Who caused Palestinian Diaspora?

Category: Middle East, World Affairs Topics: Conflicts And War, Occupation Views: 6013

In early October, I meandered the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland with easy-laughing Mahmoud. We were bleary-eyed from international travel, and from many hours of animated discussions at our conference. 

Scholars, lawyers and activists had converged to explore ways to implement the rights of Palestinians to return to and regain their homes, seized by Israel in 1948. This fate had befallen Villa Harun ar-Rashid, the Jerusalem home of my late grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat. We had been inspired by accounts of successful campaigns for housing restitution for refugees and other dispossessed peoples in Bosnia, South Africa and Rwanda.

The sky was leaden, the wind off the slate lake bracing. But the fountain at the end of the lake lofted exuberant white plumes of water toward the heavens, and seemed to elevate with them our hopes and dreams for a more just and peaceful future. 

Little did we suspect that in other conference rooms across the same city, Israelis and Palestinians had been conducting covert, informal negotiations for two years toward what are now touted as the "Geneva Accord." The agreement, while envisioning a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, studiously avoids mention of the very rights Mahmoud and I, and many others, are fighting to protect. The negotiators, prominent private citizens, include former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information and Culture Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. 

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vehemently attacked the unofficial pact, and the negotiators have been condemned as irresponsible meddlers. The accord has no chance of adoption in the immediate future. 

Its principal objective may have only been didactic: to teach Israelis there is an alternative to the militaristic policies of Sharon. 

The pointed silence regarding the Palestinian right of return, however, means that an important opportunity has been missed to apprise Israelis, and the world, of a critical reality. No real or lasting peace will be achieved in the area until Israel finally admits the long-denied truth, accepts moral responsibility and apologizes for its forcible exile of Palestinian refugees 55 years ago. 

In 1948, three quarters of a million Palestinians were driven from what became Israel, their homes, land and possessions taken over by the new Jewish state. Most were victims of direct military attacks, forcible expulsion orders or a deliberate campaign of terror and intimidation, fueled by actual massacres. A post-war internal report from the Haganah (a quasi-official Jewish militia) stated that of 391,000 Palestinians who had fled by June, 1948, some 73 percent had done so in response to Jewish military operations. 

Palestinian villagers were often attacked at night, from two or three sides, while a road to the closest Arab country was left open. Their flight was hastened by news of massacres committed by Zionist forces, the most infamous of which occurred on April 9, 1948 in Deir Yassin. Up to 254 mostly unarmed Palestinians were slaughtered. Some were paraded in Jerusalem on trucks before being executed. 

Describing the July 10, 1948 attack on Kweikat, near Haifa, a villager attested: "We were awakened by the loudest noise we had ever heard, shells exploding and artillery fire ... the whole village was in panic ... Most of the villagers began to flee with their pajamas on. The wife of Qasim Ahmad Said fled [mistakenly] carrying a pillow in her arms instead of her child." 

Exile involved more than material deprivation. Palestinians lost their homes, belongings, fields, orchards, workshops, possessions, professions -- but more than that they lost their human dignity. Any people that has suffered massive wrongs -- African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Jews -- understand the special wound of victimization for who you are, not what you have done. 

Like slavery for African-Americans, internment for Japanese-Americans and the Nazi holocaust for Jews, the "Nakba" ("Catastrophe") was a seminal event in the consciousness of the Palestinian people. No act of the Palestinians justified their expulsion. Their only "crime" was that they were born Christians and Muslims in a place coveted by the Zionist movement for an exclusive Jewish state, and refused to slink off into history as a vanquished people.

As Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, once candidly admitted to a colleague: "If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it's true, but 2,000 years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country." (The comment was made to Nahum Goldmann, as reported in the latter's book, "The Jewish Paradox.") 

The U.N. quickly affirmed the right of the Palestinians to choose to return to their homes, or to receive compensation and support for resettlement. Israel stone-walled the entire international community, rejecting virtually any return by the refugees of 1948, a position the U.S. delegate to the U.N. Conciliation Committee on Palestine denounced as "morally reprehensible." 

An official Israeli Transfer Committee under Yosef Weitz mobilized to block the return of Palestinian refugees, orchestrating the obliteration of entire Palestinian villages, or their resettlement with Jewish immigrants. 

The Transfer Committee also devised a propaganda plan to justify Israel's rejection of the right of return. Israel soon claimed that Palestinians left their homes after radio broadcasts by Arab leaders bidding them to evacuate. Later review of broadcast transcripts proved this claim to be a fabrication. Israel argued that Jewish emigration from Arab countries, some of which flowed to Israel, constituted a "population exchange" that compensated for its expulsion of the Palestinians -- as if two wrongs made a right. 

Israel also blamed Arab states for "failing to resettle Palestinian refugees" -- something the Palestinians themselves actively resisted. Five and a half decades later, Palestinian refugees and their offspring number 5.5 million people. 

Israel's denial of responsibility for the refugees, and rejection of their repatriation -- unchallenged by the new "Geneva Accord" -- is, at this stage, as galling and hurtful as the original expulsion itself. The pain of denial should be intuitively understood by victims of the Nazi holocaust -- indeed, by all of us who are repelled by denial of that terrible episode in history. 

Thus the chances for long-term peace and reconciliation would be greatly advanced if the Israeli government were to stop hiding the truth. As remote as peace seems today, halting the 55-year cover-up and apologizing would place peace negotiations between the two peoples on an entirely different ground. At this stage, the dream of return to Palestine is for many Palestinians a shield against despair, and recognition of the right to return a matter of great principle. A sincere Israeli apology would be a milestone toward reconciliation that no Palestinian could ignore. 

Formidable obstacles lie in the path to apology. Many Israelis doubt that Israel deliberately expelled the Palestinians. But many others -- elders who remember the events of 1948, or others who have read histories of the period based on recently declassified documents -- know the truth. 

More difficult are Israeli fears about the consequences of such an admission, especially the possible return of large numbers of Palestinians to Israel, and the attendant threat to the Jewish character of their state. Yet establishing an ethnically exclusive state in someone else's country may not be a "right" that merits protection. Accepting back refugees, who would form a larger Palestinian minority in Israel than has been deemed ideal for Jews, may be the price Israel must pay for establishing a Jewish state in Arab Palestine. 

Nor would an apology inevitably cause the return of millions of Palestinian refugees. It is entirely possible that, with the dignity of Palestinian refugees ameliorated by an apology, Palestinians' decisions regarding actual return would be based on more purely pragmatic grounds. 

Of course, part of Israel's political elite may still seek exclusive Jewish control over all of former Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If so -- and there is much in current Israeli policy that supports such an inference -- apology is the furthest thing from their minds, and the regional forecast is for blood. One must place hope in the small but growing number of Israelis who see through the curtain of fear behind which their leaders hide their expansionist policies, and in the desires of many other Israelis to live a simple life of peace. 

I can add personal testimony to the power of apology. Last May, I wrote about going to visit my grandparents' home in Jerusalem, and my exchanges with its Jewish residents, and their attempts to deny my family's connection to our home. After my story was published, I heard from three other Israelis who had lived there after its expropriation in 1948. Two of the three discussed the home only casually, without acknowledging my family's dispossession. 

But the third person was different. His message to me began: "I read your article with special interest, and with an odd, but distorted sense of connection to you." He explained that he was a native-born Israeli, and while a member of the Haganah during the 1948 war, was stationed in Villa Harun ar-Rashid for a period of three months. He ended by saying that he would like to meet me, and apologize for the taking of my family's home. 

Fortunately, the gentleman lived nearby and, indeed, we met. After an hour of friendly conversation, this dear man reached across the table, extending his hand, and said: "I am sorry. I was blind. What we did was wrong, but I participated in it and I cannot deny it." He added: " I owe your family three months rent," and we both broke into laughter. 

It is hard to fully describe what I experienced. But vindication was secondary to the tremendous surge of admiration I felt for this man's moral courage. I was inspired, truly, to match his humanity. Just that response, writ large, is what awaits Israel if it could bring itself to apologize to the Palestinians. There is an untapped reservoir of Palestinian magnanimity and good will that could transform the relations between the two peoples, and make things possible that are not possible today.

George Bisharat is a law professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

  Category: Middle East, World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Occupation
Views: 6013

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Older Comments:
Some historical facts. There is no Palestine. There is no such thing as a Palestinian. The Arabs in Israel have as little claim to that land as the Arabs and Muslims who are in the demographic majority of Paris have to the Eifel Tower. Palestine is a name given to Judea by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, named after the Phillistines of the Bible, to disposses the Jews of their land. At that time there were no Arabs or Phillistines in Judea. Neither the word Palestine nor the Phillistines are of Arabic origin.
Prior to Zionist settlement in the late 1800's The land was barren, unwanted, and sparsely populated. Prior to the establishment of the artifical state of Jordan, Palestine referred to a region that encompasses both Israel and Jordan. Israeli Arabs enjoy representation and civil liberties unheard of under the Hashemites, yet only Israel is costantly pressured into suicidal land concessions.
Jerusalem has no significance to Islam. In all the time that it was under Ottoman or Jordanian rule, it was neither an economic, political, religious, nor cultural capital of either government. With the exception of the the Hasemites, Arabs have never ruled the land. Why then should Jerusalem be the capital of "Palestine".
Israel acts in self defense and targets combatants, going to great lengths to avoid civilian colateral damage. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Martyrs, etc. especially target civilians. No terrorist after being arrested has ever been put to death in Israel. Muslim governments practice brutal repression against their own people and execute for alcohol possesion, Christian missionary work, blasphemy against government or religious figures. The Saudi monarchy defecates on gold plated toilet seats, yet is oblivious to starving Arab masses all over the Middle East. Arafat embezeles money given to him to develop a working infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank. School children are raised to be suicide bombers. Yet Israel is portrayed as the oppressor.

This is the truth it should be broader than that, but that is the truth no argument about it. I am a Palestinian living in America and I know what it's like Wassalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatulah.

It is so good to see in words what so many of us already know. The attacks on the Palestinian people are so very, very wrong. How could the Israeli people do this to a country that welcomed them in after all of the devastation that their people had just gone through with the Nazis? I do not understand this mode of thinking. How could they turn around and do to the Palestinian people what had been done to them? Palestine was the ONLY country in the whole world who would take the Jews in when they were expelled from Germany and all of the other countries where they were being held. The United States did not and yet we stood by, and are still standing by and doing nothing to help the Palestinans. How can the Israelis, with a clean conscience do this? They know that they are wrong, but they feel more than justified because, after all, Palestinian people do not worship the right God. Why do people not stop and take the time to use the brillant brain that God gave us all and know that we are all created by Him, by whatever name a people choose to call Him, there is but One and how He must weep to see what we have done to each other in His name. Thank you for your words for they have given me more knowledge. Gaining knowledge and creating love in our hearts is what God has been teaching us. If people would only stop, take the time to read His words whether they are from the Qur'an, Torah or the Bible and learn from them, then we could live in peace. Sharing what we have, whether it is land, food, clothing, or ideas. God did not create us to be the selfish, self-serving, egotistical indivduals so many people have become. God forgive us all for our blindness and weaknesses. May this new year, whether it is Muslim or Christian calendar, bring peace to that part of the world, and pray that hope is kept alive. His blessings be upon you for being brave enough to share your words and ideas, for He is most Gracious and Merciful.

Salam Alaikum,
Its true the displaced has the right to return, but it cannot be achieved with violence. Allah has given us 2 weapons 1.dawah 2. dua. when all the palestenians revert to this primary work, allah will give hidayah to Israel or remove from middle east. Was this not the way of all the holy prophets..........but we forgot

Salamu Alaikum,

I have only one question based on what I watched on CBS news with all the evidence from Yasser Arafat's own former deputies in the finance/treasury department of the PLO. How come Yasser Araft ranks second to queen Elizabeth in wealth both of whom are amongst the 10 richest countries in the world while his own people are living next to their defecations? This is the biggest tragedy the Palestinian masses are facing not the occupation. How can they let him get away with all this embezzlement and trickery? No wonder Israel is too smart for them. How come his own wife and daughter have chosen to live in Paris with a salary of $100,000 a month while the rest of his governed are living in inhuman conditions and being treated like sub-humans? How can you trust a leadership which is infested with cronyism, nepotism, and egotism more than anything else? It is high-time Arafat left and gave up all his theft-wealth for the benefit of his legitimate compatriots in order for them to establish a democratic state. This the truth which every single Muslim must know.


I'm writing this comment because I pray to Allah to continue to show you and many others the truth. Let your conscience be your guide said the sage.

Do you believe there is such a thing as a beginning and and an end, and that the truth is absolute, and that the false is temporal?

If you do, then you know that when the truth is known, what is false can no longer support itself.

Hearts are like lightbulbs. The truth brightens it, and lies make it dim. The former reveals the straight path that is clear; the latter misleads and deceives and brings about confusion and despair.

It seems as if the vast majority of people in the world are more susceptible to believe a truthful person is lying, and that a liar is telling the truth!

Nations that protect each others' lies, while professing to be sincere in their actions, are now literally being confronted with the truth on a battlefield, as the truth of individuals coming together, represents what is right in the face of what is wrong - even though they might not speak of it. As the truth faces the liars with more conviction than ever before, ask yourself deep in your heart, do you not feel the twisted presence growing in this world?

Are we stubborn when we know the truth yet defy and reject and disbelieve what God puts in our hearts for our own good? Do you turn your back from it (the truth), after asking yourself in your heart if that what you just found out could be true?

What will become of those who are stubborn and let injustices pass them by? Who are those who will be left alone one day, as the most proud and defiant?

Just think about it, it could be you or me...it's time we take responsibility for our actions, or lack thereof.

By the way i'm not directing this towards anyone individually, just to let everyone know...I just felt like raising some questions I think we should ask ourselves, individually.

I guess human beings (e.g. the ones that are really wanting the peace process) will have to be more persistent and more demanding to pressuring Sharon, Blair, Bush and any one else who is against the peace. The reason Sharon does what he is doing is because no one is demanding like Bush his Administration are supporting this atrocity and the inhuman attacks and treatment of the Palatines and everywhere else the Americans put their dirty hands. With Allah's will and humans determination there will come peace to the Middle East.

The refugees found themselves refugees as a consequence of war, just as 17 million Germans found themselves refugeees following World War II. 1.300.000 Greeks found themselves refugees after the Greco-Turkish war of 1922/3 and tens of millions of Muslims and Hindus found themselves refugees because of the war that divided India. None of them returned to their old homes, none of them will. If peoples decide to go to war, they must bear the conseqences.

First off - great article.

"Most were victims of direct military attacks, forcible expulsion orders..." The really frustrating thing is I don't see why the reason for leaving should even be an issue with regards to Palestinian Right To Return. The way I see it, they left their home for a while. They could have been forced out by the military, they could have been going on vacation, they could have been at the corner store - it doesn't matter. It doesn't give anyone the right to occupy their house and lands. I can't imagine the rage I would feel if someone stole my house from me, regardless of the reason I left.

Not to belittle the fact that many or most were *forced* out - that fact should be part of a discussion regarding compensation by the state for its criminal behaviour, not a discussion regarding what should be a basic right to go back to their homes.

I know I'm not getting my thoughts across properly, and I apologize for that, but the bottom line is that unless a Palestinian sold the property to the state or an Israeli individual, the property is still theirs. The reasons why they didn't occupy the land for a period of time is immaterial.

the whole article seems to be exactly true
we muslims should take action....
more people to join will make the jihad better and more convinient

....and we Muslims are watching! Who lost dignity. Palestanians or Muslims. Think again.