Recent peace negotiations seem to have emphasized more than ever the crux of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict centering on Palestinian refugees. Israel and most of its supporters state that they are not legally or morally responsible for the refugees and in any case it is impractical to recognize the so-called “right of return.” Palestinians argue that this is an “inalienable” human right that should be exercised in implementing any “final” peace agreement and not rejected because of its threat to the “Jewish character of the state.” This is a major problem and dilemma for the negotiators and for any future agreement. While intended for a liberal Jewish audience, thsi article is obviously written from a Palestinian perspective. I ask that in reading this assay, you bear with me as I give you a rather harsh Palestinian perspective in the beginning before I discuss the more practical and perhaps “more palatable” solutions.
From the turn of the century to the Palestinian revolt of 1936 against British occupation and continued Jewish immigration, the percent of Jews in the population rose from 6% to 27.8% (Michael J. Cohen, The Origin and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict, p. 90). Lord Balfour wrote in a memorandum Lord Curzon, his successor at the Foreign Office on 11 August 1919 (two years after the infamous Balfour declaration): “In Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants… Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” As events unfolded later, there was good reason for the fears of the native population.
Regardless of the specific methods employed (details of which are provided in numerous books by Avi Schlaim, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris, Sternhall and others), the reality is that over 95% of Palestinian families (Muslims and Christian) have lost lands and/or homes to Jewish settlers between 1947 and today. Today, Jewish population of Israel/Palestine stands at 4.5 million, Palestinian Christian and Muslim population within the Green Line 1.2 million, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (including occupied East Jerusalem) 3 million, Palestinians outside of Palestine/Israel about 4 million. Of the total (roughly 8 million) Palestinians in the world, about 5 million are refugees or so called “displaced persons.” This latter category is very telling. A quarter of Israel’s own 1.2 million Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship (Israeli Arabs) are considered as “present absentees.” Tom Segev wrote: “the definition in the law was changed to embrace all who had abandoned their ‘usual place of residence’, even if they were still living in [and “equal” residents of] Israel…the law defined them as absentees, even if they had only left their homes for a few days and stayed with relatives in a nearby village or town, waiting for the fighting to end. Later they came to be referred to as ‘present absentees’. The majority of them were not allowed to return to their homes….The Minister of Justice expressed the view that an absentee remains an absentee forever, even when allowed back and so long as he is an absentee his property belongs to the Custodian [of Absentee property]” (1949: The First Israelis, p80-81). The law was applied only to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Hence, lands and homes vacated by the 800,000 refugees (now numbering over 4 million) and the 85,000 internally displaced people (now 250-300,000) were considered state property and are turned over to the Jewish Agency which administers the land and leases them only to Jews (under its own rules).
In an article in the Haaretz newspaper, Danny Rabinovitz wrote, “What happened to the Palestinians in 1948 is Israel’s original sin…. Between the 1950s and 1976, the state systematically confiscated most of the land of its remaining Palestinian citizens.” Martin Buber, Jewish Philosopher, addressed Prime Minister Ben Gurion on the moral character of the state of Israel with reference to the Arab refugees in March 1949: ” We will have to face the reality that Israel is neither innocent, nor redemptive. And that in its creation, and expansion; we as Jews, have caused what we historically have suffered; a refugee population in Diaspora.” He asked repeatedly for Israeli governments to correct at least some of the injustices. His letters remain unanswered.
Thus there are really limited options here. Expelling the Jewish immigrants or the remaining Palestinians (1.2 million in Israel “proper” and 3.5 million in occupied areas) would be unthinkable. Many Israelis oppose a return of the refugees and abolition of the privileges of the colonizers and the creation of a democratic, egalitarian system anchored in a constitution guaranteeing equality, with a complete abolition of all forms of discrimination against the native population (a post-Zionist Israel, ala post-apartheid South Africa). What Israeli governments (Labor and Likud alike) tried to do is create a fourth way (first proposed by Alon in the 1970’s realizing the dangers of demographic “imbalance” within “Eretz Yisrael”. This consists of isolating Palestinians in Bantustan areas with their own jailers who will keep Israeli security (termed autonomy), putting them “there,” us here (separation or apartheid), settlements stay, confiscated lands accepted as Israeli property, refugees resettled in other lands than their own, and Jerusalem remains under Israeli sovereignty (with autonomy for remaining Gentiles in Jerusalem).
This is basically the same package presented at Oslo (except Oslo was supposed to be interim and for 5 years only) as a mechanism to satisfy Israel’s needs and solve Israel’s “Palestinian problem.” It was last presented July at Camp David by Barak and Clinton to Arafat and company. It was indeed repackaged with a different colored paper than the Alon plan or the usual Israeli 5 red lines (now crimson color but a bit stronger). For example it stated that Israel would recognize some form of right of return to refugees but not a legal right and not according to UNGA 194 (a few thousands allowed under family reunification plans at the convenience and whim of the Israeli government and with no time limits to reaching any specified numbers). Israel also re-wrapped Israeli sovereignty on Jerusalem in a different paper by talking about Palestinian “sovereignty” over people and not land and even as far as discussing stating that the holy sites belong to God (presumably as long as the Israeli Army is in charge?).
I know Israeli Jews in the majority, as well as their supporters abroad are in fear of an influx of Palestinians that could alter the character of the state. Many Palestinians including myself recognize this fear. But it is also important to analyze and examine this “character” of the state and what it means for its citizens. This is something that all citizens of that state must face honestly. Many of the readers here are aware of the fact that Israel needs to evolve from a “Jewish state” to a state of its citizens (& it will with or without the refugees returning). It is only logical to expect that the 1.2 million current Palestinian citizens of Israel are not “thrilled” to live in an Israel that has a national anthem that talks about Jewish yearning for a homeland. they are not keen about a state that has no constitution to protect “gentiles” but rather has specific laws to discriminate against them and insure Jewish only towns and villages continue to flourish while Arab towns are besieges and dwindle. They are not content in a state that has a law of return giving automatic citizenship to any Jew in the world who desires it while denying citizenship to people born and raised their who are gentiles (many of them relatives of those Palestinian remaining and have not seen each other in 52 years.
Jewish fears are legitimized by centuries of persecution elsewhere (though not in Palestine, where we lived in harmony for centuries before Zionism) and have been used against Palestinian livelihoods, survival, and human rights. Fears are powerful emotions that paralyze people from seeing the incredible possibilities for coexistence, humanity, and decency. It is estimated that the value of property left behind by or confiscated from fleeing Palestinians now reaches in the 200-400 billion dollars. Israel has received about the same amount in compensations from Europe for the Holocaust. There is talk of compensation from an International fund for Palestinian refugees as well as “Jewish refugees” from Arab countries. While some Jews were expelled from Arab countries, or left voluntarily, others were invited, enticed and even intimidated by Israel into going there to swell the Jewish population. Some of those Jews were actually scared into leaving by Zionist actions including terror actions as happened in Iraq and Egypt (see the book by the Iraqi Jew Gileadi). Israel has never fought for Jews to stay where they are, but has always wanted them to be transferred to Israel. This transfer did not happen during the 1948 war, but in the 20 years after. The Palestinian refugees did not expel Jews from their homes in Arab countries, and their human rights are not contingent on the actions of states over which they had no control. There are Israeli Jews of Arab origin who do demand restitution for their property. I as a Palestinian fully support their claims. The Israeli government, however, has never been willing to fight for their rights, because it knows that by doing so it would implicitly recognize that expulsion and dispossession is wrong whether the victims are Jews or Palestinians. The governments of Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen (unlike Israel) always stated that Jews are welcome to return. In either case, Israeli Jews with claims in Arab countries should take them up with those countries (& I believe Jews should be treated with respect and dignity and equality wherever they live). Israel has not been interested actually in discussing this when they signed a peace agreement with Egypt (Egypt had a sizable Jewish presence).
Offering the Palestinians a choice of return or compensation is only right. The return should be a choice between a return to their areas of origin or to the Palestinian “homeland” (the West Bank and Gaza). In fact, if settlements can be vacated, they could provide an ideal compensation by Israel to those refugees for their properties. How many will chose to go back is difficult to predict and will depend on the incentives provided elsewhere and the nature of the Palestinian state “in the making” in the West Bank and Gaza. The range could be anywhere from 150,000 (Barak floated this number at Camp David spread over 10 years) to one million. Perhaps another million will settle in the West Bank and Gaza. But the reality of the situation is that for all of this to happen in a most amicable and practical way, the right of return and Israel’s responsibility must be recognized. Just like in Europe, in South Africa, and in all other areas of the world where such conflicts raged, truth and reconciliation makes people much more amenable to discussing practicalities and to forgiving (although not forgetting).
(Dr. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is Chair of the Media Committee, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition)