We cannot have them back

In the last of a series, an Israeli writer argues that peace can only be achieved if the refugees accept a Palestinian state as their homeland

Yossi Melman
Friday September 20, 2002
The Guardian

Where do we start? Where do we ignite the historic argument? Karma Nabulsi began her account of the Palestinian predicament on these pages with the story of 800 Palestinians massacred 20 years ago in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila. Yet she failed to mention that they were killed by Lebanese Christians, not Israeli troops, or that 400,000 Israelis protested against Israel's indirect participation and forced the defence minister to resign.

Some Israelis begin their chronology of massacres in the 1920s, when Jews were killed by their Palestinian neighbours in Jaffa and Hebron. More typically, Israelis remember the killing of civilians by Palestinian terrorist groups since the creation of the PLO in 1964. Yesterday's attack in Tel Aviv was a reminder of that reality.

Yet scoring points by trading massacres and recounting again and again Palestinian and Israeli narratives of the past is the very tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under such emotional circumstances, even the moderate voices on both sides are forced to join the scoundrel and find refuge in patriotism.

I consider myself a leftwing Israeli. I am in favour of a two-state solution: Israeli and Palestinian states living in peace, security and dignity, side-by-side. To accomplish this goal Israel has to put an end to the occupation. I am ready - and there are many other Israelis holding similar views - to support an Israeli government which will withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands, dismantle Jewish settlements, return to the pre-1967 borders and share Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

Many Israelis are ready to make sacrifices for a peace which would guarantee them their right to lead a normal life without the daily threat of Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorism. They will agree, reluctantly, to accommodate most Palestinian demands. Indeed this was the plan of the prime minister, Ehud Barak, who risked his political future by offering the Palestinians the most generous territorial and political concessions in the annals of the conflict. Yet his offer was rejected by Yasser Arafat, who demanded that on top of these concessions Israel accept and accommodate between 1 and 3 million Palestinian refugees.

The objection to this Palestinian demand is the most formidable element which glues together Israelis of all walks of life, regardless of their political affiliation and socio-economic status. If there is one issue which is taboo for most Israelis, probably for 99% of them, it is the question of the Palestinian refugees and their demand to exercise the right of return. If Palestinians continue to press to "solve" the refugee problem by allowing them to return to Israeli lands, there will never be a solution and both peoples are doomed to spill each other's blood for many more years to come.

What the Palestinians claim is their "right of return" means something completely different, not only to mainstream Israelis, but also to leftwing and liberal ones. The majority of Israelis interpret this demand as a Palestinian codeword for disarming them of their right to self-determination and national statehood. They believe the Palestinians want to undermine the spirit of Zionism and dilute the Jewish character of the state.

The historical narrative endorsed by mainstream Israel is the following. In 1947 the UN voted to create two states in Palestine: one Jewish, one Arab. Israeli leaders welcomed the resolution, while Palestinian leaders rejected it and, backed by the Arab states, launched a war to erase the results of that decision. The Arabs lost the war; the state of Israel was born. The war also created the Palestinian refugee problem. It took many years until Israeli historiography and public opinion were mature enough to admit that many Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Israeli troops and only a minority left of their own will. Yet most Israelis refuse to accept the Palestinian narrative that it is they who bear responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. Israelis put the blame on the Arab leaders who rejected an internationally sanctioned resolution, launched an aggressive war in 1948 and kept the refugees in shanty towns and camps with no attempt to help them resettle. The collective Israeli memory also dwells on the fact that for many years Palestinian and Arab leaders refused to accept Israel's right to exist.

Israelis would argue that since the first world war many states have been to war and many refugee problems created. Greeks were expelled from Turkey; Germans from Poland; Indians and Pakistanis from each other's lands; Serbs from Croatia, Croatians from Serbia. New borders have been formed, new states established; peoples have been relocated and resettled. Yet it is only the Palestinians who dominate the international agenda with their unique demand.

The right of the Palestinians to have a state is undeniable. They deserve it no less than the Israelis. The creation of such a state should not only be aimed at correcting an historic injustice. It must serve as the homeland for the Palestinian refugees. Otherwise, Israelis will ask, what is the point of creating a new state which demands that its refugee population be absorbed by its neighbour? The Palestinian argument only fuels Israeli fears that what Palestinians really have in mind is to change the demographic and ethnic fabric of Israel and eventually to take it over.

The only practical solution is to put an end to the political violence, perpetrated by both sides, begin a genuine negotiation and establish a Palestinian state to cater for its people. Only this will close the historic past in fairness and open a new chapter.

·Yossi Melman works for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in Tel Aviv and is coauthor of The Spies: Israel's Counter-Espionage Wars (in Hebrew)