Opinion |

Palestinian Right of Return, Not Such a Complicated Issue

Today, the Arab refugees number six million. Would all of them actually want to return to Israel if given the chance?

Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery
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In this 1968 photo from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, archive, Palestinian refugees have just arrived in east Jordan from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In this 1968 photo from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, archive, Palestinian refugees have just arrived in east Jordan from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.Credit: AP
Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery

Ze’ev Binyamin "Benny" Begin, son of Menachem Begin, is a very nice fellow, the kind of guy you’d like to have for a friend. However, his political views are less amiable. He is even more extreme than his father. Menachem Begin, after having led the pre-state Irgun militia, sat down with Egypt's Anwar Sadat and made peace. His son acts more like Golda Meir, who ignored Sadat’s peace feelers and brought on the Yom Kippur War.

Benny Begin is an adherent of Revisionist Zionism, first expounded upon by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. One of the movement’s trademarks was the importance it attached to written words and declarations, in contrast to the Labor movement, under David Ben-Gurion, which ascribed little value to words and instead respected “facts in the field.”

Last week, Begin wrote one of his few and far between articles (Haaretz, October 9). Its main purpose was to prove that there is no possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians. In his view, this is a delusion harbored by Israeli peaceniks. Quoting various Palestinian texts, speeches and textbooks, Begin concludes that the Palestinians will never, ever, ever give up on the right of return. And since the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state, peace is a pipe dream, says Begin.

Another very thoughtful intellectual, Alexander Yakobson, reached the very same conclusion (Haaretz Hebrew edition, September 26). His article was directed at me personally and said I was “loyal to Israel, but not to the truth.” He accused me of being overly tolerant of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which aims to destroy Israel. How does he know this is its goal? Simple: BDS affirms the Palestinians’ right of return. And as everyone knows, the right of return means the end of the Jewish state.

I oppose BDS for different reasons. The movement I belong to, Gush Shalom, was the first to impose a settlement boycott (in 1997). Our goal was to distance the Israeli public from the settlers. BDS is achieving the opposite result. In seeking to impose a boycott of all of Israel, it is pushing the Israeli public into the settlers’ hands. To be honest, I’m not too keen on the idea of calling on the whole world to boycott me.

But of all the planks in the BDS platform, recognition of the right of return bothers me the least. In fact, I find it a bit ridiculous. BDS would never be able to force Israel to do so against its will, so why get all worked up over it?

Let me first shed a little light on the facts. When the British left Palestine in 1948, there were about 1.2 million Arabs and 635,000 Jews living between the river and the sea. During the 1948 War of Independence, 720,000 Arabs either fled or were expelled. Nowadays, we call that ethnic cleansing. Few Arabs remained in the area conquered by the Jews, but not a single Jew remained in the area conquered by the Arabs. Luckily, the Arabs were only able to conquer a small amount of territory (East Jerusalem, the Etzion Bloc and others), while our side conquered large, settled areas. I was a combat soldier and saw these things with my own eyes.

Today, the Arab refugees number six million. About 1.5 million live in the occupied West Bank, another million in Gaza, and the rest are spread out in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the rest of the world. Would all of them actually want to return to Israel if given the chance? This is the question.

Many years ago, I had an unusual experience. I was invited to give a talk in New York and to my great surprise and pleasure, in the front row I spotted the young Arab poet Rashid Hussein, from the village of Musmus near Umm al-Fahm. He urged me to come visit him at his home, not far from New York. When I got there, a bigger surprise awaited: The small apartment was packed with people – Palestinian refugees of all kinds, young and old, men and women. We had a long and emotional discussion about the refugee problem.

When we left, I said to my wife: “You know what I felt? Only a few really want to return to Israel, but they are all ready to give their lives for their right to return.” Rachel, who was a very sharp observer herself, said she had felt the same way. Today, decades later, I am still convinced that this is true.

I think there is a vast difference between principle and implementation. The principle cannot be denied. It belongs to the individual refugee. It is anchored in international law. It is sacred. Any future peace agreement will have to include a section affirming that Israel in principle accepts the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. No Palestinian leader would be able to sign a deal that doesn't include this clause. I can picture the scene: After agreement is reached on this clause at the peace summit, the chairman will take a deep breath and say, "And now, my friend, let’s move on to the real problem. How are we going to resolve the refugee problem in practice?"

There are many different types of refugees, and there is no single solution that is right for all of them. Over the past 50 years, many have built new lives in another country. They wouldn’t dream of returning to their ancestral village, even if it still existed. Among the refugees are people who are well-off – even very rich.

One of these is my friend Salman Abu Sitta, who was once a barefoot youth in the Negev. In 1948, he fled with his family to Gaza and went on to become a very successful builder in England and the Persian Gulf. We first met at a peace conference in Paris. We had a long and intense discussion over a private dinner. We did not agree. Abu Sitta insists that all the refugees must be allowed to return to Israeli territory, even if they would all be settled in the Negev desert. I did not see any practical sense in this.

Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of discussions with Palestinians about a solution to the refugee problem – from Yasser Arafat to residents of the refugee camps near Beirut. The vast majority would sign up on the spot to a formula that sought “a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem,” meaning “agreed upon” with Israel. This wording also appears in the Arab peace plan that was drawn up in Saudi Arabia and officially accepted by the entire Muslim world.

What would it actually look like? It would mean that every refugee family would be given a choice between actual return and due compensation. Return to where? There are very few villages still standing empty. It’s possible to imagine that two or three such villages would be revived by their original residents. An agreed-upon number of Palestinians would be permitted to return to Israeli territory, particularly those who have families here. This is hard for Israelis to swallow. Hard, but not too hard. Israel currently has about two million Arab citizens, who comprise more than 20 percent of the population. A somewhat larger number – say, another quarter million – would not create a substantial change.

All the others would be generously compensated; the money would help them establish themselves where they currently live, or to immigrate to countries that would be glad to receive them (and their money). They would all welcome compensation. Where will the money come from? Israel will have to pay its part (meanwhile saving a lot of money from a reduction of the defense budget), and international organizations would have to give generously.

Is it possible? Yes, certainly. If the atmosphere is right, I dare say it is even quite likely. Contrary to Begin’s faith in written texts (the work of demagogues concerned with their own interests), when a process more or less like the one I have outlined here gets underway, there will be practically no way of stopping it.

And let us not forget for a moment that these “refugees” are human beings.

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