In Defense of the Right of Return to Palestine
By Dr. Salman Abu Sitta
This study was read at the Israeli Anthropological Annual Conference in Jerusalem in May 2000 and published in Haaretz on July 23, 2000 (Hebrew edition only.)
At the age of ten, I became a refugee. About a million people met that same fate in 1948. Their life has suddenly been transformed from a state of tranquility to a state of utter destitution: families expelled at gunpoint in the middle of night or in the heat of a summer day, screams of help, cries of pain, children lost, mothers clutching pillows instead of their children, thirsty old men shot in the head if they stopped for water in the forced march, a whole family dismembered to pieces by a bomb dropped from a plane while having supper, survivors of (35 reported) massacres walking about in a daze. The scenes of devastation filled the landscape: the sea of wretched humanity trailing along the sea coast in Gaza or in the ravines of the West Bank, resting under a tree, in a mosque or a school, counting their number; the distraught father or mother rushing back aimlessly looking for a missing loved one; houses deserted with a bed undone, a hot food in the kitchen; a dog looking for its owner; plants remain unwatered; cattle and sheep wandering about out of their open sheds. Screams of Yahud, Yahud (Jews, Jews) are heard and the tired crowd disperses frantically in crevices and behind rocks. A jeep with mounted machine guns sprays all moving objects. A plane hovers gently, almost soundlessly, then drops barrels of destruction on concentrated masses, limbs flying in the air, hanging on a branch.
All this and more is indelible in my mind, and my childrens. Yet my biggest trauma is not all this. My experience during my expulsion is relatively mild when compared to thousands who went through all these horrors. My biggest trauma was that my childs mind could not comprehend that there was such a cruel, hateful, vengeful enemy who was determined to destroy my life. Why? What for? What have I, we, done to him? I could not put a face, certainly not a human face, to him. You see I had never seen a Jew before, not for many, many years after. The enemy was faceless. I heard all kind of stories: the enemy landed on our shores, the enemy speaks a babble of languages, has many faces, dialects, but is united in ruthless destruction of my people. It took me many years of diligent work to put a face to this enemy. All the years of my adult life, I carried with me my history, intact and alive, while my geography was severed from my physical existence, but remained ensconced in my psyche. I longed for the day of return, when my history and geography are united again. You see, I am Palestinian, a typical refugee. Only with the Right of Return exercised, only with my history and geography united again, then, only then, I, my children and grandchildren, can shed the title of refugee. Not a day before.
To the Palestinians, the Right of Return is sacred, legal and possible. It is sacred because it is embedded in their psyche. Although they have been dispersed, their family structure is strong. They still marry, across geographical divides, from the same family had they not been expelled. According to UNRWA records, fully 72 percent of villages moved to only one area of the five UNRWA fields of operation, 20 percent to two areas and only 8 percent to three.
It is legal because it is enshrined in international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is protected by the sanctity of private ownership which cannot be extinguished by occupation, sovereignty or passage of time. No amount of legal sophistry will undermine this right.
Now I advance the thesis that the return is possible. If the reverse is true, that will not of course nullify or diminish the right of return. Land robbery does not confer ownership rights. This thesis is aimed at those well-meaning people who accept the validity of the Palestinian right of return, but fear this may trigger off another Nakba, a Jewish one this time. They do not want the horror of Nakba to be experienced again, even by the perpetrators of the original Nakba. Others claim that the return means the dilution of the Jewish character of Israel, or as Begin often claimed, the destruction of Israel. This futile effort is intended only to legitimize material and political gains made by military conquests. Let us examine these contentions one by one.
Can the refugees return to their homes without causing a reverse exodus? Is there room for them?
We examined the 46 natural regions of Israel and determined for each region the number of urban and rural Jews, the present Palestinians in Israel and the refugees whose homes were in this region. We then grouped them in three groups: A, B, C a la West Bank.
Group A has an area of 1,628 sq. km and has a population of over 3 million Jews, or about 70 percent of the Jews.
This is the same area and largely in the same location as the land which the Jews purchased or acquired under British protection in 1948. Its area is 8 percent of Israel. This is the total extent of Jewish ownership in Israel. Here is the heaviest Jewish concentration.
Area B has a mixed population. Its area is 6 percent of Israel and is just less than the land of Palestinians who remained in Israel. A further 10 percent of the Jews live there. Thus, in a nutshell, 78 percent of the Jews live in 14 percent of Israel.
That leaves Area C, which is 86 percent of Israel. This is largely the land and the home of the Palestinian refugees. Who lives there today? Apart from the remaining Palestinians, the majority of the Jews there live in originally Palestinian, now mixed, cities and a few new towns. The average size of a new town in Area C is comparable to the size of a refugee camp. If Jabaliya camp were a town in Israel, its rank in terms of size would be in the top 8 percent of Israeli urban centers.
All the fertile land for 160,000 Jews, none for 5 million refugees
Who then controls the vast Palestinian land in area C? Only 160,000 rural Jews exploit the land and heritage of over 5 million refugees packed in refugee camps and denied the right to return.
The refugees in Gaza are crammed at a density of 4,200 persons per sq. km. If you were one of those refugees, and you look across the barbed wire to your land in Israel, and you see it almost empty, at 5 persons/sq. km, (almost one thousand times less density than Gaza!) what would you feel? Peaceful? Content? This striking contrast is the root of all the suffering. It can only be eliminated with the return of the refugees.
What do those rural Jews do? We are told they cultivate the (Palestinian) land and produce wonderful agriculture. We are not told that three quarters of the Kibbutz are economically bankrupt and that only 26 percent of them produce most of the agriculture. We are not told that the Kibbutz is ideologically bankrupt; there is constant desertion, and very few new recruits. Irrigation takes up about 60-80 percent of the water in Israel, 2/3 of it is Arab water. Agriculture in the southern district alone uses 500 million cubic meters of water per year. This is equal to the entire water resources of the West Bank now confiscated by Israel. This is equal to the entire resources of upper Jordan including Lake Tiberias for which Israel is obstructing peace with Syria. Total irrigation water, a very likely cause of war, produces agricultural products worth only 1.8 percent of Israels GDP. Such waste, such extravagance, such disregard for the suffering of the refugees, and such denial of their rights is exercised by 8,600 Kibbutzniks who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. When the refugees return to their land, they can pursue their traditional agricultural pursuits, and no doubt this will take up the slack in GDP. More importantly, peace will be a real possibility.
Let us consider two scenarios, which if applied is likely to diffuse much of the tension in the Middle East. Let us imagine that the registered refugees in Lebanon (362,000) are allowed to return to their homes in Galilee. Even today, Galilee is still largely Arab. Palestinians there outnumber the Jews one and a half times. If the Lebanon refugees return, the Jewish concentration in Area A will hardly feel the difference, and the Jews will remain a majority in all areas, even when they are least in number, like area C.
Furthermore, if the 760,000 registered refugees in Gaza are allowed to return to their homes in the south, now largely empty, they can return to their same original villages, while the percentage of the Jewish majority in the center (area A) will drop by only 6 percent. The number of these rural Jews who may be affected by the return of Gaza refugees to their homes in the south does not exceed 78,000 or the size of a single refugee camp. This is a glaring example of the miscarriage of justice
Another striking fact is that the number of Russian immigrants, claiming to be Jews, is almost the same as that of Lebanon and Gaza refugees combined. Those refugees are denied the right to return home while the Russian immigrants are taking their place, their homes and their land.
So much for the claim of the physical impossibility of the return of the refugees. The vacancy of Palestinian land is so problematic to Israel that it is trying to find people to live on this land. None other than Sharon and Eitan started a scheme in 1997 to sell the refugees land to builders to build apartments so that an American or Australian Jew can buy an apartment without being an Israeli. Kibbutz farmers who rented this land from the Custodian of Absentee (i.e. refugee) Property received a compensation up to 25 percent of its sale value. This illegal activity, selling a land in custody, prompted the UN to issue resolutions affirming the entitlement of the refugees to receive any income of their property for the last 50 years and calling on all states to present all documents and information they may have on the refugees property.
The Jewish character of the state?
Now it is often said that Israelis oppose the return of the refugees for fear that this will change the Jewish character of the state. What do they mean by the phrase Jewish character? Do they mean legal, social, demographic or religious character? Let us examine these one by one.
First, what is the legal meaning of the Jewish character? In the words of a noted Jurist, (Mallison): The Jewish character is really a euphemism for the Zionist discriminatory statutes of the State of Israel which violate the human rights provisions. The UN is under no more of a legal obligation to maintain Zionism in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. In March 2000, the reports of UN Treaty-Based Committees, such as Human Rights Committee, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Committee against Torture, have all condemned Israeli practices and characterized, for the first time so clearly, the exclusive structure of the Israeli law as the root cause of all those violations of international law. How, then, can the international community accept the premise of a Jewish character as a basis for the denial of the right to return home?
If they mean a social Jewish character, this idea is clearly a misnomer. There is not much in common between a Brooklyn Jew and an Ethiopian Jew, or between a Russian claiming to be a Jew and a Moroccan Jew. The gulf between the Ashkenazi and the Haredim can never be bridged. The Sephardim (Mizrahim) are allocated the lower rungs of the social ladder. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are being polarized on sectarian lines. Israel has long given up on the idea of a melting pot.
There are 32 languages spoken in Israel. Prof. Etzioni Halevi of Bar Ilan University and a specialist on the Jewish national identity says, we are not a single people, language is different, attire is different, behavior and attitude are different, even the sense of identity is different. How then can the Palestinians, the inhabitants of 530 depopulated towns and villages be the odd element in this mosaic?
If they mean by the Jewish character the numerical superiority of Jews, they have to think again. The Palestinians who remained in their homes now represent 26 percent of all Jews. How could Israel ignore their presence? Will Israel plan another massive ethnic cleansing operation? Very unlikely. They are there to stay and increase. In the year 2010, Palestinians in Israel will be 35 percent of Jews and they will be equal to the number of Jews in 2050 or much earlier when immigration dries up. So what is the value of chasing an elusive target while innocent people wait in the refugee camps?
If they mean the religious Jewish character, who says this is in danger? For one thousand years, the Jews did not find a haven anywhere for their religious practice better than the Arab world.
One must conclude therefore that the cliché Jewish character is only meant to justify keeping the land and expelling its people.
In practical terms, it is entirely feasible to plan the return in such a way and in such phases that the Jewish residents will not feel any effect, except the pleasant feeling that a true peace is a reality at last
But the Israelis must come to terms with al Nakba, the Palestinian holocaust, and its consequences. They must shed their collective amnesia about the Palestinians, the notion that they landed in an empty country, conquered 530 empty towns and villages, cultivated a land where oranges, olives and wheat grew by divine intervention, and found urban and rural landscape carved by genies. They must learn to live with the Palestinians, not instead of them. They must believe that: no return means no peace.
Dr. Salman Abu Sitta is a long-time researcher on Palestinian refugees (over 50 papers and other publications), a former member of the Palestine National Council (for 20 years) and president of the Palestine Land Society.