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