From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 5 December 1998
Who says Oslo is dead? The final status negotiations are well underway. Although it is only a dry-run for the real thing, carried out by a group of academics and aspiring politicians, it is a realistic blueprint of the future as the most sympathetic and 'moderate' Israelis would like to see it. Absent from the picture, however, is the weight of the majority of the Palestinians whose fate is being discussed in closed rooms -- namely, the refugees.
According to Ha'aretz ('Inching up a treacherous slope', 9 September 1998), a group of Israelis and Palestinians under the auspices of Harvard University's International Affairs Centre, has produced a 'compromise' report for the 'final solution' of the refugee problem (the quotation marks are not explicit, but intended).
The Israeli group is known to favour peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. Some of them have held official positions, all of them have an influence on Israeli public opinion and decision-makers. So far, so good. The 'compromise', therefore, should be the best that can be hoped for from the Israeli side.
What is this compromise? Israel agrees to share the practical (though not moral or legal) responsibility for Al-Nakba of 1948, and is prepared to admit some families under the 'Shaml' programme, with some compensation to others to be offset by compensation to Jews from Arab countries. In return, the Palestinians would forfeit their right of return to their homes. Only those lucky enough to be selected by the Israelis can go back to the West Bank and Gaza.
The report's principal co-authors are Joseph Alpher and Khalil Shikaki. Alpher is an American-Israeli who was a Mossad officer for over a decade, chasing figures of the Resistance Movement, before becoming a director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. He is now a director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel. Shikaki is a Nablus academic and leading pollster. He is a refugee from Zarnuga and his family is exiled in Rafah refugee camp where his father Ibrahim and brother Abdul-Aziz still live. He took a different political course from his eldest brother, Fathi, who was murdered by the Israeli Mossad in Malta in 1995.
The report, or at least the Israeli portion of it, is based on the assumption that Palestinians do not belong to the land of Palestine, hence they have no 'right of return' to it. They are not a people, so they can be stowed away in different countries. Their plight is simply a humanitarian issue to which all countries, including Israel, should contribute. The report is far too sophisticated to say this bluntly, but every direction it takes leads to this conclusion.
Moreover, it says that Russians, Ethiopians, Poles and Moroccans have the 'right' to return to Israel unconditionally if they are Jews, and they should be paid compensation by the Palestinians, among others, if they left their homes in Arab countries to settle in Palestine.
So the message to the five million refugees who were expelled from 530 localities and whose land constitutes 92 per cent of the present state of Israel is, "sorry for everything that happened in 1948 -- that's all". The weight of human rights, UN resolutions and, above all, the dogged determination of the Palestinians, squeezes out nothing more than a hollow half-hearted apology.
The report generously accepts the return of "tens of thousands" of refugees under a family reunification programme, but it neglects to mention that this is only a fraction of the three quarters of a million who were waiting to regain their homes when Israel promised in 1949 to allow the return of 100,000 as a price of admission to the UN -- a promise that was never honoured.
How many refugees are allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza (whose borders are left undefined in the report) should be regulated by the remaining territory's absorptive capacity and Israel's acquiescence. Those familiar with the present difficulty of getting a Palestinian ID will know that "return" on these conditions is a misnomer.
According to a 1996 study by K McCarthy of Rand Corporation, the absorptive capacity of the West Bank, not to mention Gaza, is far too low to sanction the admission of any appreciable number of refugees. Note, moreover, that these refugees are not actually going to be allowed to return home, but merely to change their camp address to Palestine. Present conditions are, of course, much worse than those that obtained before. Thus on both counts, the absorptive capacity and Israeli acquiescence, this 'compromise' is rendered useless.
But the most blatant aspect of the Israeli position is the linkage of compensation for Palestinians to that of compensation for Jews. The report neglects to mention the fact that the Palestinians are entitled to both return and compensation. Careful studies put their total legitimate claims at US$511 billion, excluding homes and land. These are not for sale. The refugees are determined to recover their property. It is beyond comprehension that the report ignores these facts, even as Jews, thanks to the pressure tactics of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, are seeing their former property in Europe restored to them without the benefit of a single UN resolution.
The linkage of Palestinian claims with compensation for Jews who left Arab countries is irrelevant for three reasons. First, this Jewish immigration to Israel took place after the expulsion of the Palestinians, and as a result of it. Those Jews are beneficiaries of Palestinian property and they should be paying compensation, not receiving it. Second, any Jewish claims should be addressed to the countries which they left voluntarily. They should apply to those countries to recover their property and citizenship. This matter is of no concern to the Palestinians. Third, there is no UN resolution or international consensus to support this Jewish claim. The fact of the matter is that the Jewish claim, exaggerated as it is, is simply designed to thwart the legitimate claims of the Palestinians.
The proposal to settle Palestinian refugees in other countries is as old and as persistent as the Transfer Plan advocated by Herzl, which became an integral part of hard-core Zionist doctrine. Last year, a new Transfer Plan, proposed by Donna Arzt under the umbrella of the American Council on Foreign Relations was flatly rejected by the Gulf countries. A cursory examination of the events of the last 50 years shows clearly that such settlement schemes are doomed to failure.
The Palestinians are willing, the report says, to accept that the return of the refugees en masse is not feasible. The boundaries are lost and the country is full of immigrants. If this is not an echo of the Israeli position, it is grossly misinformed. Every single donum in Palestine is traceable. If it took Jarvis, the land expert of the UN Conciliation Commission, eight years to produce half a million records from the land owners registry in 1964, it will now take the Israel Land Administration (ILA) only a few minutes to retrieve any information from its computer database. After all, ILA rents Palestinian land to the bankrupt Kibbutz. As for the overcrowded country, the report failed to mention that only about 170,000 Kibbutz farmers control 17,000,000 donums of Palestinian land, wasting precious water and with very little to show for it.
The report never mentions that Jewish immigration is a threat to the stability of the region -- indeed a cause of war -- or a strain on its limited resources, especially water. It never questions the racist nature of the Jewish Law of Return. It never shows any recognition of the anomaly between the refusal of the Palestinians' right to return home and unlimited access for new immigrants to these same homes.
The sad thing about the report is that it is intended to be the best that could be proposed by the most sympathetic Israelis. Israelis, it seems, are still the victims of the myths they have created and which they expect the Palestinians to believe. For a better future for both peoples, they should look outside their own cloistered world and recognise -- indeed address -- the injustice they inflicted upon the Palestinians. Ha'aretz described finding a solution to the refugee problem as being like climbing Mount Everest. It seems the Israelis will have to climb a lot more before they are in a position to see the new sun rise.
* The writer is a former member of the Palestine National Council , with a number of studies on the question of Palestinian refugees.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.