The Palestinian Exodus 1948-1998. Edited by Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cotran, Ithaca Press, 1999.
In one of the outstanding of the ten essays in this valuable collection, Prof. Rashid Khalidi explains the futility in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict of attempts to continue sweeping history under the rug. He believes that any failure to acknowledge "the gross injustice done to their entire people in 1948 would require the Palestinians to deny core elements in their own national narrative." This book sets out firstly to record and analyze the narrative of the Palestinian exodus and, secondly, to suggest how the problem of the Palestinian refugees can be solved. Prof. Khalidi, who is director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, sees any solution as depending upon facing "the truth about what happened in 1948 and the truth about what is attainable 50 years later." He is critical of the Madrid-Washington-Oslo negotiating process and recommends learning from the South African model, which strives first for truth (without which there can be no move forward) and then for "justice and finally reconciliation."

False Version

Edited by two prominent London-based Palestinian academics, most of the writers of The Palestinian Exodus are Palestinians, but there are also contributions by Israelis and experts from the international community. As for the truth of 1948, in recent years it has been increasingly proven that the official Israeli version of the creation of the refugee problem (that they left of their own volition, or were told by their leaders to leave temporarily) is false; thus, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes of "a consensus between the 'new historians' in Israel and many Palestinian historians that Israel bore the main burden for the making of the [refugee] problem."
Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that outside academic circles, there remains a wide and frightening gap between the self-image of Israelis and Palestinians in their acknowledging what led to the exodus in 1948 of some 750,000 Palestinians, 50 percent of the entire Arab population of Mandatory Palestine. (There was a second exodus of an estimated 320,000 Palestinians - some put the figure as much higher - from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967.) A number of writers discuss the important question of the connection between the "transfer" concept in Zionist ideology and history and the actual events of 1948. As for righting the wrong perpetrated with the birth of Israel, even a dovish Israeli personality like the author Amos Oz, who has always identified with the Israeli peace movement, saw fit not long ago to write that "the Right of Return is an Arab euphemism for the destruction of the State of Israel" (The New York Times, July 27, 2000).

Admitting Responsibility

On the other hand, speaking of reconciliation and atonement between Germans and Jews, or white and black South Africans, Khalidi mentions that after nearly 160 years, a British prime minister recently admitted his country's share of responsibility for the Irish famine of 1845 (which led to half a million deaths). He sees the South Africans as trying to recognize a wrong done, even if absolute justice is unattainable. Prof. Pappe, who teaches at the University of Haifa, notes that in 1958, when David Ben-Gurion had happily let the world forget the refugee problem, the Israeli peace advocate Prof. Martin Buber did propose a plan for reconciliation. Israel would recognize its responsibility for the refugee problem and absorb a token number of refugees as a principal recognition of the Right of Return. While Buber the renowned philosopher of dialogue was listened to as a moralist, Buber the binationalist and his small Ichud group never exerted real influence on Zionist or Israeli policies.
Part One of this book contains four essays providing a mass of historical material on the History of the Exodus 1948-1998, with chapters on Palestinians in exile; historiography and its relevance to the refugee problem; the 1967 exodus; and the ongoing expulsion from Jerusalem. Part Two contains five articles on compensation and reconciliation, dealing with international law; the Right of Return to their homes in Israel; the feasibility of the Right of Return; compensation and reparations; and elements of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. The book ends with Ghada Karmi's article "Concluding Vision: A Return to Israel/Palestine?"

Principle and Practice

Part Two is less uniform in its approach than Part One. In "The Feasibility of the Right of Return," Salman Abu-Sitta proposes a detailed geographic-demographic plan for the Return, including what he calls "a maximalist scenario in which all refugees return and all Jewish Israelis stay. Palestinians must have the right to return, whether they actually return or not." (He notes that only one-third of Jews exercised the right given to Jews the world over to live in Israel.) He writes that "even in the maximalist case, only 154,000 Jews would face relocation elsewhere in Israel to allow 4,476,000 refugees to return to their homes," concluding that "this is a very small concession to achieve real peace." But can raising such an unreal scenario help to achieve peace?
As against this "maximalist case," in his essay "Truth, Justice and Reconciliation: Elements of a Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Issue," Khalidi seems more concerned with "what is attainable." He demands "the right of the refugees to return to their homes in principle," while noting that "in practice, many will be unable to exercise this right, whether as a result of Israel's refusal to allow all of them to do so, or of the disappearance of their homes and villages, or because of the sheer numbers of people involved. However, it should be accepted that as many refugees as possible should be allowed to return to what is now Israel." As a minimal gesture, he suggests that the present strong Israel, which as a new and weak country was ready in 1949 to accept up to 100,000 refugees in the framework of family reunification, should now similarly accept 450,000 refugees, about 15 percent of the total. This would help to address the resentment among the Palestinians of their exclusion, while they witness Israel absorbing unlimited numbers of Jews from abroad.
The essays by Khalidi and Abu-Sitta make it crystal clear that the principle of the Right of Return is universally embraced by all Palestinians and irrefutably anchored in international law, particularly UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (111) of December 11, 1948, which states that "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date," or be paid compensation. Israel has failed for 52 years to comply with these international obligations. Nevertheless, Part Two of The Palestinian Exodus indicates that the practical application of the principle of return can be interpreted in more ways than one. This may disappoint those seeking monolithic answers, but it ensures that the book is both more genuine and more comprehensive.