Palestinian refugees returning to their village during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war
Palestinian refugees returning to their village after its surrender during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Photo by AFP
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Oudeh Basharat debates what I wrote regarding the Palestinian demand for right of return, and points out that “one must first stop quivering, almost fainting, at the very mention of the ‘right of return,’ as if this was some kind of heresy spoken before pious people." And really, there is no need to quiver; we must focus our gaze on reality, and attempt to understand it, even though it is a complex reality.

Those who support the occupation and the Greater Land of Israel have no problem with this reality – their position doesn’t allow for an agreement anyway, they want the territories anyway, and their whole political doctrine means a sort of “return” for millions of Palestinians to Israel. Yet for those who want to do away with the occupation, but not with Israel, it is pertinent to know if the Palestinian side is willing today to accept the principle against which it went to war in 1948 – two states for two peoples. No pious person has ever died as a result of hearing heresy, but Israel cannot live with principle that the descendants of Palestinian refugees can freely choose to settle in it.

The Palestinian demand that Israel take sole responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem amounts to demanding that Israel declare that the attempt to destroy it – as was the intention of the Palestinian side and the Arab states during that war – was justified; hence the damage sustained by the Palestinians in the course of frustrating this attempt is Israel's sole responsibility. Such a demand does not imply a willingness for an historic reconciliation. Sometimes, an attempt to destroy somebody may indeed be just, but even in that case the target of this attempt can be fully expected to resist it staunchly. The claim that Israel resisted the attempt to destroy it too fiercely in 1948 can easily be dismissed if we compare the way Israel conducted itself in that war that war with how other societies and states have faced existential threats.

In any case, the political tradition that Oudeh Basharat subscribes, that of the Israeli Communist Party, saw the issue of justice in 1948 differently. It supported the UN partition plan, on the basis of both peoples' rights to self-determination and blamed the Arab leaders who rejected partition and fought against it for a war of aggression and for the disaster that befell the Palestinian people. It hardly makes sense to demand today that Israel adopt this viewpoint of Haj Amin al-Husseini - the Mufti of Jerusalem at the time and the leader of Palestinian Arab in Mandatory Palestine - in this matter, rather than that of the Israeli communists at the time.

According to Basharat, Israel will discover, after it accepts the principle of the right of return to its territory, that the Palestinians “acknowledge the limitations on the full implementation of the right of return.” But in order to threaten Israel’s existence, there is no need for a full implementation of the right of return to Israel – a partial implementation would do the job. The Palestinian position is that the right to move to Israel is the individual right of every refugee or a refugee's descendant, a right that no one can give up in their name. A potential compromise lies in the way the right is supposed to be implemented: by quotas for amounts of returning refugees during a given period. But no such quota would be final, and as each quota is filled a new one must be filled, since the “sacred” right to choose to return to Israel stands for ever and passes from generation to generation.

I am not saying that this Palestinian position is necessarily final, this must be tested. And even if it turns out that this the position is indeed final at this stage, those who believe that partitioning the land is essential for Israel will not stop looking for ways to do it, regardless of the Palestinian position. But we must not keep our eyes shut.