The prevalent view in Israeli public opinion is that any recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return for the 1948 refugees means the total destruction of the state of Israel.
We are not referring to the fears of Israelis who think that they may lose property which they took over from the Arabs, but to a much deeper anxiety. Recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return is interpreted by the Israelis as a denial to the Jews of their sovereign existence as an independent state within the 1948 borders (the "green line").
Almost half of the Jews in Israel came from Arab countries and many of them owned property there and lost it when they left. "Why didn't the Arab countries take care of their own refugees the way Israel took care of the Jewish refugees which it accepted and absorbed?" That is one of the most popular axioms expounded by Israelis in this context. Those Israelis who came from the Arab countries don't even consider going back - and parallel to this they are not prepared for any repatriation of the Palestinians.
The recommended Israeli solution would be the mutual payment of reparation money by both parties, for Jewish and Arab refugees alike. And in order to understand how the Israeli position evolved, we have to go back to the 1948 war. As early as the winter and spring of 1948, months before the State of Israel was established, thousands of Palestinians from the upper classes fled the cities that had become the front line. This trend puzzled the political and military leaders of the Jewish community, some of whom actually believed that the mass departure was essentially an Arab plot to blacken the name of the Jews! Still preoccupied with the political struggle to obtain support for the UN partition resolution, the Jewish leadership was eager to prove not only that partition was feasible, but also that the 400,000 Arabs slated to live under a Jewish regime would enjoy conditions of equality and well-being. Some Jewish leaders thought that the Arabs were deliberately fleeing as a way of convincing the world that their vision was an unattainable one - that Arabs could not live in a Jewish state - for the Palestinians had summarily rejected the idea of partition.
In April 1948, after the Arabs of Haifa had left the city in droves, David Ben¬-Gurion delivered an address before the People's Council (Israel's parliament in the making) implying that he was baffled by the flight. Up to that stage of the war, he noted, not a single Jewish settlement had been abandoned, yet the Arabs had already left some 100 cities, towns, and villages. He also noted that the Arabs were leaving precipitously, after the first defeat, even when they did not face the risk of ruin or slaughter, and he claimed that this proved which of the two peoples was more attached to the land.
"Hey, look over there! They're already running!" says Shmulik in S. Yizhar's short story "Khirbet Hizah" as he and his friends approach a village. "Fleeing already? So quickly? Without a single shot?" The young Israeli fighters are surprised. "Running, running," says Moishe. "They've hooked up their wagons, and loaded their camels, and they're running, Bastards ... They don't have the guts to fight".
The sight of the abandonment-flight-expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, which Palestinians have described at length, has been documented by relatively few Israelis. One of the most sensitive of these rare descriptions is by Shmaryahu Gutman of Kibbutz Na'an, who was involved in the mass expulsion of the Arabs of Ramle and Lydda, and published his account of the operation shortly thereafter in Mibifnim (From Within), an in-house publication of the Kibbutz Hameuchad (United Kibbutz Movement) under the pen name Avi- Yiftach;

Masses of people marched one behind the next. Women bore bundles and sacks on their heads; mothers dragged children after them. Old and young, women and children marched. Many were young men who could have been fighting in the army, they, too, went into exile. Loaded carts were drawn by animals; hundreds of cars, dozens of carts being drawn not by donkeys but people. There wasn't a single person who wasn't weighed down by some burden. Even every child carried something: a basket of food, a jug of water, a coffeepot ... I stood on the mosque and through binoculars I saw the masses of people marching toward the village of Barfilya (today at the edge of the Ben Shemen Park) ... swirls of dust rising in their wake. From close up it was sad to watch this trek of thousands going into exile. As soon as they left the city, they began to divest themselves of things '" and the roads were cluttered with the belongings that people had abandoned to make their walk easier ... They also led goats, sheep, cows, even chickens.

Following this description of "Lydda going into exile", Avi-Yiftach wrote:

The sight of the masses of Arab exiles conjured up memories of the Jewish exile. The Arabs were not bound in chains; they were not forcibly expelled; they were not led to concentration camps. They went of their own free will to join their people, out of a fear of remaining on the front. But their fate was one of exile. By the glow of the sunset and the spreading twilight, the question hovered in the air. Do they have their own "Jeremiah" who follows in the wake of the exiles, weeping and keening the lament of their tragedy and their shame?

Thus with all the regret and sadness over the Palestinians' "fate of exile", the Israeli's comparison of this tragedy with the Jewish tragedy of exile serves to cushion the terrible impact of the scene and ease the pain. The Arabs are not bound in chains as were the Jews in their exile to Babylon of the rebels of the Second Temple period and Bar-Kochba's day. "They were not led to concentration camps" (suggesting that the Arab tragedy is not even remotely reminiscent of the Holocaust that befell the Jewish people). Most important of all, they were to join other Arabs, their own people.
The Israelis could identify with thoughts of this kind, for the suffering of exile was deeply imprinted upon them. They had left their homes and native lands to live among "their own people" in the land of Israel. Thus the flight of the Arabs, and even their expulsion, took on an aspect of "reasonability", as if to say that there was no place for Arabs in a Jewish environment and certainly not in a Jewish state. On the contrary, they would be better off living among their own kind. Few Israeli Jews expressed regret of leaving their native lands in the Diaspora. The Zionist ethos had distanced itself from cries of pain like that of the poet Avot Yeshurun, "I have changed my name, I have changed my language, I have changed my city". The poet, during lonely nights in his new land, with his new identity, heard his original name, Yehiel Perlmutter, being called. The agonies that accompanied the transition to the land of Zion for Jews from all over the Diaspora were simply repressed. All of Israel's Jews are, to one degree or another, refugees or the children of refugees. They have struggled with all their might to shed their exilic identity, to forget the house on the plains of the Ukraine or in the mellah of Casablanca. The Jews came to the land of Israel not only "to build it" but also "to be built by it" in the words of the pioneers song; to obtain independence and sovereignty and revive their language. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz described the essence of Zionism: "We're tired of being ruled by the goyim".
By thus projecting aspects of their own feelings and identity on the country's Arabs, Israeli Jews are quickly able to conclude that the Palestinians have not suffered such a grave injustice, and that, in fact, their situation is a relatively good one. After all, the Palestinians living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza (up until 1967) were not subject to foreign rule. They lived under sovereign Arab governments, pursued an Arab way of life, spoke their own language, and practiced their religion. Why, then should they be bitter? Perhaps their devotion of the "idea of return" was no more than a political stratagem?
In Israel one constantly hears the argument that the Arabs have twenty-one states and the Palestinians can choose anyone of them, but the Jews have no choice: they have only one country. It is thinking of this sort that has spawned the idea of "transfer" promoted by the supporters of the Greater Land of Israel movement. It has even created a climate in which the novelist A. B. Yehoshua, a prominent supporter of the Dovish left, found himself telling his Israeli-Arab colleague Anton Shammas (in the heat of argument), "If you want your full identity, if you want to live in a country with an independent Palestinian character and original Palestinian culture, get up, pack your things, and move 100 meters eastward into the independent Palestinian state that will come into being alongside Israel". Needless to say, the Arabs of Fasuta - Shammas's native village - cannot possibly begin to fathom such a remark. Why should they leave their homes and their land? They already know that even if they move their belongings 100 meters in any direction they will become "exiles"! And where would they settle in the Palestinian state, when and if it is established in the West Bank? In the Deheishe refugee camp? In the Balata camp? They know what befell the others who moved to the West Bank and Gaza over forty years ago, when these areas were ruled by Arabs with an indigenous Palestinian culture. They remained outsiders, miserable wretches. No, the Arabs of Fasuta are going to stay put, as will the rest of Israel's Arab citizens.
The Israeli reading of the situation dictates political behavior that is radically different from that of the Palestinian Arabs. It was no coincidence that during the withdrawal from the Rafah salient in 1982 (consummating the peace arrangements between Israel and Egypt), it never occurred to any Israeli Jew to continue living in the district that was being turned over to Arab rule. To the Jews, it was far more important to exercise sovereignty than to hold on to a specific house or plot of land. There was great symbolism in the destruction of all the buildings that the Israelis had constructed in the town of Yamit and the surrounding agricultural settlements. The razing of the town was a profound expression of protest, as if to say that not even the houses of Jews could "suffer" the rule of foreigners. Setting bulldozers loose on Yamit was a signal that, notwithstanding the hopes that some of them had expressed, the Jewish settlers would never return to the town. Following this precedent, one can readily speculate that if Israel ever withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, no Jews will remain there either. A withdrawal may be preceded by riots and other forms of struggle, but in the end even diehards like Rabbi Moshe Levinger will leave places of great historic significance like Hebron ¬and not just for fear of life under Arab rule. For the Gush Emunim settlers, whose love of the "land of the fathers" in Judea and Samaria has become a passion, the political independence of the Jews is ten times more important than their stake in settlements like Kiryat Arba and Elon Moreh, or even than holy places like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Joseph's tomb in Nablus. The value of these places as a home in the homeland can be manifested only under Israeli rule, only when they are part and parcel of the Jewish state.
One can even be so bold as to venture that Israelis will not live in this country at all unless it remains a Jewish state. Otherwise they would feel as if they were living in exile, and if one is doomed to exile it is preferable to live it in New York. On the other hand, Arabs whose homes fall within the bounds of the State of Israel will continue living in them, whereas life in an independent Palestinian state, deprived of their homes, would be exile for them.
Almost as soon as independence had been declared, Jews began to understand that the Arabs who had fled or were driven out of the country felt no sense of relief at going to live "among their own people". At the height of the War of Independence, some of the participants in the deliberations of the secretariat of the Mapam party, the left wing of the Zionist labor movement, noted that the departure, eviction, and prevention of the return of the Arabs would turn these Arabs into "eternal enemies" of the Zionist enterprise. Moshe Dayan came to a similar pessimistic conclusion a few years later, in the early 1950's, when it was more obvious that the refugee problem was pressing. In April 1956, Ro'i Rotberg, a friend of Dayan's and a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz by the Gaza Strip, was murdered while working in the fields. Standing at Rotberg's grave, Dayan described a recent visit to Israel's southern border where he could see the crowded refugee camps on the outskirts of Gaza. He noted that every inch of the narrow strip of land was intensely cultivated and well cared for. "How can we complain about the (Arab refugees) fierce hatred toward us?" he asked. "For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps of Gaza while right in front of their eyes we are turning the land and villages in which they and their forefathers dwelled into our own patrimony ... We are the generation of settlement, and without cannons and steel helmets we won't be able to plant a tree or build a house". Moshe Dayan understood the refugee experience, and his conclusion that the Jews of Israel were doomed to live by their swords was cause for great dismay. Similar thoughts about the impossibility of solving the dispute because of the refugee problem were aired by Ezra Danin, an official in Israel's Foreign Ministry who had many contacts with Arabs and specialized in the refugee problem. Before 1948 Danin had a Palestinian friend by the name of Hafez Hamdullah from the West Bank town of Anabta, east of Tulkarem. The two men had owned adjoining citrus orchards on the outskirts of the Israeli town of Hadera, and in 1948, with Hamdullah living over the new border, his orchards became the property of the state. Following the Six-Day War, Ezra Danin went to visit Hamdullah, who was by then aged and bedridden but nevertheless immediately recognized his old friend. "Have you watered the orchard?" was almost the first thing Hamdullah asked. Danin was perturbed by the question and later recalled that he was at a loss for what to say. Hamdullah's orchard had not existed for quite some time; it was now part of the town of Hadera. But after almost twenty years the old man's greatest concern was whether it had been watered, as if for all those years he had believed that he could live and die in peace because his Jewish friend was surely tending his orchard for him. Danin then understood the Arabic saying:
"I am oppressed, my land has been stolen."
The large Jebalya Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip is populated by the residents of dozens of villages that used to exist on the broad coastal plain south of Jaffa. When one young woman came of marrying age in the beginning of the 1980's, her mother demanded that she marry a member of the clan from her native village of Beit Affa, a village that no longer existed. If she could not find a clan member, she was to marry someone from a neighboring village. Flouting these demands, the young woman chose a man whose family hailed from the large village of Bashit, which had been located a little over twenty miles from Beit Affa. "It's far away", her mother complained. "If we return, and you don't feel well, and I want to visit you, how can I get there from such a distance?" The younger generation was able to convince the mother to agree to the marriage by telling her that the twenty miles was no longer an obstacle, for her uncle had a taxi that would take her there. They didn't dare tell her, "We will never return to Beit Affa." An incident illustrating a similar mind-set occurred on the main street of Gaza during the early days of the Intifada. A Molotov cocktail had been thrown at an Israeli jeep. Within seconds all shopkeepers had closed their shutters, a curfew was declared, and the streets were deserted. On one comer, however, an Israeli officer spotted a barefoot beggar dressed in tatters who seemed bewildered by what was happening around him. The officer approached him and explained, "Everyone's gone home. You must go too. Where is your home?" And in perfect innocence and sincerity the man replied, "My house is in Majdal."
Majdal is now the Israeli town of Ashkelon. It hasn't existed for over forty years. But the beggar automatically gave the answer common to most refugees of his generation: the name of a lost village. That is their identity.