In Tel Aviv, a Right of Return in Theory Only


Related: ▣ FAQ ▣ Palestine Statehood Bid | Category Statehood


PNN – Palestine News Network –  22.09.11 | Brendan Work and Sara DeGregoria

With statehood questions swirling at the UN, few analyses bother to dwell on perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s most intractable issue: the UN-sanctioned right claimed by more than 5 million Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is today Israel. PNN spoke to Israelis living in Tel Aviv to find answers from the other side: do Palestinians have a right to return?

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A street in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, home to 3,000 Palestinian refugees (Brendan Work, PNN).

“Theoretically yes,” said one 32-year-old Israeli woman named Teresa, who opted for a pseudonym. “But practically speaking, no. When you live here you must think realistically.  If millions of Palestinians came here, it might very well mean the end of the State of Israel.  Jews would be outnumbered, vastly. People should have the right of self-determination, but that’s often not how the world works.”

In the view of many Israelis, the Palestinian people’s right of return—codified in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Resolution 194—conflicts with the right of self-determination of the Jewish people. If 5 million Palestinian refugees were resettled in Israel today, the state would instantly lose its Jewish majority.

“Israel is, yes, paradoxically, a Jewish democracy,” continued Teresa, who has lived in Israel for four years, “but that means that they believe any Jew is a citizen.  This is the existing country, the existing government, and that is the policy.  It doesn’t mean that in theory every person in Israel shouldn’t have rights.  In theory there shouldn’t be ‘second class citizenship.’  But sure, every Jew can come and live here, and they’re welcomed with open arms.  Others, less so.”

Teresa’s is a common refrain among liberal Zionists, most recently repeated by prominent Reform rabbi Eric Yoffe in a Jerusalem Post article in which he commits himself “preferential love” of the Jewish people.

“I care about humankind, but I love my own group a bit more,” Yoffe wrote.

Others were not so delicate. Avi, a student at Bar Ilan University, responded to PNN, “I am extremely biased against the hateful and negativity-filled ethnicity called ‘Palestinian.’”

The main reason for the refugee issue’s intractability is that at its root is the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel and the ensuing displacement of Palestinians, which prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe referred to as ethnic cleansing and which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Israelis are less likely to share the same view.

“Israel’s very existence was attacked,” said Elan Miller of Tel Aviv in reference to the 1948 war. “The war was…genocidal in nature, and it is a very good thing that Israel survived. Unfortunately, as a result of miscommunication by Arab leaders and Arab anti-Israel propaganda, many fled before the Israeli army. This leads me to believe that Israel’s portion of responsibility is much less than that of the Arabs themselves. Despite lamentable occurrences such as Deir Yassin [massacre], Israeli actions do not correlate with the fleeing of these peoples.”

The right of return, in this view, is not applicable to returnees who would not be, in the words of UN Resolution 194, “willing to live in peace.” Teresa said she opposes the right of return for the same reason.

“How much of a responsibility should a nation have for people who are essentially sworn enemies, as legitimate as their claim for their land and home is?  Should they be allowed back, what would happen to me?”

On September 15, the Israeli group Zochrot—whose focus is on Nakba recognition and whose self-described mission is to “encourage Israelis to understand and accept its reality”—curated an exhibit featuring maps of modern Israeli towns as they are and would be in the event of a full return of Palestinian refugees.

According to a piece written by Zochrot’s co-founder Eitan Bronstein, “The exhibition provides a workshop in which visitors are able to propose their own ideas. [The exhibit] recognizes the preliminary nature of this endeavor, which is like the stammering of a child learning a new language. Zochrot doesn’t intend to present perfectly developed, final ideas about the return of Palestinian refugees, but instead to raise the questions about it.”

The outcome of Zochrot’s exhibition was not reported.

The return of Palestinian refugees has been tabled at best during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu claiming in a leaked American diplomatic cable from 2010 that “not one refugee could ever return.” In 2008 talks with then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was willing to accept “an extremely low proposal for the number of refugees to Israel,” according to Ziyad Clot, a legal advisor to Abbas. Olmert’s proposal was for 5,000 Palestinians to return to their homes over a period of five years. The remaining millions would be either brought to the West Bank or left in their current camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

“Palestinians can play the victim role,” said Teresa, “and yes, they’re not being treated as they should in the West Bank, I will admit.  But if they get their way, it means I get killed, or displaced, or worse.  Jews have been wandering and now have a home.  Should we wander again?”

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