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! They want to throw us into the sea!
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. 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 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 two peoples, 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 nineteenth century, with as few non-Jews as possible.
"The right of return
is a basic human
right and cannot be
denied in our time."
The Palestinian national movement expressed the struggle of the native Arabs for national freedom and independence. Nationalists 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.
In the war of 1948, the historic clash came to a head. On the eve of the war, some 1.2 million 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. After the war, the new State of Israel declined to allow the refugees to return to the territories it had conquered; instead, the Ben-Gurion government eradicated 450 Arab villages and put Jewish settlements on their sites. Thus the refugee problem was created.
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 Kosovars to return to their homes. I propose that the State of Israel recognize the Right of Return in principle, while pointing out that the implementation of the principle can only come about by way of negotiation and agreement.
The president or prime minister of Israel should solemnly apologize to the Palestinians for the injustice inflicted upon them in the realization of Zionist aims, at the same time emphasizing that these aims were mainly directed towards national liberation and saving millions from the Jewish tragedy in Europe. Then, a "truth committee" should be established, composed of Israeli, Palestinian, and international historians, to investigate the events of 1948 and 1967 and to submit a comprehensive report that can become part of both Israeli and Palestinian school curriculum.
Acknowledging the principle, however, still leaves the practical problem, which can only be solved with the establishment of the State of Palestine. The new Palestinian state would take the first step-the granting of Palestinian citizenship to every Palestinian refugee. For the refugees, this step would 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 and are denied the normal protections offered to citizens of one state living in another.
The second responsibility would be Israel's. A basic element of the Right of Return is the right of every single refugee to choose freely between return and compensation.
While the recognition of the Right of Return in principle is a collective right, its implementation in practice is a private right, in the realm of the individual Palestinian. In order to be able to make his or her decision, each Palestinian must know all the rights accruing to him or her: 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, as well as for the loss of opportunities, etc. This compensation, which undoubtedly will be a great sum, 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. Yet Israelis must not delude themselves that only others will pay. Israel as "custodian of absentee property" holds huge properties-buildings, lands, movable property-left behind by the refugees, and it is its duty to pay for them.
Return to Palestine or Israel
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, in fact, 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 should find their place in the State of Palestine. If the Israel-Palestine borders become open to the free movement of people and goods, these former refugees would be able to visit the places where their ancestors lived in Israel while being able to create their own culture and nation in Palestine. To absorb this large number of returnees and provide them with housing and employment, the Stat,e of Palestine must receive appropriate compensation from the international fund and Israel. Israel should transfer abandoned Jewish settlements intact to the Palestinian state, and should take the refugee influx into account when negotiating the equitable division of water and resources.
Yet, even given the reasonableness of a Palestinian return to a Palestinian state, in order to make the healing of 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 itself. This part of the plan will arouse the strongest opposition in Israel. 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.
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 government of Israel already recently offered to take back a few thousand refugees annually in the framework of "family reunification." The extreme right in Israel has demanded the annexation of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and appears quite ready to grant Israeli citizenship to the quarter of a million Arabs living there.
The decisive question is: How many can be brought back? Minimalists say 100,000, maximalists about half a million. Close to 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 50,000 new Jewish immigrants every year. I myself have proposed an annual quota of 50,000 for 10 years.
I am aware that my offer far from satisfies Palestinian demands. But I am convinced that the great majority of Palestinians know that compromise is the price both sides have to pay in order to leave behind the painful past and to prepare for the building of their future in the two states.
When Will It Happen?
This solution can be implemented in a few years.
The first stage will be, of course, the achievement of an agreement between the two parties. The second stage will be the process of choosing. An international agency will have to make certain that every refugee family thoroughly knows its rights, is able to choose freely, and makes its choices within an orderly process. The third stage will be the implementation, which will certainly take several years. Clearly the fear of many Israelis, that a catastrophic influx of refugees will suddenly engulf them, is without basis.
When both sides start on the path to the solution, they may find it facilitates reconciliation 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 the builders refused has become the cornerstone of the building."
Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom, the most militant part of the Israeli peace movement.