by Ziad AbuZayyad
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict does not date from today or the 1967 war; it goes back to the 1930s and 1940s when the Zionist movement stepped up its efforts to bring Jewish immigrants to Palestine, thus setting the stage for a future confrontation with the Palestinian Arabs. This confrontation had its full expression in the 1948 war, as a result of which the state of Israel was created and more than two-thirds of the Palestinians were uprooted from their homeland and became refugees. The international community failed then and has continued to fail so far to resolve this problem, and General Assembly Resolution 194 remains largely a symbol of the Palestinians’ demand to be allowed to return to their homes and lands in what became known as Israel. Since then, any discussion revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict switches immediately to a discussion of the Palestinians’ right to return.
Civilians are not obliged to endanger their lives by remaining in battle zones and they have the full right to flee for their lives and go back home when the fighting ends. This principle, which is embedded in international law, was enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fled their homes in northern Israel just recently in summer 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, was not applicable to the Palestinian Arabs. Despite that and for over six decades, the Palestinian refugees have identified with their native cities and villages from which they, their fathers or even grandfathers were expelled.
The right of return became a symbol of the Palestinian national struggle and a subject of competition among the different Palestinian political factions. Giving up on the right of return came to be regarded as an act of treason, and many politicians refrain from saying aloud what they really think in private about the possibility of exercising this right or the practicality of insisting on it, while insisting on it, at least for some of them, as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table.
Without doubt, the right of return is a thorny and sensitive subject and, therefore, difficult to broach because of the great deal of charged emotions involved. There is not a single Palestinian who, deep down inside or purely out of choice, would give up the right of return. What took place in 1948 — the expulsion and forced displacement of our people ranks among the ugliest crimes against humanity committed in the 20th century. The Palestinians believe that the international community — mainly in Europe — let down the Palestinians and made them pay the price for a crime they did not commit nor were part of — the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe — so that a Jewish state could be created to receive the Jews who were victims of Nazism and to compensate them.
Both an Individual and a Collective Right
The right of return is an individual and a collective right. It is not confined only to the actual physical return to the country from which the Palestinians were driven. It also pertains to their right to compensation for their suffering and the damages they have incurred as a result of their displacement and expulsion throughout the long Diaspora years.
In effect, any solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees must address their right to fair compensation for their suffering, humiliation and lost opportunities, as well as for their lost properties. In the case of properties that cannot be returned because they are nonextant, converted or built upon, their original owners should receive the property value on valuation day. In the case of extant properties, in addition to their restitution, there should be compensation for their exploitation and the income they will have generated since their seizure in 1948 until such a time an agreement is concluded. Israel should bear the responsibility for the refugee problem and should take the initiative to establish an international fund to help in this regard and within the above-mentioned parameters.
In principle, the individual right belongs to the individual and it cannot be discussed without the concerned individual appointing legal counsel, with power of attorney, to deal with these matters. All this is correct from a theoretical and legal standpoint, but when it comes to the practical level and the matter of implementation, disagreements can arise and viewpoints proliferate.
As for the collective right, it is the national right of the people who were displaced. This right can be dealt with by a representative who has integrity and is above reproach, who is elected democratically and enjoys a popular mandate. It is only this representative who will be empowered to speak for the people and to make commitments on their behalf.
In any event, talk about the right of return is in effect talk about the type of solution we want for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And whoever talks about the right of return has to bear in mind that it is intertwined with the method by which this right is to be exercised. Put simply, the prospects for resolving the conflict can be reduced to two options: a political solution agreed upon by Israel, or an international solution imposed on Israel, whether by force or other means of pressure.
Two Clear-Cut Options
First and foremost, we have to agree that Israel was established as a Jewish state. It does not cease to reiterate, with no hesitation or shame, that it is a Jewish state and that one of the most important principles for its survival is to safeguard its Jewish character by making sure that the vast majority of the population remains Jewish. This means that Israel rejects and will always reject the return to it of large numbers of Arabs as citizens with full citizenship rights, as this would tip the demographic balance and would cause it to lose its Jewish character and Jewish majority. Therefore, in the face of this principled stance on the part of the Israeli state, we should understand and acknowledge that talk about a political solution to the conflict is futile if, at the same time, we want to exercise the right of return in absolute terms, because this will spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, a matter that Israel will not accept willingly.
If the demographic threat or balance is Israel’s problem, then why not think of creative solutions that can address the demands and fears of both sides? Why not learn from the experience of the Arabs of East Jerusalem when their city was unilaterally annexed to Israel in1967? They were given the status of permanent residents in accordance with the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law — which, unfortunately, kept them vulnerable to expulsion and denied them the right to their own hometown.
Why not try to improve on that example with a view of ensuring the protection of the “returning” refugees and making sure they will not be subjected to any violation of their human rights and/or human security? This will not concern the eastern part of Jerusalem, which is an integral part of the territories occupied in June 1967 and should be returned to the Palestinians as the capital of their future state, but would be applicable to the 1948 refugees who will be going back to Israel inside the Green Line (the 1948 Armistice Line ).
A new approach that distinguishes between “residency” and “citizenship” and guarantees the stability, dignity and human security of the returning “residents” could present us with a solution. The Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homes and lands in Israel wherever possible, or relocated and rehabilitated nearby. According to this approach, the returning refugees will not be given full Israeli citizenship but the right to the status of full residents — without their being vulnerable to expulsion as is the case at present with the Arabs of East Jerusalem. And, except for the political rights of citizenship, they should be granted all other rights. This will make a political solution to the conflict possible, without jeopardizing the right of Israel to maintaining its Jewish majority and guaranteeing its future as such.
Could such a suggestion be accepted by Israel? The answer is most probably “No.” Demographic fears are one thing, and the Israeli policy to grab as much land as possible is another.
Land is at the core of the conflict, and all other issues are used as arguments to justify why Israel should not allow these lands to be returned to their Arab owners. Israel’s real intention is to grab as much Arab land as possible. The issue is not really the demography but the geography. After 1948, the Arabs who remained in their villages in what became Israel were forced to leave them and to gather in specified villages, which earned them the status of “absentees.” Consequently, the lands and properties in the villages they were forced to leave were confiscated and transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, which proceeded to transfer these properties to the Administration of the Lands of Israel on their way into Jewish hands. A similar fate befell the properties of the refugees who fled for their lives hoping to return once the war ended.
This is why the observers deem that the advocates of a political solution with realistic readiness to compromise on the right of return possess clarity of vision. These advocates realize and concede that a political solution does not allow for the exercise of the right of return, but believe that it does allow for the salvaging of whatever can be salvaged. In point of fact, such a position is not restricted to the Palestinian side that is seeking a political solution, but has acquired Arab legitimacy through the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which refers explicitly to “an agreed-upon solution to the right of return.” This statement implies that, within the framework of the political resolution of the Palestinian question on the basis of the API, the issue of the right of return must obtain Israel’s approval; in other words, Israel has the right to veto any solution pertaining to the refugees that does not satisfy it. Thus, giving up the absolute right of return is no more confined to the Palestinians who favor the political option, but includes as well the Arab states whose initiative has gained the support of the umbrella organization the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Those on the Palestinian side who talk about a realistic political solution recognize the state of Israel and acknowledge its existence. They seek a political solution through the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank within the June 1967 borders, as well as in the Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, both of which form an integral part of the West Bank, which was occupied in 1967. Although this is the position of the Palestinian leadership (the PLO), which advocates a political solution, the facts on the ground make the implementation of this position and its translation into reality a virtual impossibility. This is due to the settlement activities, which continue to gobble up large swaths of land from the Jerusalem area and from the north and south of the West Bank, rendering the shape of the prospective Palestinian state closer to a tattered piece of cloth, scattered all over the land. Such a state cannot be accepted by any Palestinian representative. So the refugees problem is not the only obstacle on the road to a political solution but also, and for most, the Israeli-created facts on the ground in the occupied territories. These facts jeopardize and rule out the possibility of creating a Palestinian state unless they are removed. The disengagement from Gaza in 2005 proved that this is possible.
Palestinian Pragmatism: How Viable?
Israel has taken advantage of the Palestinian readiness in the Camp David negotiations of 2000 to accept the principle of land swaps. Since then, Israel has decided — unilaterally — upon the areas that it wants to annex and has embarked on the expansion of settlement pockets and settlement quarters around Jerusalem, making the establishment of a Palestinian state pure delusion.
Thus, Israel, with its settlement practices and its inability to comprehend the limits of the Palestinian capacity to offer concessions, has killed any chance for a political settlement that the pragmatic Palestinian leadership could conceivably accept. And it is shoring up the Palestinian side that has lost faith in the political solution. In the interest of fairness, the solution proposed by Hamas in the past, which is predicated on a long-term hudna (ceasefire), cannot be implemented, either, without an acceptance of the fait accompli — the fact of Israel and its right to exist. The Hamas proposal went even further and included at the time a willingness not to fix the borders between the two sides, a fact that allows Israel to keep expanding whenever possible, and it did not broach the issue of the right of return. The long-term hudna proposed by Hamas means relegating or postponing the refugee problem together with the right of return to the future.
A Time for Decisions
The problem of those who talk about a pragmatic political solution and express a readiness to give up the right of return lies in the fact that Israel does not take them seriously and does not understand or acknowledge the limits of their capacity to make concessions. Consequently, in spite of all the glittering promises, they will come out empty-handed. And the problem with those who insist on cleaving to the principle of the right of return and its exercise is that they do not possess, in the foreseeable future, the practical option that can lead to a mechanism for implementing and exercising this right.
The options that we have are clear and specific. We either seek a political solution through which we will be compelled to waive the right of return — except perhaps with partial symbolic solutions — or we admit that the political solution does not enable us to exercise this right and, because we insist on it, we should scrap the phrase “political solution to the conflict” from our vocabulary. We then mobilize all our energies, together with the Jewish democratic and human rights forces, towards a protracted struggle throughout a long period of an Israeli apartheid regime in the occupied territories, leading to the relinquishing by Israel of its Jewish identity and to the creation of a bi-national state.
Time is running out, and we have to look for some true mechanism that will enable our people to make choices of their own free will. They will have to decide between the pragmatists and their endeavors to achieve a political solution on the basis of two states for two peoples and their opponents who insist on exercising the absolute right of return. They will have to choose between a political solution, with defined conditions that entail concessions on the exercise of the absolute right of return, and a drawn-out conflict that means years of bloodshed, suffering and a lack of security and stability for both sides along the path of an uncertain future. In the end, it is the right of the majority of our Palestinian people to choose the path they wish to follow through free and democratic elections.