Once it was the Palestinian charter. Very few Palestinians ever read it,
even fewer remembered what it said, but we compelled the Palestinians to
abolish its paragraphs in a solemn ceremony. Who remembers it today? But
since this scarecrow was laid to rest, there is a need for a replacement.
The new scarecrow is the
"Right of Return". Not as a practical problem, to be dealt
with in rational terms, but as a hair-raising monster: now the
Palestinians sinister design has been revealed! They want to
eliminate Israel by this terrible ploy! They want to throw us into the
The Right of Return has again
widened the abyss, which seemed to have been narrowed to a rift. We are
frightened again. The end of our state! The end of the vision of
generations! A second Holocaust!
It seems that the abyss is
unbridgeable. The Arabs demand that each and every Palestinian refugee
return to his home and land in Israel. The Israelis staunchly object to
the return of even one single refugee. On both sides, everything or
nothing. There goes the peace.
In the following lines I shall
try to show that the scarecrow is indeed a scarecrow; that even this
painful problem can be resolved; that a fair compromise can even lead to
a historic conciliation.
The Roots of the Conflict
The refugee problem arouses such
deep emotions because it touches the root of the conflict between to two
The conflict stems from the
historic clash between two great national movements. One of these,
Zionism, sought to establish a state for the Jews, so that, for the
first time after thousands of years, they could be masters of their own
fate. In the furthering of this aim, Zionism completely ignored the
population living in the country. It envisioned a homogenous national
state, according to the European model of the late 19th
century, without non-Jews, or with at least as few non-Jews as possible.
The Palestinian national movement
expressed the struggle of the native Arabs for national freedom and
independence. It vehemently opposed the penetration of their homeland by
another people. As Zeev Jabotinsky, the militant Zionist leader,
wrote at the time, any other people would have reacted in the same way.
Without understanding this aspect
of the conflict, the events leading to the creation of the refugee
problem cannot be understood.
In the war of 1948, the historic
clash came to a head.
On the eve of the war some
1,200,000 Arabs and some 635,000 Jews lived in Palestine. During the
course of the war, started by the Arab side to prevent the partition of
the country, more than half of the Palestinian people, around 750,000
persons, were uprooted. Some were driven out by the conquering Israeli
army, others fled when the battle reached their homes, as civilians do
in every war.
The 1948 war was an ethnic
struggle, much like the one in Bosnia. In wars of this kind, every side
tries to set up an ethnic state by conquering as much territory as it
can without the opposing population. In fairness to the historical facts,
it should be mentioned that the Arab side behaved in the same way, and
in the few territories it conquered (the old city of Jerusalem, the
Etzion bloc) no Jews remained in their homes.
Immediately after the war, the
new State of Israel declined to allow the refugees to come back to the
territories it had conquered. The Ben-Gurion government eradicated about
450 abandoned Arab villages and put up Jewish settlements on their sites.
The new Jewish immigrants many from Arab countries were put into
the abandoned houses in the Arab towns. Thus the refugee problem was
While the war was still going on,
the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 194 of
November 11, 1948. It stated that the refugees were entitled to choose
between compensation and return to "their homes". Israels
refusal to abide by this resolution may have led it to miss the
opportunity if it existed of achieving peace with the Arab world
as early as 1949.
In the 1967 war, some events
repeated themselves. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven
out, by force or intimidation, from areas near the Jordan river (the
huge Jericho refugee camps) and near the Green Line (the Tulkarem,
Kalkilia and Latrun areas).
According to official UN
statistics, the number of refugees is up to 3.7 millions by now, a
number that is reasonable in view of the very high rate of natural
growth. They are mostly dispersed among the countries bordering Israel,
including the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
On the Israeli side, the refugee
problem aroused deep-rooted fears, stemming from the first days after
the 1948 war. The number of Jews in the new state had not yet reached a
million. The idea, that 750 thousand Palestinian would return to Israeli
territory and submerge it like a deluge aroused panic.
This apocalyptic vision has
become a fixation in the Israeli national psyche. Even today, when the
demographic facts are quite different, it hovers over every discussion
of this issue. In this respect, there is no difference between the
"Left" and the "Right". It is enough to merely
mention the refugee problem, for writers like Amos Oz to react like
Ariel Sharon, and for a "new historian" like Benny Morris to
voice opinions similar to those of an adherent to the very same old
myths that he himself helped to debunk.
No wonder that raising the issue
now is shaking many of the Israeli "peace camp" to the roots
of their soul. "We thought that the problem had gone away,"
many of them exclaim angrily, accusing the Palestinians of fraud, as if
they had suddenly sprung earth-shattering demands, whereas until now
they had presented only "simple" problems, like the
establishment of a Palestinian state, borders and settlements.
This attests to an abysmal lack
of understanding. The Right of Return expresses the very core of the
Palestinian national ethos. It is anchored in the memories of the Nakba,
the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, and the feeling that a historic
injustice was committed against the Palestinian people. Ignoring this
feeling of injustice makes it impossible to understand the Palestinian
struggle, past and present.
Everyone who really tried to
bring about peace and conciliation between the two peoples knew all the
time that the refugee problem is dormant, like a sleeping lion who can
wake up any minute. The hope was that this moment could be postponed
until after the other problems could be resolved, and both sides could
start healing this wound in a more congenial atmosphere. The hope was
that after a good measure of mutual trust could be created, a rational
approach would be possible. The Oslo Declaration of Principles of 1993
did not ignore the problem, but postponed it to the "final status"
The man who upset the cart was
Ehud Barak. He kicked the sleeping lion in the ribs. In a typical
mixture of arrogance, ignorance, recklessness and contempt for the Arabs,
he was convinced that he could induce the Palestinians to give up the
Right of Return. Therefore he demanded that the Palestinians sign a new
declaration of principles, in which they would announce the "end of
The moment these five words
"the end of the conflict" were uttered in the negotiations,
the Right of Return landed on the negotiating table with a bang. It
should have been foreseen that no Palestinian leader could possibly sign
the "end of the conflict" without a solution to the refugee
Now there is no escape from a
courageous confrontation with this problem.
A "Truth Commission"
The refugee problem is
multi-layered, some layers are ideological and concerned with basic
principles, others are practical. Lets address the ideological first.
Israel must acknowledge its
historic responsibility for the creation of the problem. In order to
facilitate the healing of the wound, such acknowledgement must be
It must be acknowledged that the
creation of the refugee problem was an outcome of the realization of the
Zionist endeavor to achieve a Jewish national renaissance in this
country. It must also be acknowledged that at least some of the refugees
were driven from their home by force after the battle was already over,
and that their return to their homes was denied.
I can imagine a dramatic event:
the President or Prime Minister of Israel solemnly apologizes to the
Palestinians for the injustice inflicted upon them in the realization of
the Zionist aims, at the same time he emphasizes that these aims were
mainly directed towards national liberation and saving millions from the
Jewish tragedy in Europe.
I would go further and propose
the setting up of a "truth committee", composed of Israeli,
Palestinian and international historians, in order to investigate the
events of 1948 and 1967 and submit a comprehensive and agreed report
that can become part of both Israeli and Palestinian school curriculum.
The Right of Return
The right of return is a basic
human right and cannot be denied in our time.
A short time ago, the
international community fought a war against Serbia in order to
implement the right of the Kossovars to return to their homes. It should
be mentioned that Germany gave up the right of evicted Germans to return
to their homes in East Prussia, Poland and the Sudetenland, but this was
the result of the deeply felt guilt of the German people for the
horrible crimes of the Nazis. The often-heard phrase "but the Arabs
started the war" is irrelevant in this context.
I propose that the State of
Israel recognize the Right of Return i n p r i n c i p l e, pointing out
that the implementation of the principle will come about by way of
negotiation and agreement.
After the ideological aspect is
satisfied, it becomes possible to address the practical aspect of the
The solution of the refugee
problem will coincide with the establishment of the State of Palestine.
Therefore, the first step can be the granting of Palestinian citizenship
to every Palestinian refugee, wherever he be, if the State of Palestine
For the refugees, this step will
be of utmost importance, not only for symbolic, but also for very
practical reasons. Many Palestinians, who have no citizenship, are
denied the privilege of crossing borders altogether, for all others the
crossing of borders entails suffering, humiliation and harassment.
The granting of citizenship will
completely change the situation and status of the refugees in places
like Lebanon, where refugees are exposed to danger.
A basic element of the Right of
Return is the right of every single refugee to choose freely between
return and compensation.
This is a personal right. While
the recognition in principle is a collective right, its implementation
in practice is in the realm of the individual Palestinian. In order to
be able to make his decision, he must know all the rights accruing to
him: what sums will be paid to those choosing not to return and what
possibilities are open to those who wish to return.
Every refugee has the right to
compensation for properties left behind when he was uprooted, as well as
for the loss of opportunities, etc. Without making any comparison
between the Holocaust and the Nakba, one can learn from the German
method of compensating their Jewish victims. This will enable every
refugee to decide what is good for him and his family.
The compensations, which
undoubtedly will entail great sums, must be paid by an international
fund, to which all the wealthier economies must contribute. The
Palestinians can rightfully demand this from the member-states of the
United Nations who voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947 and did
not lift a finger to prevent the tragedy of the refugees.
Israelis must not delude
themselves that only others will pay. The Israeli "custodian of
absentee property" holds huge properties buildings, lands,
movable property left behind by the refugees, and it is his duty to
register and administer them.
Return to Palestine
The historic compromise between
Israel and Palestine is based on the principle of "Two States for
Two Peoples". The State of Palestine is designed to embody the
historic personality of the Palestinian-Arab people and the State of
Israel is designed to embody the historic personality of the
Israeli-Jewish people, with the Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute
a fifth of all Israeli citizens, being full partners in the state.
It is clear that the return of
millions of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel would completely
change the character of the state, contrary to the intentions of its
founders and most of its citizens. It would abolish the principle of Two
States for Two Peoples, on which the demand for a Palestinian state is
All this leads to the conclusion
that most of the refugees who opt for return will find their place in
the State of Palestine. As Palestinian citizens they will be able to
build their life there, subject to the laws and decisions of their
To absorb a large number of
returnees and provide them with housing and employment, the State of
Palestine must receive appropriate compensations from the international
fund and Israel. Also, Israel must transfer the settlements intact to
the Palestinian government, after the return of the settlers to Israeli
territory. When deciding upon the just and equitable division of water
and other resources between Israel and Palestine, this large-scale
absorption must also be taken into account.
If the border between Palestine
and Israel will be open to the free movement of people and goods,
according to the principles of peaceful co-existence between good
neighbors, the former refugees, as Palestinian citizens, will be able to
visit the places where there forefathers lived.
Return to Israel
In order to make the healing of
the psychological wounds and a historic conciliation possible, there is
no way to avoid the return of an appropriate number of refugees to the
State of Israel. The exact number must be decided upon by an negotiation
between Israel and Palestine.
This part of the plan will arouse
the strongest opposition in Israel. As a matter of fact, not a single
Israeli politician or thinker has dared to propose it. The extreme
opposition exists both on the Right and the Left of the Israeli spectrum.
However, such a limited return is
the natural completion of the recognition in principle of the Right of
Return and the acceptance of responsibility for the events of the past.
As we shall see immediately, the opposition to it is irrational and an
expression of old fears that have no basis in reality.
The government of Israel recently
offered to take back a few thousands of refugees (3000 were mentioned)
annually in the framework of "family reunification". This
reflects a mistaken attitude. Instead, it is the open return, in the
framework of the Right of Return, which is necessary as a symbolic act
of conciliation. The number mentioned is, of course, ridiculous.
Nobody claims that Israel, which
has just successfully absorbed a million new immigrants from the former
Soviet Union, is economically unable to absorb a reasonable number of
refugees. The argument is clearly ideological and demographic: that the
return of any number of refugees will change the national-demographic
character of the state.
If the irrationality of the
argument needs proof, one need only mention that the extreme Right in
Israel demands the annexation of the Arab neighborhoods of East
Jerusalem and is quite ready to grant Israeli citizenship to the quarter
of a million Arabs living there. The Right-wing also demands the
annexation of big "settlement blocs", which include many Arab
villages, without being unduly worried by the increase in the number of
Arab citizens of Israel.
It is also worthwhile to remember
that in 1949 the government of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett
offered to take back 100 thousand refugees. Whatever the motives that
inspired that offer, and even if this was merely a diplomatic maneuver,
the offer is an important precedent. In relation to the Jewish
population in Israel at that time, this number equals 800 thousand today.
In relation to the number of refugees at that time, the number equals
half a million now.
The decisive question is: How
many can be brought back? Minimalists may speak about 100 thousand,
maximalists about half a million. I myself have proposed an annual quota
of 50 thousand for 10 years. But this is a subject for negotiations,
which must be conducted in a spirit of good-will with the intent of
putting a successful end to this painful issue, always remembering that
it concerns the fate of living human beings who deserve rehabilitation
after tens of years of suffering.
1.1 million Palestinian-Arab
citizens currently live in Israel. An increase of that number to 1.3 or
even 1.5 million will not fundamentally change the demographic picture,
especially when Israel is absorbing more than 50 thousand new Jewish
immigrants every year.
Yet this concept arouses deep
fears in Israel. Even the historian Benny Morris, who played such an
important role in exposing the expulsion of 1948, is ready only for
"perhaps a trickle of refugees being allowed to return to Israel -
a few thousand, no more."
I am aware that the offer far
from satisfies the Palestinian demands. But I am convinced that the
great majority of Palestinians know that it is the price that both sides
have to pay in order to leave behind the painful past and prepare for
the building of their future in the two states.
When Will It Happen?
If this solution is adopted, in
the framework of a comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine that
will bring with it peace between Israel and the entire Arab world, it
can be implemented in a few years.
The first stage will be, of
course, the achievement of an agreement between the two parties.
Hopefully, this will not be a process of bitter haggling, but a
negotiation in good faith, with both sides realizing that an agreed
resolution will not only put an end to a great human tragedy but will
also open the way for real peace.
The second stage will be the
process of choosing. An international agency will have to make certain
that every refugee family will thoroughly know its rights and the option
available to it. The agency must also make sure that every family can
choose freely, without pressure. There must also be an orderly process
of registering properties and submitting claims.
Nobody can know at this moment
how many refugees will choose each of the options. One can assume that
many will prefer to remain where they are, especially if they have
married locally or have businesses and taken roots. The compensations
will raise their situation considerably.
Others will prefer to live in the
Palestinian state, where they will feel at home within their nation and
their culture. Others may wish to return to Israeli territory, where
they are close to the homes of their families, even if they cannot
return to destroyed homes and non-existent villages. Others again may be
disinclined to live in a state with a different national and cultural
background, after seeing the reality there with their own eyes. A real
choice will be possible only when all the facts are clear, and even then
not a few might change their minds repeatedly.
Once the great national issue,
the symbol of the Palestinian sense of injustice, becomes a personal
issue of hundreds of thousands of individual families, each one of them
will reach an individual decision.
At the same time the
international agency must come into being. Experience shows that this
will not be easy and that countries that promise generous contributions
for such an effort do not always fulfil their promises.
The third stage will be the
implementation, which will certainly take several years.
Clearly the fear of many
Israelis, that a catastrophe on the scale of a natural disaster will
suddenly engulf them, is without basis. The solution of the problem will
be a prolonged, controlled, reasonable and logical process.
I believe that this plan can
achieve a moral, just, practical and agreed-upon solution.
Both sides will accept it, in the
end, because there is no other. There can be no peace without the
solution of the refugee question, and the only solution is one both
sides can live with.
Perhaps it will all be to the
good. When both sides start on the path to the solution, it may
facilitate the conciliation between them. When they sit together to find
creative solutions, all kinds of interesting ideas may turn up. For
example: why not rebuild two or three Palestinian villages which were
destroyed after 1948, and whose sites are still vacant? Many things that
seem impossible today may appear on the table once the atmosphere
between the parties changes.
Perhaps then the ancient saying
of the Psalmist will apply to the refugees: "The stone which the
builders refused has become the head stone of the corner."
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