The Palestinian demand that Israel accept sole responsibility for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, and the Israeli rejection of this demand as unjust, historically inaccurate, and the basis for delegitimization campaigns, has been a primary obstacle to peace for 63 years. In its publication “Locked Out,” Christian Aid has again strongly backed the Palestinian version and reinforced the image of Palestinians as victims, incapable of changing positions that fuel the conflict. The report is another example of the role of political advocacy NGOs in intensifying the conflict through one-sided activities and campaigns.
In June 2011, Christian Aid published “Locked Out: Palestinian Refugees and the Key to Peace,” authored by Policy and Advocacy Officer William Bell. The report ostensibly “calls for an honest and meaningful dialogue about the Palestinian refugee crisis” and “acknowledges the radically different narratives regarding the Palestinian refugee situation” and claims that “these narratives must be transformed into ones that recognise a viable future for both peoples”.
In contrast, the text primarily reflects the dominant Palestinian narrative and framing on the central issue of refugee claims. Christian Aid’s biased report demands that Israel accept Palestinian positions on the origins of these claims and their interpretations of international law. There are no parallel demands on the Palestinians to acknowledge Israeli claims and no recognition of the need for mutual compromise.
Examples of bias in the report include:
1) Accepting and reinforcing the Palestinian narrative and position, while reflecting skepticism and hostility towards the consensus Israeli position.
Christian Aid asserts that “for Palestinian refugees, the individual and collective inalienable right of return cannot be negotiated away…. It is clear that the refugees represent a particular anguish for all Palestinians, whether refugee or not. They symbolize a common bond of dispossession and injustice that for many Palestinians represents an existential limbo, made worse by the often dire living conditions and insecurity that refugees endure” (emphasis added). This Palestinian narrative is bolstered by the unsupported claim that “Throughout Palestinian refugee communities, most families can still produce the keys and deeds to the homes that they or their forebears left.” In other words, the Palestinian claims are accepted at face value, without any critical examination.
In contrast, central dimensions of the Israeli historical narrative are challenged: “Israel maintains that the displacement of Palestinians was solely a by-product of conflict rather than a deliberate policy of expulsion….This version of events, however, precludes any reference to Israeli attempts to remove Palestinians forcibly from their homes prior to and during the war in 1948. Yet after the UN’s 1947 decision to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states such expulsions did happen.”
Regarding issues related to the one million Jews expelled from Arab countries in this period, Christian Aid counters the Israeli perspective with Palestinian response “that any compensation claims should be taken up with the relevant Arab states and should not be made a condition of their own right of return.” Moreover, this report does not address the history of Jews that were expelled from Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, and other areas.
This highly biased version of history is used to conclude that “Israel [must] acknowledge and accept responsibility for the plight of the refugees as a critical step before any forms of restitution, resettlement or compensation can be addressed and the conflict moves towards resolution” (emphasis added). Rejecting the Israeli position, Christian Aid declares “the notion that the refugees are somehow an obstacle to peace must be rejected.”
Similarly, in the discussion of the legal aspects of the refugee issue (see below for more information), Bell rejects the Israeli interpretation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 11, 1948) without even attempting to provide a counter argument. Instead, he simply declares: “First and foremost the right of return is a principle recognised in international law” (emphasis added).
2) Definition of Palestinian refugees
One of the central aspects of the conflict over refugee claims is the unique UN policy pushed by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference that excludes Palestinians for political purposes from the framework of international refugee law and the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This UN policy also declares the millions of descendants of Palestinian displaced persons to be “refugees” 63 years after the conflict, even though such a standard does not exist in refugee law.
These problems with the UN policy are not included in the Christian Aid report. Instead, Bell simply adopts the Arab position:
“For the purposes of this report, the following categories can be considered ‘refugees and displaced persons’. This is on the basis that each group has rights, and if denied these, they are entitled to have this redressed under international law:
• Palestinian refugees displaced up until 1948 and their descendants
• Palestinian refugees displaced after 1967 and their descendants
• internally displaced Palestinians within Israel and their descendants” (emphasis added).
3) One sided and unsupported “recommendations”
Christian Aid calls on Israel to “publicly recognise and affirm the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees” and “begin a process of awareness-raising among the Israeli public about everything that went on during Israeli independence/the Palestinian Nakba, from the perspective of both sides” (emphasis added).
There is no parallel demand of the Palestinians to “publicly recognise and affirm the legitimate rights” of Jews or Jewish refugees, including historical rights and Arab responsibility for initiating the wars that led to the refugee situation.
Rather, Palestinians are only asked to “ raise awareness among refugees about the different realities that exist in what was the British Mandate of Palestine, in order to help inform future choices within the parameters of durable solutions.” This language, which contrasts sharply with that used regarding Israel, is sufficiently vague as to render it meaningless.
4) Misrepresentations on International Law and UN resolutions
In the report’s “Rights and the Law” section, Christian Aid makes the unsupported assertion that a “right of return” for Palestinians is an “individual and collective right” that “cannot be negotiated away.” Christian Aid further claims that this “right” derives from UN General Assembly Resolution 194, section 11, and that it “represents customary international law, binding on all states.” However, General Assembly resolutions are not binding. Moreover, in no way does Resolution 194 represent customary international law, as there is no overwhelming state practice implementing its terms; there is also no opinio juris that the provisions of 194 are legally binding.
Furthermore, Resolution 194 does not mandate a wholesale “right of return” to Israel for Palestinians displaced in the 1948 War. Instead, the carefully chosen language “permits,” if “practicable,” the involved countries to allow both Jewish and Arab refugees who wish to “live at peace with their neighbours” to return to their homes. In lieu of returning, the resolution suggests that compensation be paid for lost or damaged property “by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Responsible parties would include not only Israel, but the Arab governments who initiated the 1948 War and Arab leaders who encouraged, or in many cases, forced residents to leave. UNGA 194 also states that compensation should be based on principles of “international law or in equity,” which are in no way is an endorsement of the claim to a blanket “right of return.” The resolution also established a committee to facilitate repatriation and/or resettlement. Nothing in the resolution speaks about a “right of return” for descendants. Significantly, international law and practice in other cases does not allow one group claiming self-determination to erase the self-determination of another group through refugee claims.
The central thesis of the legal section is that a right of return “is a non-negotiable right.” The implication is that a “just solution” must incorporate a maximalist and radical Palestinian position. Yet, Christian Aid references the “the cases of Bosnia and Guatemala, for example, [where] the destination of refugees was built into the peace agreements” – that is to say, subject to the negotiations that ended those conflicts.
5) Prejudicial images
The anti-Israel agenda is reinforced by images that allege violence and violations by Israel, but do not relate to refugee issues. For instance, on page 11, a caption reads: “Israeli border police detail a volunteer from Christian Aid partner BT’Selem [sic], who filmed the demolition of Palestinian homes in Susiya, West Bank.” The context of this incident and the wider conflict environment is erased in its entirety.
6) Christian Aid partners
Finally, it is important to note that Christian Aid’s listed partners in the report include Zochrot, a fringe Israeli NGO that campaigns for the so-called Palestinian “right of return” and to “raise awareness” about “the Nakba (catastrophe),” rejecting the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel.
For additional NGO Monitor analysis of Christian Aid’s politicized publications and campaigns on the conflict, see http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/christian_aid_uk_ and “Christian Aid 2008 Update: Promoting Conflict” (November 25, 2008)
For analysis of the campaigns led by political advocacy NGOs to promote the Palestinian narrative and the “nakba myths,” see http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/ngos_promoting_the_palestinian_right_of_return_
Further analysis of refugee claims: “Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel” (translated from the Hebrew), Yaffa Zilbershats and Nimra Goren-Amitai, The Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal, and Humanist Thought, February 2011.