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Opinion: URI AVNERY On Refugees

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  • Ami Isseroff
    THE RIGHT OF RETURN Uri Avnery We Israelis need a scarecrow to frighten ourselves, one frightening enough to pump adrenaline into our national bloodstream.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 16, 2001
      Uri Avnery
      We Israelis need a scarecrow to frighten ourselves, one frightening enough to pump adrenaline
      into our national bloodstream. Otherwise, it seems, we cannot function.
      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! The want to throw us into the sea!
      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
      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

      The Roots of the Conflict

      The refugee problem arouses such deep emotions because it touches the root of the conflict
      between to two peoples.
      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 Ze’ev 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.

      “Ethnic Cleansing”

      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
      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

      Resolution 194

      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”. Israel’s 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.

      Apocalypse Now

      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” negotiations.
      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
      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. Let’s 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 explicit.
      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

      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

      Palestinian Citizenship

      After the ideological aspect is satisfied, it becomes possible to address the practical aspect
      of the problem.
      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 so decides.
      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.

      Free Choice

      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 based.
      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 government.
      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
      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
      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.

      Historic Conciliation

      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.”
      Opinions stated in Mewnews are not necessarily those of the editors or the organizations they
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