Earlier this year I initiated a petition for Australian Jews to reject their automatic right of return to Israel.
In response, the predictably hysterical Philip Mendes (a Jewish social work academic from Melbourne) has responded under the headline, “Radical Australian Jews advocating for Israeli national suicide“:
Last month a small group of Australian Jews signed a petition coordinated by anti-Israel extremists Antony Loewenstein and Ned Curthoys rejecting their right to Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, and instead demanding that Israel accept the return of “seven million Palestinian refugees from around the world”. This argument that Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war are entitled to return to their former homes and land inside Israel is a staple diet of the pro-Palestinian lobby including the vocal group, Australians for Palestine, with which the petition convenors are associated.
There are, however, a number of overwhelming historical and contemporary arguments against such a return. The exodus of the 600-700,000 Palestinians occurred in the context of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Three groups contributed to this tragedy: the Palestinian Arab leadership who attempted to destroy the Jewish State of Israel at birth; the Arab States who invaded Israel in an attempt to assist the Palestinians; and Israel which expelled many of the Palestinians for fear that they would constitute a hostile ‘fifth column’ that would undermine their defence of their borders.
On the cessation of hostilities in December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which has often been cited by the pro-Palestinian lobby as supporting an unconditional return of the Palestinian refugees. In fact, the resolution was clearly conditional, and formally linked to acceptance of the earlier UN partition resolution creating both Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, and a negotiated peace. The resolution stated that ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return’.
In practice, both the Palestinian leaders and the Arab governments initially rejected the resolution precisely because it implied recognition of Israel’s legitimacy. The anti-war journalist Martha Gellhorn undertook a series of interviews with Palestinian refugees, published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 1961, which suggested that most wanted revenge, rather than to live in peace with the Israelis.
Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian right of return rhetoric was used to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and so provide a rationale for the Arab refusal to recognize the State of Israel. However, following the 1967 war, the international debate shifted from questions about the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line borders to questions about the legitimacy of a Palestinian State in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The subsequent political contest for or against a two-state solution explicitly assumed that any resolution of the Palestinian refugee tragedy would be addressed within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. There could be two states or there could be a Palestinian right of return, but there could not be both. It was instructive that the Oslo Peace Accord signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993 did not mention Resolution 194.
Palestinian demands for a right of return of the 1948 refugees were, however, formally revived during the ill-fated Camp David negotiations of July 2000. The Palestinian delegation argued for the right of every Palestinian refugee to return home in accordance with UN Resolution 194. They also called for an immediate timetable for the return of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon to the Galilee.
In response, the Israelis denied any historical or moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee exodus, and refused to recognize any right of return. This anti-right of return position is shared by the entire Israeli political spectrum including prominent peace activists such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B.Yehushua. They believe (as do many diaspora Jews including the author) that the Palestinians are entitled to at least partial compensation for the injustice of 1948 by securing a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel. But only a tiny handful of Israelis would share the views of Loewenstein and Curthoys that the rights of Palestinian refugees can only be achieved by suppressing the rights of Israeli Jews.
The prominent revisionist historian Benny Morris, who had vigorously challenged the official Israeli view that the Palestinians had left voluntarily at the behest of Arab leaders in 1948, succinctly argued in an interview with the left-wing Tikkun Magazine in March 2001 that any right of return would lead to the ‘physical destruction’ of Israel. According to Morris, ‘A country divided between Israelis on the one hand and on the other Palestinians who had returned and were filled with anger not only at the way they had been treated in the past but also at not finding their villages or homes available – that country would quickly become ungovernable. Each individual Jew living in the country would be facing a real physical danger’.
Morris’ comments emphasize that any large-scale return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to Israel would be likely to bring civil war and enormous bloodshed rather than Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. The only sane and dignified solution to the refugee tragedy is the resettlement of all Palestinian refugees with compensation as either full citizens in the neighbouring Arab countries in which most have lived for over 60 years, or alternatively as citizens of a new Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The sheer arrogance of this position should not surprise. Note how Palestinians are to be given no say over what they would like. Not just the US-backed Palestinian Authority. International law is very clear, no matter how Mendes wants to understand it. Zionists like Mendes are simply incapable of imagining a Middle East without a Jewish state. It is apparently their God-given right to dictate to Palestinians how they should live and address historical wrongs. A right of return will happen, though exact numbers should clearly be negotiated between all parties. In the end, the colonial state never dictates the rules of the game. History proves otherwise.
A new conventional wisdom is rapidly taking shape that the United States can resolve the 130-year-old conflict in Palestine by advancing its own peace plan. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephen Solarz outlined such a plan, and argued that President Obama could boost its prospects with a “bold gesture” — a trip, to Jerusalem and Ramallah in the company of Arab and other leaders to unveil it.
Strong supporters of Israel have pushed back that “imposing peace” would not work, but few Palestinian voices have been heard. Indeed, from a Palestinian perspective, this idea is dangerously simplistic, and more likely to deepen festering injustices and fuel, rather than resolve conflict.
The “comprehensive solution” Brzezinski and Solarz propose is nothing of the kind because the conflict cannot be reduced to a mere border dispute between Israel and a putative Palestinian state. They propose for example “a territorial settlement based on the 1967 borders, with mutual and equal adjustments to allow the incorporation of the largest West Bank settlements into Israel.”
This is deceptive; the West Bank and Gaza Strip constitute just 22 percent of historic Palestine between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in which Palestinians formed the overwhelming majority prior to their expulsion and flight as Israel was created in 1948. Official Palestinian acceptance of the two-state solution was a concession unprecedented in the history of any nation because it involved surrendering the 78 percent of the country on which Israel was established. To demand that Palestinians further divide the remainder represents no compromise by Israel. It merely ratifies Israel’s systematic colonization of West Bank land since 1967 in flagrant defiance of international law.
The proposed “land swap” to compensate Palestinians for annexed Israeli settlements is illusory. The majority of the half million Israeli settlers are concentrated in and around Jerusalem — the heart of the would-be Palestinian state. Yet the lands that Israel might consider handing over in compensation are small barren tracts far away from population centers. If there are such lands that could compensate the French for Paris, the British for London or Americans for New York City, then there might be lands that Palestinians could accept instead of Jerusalem.
Even more devastating to Palestinian rights, Brzezinski and Solarz float “a solution to the refugee problem involving compensation and resettlement in the Palestinian state but not in Israel.” This they call “a bitter pill” but argue that “Israel cannot be expected to commit political suicide for the sake of peace.”
Palestinian refugees have an internationally recognized legal right to return to their homes and lands, but Israel has always denied this on the sole grounds that Palestinians are not Jews. Thus Gaza, where 80 percent of the population are refugees, is essentially a holding pen for humans of the “wrong” ethno-religious group. Would Brzezinski and Solarz be so sanguine about accommodating Israel’s discriminatory character if its grounds for refusing the return of refugees was that they had the “wrong” skin color?
I write from downtown Pretoria, once the all-white capital of the South African apartheid state, which also argued that ending white rule would be “political suicide.” The notion that people of different groups cannot or should not mix is belied by the vibrant multiracial reality in the streets of Pretoria outside my window today.
And precedents for the actual return of refugees abound. Under the US-brokered 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnia war, almost half a million refugees and internally displaced persons returned home with international assistance, to areas that had become dominated demographically and politically by members of another ethno-national community — an enormous achievement in a country with a total population of 3.5 million and deep traumas as a result of recent war.
Other than Israel’s discriminatory aversion to non-Jews it is difficult to see why Palestinian refugees could not also return to their lands inside Israel, the vast majority of which remain uninhabited.
By endorsing Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish state,” Brzezinski and Solarz not only ratify the violation of the fundamental rights of refugees, but consign another 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel to permanent second-class status within an increasingly intolerant and ultranationalist Israel. A more likely outcome than ‘two states living side by side in peace’ is that Palestinian citizens of Israel will come under increasing threat of expulsion to the Palestinian state — in other words, a new round of ethnic cleansing.
The vision of a truncated, demilitarized mini-state in no way fulfills basic Palestinian aspirations and rights and would bring no more peace or dignity than the bantustans which apartheid South Africa tried to establish for its black citizens to forestall and delay demands for equality and democracy. Nor would a trip by Obama do anything to revive shop-worn ideas that have gained little real support either among Palestinians or Israelis since they were first proposed at the failed Camp David summit in 2000.
Margaret Thatcher once said that partitioning South Africa to create separate black and white states would be like “trying to unscramble an egg,” and could lead to tremendous bloodshed. It is time to recognize that this truth also applies to Palestine/Israel and to seek political solutions similar to the one here, or the settlement in Northern Ireland, that embrace rather than attempt to deny diversity, equality and justice for all who live in that land.