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The Fear of Return

Source: Haaretz, 19 August 1997.

By Gideon Lowy

The controversy over the idea of a Palestinian "right of return" is an open wound: painful and problematic as it is for Israelis, it must be bluntly discussed, and reasonable alternatives and forms of compensation for the Palestinian refugees must be found

The controversy over the idea of a Palestinian "right of return" is an open wound: painful and problematic as it is for Israelis, it must be bluntly discussed, and reasonable alternatives and forms of compensation for the Palestinian refugees must be found. What other issue has caused such universal agreement here? From left and from right, from David Levy and Yossi Beilin, from Moddi Sandberg and Dedi Zucker -- all have joined the chorus of harsh criticism aimed at the members of the delegation of Arab Israelis who recently visited Damascus. Part of this criticism was justified, part of it exaggerated. But one may assume that the criticism would not have been so sharp if the delegation had not touched upon one of Israel's most sensitive nerves -- the issue of the right of return for Palestinians.

The sanctioning of this issue is something that no one in (Jewish) Israeli society is prepared to tolerate. On the other hand, whenever the Palestinians raise the subject there is a reassuring sense of relief throughout the land: "See," we seem to say, "here is conclusive proof that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There's no one to talk to; they want Jaffa back." Other, slightly more open Israelis, such as Meron Benvenisti (Ha'aretz, August 14) , suggest that both sides let go of the "ghosts" of the past.

But for tens of thousands of Palestinians in the refugee camps these aren't ghosts, but the very essence of their lives. According to the count of the United Nations, today there are no less than 352,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria. (One may assume the real number is even greater.) These are the descendants of 80,000 inhabitants of the villages and towns of Galilee, who were or fled to Syria in 1948. They live in eleven refugee camps, most of them around Damascus, without citizenship, even if they do enjoy relatively extensive rights. Their situation is better than that of the 360,000 refugees in neighboring Lebanon, but only relatively so. In the refugee camps of el-Nirab, in Khan Sheikh, in Homes, or in Yarmuk, members of the delegation could have met their relatives or friends, the old local grocer or the neighbor from across the road -- now wasting away in endless refugee status.

It is true that Syria, like the other Arab countries, has not done enough to integrate the refugees, and has at times cynically exploited the situation for its own purposes. But this fact in no way detracts from the ethical and historical responsibility of the State of Israel for the lot of these unfortunates, who were expelled or persuaded to flee from their homes and their land in 1948. They lived here for hundreds of years, and their expulsion did not occur two thousand years ago, but only fifty. The memories are still fresh, the longings are still intense, the pain still hurts, and it is passed on from father to son, exactly like similar national pains among us. A good number of those who were uprooted are still alive, and their children and grandchildren have quite naturally grown up with their memories.

Israel insists upon smothering these memories with the demand that the Palestinians not talk about the past. Israel cannot do this. No one can prevent someone from Acre, living today as a refugee on the outskirts of Damascus, from dreaming about his erstwhile home; nor can the man from Tantura be forced not to promise his son that perhaps one day they will return there. But neither is there any reason to be afraid of this or to give up hope for a workable settlement. Rather than avoid the issue, it is both possible and necessary to attempt to find alternative solutions to the problem of return -- the most painful, unhealed wound standing between us and them. MK Azmi Bashari was right when he said that the Palestinians would never relinquish their inherent right of return. It is their historical and ethical prerogative to cling to the dream of return. So why should they give it up in the political and practical realm? Has Israel offered them an alternative solution? Israel only insists that it not be mentioned. It is true that even talking about a Palestinian right of return is utterly impractical as long as such talk -- and the search for solutions -- is perceived among us as undermining the very basis of our existence. Even the agreement to raise it for discussion implies recognition that the State of Israel was created on a basis that was partially unethical. Israelis find this an intolerable; most of them scream as if bitten by a snake when they hear so much as a whisper on the subject. But Israel cannot go on evading the matter forever, because it lives and breathes among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have not forgotten and will not allow it to be forgotten. Many of them have come to realize in their heart that they can no longer return to the lost places, but until they are offered something else they will neither rest nor be silent. Recognition of the injustice that was done them and true compensation for it are the human and political minimum to which these people are entitled, without which no true settlement can take place.

It is difficult to believe that specifically we, who ceaselessly demand the return of Jewish property in Europe, are unwilling to even discuss the option of compensation to the Palestinians. The right of return and fair, practical substitutes for it are not ghosts that can be shut away in a closet and considered resolved. These questions will continue to cast their shadow over the region like an oppressive cloud, darkening any chance for a permanent solution. The only way to deal with them is not to hide them away, but to take them out for a courageous and painful discussion. The chance of this happening in the current climate is, of course, nil, but at least within the Israeli peace camp people must not turn white every time someone utters the forbidden mantra: the right to return.

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