The bloody battles that have erupted around the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in Lebanon remind us that the refugee problem has not disappeared. On the contrary, 60 years after the "Nakba", the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, it is again the center of attention throughout the world.
This is an open wound. Anyone who imagines that a solution to the Israel-Arab conflict is possible without healing this wound is deluding himself.
From Tripoli to Sderot, from Riyadh to Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee problem continues to cast its shadow across the whole region. This week, the media were again full of photos of Israeli and Palestinian refugees fleeing from their homes and of mothers mourning the death of their loved ones in Hebrew and Arabic – as if nothing had changed since 1948.
The ordinary Israeli shrugs his shoulders when confronted with the suffering of the Palestinian refugees and dismisses it with five words: "They brought it on themselves."
Learned professors and market vendors repeat that the Palestinians caused their own downfall when, in 1947, they rejected the Partition Plan of the United Nations and started a war to annihilate the Jewish community in the country.
That is a deeply rooted myth, one of the basic myths of Israeli consciousness. But it is far from reflecting what really happened.
First of all, because at that time there did not even exist a Palestinian national leadership which could take a decision.
In the Arab Revolt of 1935 to 1939 ("the troubles" in Israeli parlance), the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, then the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, had most of the prominent Palestinians who did not accept his authority killed. He then fled the country and the remaining Palestinian leaders were exiled by the British to a remote island.
When the hour of destiny struck and the UN adopted the partition resolution, there was no Palestinian leadership capable of deciding one way or the other. Instead, the leaders of the neighboring Arab states decided to send their armies into the country once the British Mandate had come to an end.
True, the masses of the Palestinian people opposed the partition plan. They believed that all of Palestine was their patrimony, and that the Jews, almost all of whom had recently arrived, did not have any right to it. The more so, since the UN plan gave the Jews, then only a third of the population, 55% of the country. Even in this territory, the Arabs constituted 40% of the inhabitants.
(In fairness it should be mentioned that the territory allotted to the Jews included the Negev – a huge desert that was desolate then and has mostly remained so to this day.)
The Jewish side did indeed accept the UN decision – but only in appearance. In secret meetings, David Ben-Gurion did not hide his intention to take the first opportunity to enlarge the territory allotted to the Jewish state and to assure an overwhelming Jewish majority in it. The war of 1948, which was started by the Arab side, created an opportunity to realize both aims: Israel grew from 55% to 78% of the country, and this territory was emptied of most of its Arab inhabitants. Many of them fled the terrors of war, many others were driven out by us. Almost none were allowed to return after the war.
In the course of the war, some 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. Natural increase doubles their number every 18 years, so they are now approaching five million.
That is an immense human tragedy, a humanitarian issue and a political problem. For long periods it seemed that the problem would disappear by itself with the passing of time, but it has repeatedly reared its head again.
Many parties have exploited the problem for their own ends. Various Arab regimes have at times tried to hitch their wagon to it.
The fate of the refugees varies from country to country. Jordan has accorded them citizenship, yet has kept many of them in miserable camps. The Lebanese have not given the refugees any civil rights at all, and have committed several massacres. Almost all Palestinian leaders demand the implementation of UN resolution 194 which was adopted 59 years ago and which promised the refugees a return to their homes as peaceful citizens.
Few noticed that the Right of Return has served successive Israeli governments as a pretext to reject all peace initiatives. The return of five million refugees would mean the end of Israel as a state with a solid Jewish majority and turn it into a bi-national state – something that arouses the adamant opposition of a minimum of 99.99% of the Israeli-Jewish public.
This has to be realized if one is to understand the way Israelis view peace. An ordinary Israeli, even a decent person who sincerely desires peace, tells himself: the Arabs will never give up the Right of Return, therefore there is no chance for peace, and it isn’t worthwhile even to start doing anything about it.
Thus, paradoxically, the refugee problem has turned into an instrument for those Israelis who oppose any peace based on compromise. They rely on the fact that almost no Arab leader would dare to give up the Right of Return openly. In private conversations, many Arab leaders recognize that the return is impossible, but they dare not say so openly. To do so would mean political suicide – just as announcing a readiness to take back refugees would be suicidal for an Israeli politician.
In spite of this, a subterranean shift has taken place in recent years on the Arab side. There have been hints that Israel’s demographic problem cannot be ignored. Here and there, creative solutions have been proposed. (Once, in a public meeting of Gush Shalom, a Palestinian representative said: "Today, the Arab minority constitutes 20% of Israel’s citizens. So let us agree that for every 80 new Jewish immigrants coming to the country, 20 Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return. In such a way, the present proportion would be maintained." The public reacted enthusiastically.)
Now, a revolutionary development has taken place. The Arab League has offered Israel a peace plan: all 22 Arab states would recognize Israel and establish diplomatic and economic relations with it, in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The offer did not ignore the refugee problem. It mentioned UN resolution 194, but added a qualification of fundamental importance: that the solution would be reached "by agreement" between the two parties. In other words: Israel would have the right of veto over refugees returning to Israeli territory.
This put the Israeli government in a difficult position. If the Israeli public understood that the entire Arab world was offering a comprehensive peace agreement without the actual realization of the Right of Return, they might accept it gladly. Therefore, everything was done to obscure the decisive word. The guided (and misguided) Israeli media emphasized the plan’s mention of Resolution 194 and played down the talk of an "agreed upon" solution.
The government treated the Arab offer with manifest disdain, but nevertheless tried to derive advantage from it. Ehud Olmert announced his readiness to talk with an Arab delegation – provided that it did not consist of Egypt and Jordan alone. This way, Olmert and Tzipi Livni hope to attain an important political achievement without paying for it: to compel Saudi Arabia and other states to enter into relations with Israel. Since there are "no free lunches", the Arabs refused. Nothing came out of the whole affair.
If someone had offered Israel this Arab League peace plan on June 4, 1967, a day before the Six-Day War, we would have thought that the Messiah had arrived. Now, our government considers this offer nothing but a clever trick: the Arabs are indeed ready to relinquish the return of the refugees, but want to compel us to give up the occupied territories and to dismantle the settlements.
In a historical perspective, the Arab League is correcting an error it made 40 years ago, which had far-reaching consequences. Soon after the Six-Day War, on September 1, 1967, the heads of the Arab states assembled in Khartoum and decided upon the "Three No’s" – No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with Israel.
One can understand why such a misguided resolution was adopted. The Arab countries had just suffered a humiliating military defeat. They wanted to prove to their peoples and the world that they had not gone down on their knees. They wanted to keep their national dignity. But for the government of Israel, it was a present from heaven.
The resolution freed it from any need to conduct negotiations which might have compelled it to return the territories it had just conquered. It gave the green light for the founding of settlements, an enterprise that continues unhindered to this very day, removing the land from under the feet of the Palestinians. And, of course, it swept the refugee problem from the table.
The new Arab League proposal could repair the damage done to the Palestinian cause at Khartoum. The entire Arab world has now adopted a realistic resolution. From now on, the task is to get the Israeli public to grasp the full meaning of this proposal, and especially its significance concerning the return of the refugees. This task rests on the shoulders of the Israeli peace forces, but also of the Arab leadership.
To achieve this goal, the refugee problem must be transferred to the realm of reality. It must undergo a process of de-mystification.
At present, an Israeli sees only a nightmare: five million refugees are waiting to flood Israel. They will demand the return of their lands, on which Israeli towns and villages are now located, and their homes, which have been demolished long ago or in which Israelis are now living. Israel, as a state with a Hebrew majority, will disappear.
This fear must be neutralized, and this wound must be healed. On the psychological level, we must recognize our responsibility for that part of the problem which was actually caused by us. A "Committee for Truth and Reconciliation" could, perhaps, determine the dimensions of this part. For this we must sincerely apologize, as other nations have apologized for injustices committed by them.
On the practical level, the real problem of five million human beings must be solved. All of them will have a right to generous compensation, which will enable them to start a new life any way they wish. Those who want to stay where they are, with the consent of the local government, will have the ability to rebuild the life of their families. Those who want to live in the future State of Palestine, perhaps in the areas cleared of settlements, must receive the necessary international assistance. I, personally, believe that it would be good for us to receive back a certain agreed-upon number of refugees in Israel proper, as a symbolic contribution to the end to the tragedy.
That is neither a dream nor a nightmare. We have already mastered more difficult tasks. It would be much easier and cheaper than to continue a war that has no military solution and no end.
Sixty years ago, a deep wound was opened. Since than it has not healed. It infects our life and endangers our future. It is high time to heal it. That is the lesson of Tripoli in the north and Sderot in the South.