Rethinking the “Right of Return”

This article is in response to the article: “Palestinian Right of Return: What Once Was

Recently while reading, I came across the word palimpsest. A palimpsest is a piece of paper or parchment which has been written on, erased, and written over, perhaps many times. This word perfectly describes the Arab-Israeli conflict. Events through the years have only added to the hate, to the hurt, and to the frustration with the entire situation. The only way to approach such a conflict without further aggravating the situation is to fully explore its nuances.

There are no people better suited than the Jews to understand the pain and longing that the Palestinian people have felt since their displacement during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Separated from the land we called home, we have never neglected to remember that once, we were a sovereign, proud people with land of our own. It is a distant, but permanent ethnic memory– in all of the milestones of our lives, from the most minor and insignificant to the most major life-changing occurrences, we remember. As Psalm 137:5 declares: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand.” Our physical presence might be in the west, and have been there for thousands of years, but never once have our hearts left the east.

This article’s aim is not to respond the to the previous issue’s discussion of the right of return, and it is especially not to assert the veracity of one side of the story versus another. It is  rather an attempt to frame the situation with agreed upon facts (and points of contention), and explore a possible path to move forward. Both sides will continue to disagree and neither side is wholly correct. The truth here, like any truth, is nuanced.

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations approved a plan for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then controlled by the British. Fighting with local Arab forces followed the announcement of the Partition Plan and continued until May 15th, 1948. Then, within hours of Jews in Tel Aviv officially announcing Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Egyptian armies all invaded the newborn state, Israel.

Before the fighting began in earnest mid-way through 1947, many local Arabs evacuated their homes, seeking to escape the massive unrest they anticipated. During the course of the fighting, many Arabs were told by invading Arab armies to leave their villages, and that they would be permitted to return when the Zionists were defeated. And yes, during the course of the fighting, many fled due to advancing Israeli troops, primarily from the Haganah (a group which eventually developed into the Israeli Defense Force), but also from more militant, smaller groups such as the Irgun and Lehi (a fascist group also known as the Stern Gang). The exact number of Arabs who left their homes, whether voluntarily or by coercion, is disputed, but most estimates fall between 700,000 and 800,000 refugees. In all likelihood, we will never know the full truth of how many refugees left, or which of the reasons contributed most to the massive exodus. To complicate matters further, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Jews fled from discrimination and violence in Arab countries. After the dust settled from the conflict in 1949, Israel had not only repelled the invading Arab armies, but had managed to gain control over approximately a third more territory than had been allocated to it under the 1947 UN Partition Plan.

After the war ended, both Israel and the surrounding Arab countries were confronted with the question of what to do with the massive amounts of refugees. Israel naturalized all Arabs who had remained within its borders and accepted approximately 600,000 displaced Jews. Jordan was the only Arab country to naturalize any of the Palestinian refugees (it naturalized nearly all of them). All Arab countries where refugees have fled have maintained refugee camps with the help of international aid. Today, descendents of the refugees number an approximate 4,000,000.

In 1967, the problem was only exacerbated by Israel’s capture of the West Bank during the Six Day War. Another 200,000 to 300,000 Arabs became refugees, and many Israelis began settling in the newly acquired territories.

The United Nations General Assembly has passed a number of resolutions which address the Palestinian Right of Return.   These include Resolution 194 (“The General Assembly, Having considered further the situation in Palestine … Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” ), Resolution 3236 (“reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return”), and Resolution 242 (necessity of “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.”). While a full discussion of each of these is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note three separate points: first, none were passed as binding resolutions; second, Palestinian refugees are the only refugees in the world whose refugee status is passed on from generation to generation; and third, both sides have suffered (none of the Jewish refugees were ever compensated for the property lost to them, nor afforded the right to return to the Arab lands from which they fled, which is often omitted from the conversation despite the fact that Jewish refugees were quite possibly more numerous than Arab refugees).

Despite arming ourselves with the facts concerning the conflict, there are still over 4,000,000 refugees, and we still don’t know who is right and who is wrong. The more one learns about the Arab-Israeli conflict, its history, its poignant, personal layers, the more the problem can seem intractable. But that is exactly the problem. If we focus on righting the wrongs of the past, on counting up the injustices of each side as if justice were simply a giant abacus in the sky, we will always arrive at the same conclusion, that there is wrong on both sides, and we will never move forward. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of a solution as a cure-all for long festering wounds. After all, even if either side had all of their demands completely met, there would still not be an equitable solution– thousands upon thousands of lives would still have been uprooted, destroyed, and ended. Millions have been afflicted by the situation, and no potential solution can solve that.

All a solution can do, can ever hope to do, is secure for both sides the best possible outcome moving forward. Asserting claims like the Palestinian Right of Return, for which there is conflicting evidence, little political feasibility, and still no cure for the hurt originally inflicted, does little to advance the conversation in terms of negotiating a final status agreement. We need to focus on a fair solution, fair not with regards to what happened, but fair with regards to what may happen if we set aside our animosity and accept our disagreements. A two-state solution is the most workable, plausible, and just solution to not only the refugee problem, but the Arab-Israeli conflict in a larger sense. If we pursue that, with good intentions, an acknowledgement of the difficult work ahead, and with more than a little bit of luck, we can conceivably move towards something which is, in the truest sense of the word, a solution.

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