Boston Conference Examines Palestinian Right of Return

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Boston Conference Examines Palestinian Right of Return

David P. Johnson Jr. is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in international affairs.

More than 600 people packed the Boston University Law School auditorium April 8 for a comprehensive look at the political, economic and social plight of the more than four million Palestinian refugees. Israel's refusal to allow the refugees to return home contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and U.N. Resolution 194.

The conference, "The Right of Return: Palestinian Refugees and Prospects for a Durable Peace," began with a dramatic keynote address by noted Palestinian author Dr. Edward Said, who delivered withering attacks on Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

"The core issue [of the peace process] is the plight of Palestinians, displaced by naked ethnic cleansing," practiced in 1948, 1967 and 1982, Said told the jammed and sweltering hall.

"The Palestinians have endured decades of dispossession and raw agonies rarely endured by other peoples, and these agonies have either been ignored or denied and even more poignantly, the perpetrators of these tragedies are celebrated for political and social achievements that make no mention at all of where those achievements actually begin--in the destruction of Palestinian society," he said.

However, Said did not spare the Palestinian Authority from his ire, charging it as interested solely in retaining its own power. "It is only interested in maintaining its hold on the Bantustans of the West Bank and Gaza," he said.

Said charged that one million Palestinians depend economically on the Authority, including between 140,000 and 150,000 employees and their families. This makes local challenges to its control difficult. Therefore, he predicted, "A new leadership will almost certainly emerge from the Palestinian diaspora, which regards the Palestinian Authority as illegitimate."

Said also deplored what he called "the scandalously poor treatment of the refugees" by other Arab countries. He said Jordan has been the only country to welcome the refugees.

According to information supplied by the conference, there are 1.5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, of whom 278,000 live in 10 camps. Another nearly one million refugees live in camps in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.

Four panels occupied the rest of the day with discussions of the political positions of those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; restitution; social conditions and the future.

Mona Fawaz of the MIT Arab Student Organization chaired "Critical Analyses of Israeli, American, European and PLO Positions." Each speaker addressed one group's position.

"In the months leading up to the war in 1948, Israel prepared its ethnic cleansing program, a plan that included mass expulsions, sporadic massacres, a campaign of terror and intimidation, and finally the confiscation of land and assets," said Dr. Ilan Pappe, director, International Relations Division, Haifa University in Israel, who spoke on that nation's stance on refugees.

Having created the problem, Israel resolved to ignore it, he said. "There was no refugee problem on the agenda as far as various Israeli governments were concerned...There was only the Palestinian terror. Israel quite successfully kept refugees out of the discussion."

Although the issue is now being discussed, "The Oslo accord is no different than earlier ones," Pappe stated. "It has an almost scornful attitude toward refugees."

MIT professor Dr. Noam Chomsky pointed out that the United States is truly the decisive player in the region, usually determining what happens.

"The U.S. has sought to marginalize" the issue of Palestinian refugees, Chomsky said, adding that pro-Third World groups at the United Nations are either pushed aside or destroyed by the U.S. and its allies. "There is a veto if the vote is 150 to one and the one is the U. …