The High Court and Fear of Return

A few days ago, yet another round came to an end in the struggle of the people of Ikrit, who have been fighting for more than half a century to return to their demolished village. The High Court turned down their petition and ruled that the state's position, which rejects their return.

A few days ago, yet another round came to an end in the struggle of the people of Ikrit, who have been fighting for more than half a century to return to their demolished village. The High Court turned down their petition and ruled that the state's position, which rejects their return, touches on affairs in which the government has great latitude "and the arena of reasonableness granted to it is very broad."

The government's position was expressed in October 2001: "The issue of the refugees and the Arab demand to return the refugees came up intensively at the Camp David talks, at Taba, and in the violent wave that followed, and sharpened the ramifications that could result from a decision on this issue. The precedent of returning the uprooted to their village will be used for propaganda and political purposes by the Palestinian Authority ... [and] invite a considerable number of suits from all those who want to `reopen' the War of Independence and its results."

The High Court therefore relied on reasons of state - or, in the words of the government, its "broad political considerations" - to reject the petition. The court even emphasized that, saying "it would be appropriate - if there is a change in the political situation - to consider another solution that would allow the petitioners to settle in the same area [as their village]."

What is the connection between the petition by the people of Ikrit and the "right of return?" The people from Ikrit, by rejecting every offer for compensation or alternative land and by insisting on the principle of returning to their land, have turned the matter into a symbol. Thus, they strengthen the government position, which refers to a precedent that will be followed by more communities of "absent present" ("internal refugees"), who will make similar demands.

But the problem of some 200,000 internal refugees, who are citizens of Israel and were uprooted from their homes between 1947-1952 and remained inside the country, is not about the right of return, which is presented as a conspiratorial plot to change the demographic balance and turn the Jewish people into a minority in their homeland. The internal refugees - including the people of Ikrit - are already Israeli citizens. There is nothing in the return to their land that would strengthen the demand for a right of return for Palestinians overseas.

True, the Ikrit case can be regarded as a precedent in the matter of about half a dozen villages that were also forcibly removed from their land without legal authority after the end of the War of Independence, and have been given High Court verdicts allowing them to return to their homes, like the people of Ikrit.

But who said such a precedent must be negative? On the contrary, a precedent that would provide a solution to the material and symbolic demands of these Israeli citizens, who are supposed to have equal rights, would be a signal that their case can become a model for solving the problems of refugees in the countries where they reside - especially the Arab states. Therefore, "political considerations" should actually make the government respond positively to the aspirations of the people of Ikrit to be allocated the small amount of empty land they need to establish a community settlement on their own land.

But the fear of the "right of return" is not from the realm of politics, nor is it even a matter of "broad considerations" of security matters. It comes from the realm of psychology. "The return" has always been the Israeli nightmare. The mere thought of it raises from the depths the "expulsion" and the need to consider that the fates of hundreds of thousands of people has been mythologized into something that removes any responsibility from Israel.

The myth is that the refugees not only left willingly and at the behest of their leaders, but were always a form of human dust, never feeling as if they belonged to their homeland. That's why they ran away so easily. If there's any dwelling on the Palestinians' deep emotional connection to the homeland, as displayed by the people of Ikrit, the Pandora's box of the 1948 dilemmas will be opened, exposing the holes in the myth of "the justice of our cause," and confronting the black mark of the crimes of expulsion, lawlessness and retroactive legislation.

It is best for the government, therefore, to turn Ikrit into a red herring, thus intensifying the fear of the return and strengthening the argument that postpones any attempt to begin a process of reconciliation: "The precedent of the right of return, the purpose of which is to destroy Israel or destroy its Jewish character." It's ironic that the Israelis, who have managed to prevent any attempt to bring back the refugees, who changed the physical and demographic landscape in a way that leaves nothing for the refugees to return to, and even managed to persuade most of the countries in the world that the return of the refugees is not practical and will never be allowed, are the ones who continue to be haunted by the nightmare of the "return," as if they are the helpless side and the Palestinians are capable of threatening them.

The paranoia of "the return" seems to be so baseless that it raises suspicions that its use to frighten the High Court is the result of an entirely different need: An agreement to grant the people of Ikrit a few hundred dunam of the tens of thousands that were expropriated from them would become a precedent for similar demands by tens of thousands of internal refugees, whose collective rights would be recognized on the basis of the Basic Law for Human Dignity and Liberty. That demand is perceived as a dangerous precedent by the Israeli government, the government of "the only democracy in the region."