By all standards the PRC conference on “the Israeli Law of Return and its Impact on the Conflict in Palestine” was an overwhelming success. The event which attracted an unusually large number of participants throughout the two days at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies with a resounding call for the intensification of efforts to realise the Palestinian right of return. In the wake of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, the conference patron, Secretary General of the Arab League Mr. Amr Musa delegated his deputy, Palestinian born Mr. Sa’eed Kamal to represent him. An official from the PRC disclosed after the conference yesterday that the Centre was truly thankful to the League and Mr. Kamal who closely followed the conference proceedings right until the final session. Several Ambassadors, among them the League’s Amabassador to the UK Mr. Ali Muhsin Hamid, and a number of diplomats from various Arab and Islamic countries attended the two-day event.

Members of the local and international press corps also turned out in full force, particularly on the first day. To give maximum publicity to the event the PRC also transmitted the presentations live on its website–click here.

Despite several last minute attempts to ensure the attendance of delegates from occupied Palestine, none of the invited scholars from the WBGS or the 1948 territories managed to make it to London. As result the organizers were forced to their arrange their presentations by tele-conference link to Palestine.

In his keynote address to conference, the Deputy Secretary General of the Arab League commended the efforts of the PRC for taking the initiative to organize the conference. He called upon the conferees to observe a minute of silence in honor of the Palestinian martyrs who fell in the Aqsa Intifadah.

Mr. Kamal affirmed the Arab League’s commitment to the resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue on the basis of UN Resolution-194. He said any solution short of this would never succeed and would provide reason for continued turmoil and conflict in the region.

The PRC conference on the Israeli Law of Return, which was originally planned for November 2001, was postponed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the United States. In his speech, the Centre’s Director Mr. Majed al Zeer apologized to the participants and guests for the inconvenience caused by the initial postponement. He told the gathering that the event represented in more ways than one an expression of the resurgence of Palestinian efforts, both at home and abroad, to restore their national rights, foremost of which is the right of return.

There can be no denying, said Al Zeer, that the continuation of the Palestinian refugee problem for more than fifty years was not only a consequence of Israeli obstruction and bigotry. It was, to the same degree, the result of international indifference and complicity in the denial of Palestinian rights.

Al Zeer said after years of deprivation and exile, it has become increasingly clear that the right of the dispersed Palestinians to return to their homes can no longer be postponed or compromised. “Therefore, it was in direct response to the challenge of ending the nightmare of exile that our Centre decided to convene this conference”. He added, “coming so closely as it does on the heels of the 2001 Durban Conference against racism, our gathering here today represents a definite affirmation of an emerging international will to free the world of racial bigotry in all its forms and manifestations”.

On the Israeli Law of Return itself, the PRC Director pointed out that of all the legal mechanisms employed to discriminate against the Palestinian people, the this law stands out head and shoulder above the others. Enacted on 5th July 1950, it affords to every member of the “Jewish people” born anywhere in the world the presumed right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen upon arrival. At the same time, it denies this right to Palestinian Muslims and Christians who were born in Palestine and expelled during the successive wars of occupation.

A total of twelve papers were presented over the two days. Of these two were presented by tele-conference link from occupied Palestine. These were done by Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway of al Quds University, Jerusalem on ‘Religion and the promise of redemption in the Israeli Law of Return”. The other was delivered on Mr. Muhammad Abul Haija, Chairman of the Committee of the Forty Unrecognized Villages on “the Israeli Law of Return and its impact on the unrecognized villages”.

On day one of the conference delegates heard papers from Daud Abdullah, a researcher at the PRC and Mustafa Abu Sway. The second session on Saturday was dedicated to studies on the Israeli Law and is impact on world Jewry. Chaired by the Palestinian General Delegate to the UK, Mr. Afif Safieh, this session featured a presentation from the Chairman of the Palestine Lands Society, Salman Abu Sitta who delivered a paper on “the Israeli Law of Return, dual loyalty, and the status of Jewish communities outside Israel”.

Salman Abu Sitta said, “Although the term “ethnic cleansing” only gained currency in the last decade, especially in relation to Bosnia and Kosovo, we have seen that the Zionists in Palestine have practiced it with impunity since the beginning of the twentieth century. This was done under the well-known slogan of “[Palestine] is a land without people and we [the Jews are a people without a land”.

He added, “In 1948, the Zionists expelled the Palestinian inhabitants of 531 towns and villages, who constitute 85% of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land that became Israel. Their land is 92% of Israel’s area, confiscated and now run by Israel Land Administration (ILA) and named “State land”.

The expulsion of the Palestinians was, in other words, a necessary condition for bringing in new immigrants. It follows that the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law are legal devices created to hinder and obstruct the application of the Right of Return.

The conference heard that while the Right of Return is an inalienable right supported by international law and the UN for over 50 years, the Law of Return is a racist law, unilaterally created without any international support, in order to prevent the application of international law. Accordingly Salman Abu Sitta argued that the Israeli Law of Return can only be seen as a violation of international law and as such has no legal standing.

Another highlight of the first day was a presentation by Prof. Naseer Aruri of Dartmouth University in the United States on “the American Jewish community and Israel: “return” or philanthropy?” It traced the evolution of the community’s relationship with Israel–from anti-Zionist and a-Zionist positions during the first half of the twentieth century, to uncritical support in 1948, when the state was established and through the 1970s, to the dissension of the 1980s and 1990s over the invasion of Lebanon, the suppression of the Intifada, the question of religious legitimacy, and the Oslo process.

Aruri examined the evolution of the community’s relationship with Israel–from anti-Zionist and a-Zionist positions during the first half of the twentieth century, to uncritical support in 1948, when the state was established and through the 1970s, to the dissension of the 1980s and 1990s over the invasion of Lebanon, the suppression of the Intifada, the question of religious legitimacy, and the Oslo process.

Aruri pointed out that President Bill Clinton embraced Reagan’s economics at home, and pursued a re-assertionist foreign policy abroad. As American Jews seem to have reached a pinnacle of political, economic, and social influence, they seem unsure about how to utilize this newly-gained power. There is hardly a unanimity about how, where, and for what ends to use it. The community has been growing more diverse recently, and sometimes depending on the issue, even polarized.

Dr. Asad Abdur Rahman the former PLO executive in charge of refugee affairs presented a paper titled ‘the role of the Jewish National Agency in implementing the Israeli Law of Return.

  1. The Conference denounces the Israeli Law of Return which grants all Jews of the world the right to return to Palestine and settle in it, while depriving the Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes and historical land.
  2. The Conference considers that the right of the Palestinians (who were forced to leave Palestine in 1948/1949 and 1967) to return to their homeland is rooted in their original right to Palestine, and their right to self-determination as is asserted by international law, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relevant resolutions of the Security Council and General Assembly.
  3. The Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their houses as well as the right of their descendents, individually and collectively, is an inalienable right that is not subject to compromise. No international entity or any entity representing the Palestinian people has the power to decide on what might undermine or breach the Palestinian refugees’ right in their own possessions and their right to return to Palestine.

Day two of the conference was overshadowed by the early presentation of Mr. Muhammad Abul Haija who spoke from one of the “unrecognized” villages in historic Palestine. He told the gruesome story of how Israeli cows received tap water and electricity while Palestinian Arabs in nearby villages–hundreds of metres–away received none. Abul Haija the Palestinian Arabs in Israel were not granted equality but were instead treated as “less than animals”. He spoke with extreme bitterness about the houses of his parents and grandparents, which were being forcibly occupied by European immigrants and of how Israeli aircrafts sprayed the wheat crops of Palestinian Arabs.

Among the recommendations adopted by the conference organizers on the second day was the documentation and wide circulation of Mr. Abul Haija’s testimony. Chairman of the session Mr. Sabah al Mukhtar who currently heads the Arab Lawyers Association in the UK urged the PRC to send copies of Mr. Abul Haija’s statement to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and all those who pay tribute to Israeli democracy.

Other distinguished presentations on day two were given by Dr. Magdy Hammad a former Egyptian diplomat, Prof. George Jabbour, a former advisor to President Hafiz Assad, Prof. Shafic al Masri of the American University in Beirut and Mr. Munir Shafic the Palestinian thinker and former head of the PLO’s Research Centre in Beirut. The conference heard similar papers from Dr. Jafar Hadi Hassan, Suhayl al Natour and Abdul Husayn Shabaan.

In his closing remarks to the conference Mr. Kamal Sa’eed promised to send copies of all the papers to members states of the Arab League and all the NGOs associated with the League.

Chairman of The PRC’s Board of Trustees, Mr. Zahir Birawi gave the closing address on behalf of the Centre. He saluted the steadfast Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and particularly the residents of the refugee camps who after fifty years are still subjected to Israeli terrorism. Likewise, Birawi saluted the Palestinian Arab population in Palestine who continue to suffer under the yoke of Israeli racism.