The European Jewish Congress, in conjunction with the CRIF, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, held a lively round table that shed some needed light on the situation of “Palestinian Refugees” in the Middle East.
Opening the round table, the Presidents of the EJC and the CRIF, respectively Pierre Besnainou and Roger Cukierman, joined the moderator of the debate, the journalist Jean-Pierre Allali, in setting out a basic framework for the debate. They reminded the audience members that it would be helpful to set out a basic legal definition of “refugee status” in order to explain why the Palestinian refugee issue is the only longstanding refugee problem since decades that has not been solved.
To further their case, they explained in depth the role and responsibility of the l’UNRWA (United Nations for Relief and Work Agency) in propagating the continuing status of the Arab population after the Israeli War Of Independence. They also encouraged the audience to look deeper at the much-vaunted “Right of Return” so often used by the Palestinian leadership.
Ruth Lapidoth, Professor Emeritus of International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem presented a clear and concise overview of the role of international law in the refugee issue. She discussed the various concepts of international law that apply to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and clarified the differences between the numerous related UN recommendations and existing laws. Professor Lapidoth also explained the problematic extension, by UNRWA, of the status of “refugee” to the descendants of those expelled in 1948.
A wider picture of the general historical and ethnic situation was given by Ilan Greilsammer, Professor of Comparative Politics and International Relations, Bar-Ilan University , who described the moral impact of the Palestinian refugees on Israeli society. Discussing the larger impact of the conflict on Israel, he admitted his worries about a Jewish State that is slowly abandoning its founding principles for a more consumption-based society.
Offering a different perspective from the other participants of the round table, Bassem Eid, Executive Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, astonished the conference by his honest and biting criticism of the Arab states, who have neglected to find an honourable solution to the Palestinian Refugee issue, despite their enormous financial means. He shared his conviction that the grand majority of Palestinians would in fact (if they had the choice) prefer to be welcomed by Sweden or Canada, than by a future Palestinian state.
Jean-Claude Niddam, Head of Legal Assistance in the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Department of Rights of Jews from Arab Countries recited to the participants- in perfect Arabic – exerts from the Koran that evoke the destiny of the Jewish people in their promised land. Discussing his efforts at the Ministry of Justice, he expressed his hopes that those Jews who left Islamic countries for Israel not be forgotten in the general debate.
Finally, Nissim Zvili, former Israeli Ambassador to France, gave a forthright response to the so-called right of return, insisting “if this right signifies the arrival in Israel of millions of Palestinians, the answer is “because the State of Israel does not have the intention to disappear.”