This week, Iceland became the first European country to recognize the State of Palestine. The declaration had a curious clause: “Iceland recalls also the right of Palestinian refugees to return to former homes in accordance with numerous UN resolutions.”
To be sure, this carries little weight; Iceland is a country of less than 320,000 people. It’s a political maverick, frequently charting its own course, and is not a member of the EU. While it’s unlikely that other European states will follow Iceland’s lead, the fact remains that a first world country has formally endorsed the return of Palestinian refugees.
Coincidentally, the issue of the Palestinian Right of Return (RoR), made some waves a few days earlier when the noted Zionist dove, Bernard Avishai, published a piece in Harpers (print only, but available here) which took on the issue directly and tried to find some resolution to it that both Israelis and Palestinians can live with.
This was no small task Avishai took on. For the overwhelming majority of Israelis, including most of the Israeli left, Right of Return is nothing more than code for the end of Israel as a Jewish state. For most as well, this has connotations of mass expulsions or fleeing the country at best, violent dangers at worst. Thus, even among most supporters of peace and withdrawal from all the Occupied Palestinian Territories, RoR is anathema to Israelis.
For Palestinians, the Right of Return is not just a negotiating point. It is the very heart of their nationalism, the focus of their historical claim to lands from which they were driven. It is both a national right, which can be negotiated by their leaders, but also an individual right, which cannot. It is at once the key elderly Palestinians still keep with them to the homes from which their families were driven more than 60 years ago; it is also the grievance they feel must be addressed, the fact of that expulsion, if there is ever to be reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
In more than a decade of activism, including many visits to Palestinian towns, cities and refugee camps, I have spoken with Palestinians from all parts of the political, cultural, religious and economic spectrum. I have heard many views regarding the implementation of RoR. But not a single man, woman or child has ever said they would give it up.
Except for the tiny minority of Israeli Jews who support the Right of Return, the mere mention of the idea casts a pall of terror across their faces. Many Israelis will withdraw from the West Bank, abandon the settlements and in smaller numbers, share Jerusalem. But RoR is an absolute non-starter.
It is little wonder, then, that there has been virtually no serious discussion about the Right of Return, in or outside of Israel/Palestine. There have been repeated declarations by both sides of the heartfelt, and absolutist, stances, but little real discussion. In peace proposals, the “refugee issue” is left to vague wording that promises nothing to the Palestinians, yet still raises Israeli anxiety to a boiling point. For this reason, both Iceland’s declaration and Avishai’s article are extremely important.
The Icelandic statement is a reminder to the West that this issue cannot be skirted around. The well-worn cliche about the only resolution being negotiations between the parties conducted in a fair and balanced atmosphere (that is, one where outside parties strive to balance the skewed power dynamics between the regional superpower, Israel, and the occupied, stateless and powerless Palestinians) is absolutely true in this case.
But instead of taking that on, the United States, Europe, and all the other major players have tried their best to avoid it. Frankly, this is absurd, and always has been.
No peace deal yet devised has ever taken a real look at RoR. Discussions ensue about what “the people” will accept, and it is usually, if quietly, assumed that the Palestinian position is so weak that they will swallow forgoing the Right of Return in order to end the occupation and build their state. Those making that assumption have never bothered to talk to an actual Palestinian. Whether in a cafÃ© in Ramallah, a workshop in Gaza City, a refugee camp in Lebanon or an organizers’ meeting in Paris, they would have gotten a clear message that RoR must be seriously addressed if any peace proposal is to garner even moderate Palestinian support.
Avishai, who has come under some justifiable criticism for an approach to this issue reflective of his privileged Israeli position, must be applauded for finally bringing this question into mainstream US discourse.
It is the discourse, in the US, Europe and most of all in Israel and the Occupied Territories that has been missing for all these years. On all other issues, there have been the stated demands on both sides and then public discussion, within and across borders, about how to reconcile pragmatism with ideology, historical wrongs with present-day realities. But on RoR, there has been only the tense exchange of absolutism.
Avishai’s proposed solution may not seem realistic to many. However, the solution isn’t the point right now. Opening a discussion about this, allowing Palestinians to make their case in a public forum, and Israelis and their advocates to respond, like every other issue, is the task at hand.
Already, Avishai’s piece stirred up intense debate on the very nature of Zionism and the Jewish State. And that is precisely the discussion that Right of Return is going to provoke. Instead of running away from that discussion, it should be embraced.
More than any other issue, RoR both challenges the status quo and stirs serious legal and ethical questions of history. Until they are grappled with, we are likely to see a continuation of the polarization we have seen in recent years and an ongoing stalemate which only leads to more violence and insecurity.
The Right of Return is the very heart of the conflict, the definition of Palestinian dispossession and the cause of the fear, born (for the many Israelis of conscience) of historical guilt in Israel. Resolving it in a manner that both sides can live with is indispensable. Who knows. Maybe Avishai is right, and the road to resolving it, whether on his path or some other, contains the key to resolving the conflict as a whole.