Right of Return to Palestine

Gershon Baskin*


Tuesday, May 16, 2006


If the Palestinians have begun a national dialogue on the goals of their national liberation movement, the time has come for them to also readdress the refugee issue. Recently the Palestinian people marked the beginning of the 59th year since the Naqba.  In November 1947 the United Nations passed UN Resolution 181 which called for the establishment of two States – a Jewish State and a Palestinian State - in the territory under the control of the British Mandate.  The Jewish people overwhelmingly accepted the partition resolution, even though Jerusalem was not to be included in the new Jewish State.  With the exception of the Palestinian Communist Party, all Palestinian parties and leaders rejected the resolution of the UN.  That Resolution would have granted the Palestinians a State on 49% of historic Palestine including all of the West Bank, the Galilee and the Gaza Strip.  Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to be placed under International Control in what was called the Corpus Separatum.  But the Palestinian people and leadership believed that there was no need to compromise and that all of Palestine belonged to the Palestinian people and to no one else.


Now, 58 years later, the Palestinians are still without a state of their own under the best case scenario the prospects for creating the State would be on only 22% of the land. Palestinians continue to suffer and the end of the conflict seems to be far from sight. According to UNRWA statistics, there are about 5 million Palestinians who are refugees and descendents of refugees.  About 1.5 million of them are living in refugee camps throughout the region. About 1 of every 2 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees.  The refugee problem remains the open sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the most difficult problem to resolve.


Prior to the second intifada, there seemed to be an Israeli readiness to accept a limited number of Palestinian refugees to be resettled within Israel proper.  Today, after almost six years of violence that readiness has completely disappeared.  Israelis, from the entire political spectrum, reject the return of even a single Palestinian refugee to Israel proper.  The recent Israeli Supreme Court decision not to change the law on family reunification is the most blatant expression of the Israeli political mood.


The continuation of the Palestinians to demand the full implementation of the right of return is the single most dominant element which causes Israelis to believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace is not possible. Israelis see a direct contradiction between the support for the “two-states for two peoples solution” and the call for the right of return.  If a significant number of Palestinians were to implement the right of return, the State of Israel would become a bi-national state within 1 generation, while the State of Palestine would be a Palestinian state. Essentially, Israelis say the right of return would grant the Palestinians two states in Palestine and the Israelis would become a minority in their own state.  Therefore, Israelis say – the right of return – yes, but to the Palestinian state! 


I believe that Israel would be willing to participate generously in an international fund that would assist the Palestinian refugees in resettling in the Palestinian State or in other countries.  Israel would assist with its knowledge and experience in resettling refugees, but Israel will not allow any of those refugees to be resettled in Israel. In my assessment, there will be no change in Israeli positions on this issue, even if all of the other issues were resolved.  Israel views the demographic issue as existential and that is fundamentally the rationale behind the Israeli willingness to withdraw from all Palestinian populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza and even parts of East Jerusalem.  For Israelis the demographic issue is the most important strategic challenge facing its future and survival as a Jewish state.


It is important for Palestinians to understand the deep-rooted fears that the refugee issues raises for Israelis. It is quite clear that Israelis would prefer no peace and no return of refugees over peace with return. 


It is quite easy to understand that for Palestinians it is perhaps the opposite.  For Palestinians, no return might mean no peace. It is easy to understand that Palestinian refugees who originate from the more than 400 towns and villages that were destroyed by the creation of the State of Israel cannot easily compromise on what they perceive to be their absolute right to return to their homes.  But aside from the Israeli rejection of the right of return, those towns and villages of the past no longer exist.  There is no place to return to. Palestinians say, ok, let us return to vacant lands near our own homes.  This will not happen. 


Most Israelis have come to terms with the Palestinian issue regarding territory.  Most Israelis are more than willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state on 22% of historic Palestine.  Most Israelis are willing to divide Jerusalem and for Jerusalem to be the capitals of the two states.  The one issue where there is no comprise and no room for compromise is on the refugee issue. The only aspect of this issue that Israel might be willing to compromise on is by taking partial responsibility for the birth of the refugee problem. Israel would be willing to express sorrow for the suffering of the refugees and to contribute financially to resolve the issue within the Palestinian state.


The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is frozen and it does not look like there is a break through on the horizons.  The one issue which is powerful enough to break the freeze is the refugee issue. If the Palestinian leadership could say to the Israelis – We agree to implement the right of return within the Palestinian State and not within Israel, there would be a great willingness in Israel to exhibit real flexibility on every other issue and the peace process would resume.  By doing so, Israelis would understand that the Palestinian people really want to live in peace with Israel and that the Palestinian dream of destroying Israel has been transformed.  Al Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh did it together with Ami Ayalon in their joint document.  More than 150,000 Palestinians signed on to that statement. Most Palestinian leaders I have spoken with over the past years have said that they recognize, and they claim that most Palestinians realize, that the right of return will not be implemented within Israel proper.  I have always wondered why they can say that in private discussions but could not say it in public. If most of the public already recognizes that it will be impossible to implement the right of return in Israel proper, why not state it openly and benefit from the impact of that statement on enabling the renewal of the peace process? 


It is difficult to give up a dream.  It is even more difficult when you feel that justice is on your side.  Palestinians believe that the right of return is their human right and it is not easy to concede that right.  The Palestinians have already taken many steps to revise the Palestinian dream.  What stands between the Palestinians and the fulfillment of the main part of their dream – freedom from occupation, liberation and the establishment of an independent sovereign state in part of Palestine is the refugee issue. Holding onto the illusion that the right of return to their original homes will one day be realized is a miss-service to all Palestinians.  Anyone who understands anything about Israel and Israelis must realize that there will be no return to Israel proper.


I am fully aware that my bluntness will anger many Palestinians.  I write these words as a true friend of the Palestinian people and as an Israeli peace activist for the past 30 years and I hope that Palestinian readers will take heart of this call.


Dr. Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org