'48 Beats '67 in Battle Over Right of Return

During the first intifada, Palestinians made much of the June anniversary of the Six-Day War. Not so today. What has changed?

Yesterday, June 5, was the 37th anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War. In Palestinian national idiom that war is termed Nakhsa, which translates as downfall or defeat, as opposed to the Nakba of 1948, which translates as disaster, holocaust, outrage.

Palestinians always viewed the Nakba as a greater tragedy than the Nakhsa, but their struggle placed more of an emphasis on Israel's occupation of the territories and less on the deportation of refugees. What has been happening over the last few years of bloody conflict is that the defeat of 1967 is being forgotten, whereas the memory of the 1948 disaster is growing stronger.

In the first few years after the 1967 war, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza marked the war's anniversary with parades and demonstrations and dozens of gatherings and ceremonial events. During the previous intifada (1987-1991), for example, there were strikes and disruptions of school and work, as well as violent incidents that engulfed the territories. This year, by contrast, the Palestinian public held only a handful of events at which mention was made of those six days in June 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza (and Sinai and the Golan) were conquered. The Palestinian press, too, devoted only slight attention to the subject in the weekend papers: one newspaper carried the memoirs of Abu Anton Seniora of Jerusalem, who described the day fighting broke out from his point of view as an employee at United Nations headquarters in the capital's Armon Hanatziv. Aside from that, there were a few articles and announcements by various organizations - and that was it. There's no comparison to what used to appear on this day in the past.

We can view the change in light of the strategy exercised by Yasser Arafat in the peace process years. In his hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public appearances since the Oslo Accords, Arafat made sure to use the slogan that calls for the Palestinian people to struggle "until the independent state is established with Jerusalem as its noble capital." He repeated that call ad nauseum, along with the demand for implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which the Palestinians and many others interpret as meaning a return to the 1967 borders.

Alongside the emphasis which Arafat and his people placed in those years on the need for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, what was strikingly noticeable was the fact that they were avoiding or evading dealing with the refugee problem created by the Nakba of 1948. In common Palestinian parlance, they dealt with "the 1967 case" and opted to leave "the 1948 case" closed.

All that changed in the last two to three years. The demise of the peace process pushed aside the Nakhsa case and reopened the Nakba case. This can be viewed also against the backdrop of a weakening of the central concept in the peace process - "two states for two peoples." When the states at issue are a Jewish state and an Arab state, one of the logical conclusions is that the Palestinians must forfeit realization of the right of return.

United Nations figures put the number of refugees today at some four million, and even if a not large portion of them are allowed to return to the State of Israel itself, that would mean it would cease to be a Jewish state. Israeli commentators have frequently remarked that implementing the right of return would realize a concept of three states for one people - the Palestinian people - instead of two states for two peoples. The three states are Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, and the State of Israel - all three of which would have a Palestinian majority.

The man who courageously declared his willingness to forfeit the right of return is Sari Nusseibeh, in his joint platform with former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon. Yossi Beilin's and Yasser Abed Rabbo's Geneva Initiative also contains a Palestinian willingness to give up the right of return, though it is worded more vaguely.

Yet Arafat and other Palestinian spokesmen often talk about the Return these days - more than they have ever done since the 1991 Madrid Conference, which marked the beginning of the peace process. It is no coincidence that Nakba day, which falls on May 15, was this year observed by the Palestinians in a far broader manner than in previous years. Thus, for example, the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam ran a supplement entitled "Right of Return," featuring articles by some of the finest Palestinian writers in the territories, Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. Some among them directed criticism at Arafat for not scolding Nusseibeh and Abed Rabbo for giving up the right of return. Others wrote about the current intifada as the continuation of the 1948 Nakba, in that Israel once more attacked the refugees. They noted the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp (in Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002), and detailed the major damage caused to the Khan Yunis and Balata camps and the recent demolition of dozens of homes in the Rafah refugee camps.

The lion's share of Palestinian rage over the past few weeks has been directed at U.S. President George Bush, who in his press conference with Ariel Sharon on April 14 in essence denied the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Jenin residents told an Al-Ayyam reporter that Khaled Mansour, known as Abu Rashid, a 70-year-old refugee from Haifa, hurled himself at the television in his home and threatened to break it when he heard Bush speak.

A Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem, who was asked last week what his paper is preparing for the anniversary of the Six-Day War, responded: "Almost nothing. For us Palestinians, the war in 1967 was to a large extent a war belonging to Jordan, Egypt and Syria, not our war. The Nakba and the intifada, on the other hand, are totally ours."