Trump vs. Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return

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By Edith Garwood, Country Specialist, Israel/OPT/Palestine, Amnesty International USA

President Trump is trying to unilaterally take key issues off the table in any future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and bullying the weaker party to accept it. He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the city as the capital of Israel; re-directed over $200 million of aid, already allocated to help Palestinians living under occupation, elsewhere; and now has cut aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Many parties, including leading Israeli military figures, think the U.S. administration is playing a dangerous political game that could backfire, but this last action also directly attacks a key human right; one that could have a devastating effect for Palestinians, but also millions of others refugees and displaced persons worldwide — the right of return.

The international community must help protect those the U.S. administration is seeking to hurt and protect the right of return. Americans need to understand the issues by asking some basic questions:

What is the right of return? Who are the Palestinian refugees? Can Trump define who qualifies for aid and ban their right of return?

What is the Right of Return?

The right of return is a basic, individual human right. It is among the key human rights principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 13 of the UDHR states: ‘’Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’’

It is given legal force in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty, ratified by Israel in 1991 and the State of Palestine in 2014.

The international community has repeatedly affirmed the right of return applies to Palestinians. In line with international law, Amnesty International also calls for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with their descendants, who have maintained genuine links with the area, be able to exercise their right to return.

Only in the situation of Israel and the Palestinian refugees is the right of return controversial. When aid agencies and government humanitarian initiatives help a region following a natural disaster or conflict, the priority is to safely return those displaced to their homes when it is safe to do so. Refugees are easily exploited and exposed to human rights violations. If displaced persons cannot be safely returned to their homes, and they choose to do so, agencies work to integrate them locally or resettle them where it is safe.

Who Are the Palestinian Refugees?

Today, over 5 million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA — created in 1949 to help Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and within the Occupied Palestinian Territory (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip).

UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict, and their descendants.”

UNRWA provides work, education and humanitarian aid until they return to their homes or receive adequate monetary compensation in accordance with international law.

Palestinian refugees differ from other refugees in that a new state was declared in their former homeland. To further complicate the issue, the new state passed laws and measures blocking the refugees from returning, completely destroying more than four hundred Palestinian towns and villages.

Palestinian refugees have been suffering a wide range of human rights violations for the last seven decades in countries of refuge, mainly due to their precarious legal status, and lack of political will to implement the law.

Can President Trump Define Who is a Refugee and Who Can Receive Aid?

While President Trump cannot change the definition of who is and who isn’t a ‘Palestinian refugee’, he can withhold aid from UNRWA, the agency mandated to help Palestinian refugees as leverage. According to a Trump administration official, if the UN wants the money, it needs to change UNRWA’s rules and the way it, the agency, operates — or defines a refugee.

Can President Trump Ban a Palestinian’s Right of Return?

No, not directly, but by pressuring the UNRWA financially, Trump is hoping to ultimately coerce the international community into changing the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee. This would lead to denying millions of the descendants of those who forcibly left heir homes, their identity as Palestinians, and their hope to return to their original homeland one day.

If Trump gets his way, those recognized as refugees by UNRWA would drop from more than 5 million, including descendants, to fewer than a tenth of that number, or those still alive from when the agency was created seven decades ago.

Israel believes it would be both unreasonable and unfair to expect Israel to unilaterally accept an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Amnesty believes any peace agreement reached should resolve the issue of the Palestinian diaspora through means that respect and protect individual human rights. Amnesty recognizes that there are other considerations that must be addressed in the negotiations — the security concerns of both sides for instance — but these issues must be resolved within a framework that does not sacrifice individual human rights to political expediency.

Bottom line?

Human rights must be respected.

Palestinians who have genuine links to the homeland that they’ve been forced to leave in Israel proper or the OPT have the right to return. If their homes no longer exist, have been converted to other uses, or there’s a valid competing claim, they should be allowed to return to the vicinity of their original home and compensated for lost property.

Palestinians who choose not to return should receive compensation for lost property in accordance with principles of international law.

The same principles apply to Israeli citizens who were once citizens of Arab or other countries and who fled or were expelled. Those who have maintained genuine links with such countries and wish to return, should be allowed to do so or receive compensation for any lost property.

The right of return cannot be taken away by force, through subterfuge and it cannot be negotiated away — not by Benjamin Netanyahu; not by Mahmoud Abbas and certainly not by the leader of a third-party state, such as the United States and Donald Trump.

The international community must help protect those the U.S. administration is seeking to hurt and protect the right of return.

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