Following the failure of President Clinton's meeting with Syria's President Hafez Assad in Geneva to restart the Israeli-Syrian track of Middle East peace negotiations, attention turns to the all-important final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
These talks involve all the substantive issues between Israelis and Palestinians, none of which have been resolved. The most fundamental and intractable, more basic even than issues of Palestinian statehood or the future of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, is the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians are stateless refugees who were expelled or fled from their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were dispossessed during the founding of Israel in 1948 through a systematic process of Arab depopulation - something we now call ''ethnic cleansing.''
In only a few months Palestine, a land with an Arab majority, was transformed by warfare into Israel, a country with a Jewish majority.
The first priority of the new Israeli state in 1948 became the prevention of the return of the refugees. Their property - most of the privately owned land in Palestine - was confiscated. Israel quickly moved to efface the geographical and structural traces of the expelled majority: Four hundred fifty Palestinian towns and villages were wiped off the map.
The dispossession of the Palestinians constitutes the largest and longest-lasting refugee crisis of our time. There are at least 4 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and scattered throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
It is incontestable that these millions of Palestinians have an absolute, inalienable, and individual human right to return to their original homes and country and to have their seized property restored to them. The entire body of international and human rights law is crystal clear on this matter.
The right of return is guaranteed to all displaced persons by the most basic documents of human rights law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ironically, both of these fundamental documents came into existence at approximately the same time as the birth of the Palestinian refugee crisis in the late 1940s.
Moreover, these rights have been explicitly and specifically applied to the Palestinian refugees by UN Resolution 194 and countless other UN resolutions. For 50 years, in theory, at least, the international community has committed itself to the right of the Palestinians to go home; yet in their millions they remain stateless and dispossessed.
The idea that refugees have an absolute right to return to their homes ought to be familiar to Americans. After all, last year the United States and NATO fought a major war with Yugoslavia in the name of the right of Kosovo refugees to return to their land.
The Palestinian right of return has been ignored and denied because this is convenient for Israel. But human rights that are contingent on the convenience of others are not rights at all. Laws that are enforced only when it is convenient to do so are not laws but merely suggestions.
The denial of the Palestinian right of return calls into serious question the world's commitment to what it has long identified as fundamental human rights. It poses the question of whether we are intent on building a world community based on a single and equitable standard of justice for all people or whether we will dispense with the human rights of some when we find it easier to do so.
Moreover, it should be clearly understood that the plight of the Palestinian refugees and the denial of their human and national rights forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There can be no durable peace in the region as long as millions remain disenfranchised and stateless refugees. If Middle East peace is a cause we hold dear and an important goal of US foreign policy, then Americans have a strong interest in a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee crisis.
An international conference on Middle East peace and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees will take place today at Boston University. Experts from the Middle East, Europe, and North America will examine the issue in all its dimensions.
The conference is part of a grass-roots campaign by Palestinians and their supporters to reassert the right of return, which has been ignored and neglected for so long. It promises to be an important contribution to the dialogue on Middle East peace and a sober reminder of the depth and seriousness of the human rights issues that remain unaddressed by the process thus far.
The causes of peace and justice urgently demand that the Palestinian right of return is at long last not only recognized but realized.
Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.