Seeking a Just Solution for the Palestinian Refugees
On May 28, 2002, the Palestine-Israel Journal held a roundtable discussion at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem on the subject of the right of return. The participants were Shulamith Aloni, a founder of RATZ, the movement for Civil Rights and Peace, and of Meretz, Palestinian Journalist Naser Atta, who works for ABC News, Raphael Yisraeli a lecturer in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute, and Munther Dajani, director of research at the Palestinian Center for Regional Studies and Head of the Political Science Department at Al-Quds University. The moderators were author Danny Rubinstein, who writes on the occupied territories for Ha'aretz and assistant managing editor of the PIJ, Zahra Khalidi.

Zahra Khalidi: In the name of the Palestine-Israel Journal, I am very happy to welcome you to this roundtable on the Right of Return that is, the Palestinian refugee problem. Though this is one of the oldest tragedies of its kind, we see attempts in the international arena to marginalize it, and a tendency to ignore the suffering, as well as the future, of the refugees.
The mainstream Israeli position is that any concession would change the whole demographic balance and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. For the Palestinians, the Right of Return is an essential and central element of the whole Palestinian problem. Using these elements as a starting point, in your opinions what are the essentials for a fair and just solution of the issue now?

Danny Rubinstein: First, who should be responsible for solving the problem of the Right of Return; and what kind of solution do you think would be valid.

Shulamith Aloni: First, the Israelis have to recognize that we, among others, are responsible for the refugee problem and that is why we should actively participate in solving it. Second, there cannot be an agreement for the return of the refugees at large; granting the Right of Return to three or four million refugees will mean creating two Palestinian states, one the Palestinian state and the other the state of Israel, where the Palestinian people will be the majority. There is no way for Israel to accept so many refugees because you cannot cure one evil by perpetuating another. Time has passed and there are now other people in the places where the refugees used to live. But if we say we have a border, the Green Line, and we have to evacuate all the Jewish settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then we should not destroy the houses and settlements there, but can use them as a beginning for settling the refugees in their own state, within a two-state solution in Palestine. From that start, we will have to invest increasingly in mutual economic initiatives to assure a dignified life for the refugees in their own future sovereign state.

Dr Dajani: Ms. Aloni has expressed our demand for Israel to recognize its responsibility for the problem. Once Israel recognizes its responsibility for the problem, I think most of it will be solved. It would be very difficult for the refugees to go back, for example, to places like Jaffa or Haifa where Israelis are now living. It is a more reasonable solution for them to be compensated and to start a new life in Palestine. Part of the solution would include evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Prof Yisraeli: First of all, on the question of UN resolutions I am basically opposed to selectivity. You cannot accept 194 and say that is a basis for a solution, and then reject 181 at the same time. Let's not forget that 181 was rejected by the Palestinians and the rest of the Arabs, not by the Israelis, and that was the crucial point for the creation of the Palestinian problem. It is immoral and illegal to say we are responsible for something we did not create. The rejection of 181 by the Arabs was the mother of all evils.
Therefore, I am utterly opposed to Israel taking responsibility. We thought 181 would be a solution that would mark the beginning of peace between Arabs and Jews. Instead, it triggered a war in which 7,000 young Israelis and many thousands of Arabs died. So I do not believe that we, the victims, should take responsibility and pay for the mistakes of others.
Secondly, as regards the solution of the Palestinian problem, let us not forget that the West Bank and Gaza today house about one-third of the Palestinians. Even if there is a state, the West Bank and Gaza (certainly not Gaza one-third of the population, with its current state of poverty) cannot absorb the other two-thirds of the Palestinians. There is no solution for them. The problem will only increase because, since 1948, the number of refugees that started out as 700,000, has been doubling every twenty years, to about four million today. In another twenty years it will be eight million. Therefore, the Palestinian refugee problem has to be resolved in the larger context. The solution has to be found where the problem started, or where the problem is located today. Jordan is no less Palestinian than the West Bank and Gaza in terms of demography, the majority there is between 60 and 75 percent Palestinian. Only a big vision can bring about a solution for 90 percent of the Palestinians.

Dr Dajani: Part of our problem is that people like you want to dictate to the Palestinians what is good for them. What arrogance, you telling us what is good for us after your being responsible for creating the problem. This is not dialogue. What you said about us going to Jordan is unacceptable.

Nasser Atta: Every Palestinian has the right either to return or to compensation. Serious discussions were held in Taba, and they came up with five categories [See pg 5-24]. But the way you talk about it around this table, it sounds as if three million will come to Israel. It is a false assumption that all those people will come to Israel the minute Israel grants them the Right of Return. Most of the Palestinians in Amman, for example are established, with homes and businesses. But the issue for the Palestinians is one of principle.
I do not really understand the demographic issue. If the 1,200,000 Israeli Arabs who live in Israel now become five million in twenty years, what will you do? The Palestinians have to accept the absorption in Israel of the Russians and Ethiopians. What Professor Yisraeli is saying here is basically that the West Bank cannot absorb more people. Then there should not be settlements and settlers there. Israel has created the biggest problem in history by establishing these settlements. According to a public survey yesterday, 40 percent of the settlers are now ready to leave and accept compensation. And if there were an atmosphere of peace, even more than that would go. They know they don't have a future in the occupied territories.
With the establishment of Israel, 418 Palestinian villages were destroyed and 751,000 Palestinians ejected. You did not establish your country, or your borders, based on 181. But rather than blaming each other, we should concentrate on what the Palestinian negotiators in Taba were able to achieve. For example, accepting some of the 100,000 - 150,000 Palestinians from Lebanon into Israel is not going to harm Israel. At the end of the day, even after the establishment of a Palestinian state, one way or another this will become one geographic area. Today you have 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, and five million Jews. In five years, ten years, the Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine and I say Mandatory Palestine because I believe Israel has the right to exist alongside a Palestinian state will outnumber the Jews.

Shulamith Aloni: The whole question of demography bothers me from a completely different point of view. Unhappily, in Israel, it is almost turning into a kind of racist affair. We want an Israeli state. There will be a Palestinian state. There are, in Israel, people who are even afraid of demography with regard to Israeli Arabs, and that's why they came up with the idea of transfering Umm el Fahm and other places in the future to the Palestinian state. Those Palestinians are Israeli citizens, and people have the right to live in whatever state they wish. I believe that, once we solve the problem by means of a sovereign Palestinian state where the Palestinians can live in dignity, in the long run we will evolve into a kind of binational state.
On the question of responsibility, there was a war, and people after the war wanted to come back to their places. We didn't let them come. So we cannot say that we are not responsible. We must share the responsibility. It's true that the Arabs didn't accept the United Nations partition resolution, because they were 1,200,000 and we were 600,000 and under the partition they got 40 percent of the land. Had it been the other way around, we wouldn't have accepted it either. Let's be honest about it.

Dr Dajani: We speak about Israel not being able to absorb more Palestinians. On the other hand, we see them bringing in 1,200,000 Russians and Sharon plans to bring in another million.
If Israel wants to exist in peace, it has to be accepted by the Arab states and the Palestinians. Both sides have their extremists. They can share a bed. We moderates could be left on the sidelines. We recognize Israel in its 1948 borders. We Palestinians have to rise above the agony and the defeats we suffered over the last 50 years and say, the Israelis have come home to Israel proper. But the Palestinians also have the right to come home to Palestine the West Bank and Gaza. And we have to share this piece of land as partners, not with Palestinians suffering from the arrogance of the Israeli occupiers.
This generation is ready to reach peace but the students I am teaching in classrooms and seminars are becoming more and more radicalized. When they hear 'No Palestine, let them go to Jordan', it becomes easy for them to rationalize about bombs and underground resistance movements. We have to solve the Palestinian problem in an amicable way. And the refugee problem is a core problem of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab situation.

Danny Rubinstein: My problem with the Palestinian position is that I understand you are flexible, you are ready to make concessions and agree that most of the Palestinian refugees will not come to Israel. But I've listened to a lot of refugees and I understood that, for many of them, it's not a political issue. Their father's property in Jaffa was in their family for 500 years or more, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority. Many of them live in Jordan or in America. They have property in Jaffa and they want it back. It belongs to their family.
So in many cases, you're right to be ready for an agreement, according to which most of the refugees will not come back to Israel. But what happens if a large number of Palestinians say, well, we would like to go back. If Israel takes responsibility, who will decide that this person goes back and will receive assets as a part of family reunion? Whom do you represent? Can you speak on behalf of this refugee in Lebanon or the West Bank? Do you have the right or the power to do this?

Prof Yisraeli: I understand from you, Dr. Dajani, that an amicable solution means Israel accepting all the Palestinian positions. You say that if we don't do this and that, then there will be more terrorists. I was expecting you, in the framework of this amicable discussion, to say that terrorism is wrong in any case.
You are asking why Israel can't accept more refugees while it accepts Russians and so on. I think Israel's great mistake in Oslo was that we did not demand from the Palestinians that they recognize not only Israel, as they did, but that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Then we wouldn't be hearing these questions about absorbing more Palestinians, or changing the demographic composition of the country. Oslo achieved nothing. And by the way, with regard to the continuation of Oslo in Taba, please remember that Barak lost the elections. Don't count on Taba or on marginal people in Israeli politics. The overwhelming majority of Israelis will not allow any Palestinian Right of Return and this is so for all shades of Israeli political opinion, except from the margins.
For me, it's really amazing to hear that you want more Palestinians to come into Israel. On the one hand, we hear from Palestinians even from Arabs in Israel that they are oppressed and discriminated against. Is this the fate you want for your people?
The next point is solving the demographic problem. What do we do if the Arabs in Israel become a majority? Israel will become a third Palestinian State, after Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza. Were the State of Israel to have an Arab majority, all the goodies of this country its prosperity, technology, democracy would vanish. Once the Jewish majority is gone, it will be once again like Gaza, or some kind of backward state, poor, overpopulated and without democracy. Forget it. It simply will not happen. The problem for us is one of survival. If there is no Jewish state, there is no survival for the Jewish people.

Shulamith Aloni: I don't agree with what Dr Dajani said about our bringing in Russian people. We are bringing in Jewish people, or Jewish families. We are building here a national home for the Jewish people. We are talking of peoplehood. So let's not mix two different problems, one of how the sovereign State of Israel is dealing with immigration to Israel, and the other of dealing with the Palestinian refugees when there will be a Palestinian state beside Israel. We have to share responsibility for helping to settle the refugees.

Nasser Atta: With all respect to Ms. Aloni, building one culture shouldn't be at the expense of another culture and another nation. So far, practically speaking, everything the Israelis are doing has been at the expense of the Palestinians. 'The only democracy in the Middle East' is the architect of the most brutal occupation on earth. Its the aspiration and dream of the Jewish people to return and they want to absorb the Russians, although they admit that 20 to 30 percent are Christians. Maybe they have one Jewish ancestor, but according to the definition by the State of Israel, they are not really Jews. Why, till now, is the return of Palestinian refugees so dangerous to Israel? When we finally have a state, when we have a peace agreement, we are going to live alongside each other. I think Israel being a Jewish state or a state for the Jewish people is the wrong definition: if Israel wants to live in peace in the Middle East, it has to be a state for all its citizens. Israel as a Jewish state justifies the settlers.

Danny Rubinstein: Munther Dajani was upset when we told you how to build your state. Now you're telling us how to build ours.

Shulamith Aloni: Just one clarification: the idea that it is a Jewish state and not a state of all its citizens is nonsense. It cannot be a democracy if every person who lives under the jurisdiction of the state is not entitled to equal rights and to equal status. But having all these problems, we cannot introduce another one by changing the country into a bi-national state through accepting the refugees.

Nasser Atta: Professor Yisraeli, Palestinians and Israelis can live together, that is the biggest guarantee for the survival of the Jewish state, unless you want transfer. I don't want to accuse you, but from listening to your political views, I think you favor transfer.

Prof Yisraeli: I can speak for myself.

Zahra Khalidi: Our time is up. We'd like to thank you very much for coming to this roundtable. I hope we reach a point where we have a leadership which understands that might is not right, and that the conflict will never be resolved unless we all sit down with open minds and with a vision of peace ahead of us.