Ghada Karmi, the Palestinian refugees, and truth

This is a guest post by Ari

Among the more predictable elements of the fallout from the “Palestine Papers” is this article by Ghada Karmi in today’s Guardian. There is much in Karmi’s article worthy of fisking, but this sentence in particular stands out:

The right of Palestinian return is enshrined in international law and historical precedent, and affirmed repeatedly by the UN. Resolution 194 was passed by the UN general assembly in December 1948 and called on Israel to repatriate those “displaced by the recent conflict” with compensation for their losses.

Such statements have the status of an article of faith among anti-Zionists. However, as Efraim Karsh points out, they are also thoroughly misleading:

The resolution in question, number 194, was passed by the UN General Assembly on December 11, 1948, in the midst of the Arab-Israeli war. The first thing to be noted is that, like all General Assembly resolutions (and unlike Security Council resolutions), it is an expression of sentiment and carries no binding force whatsoever. The second thing to be noted is that its primary purpose was not to address the refugee problem but rather to create a “conciliation commission” aimed at facilitating a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Only one of its fifteen paragraphs alludes to refugees in general – not “Arab refugees” – in language that could as readily apply to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were then being driven from the Arab states in revenge for the situation in Palestine.

This interpretation is not merely fanciful. The resolution expressly stipulates that compensation for the property of those refugees choosing not to return “should be made good by the governments or the authorities responsible.” Had the provision applied only to Palestinians, Israel would surely have been singled out as the compensating party.

Most importantly, far from recommending the return of the Palestinian refugees as the only viable solution, Resolution 194 put this particular option on a par with resettlement elsewhere. It advocated, in its own words, that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” but also that efforts should be made to facilitate the “resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees.”

It was, indeed, just these clauses in Resolution 194 that, at the time, made it anathema to the Arabs, who opposed it vehemently. Linking resolution of the refugee issue to the achievement of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace; placing on the Arab states some of the burden for resolving it; equating return and resettlement as possible solutions, and diluting any preference for the former by means of the vague phrase, “at the earliest practicable date”; and above all establishing no absolute “right of return,” the measure was seen, correctly, as rather less than useful to Arab purposes.

Only in the late 1960s, and with the connivance of their Soviet and third-world supporters, did the Arabs begin to transform Resolution 194 into the cornerstone of an utterly spurious legal claim to a “right of return,” buttressing it with thinly argued and easily refutable appeals to other international covenants on the treatment of refugees and displaced persons.

Read the rest of Karsh’s article here.