Editorial, Jewish Currents, September 2001

Refugees and the Right of Return

0f all the problems to be resolved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homeland is one of the most difficult. Palestinians see it as a correction of the fundamental injustice of being dispossessed from their land. Israelis see it as a threat to the very existence of their state. The arguments, pro and con, cannot be understood without some review of how the problem was created.

Historians may differ about precise numbers and details but it is clear that the war of 1948, in which the Palestinians hoped to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel, resulted in about 750,000 Palestinians being uprooted from their homes. Some were driven out by the victorious Israeli army, some left voluntarily, and some were persuaded to go by promises from Arab leaders that the Arab armies would soon be back to drive the Israelis out. The new state of Israel refused to allow any return of refugees and hundreds of Arab villages were destroyed or given over to Jewish settlers from Arab countries.

The Israel which now exists shares a great deal of responsibility for creating the refugee problem but there were others whose actions contributed to the problem, among them the Arab leaders of the time and the United Nations.

In December of 1948 the UN passed Resolution 194, under which the refugees would be allowed to return or be given compensation for their lost property. Israel refused to agree and argued that the Resolution was really only a "recommendation." Arab advocates of the right of return often cite the resolution to bolster their position, but they neglect to mention that the Arab states at the UN at the time voted against the resolution since it required recognition of and peace with Israel, conditions the Arab leaders refused to meet. With both sides in opposition, the resolution was and is ineffective until the political situation changes.

Hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were forced out in the 1967 war. Estimates are that there are now, allowing for natural growth of the population, about 3.7 million refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza strip and several Arab countries.

Again, both Israel and the Arab leaders share responsibility - Israel for forcing them out and the Arab countries for doing nothing to relieve the miserable conditions in the refugee camps. Israel is often castigated for its behavior in this regard, but the Arab countries also behaved badly by not allowing the refugees to become citizens and keeping them in their desperate situation to be used as a bargaining chip or a source of anti-Israel militants. Neither side has a monopoly on morality.

The right of people to return to their homeland is a basic human right and should not be denied. In this case there are huge obstacles to implementation, based on history, politics and misperceptions. The Israeli Jewish population and the American Jewish community see the demand for the right of return as an attempt to destroy Israel by flooding it with hostile Palestinian refugees who would outnumber the Jewish population, while the Palestinians see it as correcting an injustice. These perceptions can be dealt with, but only if everyone calms down, drops the overblown rhetoric and takes steps to deal with the fears and aspirations of the other side.

Israel must accept the principle of the right of return. It should acknowledge that the zeal of its founders to create a state led to displacement of Palestinians. Seeking a safe haven for Jews was a worthy goal, particularly after the tragedy of the Holocaust, but it was Palestinians who paid much of the price.

Both peoples have a right to self-determination including a state of their own. In this case two justified rights are in conflict over land and should be compromised.

A joint investigation of the events leading up to the refugee problem should be held and publicized. We all have a right to know what happened and both sides should agree to face the truth. We can be sure that neither side will come out with clean hands.

Refugees should be given a choice of return or compensation. A schedule of return should be set up which will not create a sudden overwhelming flood. First should be those who themselves lost property, perhaps about 100,000. Since Israel now has a little over one million Arab citizens this added group could be absorbed without too much difficulty. They are now over 60, unlikely to have any more children and would not be seen as a threat to Israeli demographics. Next could be the children and grandchildren, most of whom have never lived in Israel and are more likely to accept compensation and go to a Palestinian state or elsewhere. If a large number decide to return, they could be spread out over several years.

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which will have to be evacuated to allow for a Palestinian state, can be turned over as partial compensation. Financial compensation, obviously on an enormous scale, should be administered by an international fund, since the UN as well as the Arab states and Israel bears responsibility for allowing the situation to develop.

The proposal for a bi-national state is unrealistic and is dismissed by the vast majority of Israelis, and American Jews, as a ploy to destroy Israel. It has never had any sizeable support and if implemented would require the Jewish people to give up their striving for a national homeland. Israel cannot be expected to commit suicide.

After years of sacrifice, killing, hostility, mistrust mounting rage and calls for revenge one state is an impractical idea. Both peoples need a state of their own and time to develop their national aspirations.

That Israel has special rights for Jews and undemocratic features for Arab citizens, which should be corrected, is true, but all nation states, including the Arab world and so-called democracies, have similar flaws expressed in laws determining who is allowed to immigrate. Examples are Australia, Canada and Germany. Why single out Israel in this regard?

The best compromise is still what progressives have always advocated - two states for two peoples. Israel must evacuate the settlements and give up control of the occupied territories and the dream of exclusive jurisdiction of Jerusalem. The Palestinians must give up the idea of an unlimited right of return and accept co-existence. A compromise must be negotiated.

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