An Exception to the Rule

Sari Nusseibeh first crafted his position on the refugee problem and right of return in an article published in Ha'aretz and al Quds on September 24. He again explained his position in an article in al Quds on November 8: "It is clear that Israel will not accept the Palestinian demand that four million refugees return to within its borders, after a Palestinian state is established beside it."

Sari Nusseibeh first carefully crafted his position on the refugee problem and right of return in an article published in Ha'aretz and al Quds on September 24. He again explained his position recently in an article in al Quds on November 8: "It is clear that Israel will not accept the Palestinian demand that four million refugees return to within its borders, after a Palestinian state is established beside it. Therefore, we Palestinians must formulate a solution which takes this refusal into account... However, this does not mean that I oppose the refugees' return, nor that I deny their right to return to their homes and property."

Even this careful wording can definitely be viewed as a rare and brave step, because it hints quite clearly at the fact that the future diplomatic solution might not include the fulfillment of the right of return. Many Palestinians no doubt think this - but very few are willing to say so publicly.

Nusseibeh himself, the descendent of an old respected Jerusalem family, can be considered a "half refugee," on his mother's side. His grandfather, Yaakub Russein, who during the British mandate of Palestine established a national party known as "the Youth Congress", was a member of the High Arab Committee and owned a considerable amount of property around Ramle and Nes Tziona, which was of course all lost in 1948.

The number of refugees mentioned by Nusseibeh - four million - is arbitrary. United Nations figures speak of some 3.5 million Palestinian refugees, less than half of whom live today in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Palestinian registries speak of more than five million refugees. The differences are not because someone is lying, but rather the result of different definitions of who is a refugee. The UN registered as refugees not only those who lost their home and property, but also anyone who lost their family's main financial backing. Residents of the village of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, for example, all remained in their homes, but lost plots of land they owned near the Erez junction, on the Israeli side of the border. Therefore, they received UN refugee status. The Palestinians consider anyone who lost even a small portion of their property or livelihood to be refugees. In an extreme example, this definition could grant refugee status to the member of a rich Nablus family, simply because before 1948 the family head had been a junior partner in a store in Jaffa.

It is important to note all this, because anyone opening the door for recognition of the Palestinian right of return will have to deal not only with humanitarian cases of refugees living in camps, but also with millions of others, many of whom do not even consider the issue a political one. "If Nusseibeh wants to give up - he can give up his father's house, but he cannot give up my father's house," said the owner of a clothing stall at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, whose family owned a house and property in the destroyed village of Lifta.

Responding to his critics, Nusseibeh reminded them that not so long ago he objected even to the division of the land between the two peoples. Indeed, during the first intifada, Nusseibeh often said that as far as he was concerned, Israel can annex the West Bank and Gaza; the Palestinians will then make up close to half of the residents of Israel, and will fight for equal rights. Then too, Nusseibeh came under harsh criticism. Since then, he abandoned this idea and arrived at the conclusion that the only possible formula is "two states for two peoples" - which in practical terms means a waiving of the right of return. If this right is not waived, there will in fact be three states (Jordan, the territories and Israel) for one people - the Palestinian people.

But Nusseibeh states clearly (and this is the headline given to his statements in the Palestinian press) that this formula also means a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the territories taken in 1967 and a dismantling of all Jewish settlements built on this land. It is hard to find Israelis who will accept this, just as it is hard to find Palestinians who will agree to concessions on the refugees' right of return. Indeed, Nusseibeh's voice is an important one, which perhaps signals a certain change. Yet it is more likely to assume that he is the exception that proves the rule - and the rule is that the majority of the Palestinians are not willing to waive the right of return.