The Palestinian Right of Return

By 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 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 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 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 created.


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 conflict”.

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.

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 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.


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 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 cof 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.


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.”