in the West Bank since March 1999.

A key part of the U.S. strategy for the "peace process" has been the "two-state" solution: the Palestinians would officially recognize Israel and stop their struggle--including renouncing the right of return--in exchange for a "mini-state" of their own in a part of the West Bank and Gaza. But even if such a state came into existence, this would not fundamentally change the condition of apartheid that Palestinians now live under in the West Bank and Gaza. This "mini-state" would be surrounded by Israel and its huge military. It would be dependent economically on Israel and imperialist powers. Key natural resources, especially water, would be under Israeli control. And the establishment of such a state would mean the abandonment of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Barak's statement--that "Insisting on the right of return puts a question mark over the very raison d'etre of Israel--is quite revealing. The question of the right of return does indeed raise a fundamental issue--that the state of Israel is based on the unjust dispossession, expulsion, and suppression of the indigenous people of the land, the Palestinians. That is why the Zionists can "never agree" to this right. At the same time, the Zionists uphold their own "right of return"--anyone who is considered Jewish under Israeli laws can come to Israel to settle and become a citizen, even if he or she (or their family) had never lived in the area. This shows the deeply racist and apartheid-like nature of the Israeli state.

Israel is a state that serves the strategic interests of the imperialist powers, especially the U.S. As long as this state exists, there can be no liberation and self-determination for the oppressed Palestinian nation. The only truly just solution to the conflict is the overthrow of the oppressor state of Israel, and the establishment of a secular (non-religious), democratic Palestinian state for all the people throughout the territory of Palestine.

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