December 26, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 634

Increased Palestinian Adherence to Right of Return Following the Geneva Initiative

December 26, 2003
Palestinians | Special Dispatch No. 634

The December 1, 2003 inauguration of the Geneva Initiative gave rise to an angry reaction among Palestinians, largely in response to the Israeli side's claim that the Palestinian side had relinquished the right of return – which Palestinian Authority leaders denied. Each side supported its position, which contradicted the other, by citing the same article of the Geneva document, which deals with Palestinian refugees.

According to Hussein Hejazi, media advisor to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, Article 7 was purposely written in ambiguous language, so that both sides could win support for it among their respective peoples. But the exploitation of this ambiguity by the Israeli side for its own political needs prompted a backlash of Palestinian reaffirmation of its adherence to the right of return.

The following are Palestinian reactions to Israeli claims that they had relinquished the right of return:

Intentional Ambiguity on the Refugee Issue

Article 7 of the Geneva document, which addresses the refugee issue, was drafted in ambiguous language, with a reference to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 as a "basis" for solving the refugee problem. [1] It suggests five options to be offered to refugees, without mentioning whether any of them fulfills the terms of Resolution 194. The vague wording allowed both sides to market the agreement to their respective target audiences, with each one presenting the refugee issue in accordance with what its people was prepared to accept.

While the Palestinians claimed the document recognized the right of return because it referred to U.N. Resolution 194 as "the basis for resolving the refugee issue," the Israeli side claimed that the Palestinians had relinquished the right of return, and stated that both sides had agreed that the number of refugees to return would be determined by "the sovereign discretion of Israel," as stipulated in Option IV of the five options outlined in the Geneva document.

Because the Israeli side presented Article 7 as an Israeli achievement of Palestinian concessions, the Palestinian leadership vehemently denied that this was the case, and reiterated its insistence on the right of return. Thus, a problem was created for both sides: the Palestinians are now in a position where it will be more difficult in the future to make concessions on the right of return, and the Israelis are now in a position where it is increasingly more difficult to accept the right of return as it is being reaffirmed by the Palestinians.

Following the harsh criticism of the Palestinians who were actively involved in the Geneva Initiative, Jamal Zaqut, a Palestinian Democratic Union political bureau member and one of the framers of the agreement, addressed the document's ambiguity on the refugee issue in an article for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida:"It must be acknowledged that there is a certain ambiguity in this section. The document does not dictate a full and collective return of millions of Palestinians, but [neither] does it relinquish this right.

"Furthermore, the proposed time frame for solving the refugee problem stretches over five years, while the time frame for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land, dismantling the settlements, and completing the deployment of Palestinian sovereignty over its land – in accordance with what is defined in the maps, which are more important than texts – is three years [i.e. the refugee problem will cease to exist after Israel withdraws]."

Zaqut also said, "In contrast to the Clinton Initiative, which views the five options [to be offered to the refugees] as implementation of Resolution 194 … the Geneva document did not dictate [that implementation of Resolution 194] would be 'according to the aforementioned [five options],' since this could be considered to restrict [implementation] of Resolution 194 to [only] these five options." [2]

Hussein Hajazi, a political commentator and media advisor to the PA Foreign Ministry, wrote in an article for the PA daily Al-Ayyam:"The ambiguous Geneva wording … allows the Palestinian party to say that the right of return is anchored in the document and [on the other hand] allows those opposed to the document [on the Israeli side] to agree with the Palestinian party and say that Israel has agreed to the right of return. Thus this ambiguity allows Yossi Beilin and the Israeli party to say that the obstacle of the right of return has been removed, and that this is a victory for Israel…" [3]

Arafat and Other PA Officials Reemphasize the Right of Return:

The following are statements by Palestinian leaders in the wake of declarations by the Israeli side that the Palestinians had relinquished the right of return:

In a speech by Yasser Arafat that was delivered by Executive Vice President of Bethlehem University Manuel Hassassian at the inauguration ceremony in Geneva, Arafat wrote: "I send greetings, respect, and deep appreciation to the Israeli, Palestinian, and international forces of peace who meet today in Geneva to emphasize to the Middle Eastern peoples, countries, and governments, and to the entire world, that achieving peace between the two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli, is imperative and urgent."

To emphasize his position on the refugee issue in the speech, Arafat included U.N. Resolution 194: "In this context, I would like to emphasize our agreement to Security Council Resolution 1515 and our adherence to the U.N. Resolutions, among them 242, 338, 425, 194, and 1397." [4]

At a press conference in Beirut, PA Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Shaath explained: "The Palestinians will never give up the right to return to their homes. They only negotiate over how to implement the return." [5]

On December 1, 2003, Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Lands, sent a fatwa to the National Conference for the Defense of the Right of Return, which was convening at the Rashad Shawa Center in Gaza . The fatwa prohibited Palestinian refugees from accepting compensation in exchange for relinquishing the right of return:

"The sentence for anyone who accepts compensation for his property is the same sentence meted out in the fatwa issued by religious scholars in the 1930s strictly forbidding [refugees] from accepting compensation [for land]. This is because the Palestinian land is not a commodity to be bought and sold; it is a blessed and holy Waqf [i.e. religious endowment] ." [6]

In a session following the Geneva ceremony, the Palestinian Legislative Council underscored "the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homeland and their right to compensation for their long years of suffering, and for their property, through Resolution 194 and the international conventions recognized by the U.N." [7]

Also speaking at the National Conference for the Defense of the Right of Return, PLC head Rafiq Al-Natsheh said: "The Palestinian problem began with the refugees and it will not be solved except by their return to their homes. We will permit no one to relinquish the rights of our people… Anyone who thinks we can establish peace at the expense of our national rights is dreaming. If the Geneva Initiative and other initiatives will be at the expense of these rights, they can all go to hell… If the peace agreements do not restore our rights, then resistance and struggle are our alternatives for restoring them." [8]

Palestinian National Council Members:

Abd Allah Al-Hurani, head of the PNC political committee and head of the National Conference for the Defense of the Right of Return, sent a letter to all framers of the Geneva document, in which he charged that they were representing no one but themselves. [9] At a political meeting in Gaza, he said: "The Palestinian refugee problem is the foundation of the modern Palestinian liberation movement, whose motto was return and liberation…

"The Geneva agreement cleared Israel of all responsibility for creating the refugee problem. Even the compensation in exchange for [Israeli] profits from [Palestinian] land, and the compensation for the disasters brought upon the Palestinian refugees, will be paid out in the framework of an international fund that will collect donations from every country in the world, including Israel, which relieves Israel of its material responsibility toward the Palestinian refugees." [10]

PNC Refugee Committee Secretary-General Walid Al-'Awadh called for thwarting the Geneva Initiative, because "its content regarding refugees departs from the official policy of the PLO – the sole legitimate representative of our people – and completely contradicts the Central Council and the National Council resolution on this matter … and constitutes a blatant violation of U.N. Resolution 194, which guarantees the steadfast right of the refugees to return to their homes." [11]

Fatah Leaders:

During a visit to the Al-Rashidiyya refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Hani Al-Hassan, Fatah Central Committee member and political advisor to Yasser Arafat, said: "The [Fatah] Central Committee does not recognize the Geneva agreement… We adhere to the right of return… [12] The PA will not relinquish the right of return that was approved by the Security Council in Resolution 194." [13]

In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Quds,Fatah leader Zakaria Al-Agha said: "We think the Geneva document does not represent the rights of the Palestinian people and does not represent Fatah’s position regarding the solution. That is because it ignores one of the basic rights of our people, which is the right of return, that affects the vast majority of our people. We will agree to no solution that does not include a solution for all elements of the Palestinian problem." [14]

Al-Quds also interviewed Fatah Central Committee member Sakher Habash, known to be close to Arafat, who said: "In the [Geneva] document, the right of return is relinquished. The signatories have no authority to do this… The Geneva document says there are Palestinian partners for concessions, but not for peace and not for a political solution… I believe [in the need] to act within the Israeli arena and convince Israeli society that we want peace, but not at the expense of our rights." [15]

At a public rally in Ramallah, Habash, representing the Islamic National Forces, said that the movement had asked its leaders not to go to Geneva for the initiative's inaugural ceremony, and called on them to call to account anyone violating this directive. Habash asserted that "the problem of the refugees and their sacred and steadfast right to return to their homeland and their homes, from which they were expelled, is an Arab Palestinian problem that affects every Arab and Muslim. No group is permitted to negotiate on it." [16]

At a Ramallah conference, leaders of the Shabiba, the Fatah youth movement in the West Bank, expressed strong opposition to the Geneva Initiative, which they termed "a plot against the Palestinian people and its Intifada." The movement also published a communiqué stating its "adherence to all national rights, primarily the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to the homes from which they were expelled," and asserting that "the struggle will continue, as will the struggle against this initiative and against any initiative that contravenes our national rights, until the supreme goal is realized…" [17]

Palestinian Leaders: The Geneva Initiative - Nothing But A 'Political Exercise' to Pass the Problem on to Israel

Some key PA figures went even farther than denying the Israeli interpretation of the Geneva document’s section on refugees. They dismissed the document in its entirety, calling it a political maneuver, a way to buttress the Israeli left, and an attempt to pass the problem on to the Israeli side.

Nabil Shaath told the Saudi daily 'Okaz: "The [Geneva] Initiative is nothing more than a political exercise, which we encourage because it is in opposition to the Sharon government and the military solution… But we cannot commit to it, and we still need to discuss it… For our part, nothing has changed. We will discuss the entire package: the state, the land, the water, refugees, etc…" [18]

In an interview in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Arafat's national security advisor Jibril Rjoub claimed that Palestinians were in favor of the Israeli peace camp but not the Geneva document: "President Arafat was obliged to welcome the efforts of the Israeli peace camp… The President never agreed to or adopted the [Geneva] document.

"First, the document is not an official document. Second, it was never presented to him, and no one asked his opinion about it…" [19]

During his visit to the Al-Rashidiyya refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Hani Al-Hassan also said that "Sharon opposed this document, and he wants a [Palestinian] state on only 50% of Palestinian land, while our motto is to destroy the policy directed by Sharon. We want to pass the struggle [of internal strife] on to the Israeli side." [20]

[1] Article 7, Section 2.I: "The Parties recognize that UNGAR 194, UNSC Resolution 242, and the Arab Peace Initiative (Article 2.II.) concerning the rights of the Palestinian refugees represent the basis for resolving the refugee issue, and agree that these rights are fulfilled according to Article 7 of this Agreement." .

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), November 30, 2003.

[3] Al-Ayyam (PA), December 6, 2003.

[4] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 2, 2003.

[5] Al-Ayyam (PA), December 2, 2003.

[6] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 2, 2003.

[7] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 3, 2003.

[8] Al Quds (PA), December 2, 2003.

[9] Al Quds (PA), December 2, 2003.

[10] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 5, 2003.

[11] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 1, 2003.


[13] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), December 9, 2003.

[14] Al Quds (PA), December 2, 2003.

[15] Al Quds (PA), December 2, 2003.

[16] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 2, 2003.

[17] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 30, 2003.

[18] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 3, 2003.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 7, 2003.


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