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The Right of Return


by Khalil Shikaki

30 July 2003,

RAMALLAH, West Bank- When the Palestinian national movement decided in the mid-1970s to abandon the ideology of liberating all of historic Palestine in favor of a two-state solution, it failed to explain to its refugee constituency the implications of that shift for their right of return to their homes and towns inside Israel. Once it had agreed to a division of the land, it could not have logically advocated a division of the people with some becoming Israeli and others Palestinian.

As a national movement, the PLO stood for self-determination and the protection of the national identity. Fear of losing legitimacy in the eyes of its largest constituency -- the refugees-- deterred the PLO leadership from confronting the emerging anomaly: how can you be a Palestinian nationalist and at the same time advocate the de-Palestinianization of a large segment of your people.

Perhaps the most surprising finding I came out with from the refugee surveys that I have conducted among 4500 refugee families in the West Bank-Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Jordan in the first half of this year is the extent to which the refugees -- without help from their own leaders -- have internalized the dramatic shift and have acted on it, favoring their national identity over land and legacy.

We have always known that almost all refugees viewed the right of return as sacred and can never be abandoned. Now we know also that only 10% of the refugees surveyed want to exercise the right of return in Israel. The overwhelming majority want to exercise the same right in the state of Palestine in the West Bank-Gaza Strip. While a small number is willing to immigrate to third countries, like Canada, the US, or Australia, a large number of refugees in Jordan elected to stay in that host country. Less than 10% of those seeking to go to Israel -- 1% of all surveyed refugees  will seek an Israeli citizenship upon returning to Israel; the rest want Palestinian, and in some cases Jordanian, citizenship.

Needless to say, what facilitated the decision for the majority of the Palestinian refugees in seeking to live in a Palestinian state is the fact that their national identity can still be embodied in a part of the historic homeland; they can have the best of the two worlds: to be on the land, and with the people, of Palestine.

The significance of this finding should not be underestimated. We have always recognized the timidity of the Palestinian leadership in addressing the issue of refugees. Today, we need to see how courageous the Israeli leadership can be.

It is now clear that an Israeli recognition of the refugees right of return does not carry with it the kind of risks Israelis have always feared. Yet, only the recognition of that right can give Israel what it seeks: to close the refugees file without undermining its Jewish character. It is a win-win situation for all: the refugees, driven by a deep historic collective consciousness, can have the right to choose; the Israelis, driven by a very old search for security in a Jewish majority, can finally breathe with relief; and the Palestinian national movement can feel the pride embodied in the triumph of the national identity.

All pay a price. To exercise self-determination, the refugees need to build new homes and lives in a new environment. The process of their socio-economic and political integration could be extremely painful. To close the file, the Israelis need to face up to their responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. They need to accept guilt and responsibility sharing it with all others: the British with their unjust mandate and the Arab countries that did little or nothing about the terrible refugee suffering of more than fifty years. To protect the national identity of its people, the Palestinians state will have to prepare for the absorption of more than 750,000 refugees in the first five years of its existence. It must plan for this process lest it becomes yet another catastrophe for the Palestinian people as a whole. For all, the challenges are tremendous and the task painful.

Reducing the risks and pain for all is a task only the US can undertake. Israelis will ask for assurances that the exercise of the right of return by going to Israel will not exceed an agreed limit and the Palestinians will seek assurances that the right to choose is real, not merely symbolic. The financial and logistical requirements will be enormous requiring significant US investment and sustained commitment.

Some among the Palestinians and the Israelis will resist the logic embodied in the findings of my surveys. By doing so, they will perpetuate the conflict indefinitely. Those who attacked my center and me on 13 July, seeking to prevent the release of the surveys findings, acted on the belief that scared rights cannot be tampered with, not even by other refugees, let alone researchers. This unhealthy obsession with idealized rights at the expense of vital, or even existential, needs threatens to perpetuate the suffering of millions of refugees. Rights and suffering need not go together, not for so long.

Those in Israel who would continue to keep alive the myth that an Israeli recognition of the right of return is tantamount to committing national suicide are responsible for the continued impasse at the negotiating front and the persistent suffering at the human front. Admitting guilt and responsibility is hard, but people and nations do it quite often without fearing for their survival. Indeed, it is a sign of maturity and security.

While more survey research is needed to verify the details of my findings, the essential compromise is now clear and it is a win-win solution: Israel must recognize the right while the Palestinian state must shoulder the bulk of responsibility for its exercise. It would be a mistake for the US and the international community to let hardliners on both sides perpetuate the agony and the conflict.

Mr. Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in Ramallah.

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