BDS and the Right of Return

This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005.

This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.


“They did not recognize me in the shadows; That suck away my colour in this passport; And to them my wound was an exhibit; For a tourist who loves to collect photographs; They did not recognize me” These lines, written by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish decades ago, embody the heartbreaking existential condition of Palestinian refugees, left unknown and denied visibility for over half a century. Yet, no matter how much they are forgotten, ignored or distorted, the reality remains. It is embodied in the millions of Palestinian refugees who are besieged in the narrow confines of Gaza; invisibly staff the companies and bureaucracies of Dubai, Riyadh and Kuwait; inhabit the dusty camps of Wehdat, Balata, Sbeineh, and Ein al-Hilweh; or live in exile in London, Chicago, Cairo, and Santiago. The key to justice and peace lies in listening to these citizens, in understanding and assisting their quest to return to their homeland and to achieve their long denied rights.


There is hardly a right that is more morally urgent and more legally compelling than the Palestinian right of return. Regardless of who they are, where they came from, or when they became homeless, refugees the world over have an inalienable right to return to their homes. They and their descendants retain that right until the moment of its translation into reality - when they are permitted to return, and can chose whether or not they wish to do so. Far from being an abstract concept, this is a core principle of international law, designed to protect equally any individual or people from ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and national oppression.


In addition to the universal principles that protect Palestinian refugees under international law, there are specific binding resolutions that apply directly to their cause.  In 1949, the newly created state of Israel was admitted to the United Nations, the only member state that was admitted conditionally, its acceptance into that international body qualified by its agreement to abide by UN Resolution 194 which ensures that Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled during the fighting in 1948, and wishing to return, “should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property”. Israel also committed itself to UN Resolution 194 by signing the Lausanne Protocols of 1949. Yet, until this very day, the Palestinian refugees, expelled from their homes by Jewish forces in 1948 continue to be prevented from going back to their homes, villages, farms, and cities. As with apartheid South Africa, Israel presents itself as a victim of its victims; a nation threatened by barbarous Palestinian refugee hordes.


Dominated by Israel and its powerful sponsors, the Oslo process equated the notion of peace with the requirements of the Israeli agenda instead of conceiving peace as the peaceful fulfillment of the rights of peoples, the achievement of their liberation, and the end to such crimes as foreign occupation and ethnic cleansing. Thus, rather than holding Israel to account for violating international law, the Palestinian refugees were demonized and blamed for insisting on the principle of the right to return, and were presented as the very “obstacle” to peace, rather than their rights being seen as the core necessity for achieving it.


Rather than ignoring, silencing and disempowering the Palestinian refugees; rather than pressuring them to cede their rights, states, institutions and individuals the world over have a duty to support them. For this is not merely a grave humanitarian issue, but also one of national sovereignty. The UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples enshrined the protection of peoples to their own land. Israel, along with dozens of other international conventions, Security Council and General Assemby resolutions, is in breach of the relevant clauses of this declaration that outlaws the “subjugation, domination, and exploitation” of peoples. Israel currently prevents citizens from living in their own homeland, returning to their own homes, let alone exercising self-determination within it, thus perpetuating the violent division and dispersal of the Palestinian people. The only peaceful way of holding Israel into account is the pursuit of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).


Undoubtedly, the pressure on the BDS movement to accept the foreign-imposed separation between the majority of the Palestinian people (the refugees) and those Palestinians who are living under occupation is relentless. It is the most important of all Palestinian rights, yet the right of return is the least understood. Internationally, governments, institutions, policy makers and activists see the sharp edge of the military occupation. However, the much more protracted and painful plight of the refugees is largely suppressed and rendered invisible and presented as negligible. The Palestinian people are coninually pressured from every corner to drop their right of return. Even those claiming to be their friends and allies participate in this endeavor, capturing the Palestinian voice and marginalising its people by telling them which rights they are permitted to hold and which ones they must surrender.


To counter this trend with virtue and persistence; to mobilise around all Palestinian rights on the basis of their inalienability; those are the key tasks of the BDS movement. In doing so it enshrines the principle of equality amongst the Palestinians and assist them in reclaiming a national and united - rather than a sectarian and divided - vision of the struggle for justice and liberation. The refugees are the key to peace, and their voices must be brought to the world unmediated, articulate, and with all urgency.


Karma Nabulsi is a fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and tutor in politics, was a representative of the PLO in Lebanon, Tunis and the UK.

Ilan Pappe is chair in the Department of History at the University of Exeter.




Stay updated!

Sign-up for news, campaign updates, action alerts and fundraisers from the BDS movement.

Subscribe Now