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The Feasibility of the Right of Return

Source: ICJ and CIMEL paper, June 1997

by Salman H. Abu-Sitta, which received his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of London. He is the founder and director of a construction and development company which worked for the World Bank, Arab Fund, Kuwait Fund and others in the Middle East and Africa. He writes frequently on the Palestine Question and has been a member of the Palestine National Congress for 20 years.

The Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict has arisen because of the Israeli conquest of Palestine in 1948 and the expulsion of its people in order to accommodate newcomers from overseas. The struggle is therefore about land taken and people expelled. The Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe, holocaust) has no equal in modern history. A foreign minority expels the majority of the inhabitants of a country, occupies their land, obliterates their physical and cultural landmarks in a military campaign that is planned, armed, manned, and is financially and politically supported from abroad.

Half a century later, there are 4,600,000 refugees, expelled from 532 localities, without a home, identity or a certain future. Their plight shook the foundation of the Middle East, toppled practically every neighbouring Arab government or removed its leader, caused five major wars and innumerable attacks. After 50 years of strife, it is abundantly clear that there can be no peace without them, and that they have no wish to go anywhere except Palestine. The yearning to return to the homeland is the core of the Palestinians' psyche. It is this unrelenting determination which has driven them to maintain a monolithic structure across many countries of refuge.

The infamous outcry of Golda Meir, "there is no such thing as the Palestinians", is but one of many myths fabricated in order to justify the expulsion of the Palestinians. Others, like "land without a people for a people without land', "the refugees left on Arab orders" and "War of Independence" for Israeli invasion, have been shown to be false, but not before political and material advantage was extracted out of them.

One of the persistent myths is the `impracticality' of the return of the refugees, on the assumption that the country is full of immigrants, the villages are destroyed and it is impossible to find old property boundaries. This view is advanced by the Israelis and adopted by well-meaning people who agree that the Right of Return is perfectly legal but cannot be implemented on physical grounds.

The legal aspects have been dealt with elsewhere in these proceedings. In this paper, we shall review briefly the circumstances of the refugees' expulsion and show that the return of the refugees is practically feasible, and even desirable for permanent peace to prevail.

The Dimensions of Nakba:
Only by considering the human and material dimensions of Nakba, will it be possible to comprehend why the "refugee problem" is the core of the Middle East conflict and its solution.

The number of Jews in Palestine grew from 61,000 in 1920 to 604,000 in 1948, of which only 150,000 were born in Palestine. The rest were legal and illegal immigrants, mostly of military age; some were veterans of World War II. in 1948, the Palestinian Arabs were the absolute majority of the population at 1,441,000.[1] The Jewish foreign minority expelled 805,000, or 84% of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land that was conquered by Israel in the 1948 war. The Palestinian refugees lost their homes, property and land in 532 localities.[2]

Thus, the "refugee problem" was born. Their number grew to 4,476,000 (1994), 30% of whom still live in truncated Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), and 53% in neighbouring Arab countries. In total, 83% of the refugees (and 88% of all Palestinians) are still in Palestine or within 100 miles from its borders. The rest are working in the Gulf, Europe and the Americas.

In terms of land, the Zionists/Israelis had conquered a total of 20,325 sq.km (78% of Palestine). Israel's area consists of :

  1. 1,682 sq.km (8% of Israel): land under Jewish control prior to 1948 war.
  2. 1,465 sq.km (7% of Israel): Palestinian land whose inhabitants stayed in Israel, and
  3. 17,178 sq.km (85% of Israel): land which belongs to the Palestinian refugees.[3] Thus, fully 92% of Israel is Palestinian land.

How It Happened:
To tell the story of Nakba is not a futile exercise in history. Not only it explains why the Palestinians are determined to return, but it also underlines the obligation of Israel to allow them to return home and compensate them for the material and psychological damage they have suffered.

It is remarkable that the eye-witness accounts of hundreds of thousands of refugees about their horrifying experience of the exodus have been ignored in the west, and credence was given to the official Israeli handout. New analysis of released Israeli files, such as the excellent works by Morris, Pappe', Flapan, Finkelstein, has confirmed what the refugees were saying all along.

While Palestine was under the protection of the British Mandate, 213 localities (43%) were over-run and depopulated by the Israelis. If we add 27 days of fighting, between 15 May and 11 June, in which Arab regulars entered, unprepared, and unfamiliar with the country, we find that 291 localities (59%) were depopulated and 62% of the refugees became homeless. The Arab intervention, not only failed to restore the current refugees to their homes, but failed also to rescue the remaining one-third. It is clear therefore that the aggressor and the defender have exchanged places in the Israeli myth-making.

There is one other striking feature of the exodus. By comparing the depopulation date of each village against the various Israeli operations in a database analysis, it is found that practically no exodus has taken place at the cessation of hostilities, however brief. The lull in the fighting would have been an ideal opportunity for the villagers to leave, since the threat to their life and property is still present. The fact is they did not leave. The correlation between their departure and the Israeli assaults is compelling.

The impact of massacres is considerable. Dayr Yassin is an infamous example, but the Dawayima is the largest and most brutal. About 500 were butchered by the units of the 89th Battalion (the 8th Brigade) on the afternoon of 29 October 1948. A total of 25 massacres have been reported during the major Israeli operations from April to October 1948, and were used as military instruments in accelerating the exodus.

Oral history records have shown that, when expelled, the villagers moved to a nearby safe place or stayed with relatives, waiting. Many have circulated around their village waiting to return. Those who tried to return were shot on the spot as "infiltrators". Soon after, their houses were destroyed and their harvest burnt, to prevent their return. With the exception of those inhabitants of coastal towns who left by sea and those who were forced to march, most refugees made a tortuous trek around their villages trying in vain to return, before they ended up in a place of refuge. As subsequent wars would show, even that was not final.

Thus the claim that the refugees left their homes on orders of Arab governments, not through Israeli expulsion and military assaults, is thoroughly discredited.[4] A corollary of this claim is that the Arab governments, not Israel, are responsible for the refugees and that they must resettle them in their countries at their expense.

Analysis shows that 23% of the villages had been depopulated due to "expulsion by Jewish forces", 51% by "military assault", 9% by imminent attack on the village, making a total of 83% of the villages depopulated due to Jewish military attacks. Psychological warfare was responsible for 9%, while 1% of villages left on their accord, and 7% reasons unknown.[5] Semantics aside, the depopulation of the refugees is the direct result of an all-out war waged by Israel against them.[6]

The argument which deserves careful attention, however, is the practical one: namely that villages are destroyed and land boundaries unrecognizable.[7]

The claim that, with the destruction of villages, it is not possible for the refugees to return, presupposes that a refugee can only recognize as home, and wish to live in, the same old house he left. Ignoring the racial overtones of this contention, a cursory look at the development of Amman, Beirut and the Gulf cities in the last fifty years, most of which is the work of the Palestinians, would show that dramatic transformations, many much larger than Israel's, have taken place. There is no reason to assume that the same cannot be repeated upon return. A return would be to the same land, most frequently the same site, with reconstruction of villages and repairing of long-neglected Palestinian cities.[8] With the exception of Central District, relatively few village sites are occupied by modern construction. Most Kibbutz buildings and prefab units are installed away from old village remains.

Then, it is claimed that boundaries have disappeared and are impossible to determine. Available Palestine and Israel detailed maps, assisted by modern technology, now used by Israel to lease the refugees land, are sufficient to determine old and new boundaries. It can be demonstrated that all boundaries and ownerships are well-recorded.[9] Not only the villages are kept in the memory of the refugees and their children, but their images are kept for posterity through the British aerial survey of 1945-1946. Typical examples are shown.

Resettlement Schemes:
Armed with convenient myths, pro-Israeli schemes have been advanced in order to get rid of the "refugee problem" for ever. These schemes are based on the following assumptions. The Palestinians are not a people, they are a community of Arabs. They have no country called Palestine. They immigrated to that place recently. They have no roots (mostly nomads); they do not have strong ties to the land (as Jews do). They are backward and they did not fight well, so they do not deserve the country anyway. Their `Transfer' to other places is not a human or material loss. The Jews, however, are a people-being-reconstituted and they must be brought from the far corners of the world to cement a new (or renewed) identity. They are 'civilised' and can develop the land more efficiently. A natural corollary of this is that the dismemberment and the 'end' of the Palestinian people is perfectly acceptable and their replacement by Jewish immigrants to create a new people is a miraculous act of God and a victory for civilization. This zero sum equation is the root of all evil in this conflict.

As Masalha[10] clearly demonstrated, the origin of the idea of resettlement lies in the Zionist policy of `Transfer' (expulsion). After 1948, Western schemes, for example by Thicknesse [11]. have been suggested to resettle refugees in Syria and Iraq (Lebanon was not suggested), possibly with UNRWA as an instrument. After 1967, pro-Israeli authors proposed a plethora of resettlement schemes. Peretz, who writes frequently on the subject, endorses solutions which allow a limited return of the refugees to a toothless state, not to their homes. He also considers limited compensation for lost property to be offset against the unrelated and exaggerated claims of Jews who left Arab countries to settle on Palestinian land. Heller also proposes resettlement elsewhere and a limited return (for 1980, 750,000 out of eligible 2,700,000), again to a nominal state, not to their homes.

Zureik [12] presented a comprehensive review of resettlement plans and other refugee issues. He describes in particular the semi-official Israeli suggestion by Shlomo Gazit. Gazit insists on the `finality' of the solution, the "renunciation" of the Right of Return, dismantling of UNRWA and abolishing the special status of refugees. As a reward, Gazit wants Israel to issue a "moral-psychological acknowledgement" recognizing the suffering of the Palestinians in the last fifty years. To avoid the notion of Israel's responsibility, this acknowledgement would come as part of a UN resolution abolishing the Right of Return enshrined in Resolution 194, para 11.

A Palestinian writer, A. H. Khalidi[13], picked up the thread by suggesting a trade-off between this paper acknowledgement and the admission, by the Palestinians, that the implementation of the Right of Return is "impossible". This lone view has no echo among the refugees.

Arzt[14], in a much publicised report, suggests the permanent dispersal of the Palestinians by their resettlement wherever they are (with cosmetic adjustments), or anywhere they wish, except their homes. The new twist for this sour wine in the same cracked bottles is that the Palestinians will maintain their link as a people by holding some kind of Palestinian identity papers provided that they drop their claim to their land. Upon such event, Israel will retain their land legally. As an act of generosity, Israel will allow back, after rigorous vetting and within a limited period, a total of 75,000. Translated to 1948 figures, this means 8,000 original refugees, a fraction of the 300,000 figure proposed by Truman in 1949 as a price for admitting Israel into the UN. Finally, Israel was admitted to the UN upon the promise made by Sharret to allow the return of 100,000, a promise he never fulfilled.

Needless to say, all the resettlement schemes have utterly failed, because they deny a people the most natural right, to return home. In spite of major wars, suffering and much disappointment, the last fifty years have shown that the Palestinians insist on returning home. Instead of harping on worn out ideas, it is time to face this reality and look afresh at new, natural and permanent solutions.

The Return Plan:
The argument which gains currency, especially among people who believe that the Right of Return is legal and just, is the assumption that Israel is fully populated and that any returnees would displace existing Jewish residents. It will be shown that this fear is unfounded and that the return of the refugees is possible with no appreciable dislocation to the Jewish residents.

Israel is divided into 41 `natural regions'. See map. The first eight natural regions[15] have an area of 1,683 sq.km (8% of Israel). This is where the majority of the Jews (2,924,000, 68%) live. We shall call this Area (A). It is remarkably similar in size, but not exactly in location, to the area in which the Jews lived in pre-48 Palestine. This concentration emphasizes the traditional pattern of Jewish life; in close proximity and in pursuit of trades such as commerce and industry. Fifty years of Israeli conquests and expansion did not convince the majority of Israelis to abandon traditional habits.[16]

The next five natural regions[17] have an area of 1,318 sq.km (7%) in which 419,000 Jews (10%) live. We shall call this Area (B). The size of this area is close to the land of the Palestinians who remained in Israel. Thus, 78% of the Jews in Israel live in 15% of the land.

This leaves Area C (17,325 sq.km., 85% of Israel). This area is remarkably similar, but not exactly identical, to the Palestinian land from which they were driven. Who lives there now ? About 800,000 urban Jews, 154,000 rural Jews and 465,000 Israeli Palestinians. Thus, 154,000 Jews cultivate the land of 4,476,000 refugees who are prevented from returning to it.

In the proposed plan, it is possible to allow the return of the refugees to their original homes in the majority of cases, and closeby in others. Palestine sub-district boundaries are close to Israel's, viz: Safad, Tiberias, Nazareth, Baysan, Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Gaza, Ramla, and BeerSheba. The largest difference lies in the sub-districts that are divided by the Armistice line of 1949. It will therefore be possible to relate the refugees' return to the Israeli natural regions. In the large BeerSheba Sub-District, the refugees are distributed in the plan according to their original density, which is high in the north, sparse in the south[18].

With the return of the refugees, the overall density will be 482 persons/sq.km, instead of the present 261, which is still an acceptable figure. The new overall density of 482 p/sq.km. is a far cry from the congested miserable conditions which the refugees have to endure while their land is the playground of the privileged Kibbutz. The present density in Gaza Strip is 4,400 and the West Bank 880 p/sq.km, considering the areas under the control of the Palestine National Authority (PNA). Understandably, this is one of the major and lasting causes of instability and conflict.

In the Return Plan summarized in Table 1, Area A will remain largely Jewish (76% Jews), Area B will be mixed and Area C will be largely Palestinian (81% Palestinian). Some adjustments, however, will be desirable from a practical point of view. In densely populated Area A, it will be preferable to relocate rural Palestinians (about 900,000) to Areas B and C. Conversely, only 154,000 rural Jews may have to relocate from Area C to Area A, after the end of their lease, to allow Palestinian farmers to recover their land. That is if they do not wish to mix with Palestinian farmers. This disparity in the numbers of relocated population, although unfair and painful to the Palestinians, appears to be advisable to enhance the homogeneity of population. Due to the special status of Jerusalem, no relocation is applied to it.

With the refugees' return, the population density in the Jewish area (A) changes only slightly, while it increases about 3 times (246 compared to the present 82 persons/sq.km) in the Palestinian Area C. That is to be expected. Ramla-Lydda and Khadera areas will have higher densities, but this would be balanced by merging into the "Triangle" which has already a significant Palestinian population. It is expected that natural population movement and economic forces will lead to a voluntary and more balanced distribution.

Let us examine in more detail the Southern District (the Palestinian Gaza and BeerSheba Sub-Districts). Only 78,000 rural Jews live in 14,107 sq.km. Their relocation up north, if they wish, should not cause any hardship. The remaining 555,000 (urban) Jews are distributed as follows: 63% live in 3 Palestinian towns: Beer Sheba, Ashdod and Majdal-Ashqelon, a further 24% live in 3 new towns: Qiryat Gat (Iraq Manshiya), Elat (Um Rashrash), Dimona (Rujm el Belewi). Their occupations; shipping, transport, industry and education, are beneficial to the District. They should continue to pursue these occupations. (It is ironic to note that these new towns with population ranging from 26,000 to 42,000 are equivalent in size to, or smaller than, a typical refugee camp, e.g. Jabaliya Camp, Gaza, 40,000). Thus, the return of the Palestinians to their land and the pursuit of their traditional occupation in agriculture will not cause major disruption, neither to Jewish population, nor to their occupations.

If we turn to the Northern District (3,325 sq.km), we find a similar pattern, although not so clear-cut. Of 134,000 rural Jews, only 76,000 may be relocated, if they wish. The urban Jews in the District are 71% of Jews. About 90% of those live in just 9 towns, three of which are originally Palestinian (Acre, Tiberias, Shefa Amr). The largest town in the District, (Nazareth 54,000), is totally Palestinian today. Other than Nazareth, the remaining towns are, once again, similar in size to a typical refugee camp.

Although Haifa and Central Districts are densely populated Jewish areas, the presence of Palestinians in those Districts is significant. The Palestinians are 26% and 9% of Jews respectively. In these Districts, there are 13 purely Palestinian towns with a population in excess of 10,000 each.[19]

What is evident is that the Palestinian presence all over Israel today is a fact. The return of the refugees will not be a novelty. It is not as catastrophic as some make it to be. Although the relationship between the two has not been easy, the fact is the Palestinians and the Jews lived together for the last 50 years without major problems, not to mention centuries of Arab and Jewish harmony. The return of the refugees is consistent with existing concentrations of Jews and Palestinians and with their respective occupations. The return shall not cause dislocation of Jews and only minor voluntary relocation.

The proposed plan represents the most congested (worst) case, ie all refugees return and all Jews stay. For Palestinians, they must have the right to return, whether they actually return or not, now or later. For Jews, Israel gave them the right to live in Israel any time wherever they come from. Few exercise this option (34% of world Jewry) and many who do, leave after a while (17-20%). But even in the most congested case, only 154,000 Jews may choose to relocate elsewhere in Israel to allow 4,476,000 refugees to return to their homes and end half a century of destitution and suffering. This is a very cheap price Israel should pay for what it has inflicted upon the Palestinians and still cheaper price to pay for a secure future for both peoples.

What will the returnees do? What will the relocated Jews lose?

One of the main tenets of Zionism is to `return' to the land, to abandon traditional occupations in finance and commerce and become farmers tilling the land. That was a major departure for East European Zionists who rarely, if ever, experienced agricultural life. Communal colonies, given the name: Kibbutzim, were set-up in pre-48 Palestine to set the example.

Kibbutz members were the Zionist elite. They formed the backbone of Israel's army. They held, and still hold, superior political weight and enjoy unparalleled advantages. By the end of 1947, the Kibbutz members dwindled considerably. The post-1948 immigrants, who were neither Zionists nor East Europeans, would not choose the Kibbutz if given the choice.[20] Although they were given land, supplies and training upon arrival, many of those new `farmers' drifted to the urban centre thereafter.

In the eighties, agricultural labour decreased, in absolute and relative terms, from 6.4% to 4.7% of the labour force.[21] In the same decade, the agricultural sector was facing "a major crisis". It was burdened by debt, and could not be economically viable. Dozens of new settlements were abandoned and many collapsed. About 50-60% `moshavim' members did not work in agriculture. Only 26% of all units used 60% of all water and land and produced 75% of all production. The remainder is obviously a failure. This is not surprising as some estimates indicate that the number of the employees of the agricultural organizations is four times the number of farmers.[22]

The often-repeated vocalised dream of `making the desert green' had not materialised. In 1987, the Jewish rural population in the central and southern Negev was only 7,000, while that in the more fertile northern Negev was just 25,000. These figures remain stagnant as negative migration is replaced by newcomers.[23] Thus, after decades of investments and "Zionist aspirations", not to mention huge quantities of water (40% of total agricultural consumption) drawn from northern Jordan river, at the risk of wars, the natural potential population of the Negev, as compared to an equivalent arid zones elsewhere, has been exceeded by a negligible figure, less than 50,000 Jews.[24]

The contribution of agriculture to GDP decreased from 7.9% (1983) to 2.4% (1993).[25] Now it accounts for 4% of exports. To increase its economic value, Israel plans to reduce the area of low-value crops such as cotton, citrus, avocado and wheat (barley is already eliminated) in favour of speciality crops, eg. flowers, spices and herbs.[26]

On the other hand, the Palestinians have been farmers for centuries. As successive British Government reports during the Mandate show, every cultivable plot of land was cultivated. In the south, wheat was extensively grown at annual rainfall of just above 200 mm and barley at above 100 mm. It is true that the productivity was low due to lack of capital and research. But this can be remedied; witness the excellent produce of farmers in Gaza in a tiny plot of land irrigated by increasingly saline water under conditions of Israeli occupation. Their produce posed a threat to Israeli agriculture to the extent that it was prohibited from entering Israel or left to perish at the crossing points.

With the return of the Palestinians to their land and resuming their traditional occupation in agriculture, with more investment and advanced technology, rights will be restored without an appreciable loss to those who deprived them from these rights.

A legitimate question would be about the sufficiency of water resources for doubling the country's population.

First, it must be observed that Israel has consumed about 80% of the water resources it controls, for agriculture. Subsidized water, at 5.85-12.5 US cents/cubic metre (m3) for the first 80% of supply (compared to 50 cents for domestic use) was offered willingly to the Kibbutz.[27] The average cost of production is 30-36 cents/m3, while for arid areas, desalination cost is as high as $1.6/m3, or 16 times the cost to the Israeli farmer.[28]

What is there to show for this extravagance? A tiny number of "elite class" farmers on the edge of bankruptcy holding under their possession 85% of the (Palestinian) land.

Moreover, this exploitation of resources exceeds by far the safe yield limits. Serious undermining of aquifers has been observed in the Coastal Plain and near Tiberias.[29] Fresh waters from Yarmouk are pumped in Tiberias, thus rendering the water of lower Jordan river, accessible to Jordanians, unsuitable for irrigation. The salinity of Gaza water is responsible for deteriorating agricultural produce and water pollution has caused widespread health problems. This irresponsible exploitation coupled with immense thirst for more water has been one of the major causes of 1967 and 1982 wars, and will probably cause future wars.[30]

The water consumption of Israel grew from 350 million cubic metres per year (mcm/yr) to 1,000 in 1956, due to Tiberias canal diversion, Huleh drainage, and Yarkon (Auja) diversion to Negev. After reaching the limit of water exploitation in its territory in 1958, Israel started to tap the resources of the West Bank aquifer, well before the 1967 war. By 1965, Israel built its National Water Carrier and destroyed Syrian irrigation schemes. That increased its consumption to 1,320 mcm/yr, out of which 820 was Arab water. By seizing Arab head-waters in 1967 and occupying south Lebanon in 1982, the consumption increased to 2020 (1990) mcm/yr, of which 1471 was Arab water[31]. In 20 years, Israel plans to increase its consumption to 3000 mcm/yr. Not only is the present exploitation of Arab water subject to the censure of the international community[32], but the continued pursuit of the same policy will be a recipe for more wars.

If, however, a rational approach is followed, new war may be avoided. If the refugees return and resume their occupation in agriculture, a regional Arab agreement may be concluded. In Table 2, we have examined 3 cases of water use. Case 1 (actual): Israeli consumption consists of 1300 mcm/yr goes to agriculture, 133 to industrial use and 594 for municipal (domestic) use. Israel's municipal consumption is extremely high at 104 cubic metre/ person/year (285 litres/person/day), as compared to Jordan (60) and the West Bank (37.5). It should not be difficult to curtail this wasteful consumption down to Jordan's level.[33]

While keeping agricultural consumption to 1300 mcm/yr, we shall examine two future cases. Case 2: All refugees return; no additional Russians immigrate, with the present remaining; municipal use fixed at 60 cm/p/yr for all population. Case 3: No refugees return; an additional 1.5 million Russians immigrate to Israel; Israeli municipal use remains at 104 cm/p/yr. Cases 2,3 require roughly the same amount of water, about 2700 mcm, which is the max amount of water which may be extracted for Israel/Palestine from its territory and the immediately adjacent region.

Case 2 is feasible through inter-Arab agreement for distribution of water resources and allowing the refugees to return. Case 3 is not possible without a new war to acquire more Arab land and water and, at the same time, keeping the refugees away from their homes. The consequences of either admitting more Russians or allowing the refugees to return are therefore obvious. There are no water resources available at present for both cases.

These figures will be tempered, of course, by economic conditions and political stability, or lack of it. These factors will, among other things, affect the number of Russians willing to live in Israel (currently outward migration among them is 20%). The conclusion, however, remains valid.

If, however, Israel continues to impose its control on land and water and plans for further expansion, on the belligerent principle that "water cannot be a consequence of peace; it is a condition for peace"[34], then the area may well witness another fifty years of destruction and bloodshed.

Operational Steps:
From logistic point of view, it is not difficult to put the Return Plan into effect. In the period 1949-1951, Israel admitted over 650,000 Jews under conditions of war after a journey of thousands of miles. In the nineties, Israel admitted a similar number of Russian Jews without as much as crowding the airport.

For the Palestinian refugees, the return home is much easier. All what they have to do is to travel by buses for 1-2 hours, from Gaza northeast, from the West Bank westwards and from Lebanon south to Galilee. They know where to go; their village sites are mostly vacant. They know who they are; a typical village consists of 4-5 hamulas (large families) which are still intact. There are complete records of about 700,00 families and five million individual files. We know the original inhabitants of each village, their family history for 50 years and where they and their off-spring reside today.

Construction of new or temporary homes can be, and has been, achieved at a record time. Workforce and young men of the village can preceed the arrival of the whole village. UNRWA has a wealth of experience in this regard, which is run by a Palestinian staff of 21,000. Thousands of qualified Palestinian workers, engineers and planners have similar experience. Detailed project plans can be drawn up. The task of reconstruction and rehabilitation is quite manageable; witness the Desert Storm logistic exercise when half a million soldiers were moved, fed, housed in a matter of few weeks.

To protect the refugees' property rights, it is necessary to form a Palestine Land Authority[35], (PLA), with the following mandate:

  • PLA represents the property rights of the People of Palestine everywhere.
  • PLA functions are: to document, recover, hold, protect, maintain and develop Palestinian property.
  • PLA is the custodian of all Palestinian property until the shares of the individual owners are determined and/or the property is handed over to its owners.
  • PLA is an independent authority. It cooperates with PNA, Palestine National Congress and the relevant UN or other agencies.
  • PLA remains active until all its functions are fulfilled.

The general assembly of PLA consists of approximately 1500 members, representing 532 depopulated localities, at the rate of 3 persons per `equivalent' village unit. These persons may be elected or represented by mukhtars, chief landowners and leading personalities. The total area of Palestinian land is the sum of village and town lands, including common and public land, minus Jewish ownership in 1948. The latter is very well-defined, as it was the ardent desire of Zionist immigrants and corporations to have a proof of land purchased or acquired in Palestine. It is the task of PLA to take control of this (net) Palestinian land.

At first, villagers will own their village land collectively, through PLA, in the form of a number of allocated shares, assigned to each village. The areas of village lands are well-defined. The total ownership of each village is therefore indisputable. The village "unit", with its monolithic, historical, cultural and blood-ties continuity, remains the best instrument for repatriation and rehabilitation.

Then, individual ownership may be assigned. The UN Conciliation Commission of Palestine (CCP) has 450,000 records of registered individual ownership. The writer has examined some of these records and found them quite legible, contrary to some reports. These records, however, represent only 5,194 sq,km[36] out of 17,178 sq.km. total Palestinian refugees' land; the difference being unregistered, but recognized, ownership, due to the hasty departure of the Mandate government. Custom and inheritance laws may be applied for the descendants in these cases, but always maintaining the village "unit".

The legal transfer of property is straightforward. The 49-year land leases held by the Kibbutz are due to expire in 1998. The deeds may be transferred to the legal owners, through PLA, by the (Israeli) Custodian of Absentee Property. The (Israeli) Development Authority will then become redundant, and Israel Land Administration should hand over the documentation. There shall be no cases of dispute between individual Jews and Palestinians since practically all Jews who benefited from Palestinian land since 1948 have no personal title deeds.[37]

UNRWA shall continue to function until all refugees are adequately and safely repatriated. UNRWA then turns into a development authority under UNDP. The Return Plan shall be carried out under the guardianship of CCP which shall ensure the physical and legal well-being of the returnees.

All returning Palestinians shall be issued certificates of Palestinian Identity, (converted from the present UNRWA refugee ID's plus new certificates for about 1,241,400 (1994) refugees who are not registered), in addition to, and regardless of, any other citizenship, including Israeli, they may have, at any time. They shall enjoy full civil and religious rights. Their political rights shall follow the country of their citizenship. They shall have the right to obtain the country's citizenship without discrimination on any grounds.

Will Democracy Win?
The proposed Return Plan set out above certainly runs against the pro-Israeli schemes of resettlement. It is, however, in line with the rights and wishes of about five million refugees whose voice is rarely heard. Let us walk through the fog of myths and look at some facts.

To the Palestinians, the Right of Return is sacred. Palestinians "exist"; they are a people. If we learn anything from the last 50 years, it is that the Palestinians will not just disappear, or disperse. It is now abundantly clear that, of the parties in the conflict, they are the only ones who have nowhere else to go or wish to go except Palestine.

The most natural thing in the world is to return home. That is why legislators did not see the need to inscribe it. Yet, in spite of adverse legal sophistry, Palestinians have a solid right to return, supported by the absolute majority of the nations of the world. Demographically, their return will cause minimum and voluntary relocation of Israelis and no `transfer', a welcome relief when compared to Israel's plans. It can be done. It is feasible. It is even beneficial, to prevent new war and create permanent peace.

The Palestinians have no obligation, moral or legal, to accommodate the Israelis at their expense. By any standards, the Israelis have such obligation - to correct a monumental injustice they have committed. Nevertheless, the refugees' return has nothing to do with Israel's sovereignty. It has nothing to do with whether Oslo agreements succeed or fail. It has nothing to do with settlements, boundaries or even Jerusalem. Let all these issues take their natural course.

The negative points of the proposal are clear. Israel will not allow it, at least now. It has the military muscle, aided by the US, to prevent it. Israel's justification for this denial is to protect its security and preserve its Jewishness.

It is of course ridiculous to claim that unarmed subjugated Palestinians are, or could be, a threat to a regional military and nuclear superpower. Security is euphemism for the protection of Israel's gains: land, water and sovereignty, which it has wrenched from the Palestinians. Security in this sense means therefore the denial of all, but token, Palestinian rights. This will not be allowed to happen, and if it did by sheer force, it will not be permanent, for the naked power, by its very nature, is transient. Therefore, it is in Israel's best interest to achieve security by eliminating the need for it. The return of the refugees will achieve it permanently.

Israel clings to the idea of Jewish purity. Israel today is a tribal society armed with high-tech. There is no place in the future for such a state. It cannot continue to protect its exclusivity by brutal force and still hope to share civilized values and exchange trade and ideas with the rest of the world, least of all the Arab World.

Inside Israel, there are several disparate groups (religious, secular, European, Asian, African) which are preserving their own separate ways. There are the Israeli Palestinians, who comprise 20% of the Jews. This separate national group is young, 45% less than 20 years old, against 29% for Jews. This young wave will propel itself into more representation in the next two decades. Israel would then have two choices, a negative one, to subjugate them, or a positive one, to accept them as citizens. If Israel subjugates them (as it did in 1948-1966), transfer or exterminate them in the extreme, it would become more isolated than ever and will deserve to be the pariah of the world. In the age of mass communication and the upsurge in the awareness of human rights, this would be suicidal for Israel. If it accepts them, as it should, it would have no problem with the `other' Palestinians.

Thus, the sooner Israel turns democratic, the less it will pay for peace. Waiting will buy time but will not solve the problem. To break the rock of `return' down into a multitude of pebbles: resettlement here and there, return of a token number, a few family reunions, splitting the refugees to genuine refugees, refugees with citizenship, displaced persons, permanent residents ...etc. will only create as many problems. Besides, it had been tried and failed.

The best course, and the least costly, remains the return of the refugees. To be sure, the refugees return is not a sweet pill for the Israelis to swallow, especially after they have enjoyed an easy military victory and vast material gains in the last fifty years. But for a permanent cure, a pill must be taken.

[1]Figures for Jews born in Palestine are estimated from the natural increase of those resident in Palestine in 1920. In 1995, 4,388,000 Jews live in Israel, the home of 5,657,000 Palestinians, of which 1,011,000 still live there. The rest, 4,646,000, are expelled to make room for the Jews. Since 1980, the Palestinians, resident and exiled, outnumber the Jews inspite of open immigration for the latter. For pre-1948 Jews and Palestinians, see A Survey of Palestine for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Vol. 1, Ch. VI, p. 140, Reprint 1991, the Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC and W. Khalidi (1987), App. I, p.841. For dispossessed Palestinians, see Abu-Sitta. For Palestinians in Israeli-Palestine (67% of total), see J. Abu-Lughod, Table 3, p.160. For post-1948 Israeli figures, see Statistical Abstracts of Israel, CBS, 1995, No.46, Table 2.27 and others.

[2]For details, see Abu-Sitta. The depopulated localities are 13 towns, 420 village and 98 tribes. The list is based on Morris (1987) and W. Khalidi (1992), plus Beer Sheba Sub-District which is added in detail for the first time. The population is upgraded to the year 1948 from Village Statistics of 1945. This paper contains also database analysis of the depopulated villages, their population size and land area, when they left and why, and the incidence of massacres.

[3] See Hadawi, App.V p. 224, App.VI p.230, App.VIII p.247 and AbuSitta Table 3. Note that about half Area B has been expropriated by Israel although owners are Israeli citizens, so-called "present absentees".

[4] See the well-known works by Morris (1987, 1990) for a new look at the now-declassified Israeli files. For the myth of Arab orders to leave, see W. Khalidi (1988). For further discussion of Morris's research, showing it has not gone far enough, see Finkelstein. For a new review by Israeli authors of Israel's responsibility, see Pappe', Segev, Flapan. For a review of UN files by non-Israeli author, see Palumbo. For a database analysis of all depopulated villages, see Abu-Sitta.

[5] This analysis is an extension of Morris's Work (1987), using the same criteria, to cover 532 localities. See Abu-Sitta (1996).

[6] >See Falah (1996) for a field survey of physical and cultural destruction of the Palestinian presence in Israel.

[7]See for example Peretz, who argues that the return is "neither feasible nor practical", p.72 and that "conditions have so changed..." p. 73, so as not to permit return. See also the comments by Elie Sanbar, the Chief Palestinian Delegate in the multi-lateral talks on refugees. After utterly refusing to forfeit the Right of Return, the Palestinian Delegation was given `the practical difficulties' as a pretext for no return.

[8] Palestinian towns from which they were depopulated (eg. Jaffa, Acre, BeerSheba) are left without repair. Palestinians who remained in Israel are prevented from any care or upgrading of their property, except by a special permit which is difficult to get. Israelis destroyed most villages immediately upon expulsion of their inhabitants. In a field survey of 418 villages, Falah (1996) found out that, on a scale of 1 to 6, where 1=total obliteration, 6=partly occupied by at least 2 Jewish families, 7=inaccessible villages, 1=19.4%, 2=33.5%, 3=14.3%, 4=17.7%, 5=4.1%, 6=8.4%, 7=2.6%. This means roughly that 67.2% were totally destroyed, 17.7% partially destroyed, 12.5% partially habitable.

[9] Palestine is a well-documented country. First scientifically-prepared map was prepared by Jacotin in 1799 during Napoleon's Campaign. In 1872-1877, Palestine Exploration Fund surveyed Palestine and produced 26 sheets with 15,000 names (none of them Jewish) under 46 designations. The Government of Palestine (1920-1948) produced maps of Palestine (1:100,000, 1: 20,000, 1:12,500 down to 1:1,250 series). It also kept Land Registry records, from which United Nations Conciliation Commission on Palestine produced Landowners Index, available on micro-film. Israel used and updated the above maps for lease of land to the Kibbutz. Geographical Information System (GIS) can recreate past, present and forecast future conditions of land and people.

[10] See Masalha (1992, 1997)

[11] See Thicknesse (1949).

[12] See Zureik (1996).

[13] See his article in the Herald Tribune, 12 Feb 1997.

[14] Arzt report suggests a final solution to the Palestinians. The report contains errors of fact and builds on them. In her permanent `Transfer' plan, Table 4.1, p.88, Arzt quotes US Bureau estimates for the year 2005, cited in Peretz, p.16, which exclude Palestinians in Europe and the Americas. Yet Arzt conveniently halves the figure of "other Mideast States" to include "non-Mideast States". Arzt table for 1995 is equally doctored. Furthermore, her tables for total Palestinians underestimate the figure by about one million (1995 estimate: 7,025,000 min-7,590,000 max). The substance of Arzt's plan is to resettle the refugees mostly wherever they are, with a new transfer for 1,800,000, half of them to Europe and the Americas and the other half to the West Bank. Most of the latter are `Displaced Persons' anyway. They would normally have returned had Israel not kept the West Bank under occupation against the will of the international community. Half of Gaza refugees will have to endure another transfer somewhere else while a negligible number will return to their homes in Israel if they satisfy strict rules already in operation since 1950.

[15]These are: Tel Aviv, Judean Mountain, Haifa, Petah Tiqwa, Sharon, Rishon Le Ziyyon, Southern Sharon and Rehovoth. The highest present density is 6711 (Tel Aviv) and the lowest 767 (Sharon) person/sq.km.

[16] See for example Arnon Sofer, p.126. Many others have lamented the concentration of Jews in localized areas as a danger to Israel which should be solved by `Transfer' (expulsion) of the Arabs (in Israel), to prevent them living in sparsely populated areas. Michael Romann argues that Jewish demography has put a limit on the ability to attain maximum territorial control of Arab land (Middle Eastern Studies, 26(3), July 1990, pp.371-382). Recent news (eg. Sunday Times, 9 Feb 1997, p.17) about a plan to build 40 islands off-shore is an indication that the pattern of dense coastal urban settlement will continue and flourish.

[17] These are: Lod, Hadera, Yizre'el, Nazareth, Kinerot (Tiberias). The highest present density is 883 (Nazareth) and the lowest 189 (Yizre'el) persons/sq.km. >

[18] Ninety per cent of the returnees are distributed over the three most northern regions; Gerar, Besor and Be'er Sheva, and 10% in the remainder of Beer Sheba Sub-District. This is consistent with their habitation in 1948.

[19] These are, in descending order of population, the largest 30,000, the smallest 10,000:

Umm al-Fahm, Bag'a al Gharbiyya, Judeida, Daliet al-Karmel, Tayibe, Tire, Tirat Karmel, Kafar Qasem, Kafar Qara', Arrabe, Ar'ara, Qalanswe, Ramla (mixed). (Israel CBS T .2.16.)

[20] Aharoni, p.200

[21] Aharoni, p.134, Table 3.8. In 1989, employed persons in agriculture, forestry and fishing numbered just 69,000.

[22] Aharoni, pp. 208-213.

[23] In the Southern District, those who entered and left respectively (in thousands) at the years indicated are:

1965: 22.6-20.6, 1970: 15.2-14.3, 1980 : 15.5-16.9, 1990: 23.5-24.9, ( Israel CBS, T. 2.19.)

[24] See E. Efrat who discusses the failure in `Negev' at length, pp.182-185. His figure for Beer Sheba bedouins is underestimated.

[25] 1983 from Aharoni, p.200. 1993 from Statistical Abstract of Israel T. 6-7 (1994).

[26] Hillel, p.227.

[27] Hillel, p.228, Efrat, p.211.

[28] See Dabbagh et al, in Rogers and Lydon, p.228, Tables 3,4.

[29] Lowi, p. 151.

[30] See for example Davis et al, p. 40.

[31]These figures are compiled from Lowi, Hillel, Davis, Kahhala, Eisa, Masri, Bakour Y and Kolars J, p.131, (in Rogers and Lydon).

[32] For the damage to and the illegal exploitation of the Occupied Territories' water resources, see UN report, UNA/AC.183 (02) W21, p.6, p.66 respectively. This report also quotes sources, p.10, that Israel "controls more than 2300 mcm of the Arab world water resources".

[33] The reduced figure of 60 cm/p/yr (164 litres/p/day) is still larger than most Arab countries other than the Gulf. The reduction can be achieved by applying disciplined and serious policies of water economy, as was the case in Tunis which reduced its municipal consumption from 44 to 30 cm/p/yr. See Dabbagh et al, p.5.

[34] This bold and frank statement in quotation represents the Likud position, given by Ploss and Rubenstein. Quoted by John Waterbury, p.60, in Rogers and Lydon.

[35] This idea is not without some precedent. The UN discussed in its early deliberations the appointment of "an administrator for refugee property". See A/AC.25/W.81/Rev.2, p.73.

[36] Or 5,194,091 donums (donum=1000 sq.m.) estimated as the registered individual Arab property in Israel (RP/1), excluding `unsettled title', common and public Arab property and the whole of Beer Sheba Sub-District (12,577,000 d). See the CCP Land Expert report by Jarvis, UN A/AC.25/W.84, 28 April 1964.

[37] Upon the conquest of Palestine in 1948, Israel passed a series of laws, described by Peretz as "a sort of legal fiction". A Custodian of Absentee Property was appointed, who in turn transferred this property to a `Development Authority'. The latter was empowered to sell. buy, lease, develop or cultivate the Absentees' Property, provided that such transactions are restricted to Jewish entities only. In pre-1948 Palestine, land held by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was declared to be "in the name of the Jewish People everywhere in perpetuity". With the vast land gains acquired in 1948, a dispute arose between JNF and Israel government about its control. The latter claimed that such land should be registered in its name as a reward for "the triumph of the Haganah and the flight of the Arabs". It was finally agreed that JNF is allowed to increase its holdings and all Palestinian land be administered by Israel Land Administration (ILA) according to JNF rules. JNF stated in 1949 that, "[o]f the entire area of the State of Israel [20,325 sq.km], about 300 sq.km are state domain. The JNF and private Jewish owners possess under 2,000 sq.km [1,682 sq.km]. Almost all the rest [ie 88%] belongs at law (sic) to Arab owners, many of whom left the country..." All the Palestinian land is now run in custody by ILA (until the owners return). For a comprehensive description of JNF activities, see Lehn and Davis, particularly p. 108, 114, and 132.

Janet L Abu-Lughod,. `The Demographic Transformation of Palestine', pp. 139-163 in `Transformation of Palestine', Ed. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, (Northwestern University Press, 1971).

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Photo Captions: (not included in this version)
Photo 1. Ramleh, one of 13 depopulated towns. Together with its twin, Lydda, their inhabitants, numbering 60,000, have been expelled by the direct orders of Rabin. They were forced to march in July heat, children and old men falling by the wayside.

Photo 2. Bureir, one of 240 depopulated villages. Bureir was occupied before the entry of the Arab regular forces and was the scene of a massacre.

Photo 3. Al Ma'in. One of 98 tribal lands. Although in the Negev, it was fully cultivated, as can be seen. Total cultivated land in Beer Sheba was greater than it is today.

Photo 4. Dayr Yassin, the site of the infamous massacre on 9 April 1948. Twenty-five massacres were committed during the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948.

Photo 5. Emmuas, mentioned in the Gospel of St Luke as the place where Jesus appeared after crucifixion. Emmuas was destroyed and the inhabitants were expelled on Rabin's orders in 1967, in continuation of the 'Transfer' policy followed since 1948.

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