Most Israelis, especially those who are 50 or younger, know little or noth¬ing about the Palestinian refugee problem. They ignore the tragedy of los¬ing one's house, one's orchard, one's land, of being prevented from return¬ing home after the hostilities have ended. In short, the Palestinians' plight as a people uprooted from its homeland is unknown to most Israelis, as far away as an alien star.
Israelis argue that it is mainly the Arabs' fault if the return of even part of the Palestinian refugees was made impossible: the Arab and Palestinian leadership refused, systematically, to engage in peace talks with the State of Israel and the repatriation of refugees could only have taken place in the framework of peace and mutual recognition. "Why should we allow the entry into Israel of Arab refugees who deny our right to national existence and are openly advocating the destruction of our state?" asked Israeli offi¬cials in the 1950s and 1960s.
Moreover, it was argued that in view of the arrival of hundreds of thou¬sands of Jews who had fled the Arab countries, an "exchange of popula¬tions" had actually taken place. This is highly questionable. An exchange of population, with all the hardships and distress such an exodus entails, did take place, for example, between Turkey and Greece following World War I. Turkey expelled most of its Greek minority while Greece expelled most of its Turkish minority. But there was no exchange between Israel and Iraq, Israel and Egypt or Israel and Morocco. Why? Because the Palestinian refugees could not and would not "return" to those Arab countries where neither they nor their ancestors had ever lived and "replace" the Jews who had departed for Israel.
Israeli officials state: "If the Palestinian leadership of 1948 had not reject¬ed the U.N. partition plan and had not preferred war over negotiations, there would have been no refugee problem." This standard Israeli argu¬ment may be of interest to historians and political scientists but is irrele¬vant to the present situation. Peoples have forever been the victims of their leaders' shortsightedness or folly. This is nothing new.

The Real Problem

One could continue the list of arguments and counter-arguments, to no avail. The real problem is: what can and should be done, today, about the plight of the Palestinian refugees?
Most Palestinian leaders acknowledge that to demand the return to Israel of some 2.5 million people (refugees and their descendants) is high¬ly impractical. They propose that the Israeli government recognize the principle of the refugees' right to return or to compensation (U.N. Resolution 194) but that the implementation of that right be hammered out in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Palestinian and Israeli leaders, nowadays, tend to agree that the two peoples should start afresh from the present geopolitical reality. For exam¬ple, Jews should stop dreaming of returning to Hebron, where a Jewish community had lived on and off, for centuries, until the 1929 massacre; and Palestinians should stop dreaming of returning to Haifa or Jaffa, where their fathers and forefathers had lived prior to the 1948 war. Only such a pragmatic approach may lead to compromise, facilitating the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.
The envisioned compromise will no doubt be a far cry from "full jus¬tice," long demanded by the Palestinians. It will also revolt many Israelis convinced that the land promised by God to their ancestors belongs exclu¬sively to the Children of Israel.
What is considered total justice by one side, means total injustice for the other side and vice versa. Only a compromise, inevitably resented as unjust by both peoples, can be a correct, "just" solution, as it will take into account not impossible dreams, but the minimum vital national interests of both parties to the dispute.
However, it is not enough to find a practical, mutually acceptable solu¬tion to the Palestinian refugee problem. There are deep psychological wounds, which have been inflicted on both nations, that must be, if not healed (that will take time) at least recognized as such by both sides. That must be done, if one is to achieve not only a peace signed by leaders, but reconciliation between the Palestinian and Israeli man and woman in the street. There is a need for mutual recognition, not merely of each other's national rights, but of each other's wounds and sufferings as well.
The Palestinians, as a nation, became the victims of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. They lost much more than homes and property. They lost a home¬land. And Palestinian national consciousness - even of those who were not expelled or did not flee during the war - has been permeated, mold¬ed by this terrible tragedy.

Two Catastrophes

The great tragedy of the Israeli Jews was the World War II genocide per¬petrated by Nazi Germany, whose henchmen exterminated one out of every two European Jews, a third of the Jewish people worldwide. Following the war, hundreds of thousands of European Jews had been uprooted, becoming displaced persons herded into camps in liberated Europe. Most of those homeless Jewish refugees came to the newborn State of Israel, soon to be joined by hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Iraq, Egypt and Morocco, where they were looked upon and often treated as potential traitors, following the state of war proclaimed by all Arabs against the state of the Jews.
Israeli Jews, even those who did not, themselves, experience Nazi persecution (those who were born after 1945 as well the Jews who had come from Arab countries) have been forever marked by the mass extermination of their European brothers. This unspeakable horror is imprinted upon the Israelis' national consciousness, just as the refugees' tragedy is imprinted upon the national consciousness of the Palestinian people.
In all truth, the Palestinians are not responsible for what Nazi Germany did to European Jewry, while the Palestinian refugee problem was the result of the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, which followed the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948.
In a remarkable article, published by the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz under the title: "Peace between Victims," the Israeli writer Tom Segev notes: "In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one national identity is confronted by anoth¬er national identity; one catastrophe faces another catastrophe. Prior to the ability to live peacefully side by side, Israelis and Palestinians must inter¬nalize each other's national tragedy, recognize the role of these tragedies in shaping the national identity of each people."
The negotiation of mutually recognized borders is indispensable for peace; the elaboration of a mutually agreeable solution to the refugee prob¬lem is indispensable for peace. But accepting each other, as they are, in flesh and soul, seeing and internalizing the other's misfortunes and suffer¬ings; showing empathy for the tragic experiences of the other side, only this will pave the way to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.