July/August 2000

Palestinians, You Can't Go Home Again

by Mark Heller

Friday, July 14, 2000

Like most negotiations, the Israeli-Palestinian summit on permanent-status issues has been preceded and accompanied by intensive campaigns of information, public relations, or propaganda -- with the most appropriate term being a function of everyone's personal point of view. The targets of these efforts are the negotiating partner and third parties, but they often end up influencing the source as much as the targets. And when the effect is to minimize the negotiator's ability to compromise, the result can be disastrous. That is likely to be the result if Palestinian negotiators are unable or unwilling to abandon their insistence that the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees cannot be compromised.

The refugee problem was created in 1947-48, when the Palestinians and their Arab allies rejected United Nations Resolution 181 and tried to prevent by force implementation of the partition plan that called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in Palestine. During the fighting, 600,000 to 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of areas that eventually became the state of Israel. (There were also about 17,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were driven out of areas that came under Arab, i.e., Jordanian, control.) Israel's record in this chain of developments was far from spotless. But the major reason for the displacement of people was the war itself, which the Arabs imposed on Israel in an attempt to abort its birth.

The Palestinian refugees were but one example among many of the large-scale involuntary population displacements that took place during and after the First World War. Most of the other refugee problems, involving tens of millions of Karelian Finns, Sudeten Germans, and Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent, faded away as displaced populations were absorbed in countries of similar religious and/or national character. The one glaring exception was the Palestinian refugees, who found shelter but few civic or political rights in neighbouring Arab countries (Jordan being the main exception).

The refugee status of the Palestinians was perpetuated by the host countries and the Palestinian leadership, and by the international community, through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the only UN body dedicated to a specific refugee group (all other refugees in the world are the responsibility of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). As a result, refugee status was passed down from father to son to grandson over 50 years, so that, today, they number three million to four million. That is why the Palestinians now account for about one-fourth of the world's refugees -- an impressive figure until one imagines how many refugees there would be if all the Finns and Germans and Indian Hindus and Muslims and European Jews who were made refugees after the Second World War (not to speak of the Greeks and Turks and Armenians who were made refugees during and after the First World War) were still considered refugees in the year 2000.

Palestinians insist that the refugee experience is at the core of their national existence and that the right of return, though neither demanded by nor granted to other refugees, is in their case self-evident and grounded in international legality. And by "return," they do not mean return, in the name of collective national existence, to the Palestinian homeland or to the Palestinian state that will soon, through agreement with Israel, come into being. Instead, they mean return to the precise geographical co-ordinates, the precise location inside Israel of the village or town or neighbourhood they or their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from in 1948. For this reason, the parallel sometimes drawn with the central theme of "return" in the history of the Zionist movement is more apparent than real; the latter involved national revival through return to the national homeland, not local patriotism expressed in return to a specific village or neighbourhood.

If Palestinian public statements are to be believed, acknowledgement of their right of return is an indispensable condition for the peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But since Israel itself is a small country with only about five million Jews, the practical effect of that would be two states in Palestine, one Arab and one binational -- a bizarre twist to the original logic of partition that sought to create an Arab state and a Jewish one. And whatever the logic might be, it is not going to appeal to Israelis, many of whom are prepared to trade land for peace but very few of whom are willing to trade their country for peace.

What Israelis should be willing to do is to recognize both the humanitarian dimension and the political centrality of the problem and to assume part of the responsibility for its solution, provided that the solution is based on reasonableness rather than on a Palestinian interpretation of perfection. Such a solution has been the subject of extensive discussions and unofficial negotiations, and its elements are fairly clear: the creation of a Palestinian state to provide a homeland, citizenship and, if need be, asylum for Palestinians everywhere; the admission of a limited number of Palestinians to Israel, within the framework of family reunification, subject to Israeli laws and practices; an expression of regret by Israel for actions on its part that contributed to the creation of the problem; the establishment of an international fund for compensation of refugee claims and Palestinian development, in which Israel would take part; actions by other host countries to provide normalized residency status, if not citizenship, for Palestinians unable or unwilling to move elsewhere; and the eventual abolition of UNRWA.

If the Palestinian leadership is also prepared to endorse a comprehensive solution as outlined here, the chances of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be much improved. But if it is prevented by a ticking time bomb of nationalist mythology from settling for anything less than the "right of return," then those who set that bomb by preaching "right of return" for more than five decades will themselves have to defuse it. The only alternative will be continuing conflict.
Mark Heller, principal research associate at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, is co-author, with Sari Nusseibeh, of No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

© Toronto Globe and Mail

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