The conference, Titled "Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees: Practices, Strategies and Visions", took place in June.
Below are Eitan Bronstein's introductory notes, as well as the text of a talk based on a paper by Eitan Bronstein and Norma Musih:
"Thinking practically about the return of the Palestinian refugees."
Eitan Bronstein says in the opening paragraph: "... "I hope that today we may begin a discussion of the actual return of the Palestinian
refugees. It's a little like beginning to learn to walk, like a baby who begins talking without really having a command of the language...
We're here today to begin to stumble over our words, in order to create a language that will allow civil discourse about the return of the
Palestinian refugees... because we don't really have the words to speak it".
Trying to envision what the return will be like, in terms of the practical details involved, is a way of getting past the fear that the whole
subject arouses for the great majority of Israeli Jews. Breaking down a huge, undefined, looming fear into smaller, better defined
questions of logistics etc. - gets one over the first hurdle. The questions, once they're fleshed out, might not appear to be as insurmountable
as the unspoken taboo.
Zochrot conference on right of return
I am moved and happy to open this conference: "Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees: Practices, Strategies and Visions." This title promises a great deal, and if I may be permitted to do so right at the beginning, I'd like to be slightly more modest. I hope that today we may begin a discussion of the actual return of the Palestinian refugees. It's a little like beginning to learn to walk, like a baby who begins talking without really having a command of language, so she tries, and fails, and stumbles. We're here today to begin to stumble over our words, in order to create a language that will allow civil discourse about the return of the Palestinian refugees. Perhaps, in fact, not only in one language, perhaps in many languages, speaking Arabic, English, Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish…about the Palestinian refugees who will one day return to Palestine. This will be a new language, and it's difficult to say much about it today. Because we don't know much about what that future will
look like, and also because we don't really have the words to speak it. The title of one of Oz Shelach's writings can serve as an example: "Grandpa, how do you say 'decolonization' in Hebrew?"
The well-known Viennese Jew – Theodore Herzl – is one source of inspiration for our attempt to speak in an entirely different language and about an entirely different place. In 1896 he published his book, The Jewish State, in which he proposed establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.
That, incidentally, was after he asks: Argentina or Palestina?
He set down his vision in a storm of emotions, before he even had visited the "homeland of the Jews," as he called it, for the first time. His book details a vision of what life will be like here, and how the Jews will implement this project. All this - 64 years before it was implemented in the 1948 Nakba. His essay discusses issues that are very relevant to us today: the constitution of the future state, labor laws that will apply there (he proposes a seven-hour work day), immigration regulations, where and how will people settle? Language (he proposes that each person speaks their own mother tongue, as in multilingual Switzerland), separation of religion and the state, the flag, and more.
I suppose that today we won't design a flag for the post-colonial future – maybe we'd rather do without flags?
But we will dare to envision, to suggest possibilities, to argue about alternatives…?
Today's discussion can be viewed as the third leg of a tripod.
The other two, I think, are more familiar – accepting the fact of the Nakba, and accepting the right of return. Otherwise, any discussion of the decolonization of Israel is doomed to fail right from the beginning, and we will remain in the same violent arena in which we now find ourselves – the current reality of our lives.
Knowing the Nakba, and taking responsibility for its consequences, is necessary if we are ever to understand where we ourselves stand, where we live. Here are two good examples: A few weeks ago Zochrot received an email from a concerned mother. Her adolescent daughter came home from school and told her that the teacher taught them that before the Jews arrived the country was empty. The mother began to tell her daughter about the Palestinians who had lived here, and been expelled. Her daughter got angry and replied: If I have to choose between your story, and the teacher's, I prefer to believe the teacher.
How is it possible to speak about the return of Palestinian refugees before we understand that we expelled them, that we prevented them from returning?
Three days ago Zochrot's web site received an email from Micha, who fought in 1948: "I'd like to correct an error in the above quotation, from your web site. I was one of the soldiers in Battalion 52, which captured 'Aker. The village fell without a fight, after we fired only a few shots. The inhabitants were brought to the village square and asked to hand over their weapons. They were given 24 hours to do so, and in the interim we left. When we returned at the time we had set to collect the weapons, the village was empty. The villagers left voluntarily. No one was expelled. I'm proud to have been a soldier in the Giv'ati Brigade in 1948, the only one of the brigades in the War of Independence in whose sector not a single Arab remained, without having expelled people from their homes."
First he tells us that shots were fired and they ordered the Palestinians to turn over their weapons, and then he claims they left voluntarily.
And then he continues, and asks us: "The offices of Zochrot are located in the Zionist settlement of Tel Aviv, on the lands of Jaffa, Sumeil, Jamassin and Sheikh Munis. Is that kosher?"
It's not kosher, I answered, and invited him to come here today and think about what could be done about it.
If Micha meets that teacher, perhaps he could teach her a thing or two about the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Palestine in 1948. Unless we know about it, how can we accept responsibility for it?
Whoever had to be reminded of how important it is to acknowledge the Nakba, was reminded by Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, who stated that peace will come only after the Palestinians remove the term "Nakba" from their vocabulary. From her point of view, she's absolutely correct. Acknowledging the Nakba, and preserving its memory, contradicts the Jewish state as it has existed so far.
The second leg on which the beginning of our discussion stands is the right of return, that is, the opportunity of each refugee, male and female, to choose whether to return or receive compensation and be resettled elsewhere. The right of return also includes returning property. When we know something about the Nakba, and understand the tremendous crime committed against inhabitants of the country, we also understand that the right of return is the "natural" moral and political response to it. It is also the basis for the discussion in this conference. International law, and in particular UN Resolution 194, adopted in December, 1948, calls for the return of the refugees to their homes in the near future. Israel was accepted as a member of the United Nations in May, 1949, only after it promised to fulfill this resolution, and the time has come to accept and act to implement it.
In recent years there have been many important conferences in Israel and abroad devoted to this topic – the right of return. The most recent was held last weekend in Haifa, and its scope was extremely impressive.
Now we come to the subject of today's conference, which is the third leg, and the title of our deliberations: the return of the Palestinian refugees. Whenever we talk about the Nakba and the return of Palestinian refugees, we're asked, "Ok, so what do you propose? What can we do now? Go back to the countries we came from? Swim away in the ocean?" All the fears of Israel Jews float to the surface. That, exactly, is what this conference is about. In fact, for the past two years and more we've been trying to develop answers to this question, the question of implementing the return of the refugees. We established a study group on the subject, and this conference is one of its products. The idea is to try to think about what might occur in the future when the refugees actually return. When we began to think this way we discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that almost no research, or developed ideas, exists on this issue. There's a great deal about the right of return and about
the Nakba, as well as comparative research on refugee issues elsewhere in the world. But there are almost no serious attempts to propose how the return could actually come about, and what its implications would be for our lives here. It is important, in this connection, to mention what may be the only existing text, The Feasibility of the Right of Return, by Salman abu Sitte, which shows that most of the area of the Palestinian villages is still vacant today.
We want our discussion to peel away the layers of myth that have accumulated over the years. Here's a realistic example, from a selction by Anton Shamas that appears in the third issue of Sedek. Shamas writes how it's impossible for A' to return to Palestine. "Rahat Filistin, that is, going to Palestine. True, the territory didn't disappear in 1948. But their territory faded away – its name was changed, it was pulled out from under them, and so – it went. So there was no home to come back to. But A' wanted to go home to Filistin." He goes on to cite the Lebanese author who once wrote, "It's impossible to return to Palestine; you must just go there. And if that's also impossible a person must, perhaps, create a Palestine of his own." We simply want to begin going there, because if it's really "impossible to return to Palestine" as it was, we should create something new that deals with what occurred here in 1948.
Discussion will begin with ideas about the actual return, and criticism of them. The second session will present projects prepared primarily by planning professionals. The third will deal with the situation after the return of the Palestinian refugees, and the final session will address what can be done now to bring about their return. Today's meetings will conclude with performances of song, some of them quite startling.
Before we begin, I would like to thank our speakers, who rose to a challenge that was by no means simple, given the topic. It should be mentioned that, for a variety of reasons, it wasn't easy to find appropriate speakers.
Nor was it a simple matter to find a place to hold the conference. This setting, the home of the Zionist Organization of America, should be seen not only as a cute joke, but precisely as an appropriate setting to begin a discussion of the decolonization of Palestine. Here, in the middle of the Hebrew city that is busy cleaning itself up for its centennial celebrations, 114 years after the appearance of Herzl's The Jewish State, and sixty years after his vision was realized, the time has come to think about a completely different reality. This is a necessary political act in the present circumstances, and we'll hear more about this during the day.
I would like to thank the coordinator of this conference, Rona Even, who landed in Zochrot in order to organize it – actually, it landed on her – and who worked day and night under difficult circumstances to guarantee its success. Nor can I ignore the contribution of two partner organizations that are very important to us: the Committee of the Uprooted, and Badil. The Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Uprooted in Israel, whose representatives will address us today, has been a partner since the beginning of our work, and we are particularly pleased that Wakim Wakim is here with us. Badil, from Bethlehem, has encouraged us since we started. Unfortunately, Mohammad Jaradat did not receive permission from the authorities who are finalizing the occupation of Palestine since 1967, to be with us here. A few months ago, when we began discussing the conference with them in Bethlehem, he said that the very fact that it is being held already represents a success. Today I
understand just how right he was.
The Iris O'Brian Fund provides financial support for the conference, and we are grateful to it.
Yesterday an exhibit opened in Zochrot's offices, curated by Ariella Azoulay, on the architecture of destruction, fear and subordination – in other words, on the destruction of buildings and other forms of repression in the territories that were occupied in 1967.
The third issue of Sedek, published by Zochrot, has just appeared in conjunction with the conference, in cooperation with Parhessiya and Pardes Publishers, and most of it also deals with the return of the refugees. Some of the texts it contains will be improved during the conference discussions.
In addition, Erased from Space and Consciousness, by Noga Kadman, a member of Zochrot, has just been published by November Books Ltd. It deals with the repression of the memory and the physical presence of the Palestinian villages that were captured and mostly destroyed in the Nakba. It is an exact, detailed study, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand the country in which they live.
The conference continues tomorrow, and your program provides details for everyone who wishes to participate in the planned activities.
I'm happy to invite our associate, Nada Matta, who will chair the panel, to open the discussion.
Zochrot conference on right of return
Thinking practically about the return of the Palestinian refugees: Eitan Bronstein and Norma Musih
(Presented by Norma Musih).
What I'm presenting here today is part of an article Eitan Bronstein and I wrote and published recently at Sedek 3. It's a suggestion to open a discussion on the return of Palestinian refugees.
For us Israelis, the "right of return" has always been a taboo topic. It stood for the demographic threat; "us or them;" the real fear of Palestinians in particular and of Arabs in general; "they'll throw us into the sea;" and more.
Every person who was expelled in 1948, and their descendants, has a right to return; it's a right that is personal as well as collective. This means that each refugee and his or her descendants have a right to choose among alternatives: returning to their former home (or nearby, if it no longer exists), receiving compensation, or resettlement in the original locality or elsewhere. Implementation of the right of return does not necessarily mean, as people mistakenly suppose, that the refugees will actually come back. Very often people ask, How long will the descendants of Palestinian refugees be themselves considered refugees? How many more generations of refugees will be born? We believe that the answer is – until the refugees and their descendants are given the opportunity to choose whether to return; in other words, until their right of return is implemented. Their freedom to choose where, and with whom, to live – and to gain the full rights of citizenship – is their road to
liberation from the difficult condition of being a "refugee."
The right of return is based on international law and supported by UN Resolution 194, which is reaffirmed every year by the UN General Assembly. Therefore, and because we don't doubt that the right exists, we prefer to focus on the return. This right, like all other rights, is implemented through negotiations: we all have a right to freedom, but the freedom of each of us is limited by the freedom of others or by various interests. It is therefore very important to think about what the actual return of the refugees would entail. We also understand, in part from our own personal experience, that thinking about the return in concrete terms – in which the refugees have faces and names, when we know the names of their towns and villages, their locations and their histories – reduces the fear of their return, by making the process visible, and at the same time allows us to address the actual questions we'll have to answer when it comes time to implement the return.
To make writing this document easier, we've divided the text into chronological stages: before the return; the return itself; after the return. We've tried with respect to each stage to describe the situation as we imagine it, and the necessary conditions for materializing it. It is important to note that a topic that we assign to a particular stage doesn't necessarily begin or end in that stage, but it is required for that stage to be implemented. While we wrote, there were times in which we tried to begin with the present and imagine the next steps, and other times in which we imagined what the situation would be like after the return and used that as a basis for imagining "in reverse." This text can be read, therefore, as it appears here, from beginning to end – but also backward, from the end to the beginning.
Stage I – Before the return
One of the first things required is to begin learning: learning about the Palestinian Nakba, about the destroyed villages, the towns that were emptied by mass expulsions, the Palestinian culture which existed before the Nakba, and of course the Palestinian culture which developed afterwards. Not much is needed to learn these things, no revolutionary changes nor major investment of resources. It's enough to read books, take a tour or listen to stories, but it's mainly necessary to deal with what you learn and what it means. It's no accident that most Israeli Jews who grew up here know very little about Palestinian culture and about the Nakba. Learning about them is challenging; it cracks open the foundations on which we were raised and contains a surprising dimension: Who knows what we'll discover if we start digging?
One argument frequently raised against the possibility of return, even if the Palestinian demand to do so is justified, is that there simply is no room. This is a small, densely settled country, and there's no room for any more people. It's just a fact – look at the map, look at the plans. But maps, as we already know, don't only describe reality, but also create it. And if we want to create a different reality we'll need a different mapping with different categories, one that describes new dimensions and answers different questions. We'll need a mapping that examines, for example, where villages that were erased could be re-established – in other words, which destroyed villages could be rebuilt at the same site (Lifta? Bir'im?) and which could be re-established (Mas'ha? Saffurya?). Which villages could be re-established in the vicinity of their original lands or on some of them (Beit Jubrin? Zakkariya?), and where would this be impossible (Sumeil? Al-Sheikh Muwanis?). It
would also be necessary to locate buildings that in 1948 belonged to Palestinians and are held today by Jews (or by other Palestinians), like in Jaffa or in Ein Karem; how many buildings that housed Palestinian institutions still exist, and how many of them still house public institutions (assuming it is easier to transfer the use of a public institution from one community to another than it is to move families around).
Mapping is important not only to understand the geographical situation, but also in order to understand the social conditions in each place, and thereby identify the individuals and groups who will negotiate over its future character. The mapping must also describe plans for land use in the future, as these are defined in official planning documents. Lands expropriated from the refugees have changed ownership over the years, and many city and regional plans refer to them. This doesn't mean, of course, that existing zoning or construction plans can't be changed, but plans to build new localities in the future must take them into consideration.
The results of Salman Abu-Sitte's research contradict the assumption that "there's no room." He shows that most of the built-up core of the villages that existed until the Nakba has remained vacant. On tours conducted by Zochrot, we saw again and again that most of the villages were still empty, unlike the agricultural and public lands, most of which had been allocated to Jewish localities and was in use. This refutes the argument that all the village lands are occupied by Jews.
Mapping will help us understand in a more responsible manner the situation on the ground and, equally important, train us to view the country differently – not as divided up and fenced in, but as a single entity between the Jordan and the sea in which people live who have common interests, and who want to create a better, more appropriate life for themselves.
The term "surveys" may sound almost like a dirty word in the context of discussions about the return of Palestinian refugees, since many surveys that were carried out served the interests of those who wanted to prove that refugees wouldn't want to return if and when they had the chance to do so, and might prefer compensation that would allow them to stay where they were. Many surveys were conducted of Palestinians and of Jews. They frightened some people, and encouraged others. When, for example, refugees were asked whether they wanted to return to Israel, the assumption was that Israel would remain a Jewish state, and many refugees answered "no." We, on the other hand, propose to survey both Israelis and Palestinians on the assumption that the return will be implemented and that members of both groups will live together in full civic equality. The question, then, is how such surveys can be done.
It would be important, for example, to ask how many Jewish homeowners would be willing to return their property to their original owners, or how many Jews who live abroad would be likely to move here. We'd have to ask how many Palestinians would want to return, where they would want to return to, in which social framework, what kind of job would they want, whether they would like to change their occupation, what property they owned before the Nakba, etc. How would someone who had no property return or be compensated? What about tenants who worked lands owned by others? Other questions include: How can the creation of a society with huge economic inequalities be prevented? Which destroyed Palestinian localities were home to large enough groups of refugees who might be able to resettle them? Would they want to establish a locality of their own, or build one together with refugees from other localities? Would entire communities of the displaced (such as a refugee camp in Lebanon
in which refugees from many villages live, and which itself forms a community) wish to remain together?
It will not be possible at first to agree on a constitution, which would have to be drafted together with the Palestinian refugees who are not yet here. Doing so raises the same kinds of technical and ideological issues that characterize the discussion over a constitution for the state of Israel: one justification for that delay is said to be the desire to wait until all the world's Jews have moved here. The lesson to be learned from that experience is to proceed as rapidly as possible to formulate a constitution, or at least a "minimal constitution" containing elements on which there is fundamental agreement and that can serve as a basis for the eventual creation of a more complete document. We believe that a minimal constitution would calm apprehensions (primarily among Jews) resulting from the return of refugees.
Here is a preliminary framework:
* The constitution will be based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
* All residents of the country will be equal citizens.
* Immigration law: Canceling the Law of Return as it is currently formulated will, of course, be one of the first steps taken, in addition to confirming the Palestinian refugees' right of return. After a set period has elapsed, the government will establish new immigration laws that will give preference to Jews and Palestinians, whose entry will be allowed according to specified criteria.
* Separating religion from the state.
* Legal reforms to eliminate preferences benefiting Jews.
* Negotiations over the constitution will include instituting an agrarian reform in which lands allocated by the state to Jews (kibbutzim and moshavim) will be redistributed.
* Every citizen may live anywhere he chooses in the country.
* No person may be forcibly evicted from the house in which he lives.
Planning and construction
New construction plans must be prepared during this stage. Which new localities will be built? Which existing localities will be expanded in order to receive the returnees? New country-wide master plans will have to be prepared that take into account considerations based on results of the mapping and surveys. In other words, construction plans must reflect the discussions and negotiations between the returning refugees and the residents of the country.
Stage II – The Return
Before the refugees actually return, the ground must be prepared. We consider four elements of such preparation that could help pave the way: "Birthright" tours; establishing absorption centers; readying the receiving society; orienting the migrants.
--The format of "Birthright" tours that the Jewish Agency organizes for Jewish youth from abroad in order to introduce them to the country could be a model for the return of Palestinian refugees. During the decades that have passed since the Nakba, the country has changed almost beyond recognition. The refugees, most of whom have not been here since they left, must be aware of what awaits them. The village they remember no longer exists, and the landscape often contains little hint that it ever existed. It is important for those wishing to return (or their representatives) to tour the area in order to see what things actually look like, who their new neighbors will be, and maybe even who now occupies the houses where their mothers and fathers lived in the past.
--The receiving society must also prepare for the refugees' return. Successful absorption of a large number of immigrants requires great effort. Palestinians living in Israel will play a major role here. They will "naturally" be the ones to assist their brethren who return to Israeli territory, which is the area in which most of them, or their parents, lived before they became refugees. There may be those who prefer to live in the West Bank or in Gaza, but that would probably require less preparation or advance planning. Palestinian citizens of Israel are familiar with both Israeli and Palestinian society, and it will not be difficult for them to describe to other Palestinians what it's like to live with Jews. Jews will also have to be prepared to absorb the refugees. Many changes will occur – cultural, demographic, economic and others – and Israeli Jews will have to be ready for them.
--The returning refugees will also need preparation. Civil society has a prominent role to play here. The preparation must begin with educational activities in the Palestinian diaspora and continue in absorption centers in Israel, perhaps in the same way that kibbutz members were trained before moving onto the land that had been allocated to them.
The actual return of the refugees must occur in stages, gradually, taking into account the absorptive capacity of the country. To actually return, even when doing so may be a Palestinian refugee's lifelong desire, is still migration – and every migration involves being uprooted from somewhere. In the case of the Palestinians, all the refugees who choose to return have lived for most of their lives in some other place, in some form of exile. Most of their lives have been lived in places that had not been their destinations, but which they still feel is where they belong: they are used to them, are familiar with them, and over the years they became a kind of home. Their actual return becomes a (willing) uprooting from the places where they live. Its successful implementation requires the preparation of the refugees themselves, the receiving communities and the absorption system. Therefore, the return cannot be simply a spontaneous process that depends only on the decisions of the
The process of return also depends on systemic factors, which will undoubtedly limit the number of returnees according to the capacity to absorb them. Criteria are therefore required in order to decide who goes first. Here are some possible criteria:
1. Age: Refugees who were themselves forced to leave and wish to return will have preference over others. There is no need to justify preferring an elderly person who wishes to return over members of the second or third Nakba generation. These elderly people will return, of course, with those family members who wish to accompany them. (The issue of how broadly "family" will be defined for this purpose is not one we have to consider here.)
2. Refugees in Lebanon: Refugees who live in Lebanon will be next on the list, because the social and physical conditions of their existence are in general worse than those of refugees in other countries. The condition of those living in refugee camps is the worst of all, but even people who moved out of the camps lack civil rights and are prevented from working in dozens of occupations. They are under great pressure from the Lebanese government and the Lebanese population.
3. Preserving community: Migration is more successful when the migrants – the returning refugees - are able to maintain in their country of destination the community structures that existed prior to their migration. Two types of communities are relevant: those that existed in their localities of origin, from which the refugees were originally uprooted, and those in which they live now, for example a camp with refugees from many localities. The members of both types may wish to preserve their communal life and return together with the others. Israel adopted a similar approach to the resettlement of residents who had been evicted from the localities in Gush Katif prior to Israel's withdrawal from the area, and tried to move them together to their new locations. Refugees in the Ein al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon, for example, have lived together in the camp for much longer than they lived in the individual villages in Palestine from which they were uprooted. It is possible that they may
also choose to live together after the return, perhaps preserving the collective memory of each original locality, as has actually occurred in many places since the Nakba. But there may also people from the same village who wish to live together in their own separate locality, and this possibility must also be considered.
The gradual return of the refugees also applies to the total number who will return each year. A yearly quota should be established, for two reasons: the first, and obvious reason, is connected to absorptive capacity. The second is Jewish fears that they will be displaced by the returning refugees after so many years of conflict and occupation. Jews should be guaranteed against being forcibly evicted from the homes in which they live, as also internally displaced Palestinians who live in homes of refugees. They will be given the opportunity to leave in return for appropriate compensation, but under no circumstances will they be compelled to do so.
A number of questions arise which must be considered: What happens in the case of a building originally owned by Palestinians, whose former owners demand its return, and it is occupied by Jews or others who refuse to leave? What if its occupants purchased it in good faith from the state or from its previous owners? And what if the original Palestinian owner is no longer living, and his descendants claim it?
The answers provided by international law seem to be inadequate. For example, according to international law, if the house has remained more or less in the condition it was prior to 1948, the Palestinian owner has a stronger claim that he would have if the building had undergone major renovations and improvement, in which case the present occupants have the stronger claim. In our opinion - as laymen, not as lawyers - the present occupants' claim grows stronger with time. When, after scores of years have passed, second, third or fourth generation heirs claim their property from the current occupants who purchased it in good faith, their claim is weaker than that of someone whose property was taken only recently. On the other hand, during the return, and in hope of encouraging reconciliation, it is worth offering incentives so that both sides will be willing to make "painful concessions." For example, Jews who relinquish their property to returning refugees would receive
appropriate compensation and public recognition, as would Palestinians who relinquish their claim in favor of the current occupants.
Internal refugees first Israeli citizens who are internal refugees can return before refugees from abroad – since many of the challenges that the latter will face do not apply to the internal refugees. The short distances, physical proximity and familiarity with local conditions provide them with many advantages that will help them plan their return. For example, the displaced residents of Saffurya, most of whom live in Nazareth's Sfafara neighborhood, could decide relatively easily whether any of them are interested in returning to their former locality, only a few kilometers away from where they now live. After deciding, they would be able to begin planning to rebuild, together with official and unofficial planning agencies, so that their needs are met. Their Jewish neighbors, residents of the moshav Zipori and others, must be part of this planning. Returning the internal refugees first will also make it easier for them to orient those who live abroad before their return, and
assist in their absorption after they arrive. Their own experience will expose them to the challenges that the others will face, and they will be able to provide help and advice about useful strategies that they themselves developed to deal with their own readjustment. We believe that Israeli Jews will be more willing to accept the return and resettlement of their displaced neighbors, and slowly accept the idea of the return in general.
Burial and visiting
The refugees' return has two more elements that complement each other: burial and visiting. Palestinian refugees (as well as Jews living abroad) will always have the right to be buried here. Many refugees may not wish to return to Palestine, but they may want to be buried here after they die. This return does not require a very great investment, but its symbolic and practical importance is great. Similarly, refugees living abroad will forever have an unlimited right to visit.
Where will they return to?
A crucial question, of course, is where the refugees will return to. There are various possibilities: to the localities from which they were expelled; near those localities; to other localities; to new communal localities made of different refugee groups; or to localities formed jointly with Jewish groups.
1. Returning to the localities from which the refugees were expelled seems like the most "natural" solution, and in some case could actually occur. A number of conditions are required. First, there must be a large enough group willing to reestablish the locality. Second, the built-up core of the village that was destroyed must still be mostly uninhabited, and there must be surrounding land that can be attached to it. Third, various planning elements, such as ecological factors, infrastructure, etc., must be considered.
2. If the locality no longer exists, or if others now live there, or if it has been turned into an industrial area, it could be reestablished nearby. Such a solution preserves the proximity to the original geographical area, on the one hand, but is adapted to the changed circumstances, on the other. An example would be the villages that were located on lands that today are covered by Tel Aviv neighborhoods. The residents of Sumeil can't return to their lands because, aside from a few buildings, nothing remains, and their agricultural lands are today in the center of Tel Aviv. But they could receive apartments in the buildings that will soon be built there. They could live in them, rent them out, or sell them. It would also be possible to establish a locality near Tel Aviv for all the refugees from those villages who wish to return. Another possibility would be establishing a Palestinian locality adjacent to an existing Jewish locality. The moshav Kerem Ben Zimra, for example,
is located on the former site of al-Ras al-Ahmar, and Kerem Maharal sits on I'jzim's land. Kerem Ben Zimra and Kerem Maharal could be expanded by the addition of neighborhoods occupied by returning Palestinian refugees.
3. Groups of displaced persons from different localities may wish to resettle together. As stated above, if residents of a particular refugee camp, who originally came from different localities, wish to preserve the community they established in exile rather than those from which they originally came, new localities would be established near those from which they were displaced. Such localities are usually made up of refugees from nearby villages, as in the Galilee.
4. Refugees may also return to other places. They may resettle anywhere in the country, and nothing would prevent refugees from Haifa, for example, from wanting to live in Nazareth or in Tel Aviv.
Stage III – After the return
What form will the state take?
At this point we will try to sketch an outline for creating the state to be established after the refugees return, which we view as an opportunity to make a new beginning and create a new social order. We propose thinking about a form other than the familiar nation-state – one that will not have to define itself in defensive terms against an external enemy but will instead be defined by the communities of which it is composed. Our state is a "weak state," secular, with a strong constitution, limited in scope, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its constitution will provide a strong, limited framework that allows "strong" communities to be established, each of which will have its own social and cultural autonomy (within the framework of the country's basic laws). Each community will be the equivalent of a state, in the sense that it will be able to create its own social and cultural structures. We envision not a "polis," a city-state, but a community-state. One
important purpose of such a state would be to maintain a multi-cultural framework that would allow all its citizens to live a full life. The state, for example, would be responsible for the road system and would prevent the development of a predatory market as well as prevent one group gaining power over the others. The state's supreme authority, based in its limited constitution, will be primarily formal and regulatory in nature.
Citizenship in each of the community-states will not be linked to its geographical location: a number of community-state entities could exist in the same region. There could be some in Tel Aviv, each of which would maintain its own educational system, language and customs. There could be, side by side, schools whose languages of instruction are Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Russian, or some other tongue, and the curriculum in each school would be determined by the community-state that runs it. The national government would have the authority to reject curricula (if, for example, they encouraged racism), but would not have to approve them.
Creating a multi-cultural space within the state will not only permit Jewish and Arab communities that currently exist to maintain cultural autonomy – but will also dismantle the fictitious unity we find today, in which the Jewish community in the form of the nation-state confronts the Palestinian community in the form of the nation (non)state. At present, internal differences within each community are suppressed, and the groups which make up each national community are unable to express themselves equally. The hegemonic group (among Jews, the Ashkenazi) colors all the rest white, and the others – like Ethiopians, or labor migrants – have no place in the state as we know it today. Separating citizenship from nationality by establishing many community-states will permit the creation of additional communities which will not be defined in national terms. For example, community-states of farmers, or of artists, might be created. Such community-states would, naturally, be connected to
each other by ties of greater or lesser strength, and these connections would have continually to be reconstituted.
A new political order is not all that is necessary to renew our lives here. New forms of relationships must be established, based on mutual trust among people – those who now live here as well as those who will arrive in the future. To create a healthy society, wounds that have opened and festered during the past sixty years must be healed. Public space must be provided for speaking about injustice and for listening to the stories of victims and of perpetrators. One possible model that might be applicable is that of the South African "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions," which may have been the first attempt to distinguish among truth, responsibility and punishment for injustice. It is possible, for example, to say that the events of '48, '67 or even the recent shelling and bombing of Gaza were the result of what was taken for granted at the time, and not decisions made by particular individuals; that this officer, or that minister, can't be blamed, since they were only
out the mandate that came with their job. But, if we say that everyone is to blame, that's like saying no one is to blame, and worse – that no one can take responsibility. That's what's interesting about the South African model. The "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" demand the truth. The victims present their accounts, and the perpetrators are also required to tell their stories publicly; it is the public account that leads to healing, not only of those presenting their stories, but of the entire society.
Was this worthwhile?
Having presented these preliminary reflections about the possible return of Palestinian refugees, it is important, instead of summing up, to explain why it's worthwhile thinking about such things. Let's start by indicating what each side would have to give up in order for the Palestinian refugees to return.
Jews relinquish sovereignty, exclusive control over the country, the guaranteed Jewish majority. After more than 100 years of socialization to Zionism, that will require courage and daring. When the refugees return, Jews will become a minority in the country. Israel as a Jewish state will change radically, and it will no longer be defined as such. Jews will no longer be able to determine their future, and that of the Palestinians, by themselves. They will have rights as a minority in a democracy, but also many constraints.
So why is it worthwhile? In our view, a situation in which Palestinian refugees are no longer prevented from returning to their land allows Jews, for the first time since the beginning of Zionism, to live in the country instead of prevailing as occupiers or dreamers of a mythological "return to Zion." When the myth of "Eretz Yisrael" evaporates, and the country becomes an actual political entity, Jews will finally – paradoxically – be able to "arrive" at a real place, land here, see and learn its history at close hand, its geography and its demography. Only when Jews come to see the Palestinians who live here, and those who were expelled, as people worth living with can we hope to live here fairly and equitably. As a minority, Jews will be able to continue living more or less as they've been used to: life in Jewish localities shouldn't have to change much – and even if it does, the change will be gradual and consensual. Jews can continue to create in Hebrew, to learn Jewish
history and support Jewish and Hebrew culture.
Palestinians, for their part, will have to relinquish the materialization of their dream of a lost paradise. The mythological Palestine, in which all was wonderful, will never return, and will exist only in the world of memory and yearning. For Palestinians, living with Jews means living with the occupier, with those who expelled most of their countrymen. This is a tremendous challenge for someone whose land was occupied, and who would certainly have preferred the occupier to simply disappear, evaporate. That won't happen. There may be Jews, most of them of European origin, who won't be able to adjust to a non-Zionist reality, and prefer to use their other passport to move elsewhere, but many will remain – among them those who simply have nowhere else to go, or don't have the resources to leave. We think that the cost of realizing paradise on earth is greater than the cost of giving up that hope. In the real world, it's necessary to take into consideration the tremendous
changes that have occurred in the country since the time of the Nakba, but not all of them have been for the worse.
Jewish Peace News editors:
Sarah Anne Minkin
Jewish Peace News archive and blog: http://jewishpeacenews.blogspot.com
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