The Right of Return
We Israelis need a scarecrow to frighten ourselves, one frightening enough to pump adrenaline into our national bloodstream. Otherwise, it seems, we cannot function.
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.
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 sea!
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!
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.
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.
Roots of the Conflict
refugee problem arouses such deep emotions because it touches the root of the
conflict between to two peoples.
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.
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.
understanding this aspect of the conflict, the events leading to the creation of
the refugee problem cannot be understood.
the war of 1948, the historic clash came to a head.
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
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.
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 created.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 problem.
there is no escape from a courageous confrontation with this problem.
refugee problem is multi-layered, some layers are ideological and concerned with
basic principles, others are practical. Let’s address the ideological first.
must acknowledge its historic responsibility for the creation of the problem. In
order to facilitate the healing of the wound, such acknowledgement must be
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.
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.
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.
Right of Return
right of return is a basic human right and cannot be denied in our time.
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
propose that the State of Israel recognize the Right of Return in principle,
pointing out that the implementation of the principle will come about by way of
negotiation and agreement.
the ideological aspect is satisfied, it becomes possible to address the
practical aspect of the problem.
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.
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.
granting of citizenship will completely change the situation and status of the
refugees in places like Lebanon, where refugees are exposed to danger.
basic element of the Right of Return is the right of every single refugee to
choose freely between return and compensation.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 a negotiation between Israel and Palestine.
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
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.
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.
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 of the state.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
Will It Happen?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fulfill their promises.
third stage will be the implementation, which will certainly take several years.
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.
believe that this plan can achieve a moral, just, practical and agreed-upon
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.
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.
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.”