Daily Star – 1 April 2004
HAIFA, Israel: It was a historic moment, personified in the diminutive figure of a 35-year-old scientist from Toronto, Canada who took the stage in Haifa at the weekend to tell a mixed audience of Palestinians and Israeli Jews: “I am the poster girl for the right of return.”
Ayeda Ayed – both of whose names derive from the Arabic word for return – was in the Israeli port city on a double mission.
First, she was there to attend the first-ever conference held in Israel on the right of return for the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that founded Israel. The Palestinian refugee population, now standing at 5 million, is the largest in modern history, with some 3.5 million Palestinians languishing in camps across the Middle East more than 50 years after the war.
Second, she was there to make contact with refugee groups in Israel that could help her locate the destroyed village of Einnaba, between the Israeli cities of Lod and Ramle, from which her father, Hassan, was forced to flee at the age of 13 in 1948. She will be the first person from her family to visit the ruins of the village since her father’s exile.
The most surprising aspect of the Right of Return and Just Peace Conference, apart from its being held in Israel, was the fact that it was jointly organized by Israeli Arab and Jewish groups.
The right of Palestinian return is the last great Israeli taboo: the thought that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians might demand back their former houses in Israel both terrifies Jews who have usurped those homes and threatens overnight to effect the collapse of a Jewish state premised on a Jewish majority.
The few dozen Jews who attended the three-day conference, including a final day’s tour of destroyed villages in the Galilee, were hardly representative. All were anti-Zionists and most were communists. Sharing the burden of organization with Ittijah, the umbrella organization for Palestinian NGOs inside Israel, and the Committee for the Internally Displaced, were the Emil Touma Institute, a research center headed by the outspoken Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, and Zochrot, a recently created Jewish group with a radical agenda.
Zochrot was set up by a former teacher, Eitan Bronstein, two years ago to educate Israeli Jewish schoolchildren about the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. It has a website called Remembering the Nakba in Hebrew and arranges “signposting days” when activists visit a destroyed village to place a signpost marking its location.
According to Bronstein, the signposts rarely survive more than a few hours before they are removed by the police or local Jewish residents.
For the first conference of its kind in Israel, there was a distinguished list of academic speakers. Several offered inventive legal and political strategies that might further the rights of the Palestinian refugees.
Given the conference’s location, it also highlighted the plight of an often neglected component of the refugees: the quarter of a million Palestinians who have been internally displaced within Israel’s borders by the 1948 war.
They have Israeli citizenship but enjoy no more rights to return to their original homes or claim restitution than other refugees. In the Kafkaesque bureaucratic jargon of Israel they are known as “present absentees,” present in Israel but absent from their property.
It was observed by Arab-Israeli lawyer Osama Halibi that obstacles placed by the government in the way of these internal exiles returning to their lands suggested how far Israel was from considering a solution to the issue of the refugees’ rights.
He referred in particular to the plight of two Christian villages – Kfar Biram and Iqrith, close to the northern border with Lebanon – that were evacuated on the orders of Israeli military commanders in 1948 with the promise that the inhabitants would be allowed to return within two weeks.
After a legal battle, the courts backed the villagers, but no government has honored the decision. In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon again rejected their demands, claiming it would set a precedent for the right of Palestinian return.
In a pre-recorded presentation, Salman Abu Sitta, a former member of the Palestine National Council and a renowned scholar on refugee issues, offered his own seven-phase plan for the return.
He used his talk to refute the oft-heard Zionist claim that there is not enough room in Israel to cope with the refugees: In fact, according to Abu Sitta, there is plenty of space. For example, the total number of Jews in the Negev – which comprises some 60 percent of Israeli territory – would fill an average-sized refugee camp in Gaza.
Rebuilding towns to cope with the return of the refugees would not be an insurmountable task. Abu Sitta believes it would require about 600,000 housing units and could be done in eight years.
He pointed out that in recent times Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Georgia have all coped with implementing similar mass housing schemes, even though there were far greater legal and practical obstacles.
But, Ghada Karmi, whose recent autobiography In Search of Fatima recounts her experience of exile from her family home in Jerusalem, observed that Abu Sitta’s plan was meaningless unless there was political will to implement it.
The major hurdle, she suggested, was not legal – the right of return is enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194 – but the continuing dominance of Zionism as Israel’s state ideology.
“Zionism will never accommodate the right of return,” she said, “so we must forget the idea of accommodating Zionism.”
Instead, she proposed campaigning for a secular, democratic single state – a country she wished to name Eretz Palestine – where Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights. In this context, she said, the problems associated with implementing the right of return would simply disappear.
The exclusive presence of anti-Zionists among the Jewish members of the audience suggested she may have a point.
Several speakers pointed out that worries in Israel about the right of Palestinian return were again coming to the forefront because of the apparent failure to reach a peace based on a two-state solution.
Several imaginative, technical strategies were suggested by speakers for using current international law to bolster the right to return.
Gail Boling, an American lawyer working with the Palestinian refugees center Badil, offered a comprehensive deconstruction of arguments used by Israeli apologists. She argued that the legal right of return for refugees had been established as customary practice in international law following the Second World War and therefore Israel was bound by it.
She also claimed that Israel’s continuing violation of the refugees’ rights, through the failure to propose a remedy, meant that subsequent international law, which was more sympathetic to the refugees, could be invoked retroactively against Israel.
Uri Davis, the Israeli academic and author of Apartheid Israel, took a similar tack, pointing out the hypocrisy of Israeli claims that the refugees forfeited their rights – and their claims to their homes and property – by fleeing the country in 1948.He observed that half of Tel Aviv’s population fled the city during the 1991 Gulf War, seeking safety in remoter parts of the country from a possible Iraqi attack.
“No one in Israel is seriously suggesting that those Israelis who left Tel Aviv should lose their bank accounts, homes and property and that those who remained should be entitled to them instead.”
Davis saw an opportunity to implement the right of return in UN Resolution 181 rather than 194. The earlier resolution created the 1947 Partition Plan that was designed to divide the country into three parts: a Jewish state, an Arab state and the international city of Jerusalem. Israel accepted the partition plan and used it as the basis for unilaterally declaring a Jewish state a year later.
Under the partition plan, all those normally resident in the Jewish state would have been entitled to Israeli citizenship and all those in the Arab state Palestinian citizenship. If Resolution 181 was the constitutive document of the Jewish state, said Davis, then all the refugees and their descendants could rightfully claim Israeli citizenship.
“Why not claim it?” he asked. “Citizenship is not an identity but a contract with the state, entitling the holder to the legal, social, educational, welfare and material resources of the state, including land.”
Although Palestinian refugees claiming citizenship would receive a second-class citizenship in an apartheid state, said Davis, they would still be better off than being stateless.
“Use citizenship to further your claims against the state,” he suggested.
Ilan Pappe warned that the transfer policies of the Israeli leadership which lay behind the 1948 dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians, and the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages, were still in vogue.
Daily Star – 1 April 2004