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Gaza: Two Rights of Return

Most Palestinians in Gaza are now displaced at least twice over. They have a right to choose where to return.

People flee to the southern Gaza Strip along Salah al-Din Street, November 18, 2023. © 2023 Adel Hana/AP Photo

It has been almost four months since Israel began its strikes on Gaza, following the massacre of hundreds of civilians by Hamas-led gunmen in the country’s south. Roughly 80 percent of the Strip’s 2.2 million residents have been internally displaced, more than a million of whom are sheltering in Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Over 26,000 people have been killed, including at least 10,000 children, according to local authorities.

Even as the hostilities continue, attention is turning to what to do when the fighting subsides. The US government has said that Gaza’s internally displaced residents should be allowed to return to their homes, a right safeguarded by international law. But many will not have homes to return to. The UN has reported that more than 60 percent of the Strip’s housing units have been damaged or destroyed. The electricity grid, water and sewage system, health system, mills, agricultural lands, and other civilian infrastructure have also been badly damaged. Most people in Gaza, moreover, are already refugees or descendants of refugees who fled or were expelled from territory that became part of the state of Israel. To which homes, then, do Palestinians in Gaza have a right to return?

I’m an Israeli American Jew, married to a Palestinian refugee from Gaza. Our family histories suggest an answer to that question. The first time the Israeli military drove my mother-in-law from her home, she was about five years old (she has no birth certificate). In 1948, as Israeli soldiers neared her village in what is now the southern coast of Israel, her family fled to Gaza, among more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the war that led to the creation of the state of Israel. (Palestinians call that mass displacement the Nakba, or catastrophe.) They lived in a tent in a refugee camp before moving into a small concrete house with an asbestos roof. In the camp she married a man from her village, which the Israeli authorities eventually demolished. They had five children together.

The second time the Israeli military destroyed her house, she was a single mother in her thirties, raising the children on her own – her husband had fled to Egypt during the 1967 Israeli conquest of the Gaza Strip. The occupying Israeli military demolished her home in the1970s, presumably to provide more space for military maneuvering through the overcrowded refugee camp. She and her children then lived with relatives. In the 1990s, after Israel turned over much of Gaza’s land management to the Palestinian Authority, she was allocated a place in the camp on which to build a family complex of three apartments, one for herself and one each for two sons and their families.

She was eighty when the Israeli military forced her from her home a third time. This past October she fled to Rafah with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, after the Israeli military ordered northern Gaza’s one million inhabitants to flee south. Soon after they fled, my brother-in-law got a call from an Israeli military official warning him to evacuate the family home, which was going to be bombed in ten minutes. “I’m not leaving,” he replied, even though he was already in Rafah. My brother-in-law has a resilient sense of humor.

Since October, the rest of my mother-in-law’s children and grandchildren have either witnessed their homes destroyed or received similar telephone warnings. We fear that she and they are among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza who are newly homeless. Meanwhile, statements by Israeli officials telling residents of Gaza to leave the Strip raise the specter of forcible displacement, a war crime. They also feed into intergenerational trauma, for my mother-in-law and about 1.7 million refugees living in Gaza – 77 percent of the population. For seventy-five years, the Israeli government has refused to allow them to return to the places they left behind – one of the serious violations of international human rights law fueling the current escalation of hostilities.

My mother-in-law has a right to choose where to return – to the home she lost in October or to where she lost her home in 1948. If US policymakers want to hew closely to international human rights law, they should not only oppose forcible displacement from northern Gaza, as they have appropriately done, but also support the right of refugees to decide for themselves where to return and rebuild, including in areas that are now part of Israel. That’s because the right of return – enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – persists even when sovereignty over a territory has changed hands, as long as refugees and their descendants, regardless of where they were born, have maintained enough links with the area that it would be considered their “own country.” That right can’t be negotiated away.

The other side of my family also has a collective experience of displacement. Five years after my mother-in-law lost her home in1948, my father lost his home in Baghdad, after the Iraqi government there made life all but impossible for Jews in the aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel. As a condition of letting him and his parents leave, the Iraqi government stripped him of citizenship. He found refuge in Israel, where he became a citizen. For my father and many other Israeli Jews, the prospect of Palestinian refugees returning to Israel ignites fears of losing both the safe haven that the country represents for them and the Jewish majority they want to maintain.

Many Israeli Jews carry intergenerational memories of the Holocaust in Europe – which was made still deadlier by the refusal of countries around the world to admit European Jews as refugees – and of having to flee Arab countries after 1948. For many Jews, the October 7 war crimes against Israeli civilians exacerbated this trauma. Everyone has a right to a safe haven, and international human rights law gives the Israeli government broad latitude both to set immigration policies – including promoting Jewish immigration – and to take measures to protect its citizens and residents. But no safe haven, it stipulates, should come at the expense of violating Palestinians’ right to safety and other fundamental rights, including the right to return.

What should be done? Absent radical changes in the policies of the Israeli and US governments, my mother-in-law is not going to be able to rebuild the home she lost as a child anytime soon. I’ll be relieved if my in-laws are merely allowed to return to northern Gaza and receive support to rebuild a house there. If the Israeli government won’t let Palestinian refugees in Gaza return to their original homes, it should at least not forcibly displace them from the refugee camps where they built new lives. But if we want to put an end not just to the current violence but also to the cycle of repression engulfing Israel-Palestine, we should adopt a consistent, rights-based approach – however uncomfortable or frightening some might find it – which addresses that violence’s root causes. That includes respecting Palestinian refugees’ right to return.

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