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The Right of Return

The issue of the “Right of Return” to Israel claimed by Palestinians has been treated as a zero sum game: Palestinians regularly insist, at least in public, that every refugee must be allowed back while Israelis insist that no refugee can return.  In fact, Israelis are indignant that the refugee issue persists.

If Jews for 2000 years kept alive their hope for a return to Zion, why are the Palestinians expected to abandon their hope after 63 years?  David Ben-Gurion, a great prognosticator in many ways, famously said of the refugees, “the old will die and the young will forget.”  He was wrong.

Like most problems, the refugee issue is actually multi-faceted.  Solutions or attempts at mitigation for each of the separate elements can be contemplated.  There can be little doubt that the following steps, while psychologically challenging, are economically and logistically feasible and militarily prudent.  We must remember that Israel’s economy is on a par with western Europe.  Logistically, Israel is the country that mobilizes 400,000 troops in a matter of days and took just a few years to absorb a million Russian Jews.  Israel has one of the strongest military establishments in the world.

Expression of empathy and responsibility. 

Jews’ need to affirm Israel blocks their ability to understand that Palestinians feel genuine loss and outrage at how so many wound up outside Israel and how those who remained in Israel lost land, lived under martial law until 1966 and remain second-class citizens.  Israel wound up in control of 78% of a territory in which, in 1947, Jews owned 8% of the land and amounted to 30% of the population.  The debate rages over how and why Palestinians were displaced but only hard-hearted people can fail to empathize with refugees who, unlike the Jewish ones arriving in Israel, had no reason to consider their new domiciles to be their homeland.

Anger at Jewish refusal to acknowledge the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) is a very important driver of Palestinian advocacy for the Right of Return.  An Israeli statement of empathy with the Nakba experience and assumption of major responsibility for it would be a major psychological and symbolic turning point in the conflict and go a long way towards easing Palestinian grievance.

Payment of compensation and reparations. 

Israel’s Trustee of Absentee Property knows quite well how much Palestinian property has never been returned, not to mention questions of lost earning capacity and of pain and suffering.  Jews more than anyone should know the moral importance and practical value of reparations.  Considering that the international community has often expressed its willingness to help fund this aspect of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Israeli economy can be expected to absorb its share of these expenditures.

Jews usually argue that Palestinian claims are cancelled out by the claims of eastern Jews driven from Arab lands. But those claims need to be settled with the various Arab governments or, if Israel would pursue the Arab Peace Initiative, with the Arab League.  The Palestinians did not force Jews from Baghdad and Sana’a and Palestinian claims deserve to be addressed separately, on their merits.

Renovation of abandoned mosques, cemeteries and shrines and 72-hour visas to visit them.

Israeli organizations like Zochrot, not to mention official records, can identify hundreds of Palestinian sites not plowed under or built over.  In a situation in which Israel no longer hides what happened at its birth or the reality of a predecessor culture in the land, these sites can be renovated.  UN and other records allow for identification of living Palestinians with ties to particular mosques, holy places or cemeteries.  In 72 hours, any Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza, or flying in from the Palestinian Diaspora, could easily visit and pray at such sites and leave the country.  Israel could utilize reasonable methods to screen for known terrorists and allow entry to almost all visa applicants.  Jews should certainly understand how far this would go towards healing emotional wounds.  Jews work hard to ensure proper upkeep for Jewish cemeteries around the world whose Jewish communities are lost forever.

“Visiting days” to Palestinian familial homes. 

The deeply felt need to see the old familial home in Jaffa or amidst the ruins of a village is one of the strongest elements of Palestinian feeling about the Right of Return.  Property records and Israeli IT capacity are more than sufficient to allow for zoning all of Israel into manageable units (groups of neighborhoods in different part of the country) to which identified former owners or their immediate descendants would be allowed to return on designated, annual visiting days for which 48-hour visas would be issued after reasonable security checks.  By law, a Palestinian would have the right to enter his familial home and look around for up to an hour with no claim to the property, its contents or fixtures.  By law, an Israeli 18 years of age or older would have to remain on the premises all day or until the Palestinians(s) had visited and would have to grant them entry.  At least during the first few years of this visiting program, police would be unobtrusively deployed in significant numbers throughout the designated neighborhoods.

We know from the accounts not only of Palestinians viewing their former homes in the early years after the 1967 war but of Jews making similar pilgrimages to family sites in Europe, that many people, having visited once, will not do so again.  Others will return again and again, sometimes becoming friendly with a property’s current occupants.  The goodwill of this Israeli initiative and the psychological relief of these visits for Palestinians would remove another giant stumbling block to peace and reconciliation.

Repatriation of some Palestinians.

Studies have shown that a majority of Palestinians do not want to return and live in Israel although they surely want the right to do so.  Many who do not remain in their current countries of residence or use their reparations to emigrate to various locations worldwide will want to live in the Palestinian State.  Therefore, the mantra that the Right of Return involves “millions” of returnees destroying the Jewish fabric of Israel and threatening its security is a convenient slogan but bad math.

The few negotiations that have touched on the refugee issue have addressed numbers largely from a political standpoint — the need for a number of returnees large enough to save face for Palestinian leaders and small enough to be emotionally and ideologically comfortable for Israelis.  But an honest attempt to arrive at a number for repatriation must take into account equity, Israel’s actual absorption capacity and the minimum number likely to win at least grudging acquiescence from the refugees themselves.

Considering Israel’s history of immigrant absorption, a figure of 500,000 over four years is not impossible. The economic costs would be partially offset by the spurt in economic activity – construction, consumer spending by new arrivals – stemming from the repatriation program plus international assistance.  Reasonable security checks would be made and, in fact, the demographics agreed upon could minimize risk: for instance, repatriating the oldest refugees – actual 1947-49 refugees – but not their children would ensure a population very unlikely to present security issues.  Children could apply for visitor visas to see their parents or help care for them.  Another prudent choice would be to repatriate the oldest refugees plus young couples with children (parents in the 18-22 age range).  The young parents, like all parents, will be preoccupied with making the most of their children’s opportunities under new circumstances.

The fundamental requirements for repatriation are not security or economic ones but strong political, religious and cultural leadership in Israeli and Palestinian society that will engender good will, the most essential ingredient not only for repatriation but for peace generally. What did Herzl say?  “If you will it, it is no dream.”

* * *

The implementation of the first four steps outlined above greatly increases the likelihood that Palestinians disappointed by the scope of repatriation will nonetheless, with however much regret or anger, acquiesce to it.  The Israelis, practically and morally, as the stronger and occupying power need to take the first steps — giant steps – concerning the Right of Return.  They have had their state for 63 years; the Palestinians, for reasons we cannot afford to keep arguing about, still lack theirs. To settle both Jewish and Palestinian minds, the final status agreement must include an “end of conflict” clause and stipulation that no further refugee claims will be made.  This approach to the Right of Return can contribute enormously to fostering peace, normalizing Palestinian existence and relieving Jews of the debilitating guilt and fear over the refugee question that they hide from others and often from themselves.

Edward Goldstein has lived in Israel and taught Jewish Studies before entering the business world.  He is a lay synagogue preacher and  active in mideast peacemaking.  His views here are solely his own.

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