The Right of Return, At Last


Now that all the cheery atmospherics connected with Ehud Barak’s tenure in office have more or less dissipated, and he or his party faces prosecution for campaign corruption at home, and an increasing demand for results abroad, the true face of his regime is emerging with startling, not to say disquieting clarity. One knows certain things about Zionism as an ideology, but it is nevertheless shocking to encounter and re-encounter them repeatedly. One’s surprise and dismay at so raw and primitive a state of inhuman denial should never be diminished, the better to be able to see it for what it is, something I am deeply sorry to say no Arab regime has had the courage to face up to. For me, one of the worst offenders in this moral blindness remains the Palestinian leadership, which has actually eased the way forward for Zionist arguments and plans, with scarce allowance for the sufferings of the huge mass of Palestinians who languish in camps, shantytowns, and makeshift houses in Palestine and in too many Arab countries to be counted.

The by now notorious peace process finally has come down to the one issue that has been at the core of Palestinian depredations since 1948: the fate of the refugees who were displaced in 1948, again in 1967, and again in 1982 by naked Israeli ethnic cleansing. Any other description of those acts by the Israeli army is a travesty of the truth, no matter how many protestations are heard from the unyielding Zionist right-wing (assuming that the left is more likely to accept the truth). That the Palestinians have endured decades of dispossession and raw agonies rarely endured by other peoples — particularly because these agonies have either been ignored or denied, and even more poignantly, because the perpetrators of this tragedy are celebrated for social and political achievements that make no mention at all of where those achievements actually began — is of course the locus of “the Palestinian problem,” but it has been pushed very far down the agenda of negotiations until finally now, it has popped up to the surface.

For the past several weeks, two contradictory sets of happenings have occurred which, in their stark, irreconcilable antithesis, tell almost the whole story of what is wrong with an unevolved Zionism on the one hand, and what is just as seriously wrong with the peace process on the other. Barak and several of his faceless underlings have been on record tirelessly in Israel, in Europe and elsewhere to affirm their increasingly strident disavowal of any responsibility for Palestinian dispossession. Here and there, a more humane Israeli official will, for example, temper these disavowals with an acknowledgement that Israel bears some responsibility for the “transfers” that took place in 1948 and 1967, but that “the Arabs” — who presumably are supposed to have evicted Palestinians too: the notion is too preposterous to require rebuttal — are also responsible, thereby preparing the way for a magnanimous offer for Israel to take back 100,000 of the nearly 4.5 million refugees who now exist in the Arab world and beyond. But such individual declarations are remarkable for their infrequency and the lack of response they have engendered from Barak and his entourage, to say nothing of the Knesset majority, the settlers, and a dispiritingly large number of ordinary Israelis who seem to believe that, whatever happened in 1948, they will never have anything to do with it. It’s not their problem, and so why should they have anything to say? That, of course, is precisely Barak’s negotiating strategy: to refuse any discussion at all of the refugee claim to return, repatriation and/or compensation. Recent revelations by an Israeli researcher that a bigger 15 May 1948 massacre than the notorious one at Deir Yassin took place in Tantura, with over 200 Palestinian civilian victims shot in cold blood by Zionist soldiers, has not shaken Barak’s stony rejectionism an iota.

The contradictory part of the issue is the snowballing effect of what is now a universal Palestinian demand heard literally all over the globe for the right of return. Petitions have been signed by the dozens, thousands of names in the Arab world, Europe, Africa and the Americas have been added to these lists on a daily basis, and for the first time ever, the right of return has been put squarely on the political agenda. Asaad Abdel-Rahman, the PLO’s minister in charge of the refugee question for the peace process, has recently made some excellent strong statements about the absolute right of return for Palestinians evicted by Israel: these statements express the right kind of resolve and the right kind of moral indignation. After all, Abdel-Rahman says, a UN resolution (number 194) has been affirmed annually since 1948; it allows Palestinians the right of return and/or compensation. Why should there be a compromise by Palestinians given the world community’s unanimity? Even the US has supported the resolution, with Israel the lone dissenter. The troubling thing, however, is that Abdel-Rahman hints that the PLO leadership may do a deal with Israel on the refugees behind his back which, in view of the long history of shabby Arafatian compromises whose net effect have been to sell out his people, is an allowable, not to say perfectly well-founded worry.

The one certain thing is that it is going to take a great deal of ingenuity, public relations spin-doctoring, and specious logic to convince any Palestinian that the deal to be made (as it will be) by the PLO is not in effect an abrogation of the right of return. Consider the logic of what has happened since 1991. On every major issue separating Palestinians from Israelis, it is the Palestinians who have given way. Yes, they have achieved small gains here and there, but all one needs to do is to look at the map of Gaza and the West Bank, then visit those places, then read the agreements, then listen to the Israelis and Americans, and one will have a pretty good idea of what has happened by way of compromise, flawed arrangements, and a general abrogation of full Palestinian self-determination. All this has been achieved because the Palestinian leadership has selfishly put its own self-interest, over-inflated squadrons of security guards, commercial monopolies, unseemly persistence in power, lawless despotism, anti-democratic greed and cruelty, before the collective Palestinian good. Until now, it has connived with Israel to let the refugee issue slither down the pole; but now that the final status era is upon us all, there’s no more room down there. And so, as I said above, we’re back to the basic, the irreconcilable, the irremediably interlocked contradiction between Palestinian and Israeli nationalism. Unfortunately, I have no faith whatever that our leadership will in fact maintain its faade of resistance and continue to let Abdel-Rahman and others like him carry the message forward. There is always another Abu Mazen-Yossi Beilin arrangement to be made, and if the Israelis can “persuade” Arafat’s men that Abu Dis is in fact Jerusalem, why can’t they also persuade them that the refugees will just have to remain refugees for a bit longer? Of course they can, and will.

So that leaves the unanswered question before us all: is the Palestinian people as a whole — you and I — going to accept this final card being played against us, or not? Unfortunately, the short-run prognosis is not good: witness the wasted opportunity to impeach the Authority last November after the petition of 20 was signed, several of its signatories unlawfully imprisoned, the rest threatened. Very little happened by way of repercussion, and the Authority got away with its brazen strong-arm tactics. Arafat survives inside the Palestinian territories today for two main reasons: one, he is needed by the international supporters of the peace process, Israel, the US and the EU chief among them. He is needed to sign, and that, after all, is what he is good for. Nothing else: everyone knows this. He can deliver his people. The second reason is that because he is a master at corrupting even the best of his people, he has bought off or threatened all organised opposition (there are always individuals who cannot be coopted) and therefore removed them as a threat. The rest of the population is too uncertain and discouraged to do much. The Authority employs about 140,000 people; multiply that by five or six (the number of dependents of each employee) and you get close to a million people whose livelihood hangs by the string offered by Yasser Arafat. Much as he is disliked, disrespected and feared, he will remain so long as he has this leverage over an enormous number of people, who will not jeopardise their future just because they are ruled by a corrupt, inefficient and stupid dictatorship which cannot even deliver the essential services for daily civil life like water, health, electricity, food, etc.

That leaves the Palestinian diaspora, which produced Arafat in the first place: it was from Kuwait and Cairo that he emerged to challenge Shukairy and Hajj Amin. A new leadership will almost certainly appear from the Palestinians who live elsewhere: they are a majority, none of them feels that Arafat represents them, all of them regard the Authority as without real legitimacy, and they are the ones with the most to gain from the right of return, which Arafat and his men are going to be forced to back down on. We must encourage ourselves to do the work of inventorying the desires and the number of refugees, cataloguing the property losses, compiling the list of destroyed villages, carrying forward the claims such as the petition now being circulated by BADIL. The extraordinary engineer and scholar Salman Abu Sitta has already done a lot of the work about property and demographics; others are following his lead, or supporting him. He works entirely on his own, or with the support of friends. To expect Yasser Arafat to take advantage of all this loyal expertise and authentic commitment is of course a pipe dream. What he has done is to contract out the final status negotiations to a right-wing London think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, which is paid for its services by the British Foreign Office, and has retained an American consulting firm, Arthur Andersen, to advertise its investment attractions. No other liberation group in history has sold itself to its enemies like this. We all have a stake in making sure that these shabby diversions will fail, and that the small handful of expert Palestinians who are now complicit in these arrangements will come to their senses and leave the Authority to sink terminally into the mud all around it. And then we will press the claims for return and compensation in earnest with new leaders.

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