Palestinian refugees and the Sudetenland Germans

Two wrongs do not make a right

by Victor Kattan

On 1 May 2004, 10 new countries joined the European Union. This means another 75 million people have joined the club, bringing the EU's total population to 450 million. Already the Israeli press is claiming this as a victory in their propaganda war against the "Arab enemy". They believe the new accession countries understand Israel's concerns due to a common history of "terror". The headlines last weekend in Israel: "From Prague with Love" by Lior Kodner and "Europe and the Right of Return" by Amnon Rubinstein, both in Ha'aretz newspaper (30 April 2004). The essence of their argument is that the Palestinian refugees have no right of return to their homes because they are "terrorists".

Further justification for this position can be found in the words of Professor Benny Morris of Ben Gurion University in his interview "Survival of the Fittest" with Ari Shavit in Ha'artez. Such nonsense, however, is not only confined to that paper. In a supplement on Palestinian refugees in another Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, it is stated: "[T]here is a parallel between the German Sudets and the Palestinian refugees - except that the latter refuse to accept the universal code that aggressors must pay for their acts." Effectively, it is arguing that Palestinian refugees deserve to be treated just like the Nazis and their supporters after the Second World War.

This is, however, a gross misinterpretation of the facts.

It is obvious to any student of history that there are fundamental differences between the Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany and Palestinian refugees. The former was a political party which propagated an extreme ideology that resulted in the murder of millions of Russians, Poles, Jews and Gypsies, among others. The latter are the former citizens of Palestine who were forcibly displaced from their homeland by the very people Hitler was trying to destroy.

Two wrongs don't make a right.

Both articles draw comparisons between the treatment of Palestinian refugees and the treatment of German refugees from the Sudetenland. Today the Sudetenland is in parts of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. There are many similarities in the two expulsions, but there are also important differences. The similarities are that the Germans and Palestinians were cruelly expelled from their homes.

The differences are that the expulsion of the Germans, rightly or wrongly, was sanctioned by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference (17 July - 2 August 1945), while the expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine was condemned by the international community. At Potsdam the Allies agreed that:

"The Three Governments [the US, the UK and the Soviet Union], having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations ... will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner" (Section XII, Foreign Relations of the United States, the Conference of Berlin (FRUS) Volume 2, pages 1495 to 1511.)

The Potsdam Declaration sets a political and not a legal precedent (and a bad one at that) in much the same way as US President George W. Bush's and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "unilateral declaration" in February (which coincidentally was rejected soundly by the Likud party last weekend) was contrary to international law. Long before the declaration at Potsdam, the Sudetenland Germans were being expelled by order of the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Conditions of the expulsions were neither orderly nor humane, and millions perished in the process.

The expulsion of the Palestinian refugees was condemned by the UN in General Assembly resolution 194 (III) on 11 December 1948. This resolution was based on the last progress report submitted by UN mediator Counte Folk Bernadotte, who saved the lives of millions of Jews from the Nazi Holocaust and was assassinated by a Jewish extremist group called the Stern Gang. This resolution provided:

"that the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

In 1948, up to 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. This accounted for 85% of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population living in the territory that became the state of Israel. The UN Economic Survey for the Middle East registered 17,000 Jews displaced by the hostilities in 1948. Unlike Arabs displaced or expelled from their homes, they were allowed to return.

In 1967, another 300,000-400,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes (many for the second time) when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Israel permitted some of the refugees to return to their homes, but only 14,000 could do so as the borders were only open for 13 days, from 18-31 August 1967. The International Committee for the Red Cross appealed to the Israeli government to extend the time limit to enable all those wishing to return home to do so, but this was rejected.

The Sudetenland Germans and the Palestinian refugees have both failed in all attempts to receive compensation for the loss of property, life and their right to return to their homes. However, the Sudetenland Germans have had the opportunity to rebuild their lives in the Federal Republic of Germany, whereas for the last 56 years Palestinian refugees and their descendents have had to squalor in refugee camps and prefabricated housing provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Palestinian refugees are stateless, which means they have no social security, travel, employment or political rights. In fact, they have very few rights except human rights, which are frequently denied them. Palestinian refugees are also the only known refugee group in the world that is not protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This is due to an argument over the interpretation (or more accurately misinterpretation) of Article 1 (d) of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

As a result, Israel gets away with frequent raids into Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On 16 December 1982, the UN General Assembly in resolution 37/123 characterized the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon by the Christian Falangist militia as an act of genocide. Israel and the Falangists were allies in Lebanon's civil war. Refugees by definition are vulnerable people. The Hague Regulation and the Fourth Geneva Convention are applicable to occupied territory and were drafted to protect non-combatants, which of course include refugees. The High Contracting Parties to these Conventions have a responsibility to ensure that Israel complies with these provisions. Unfortunately, they have not been very successful.

The expulsion of millions of Germans from the Sudetenland - which included men, women, children, the old and the infirm - was cruel. The fact that they are denied compensation or even a right to return home is also wrong, whether or not they were members of the Nazi Party. Equally, Palestinians, who played no role whatsoever in the atrocities committed in the Second World War, have been treated abominably. This is even more so when one takes into consideration that their right is enshrined explicitly in international law as well as in UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III). Today, the majority of Palestinian refugees continue to live in wretched conditions through no fault of their own. If the international community believes the problem will go away with the passage of time, they are sorely mistaken.

Victor Kattan is a correspondent for Arab Media Watch who covered the oral pleadings which took place before the International Court of Justice in The Hague in February 2004. He is the author of "The Right of Return Revisited", which will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights.