Rami Bathish: Our Right of Return

By Rami Bathish

For the vast majority of Palestinians, accepting a two-state solution comes at a very dear price; essentially it underlines abandoning our legitimate claim to what is now “Israel Proper,” or historical Palestine. Without having to dwell on the issue, particularly as we have been well absorbed into Oslo’s model of defeatism and unrewarded compromise, a word for the history books must be clearly echoed: the state of Israel was created in 1948 at the very expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. It would never have come into existence without the terrorisation, massacre, uprooting, dispossession, and displacement of more than 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, whose total population today has already exceeded 4.5 million refugees; hence Al-Nakba. 

The issue of the refugees is commonly identified by Palestinians, at least the so called “pragmatists” among them, as the major stumbling block in reaching a final solution to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. It is also embraced by those of us (short-sightedly) labelled as “rejectionists” and “nationalists” as the nucleus of the Palestinian liberation movement altogether. However, to all Israelis, without exception, the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is immediately and absolutely dismissed as a romantic aspiration, the mere mention of which constitutes a perceived rejection to the existence of Israel itself, and may even ignite the over-consumed, yet common, accusations of anti-Semitism against those who dare to defend it.

Ultimately, contemplating the return of 4.5 million refugees to their original homes in Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, among other Palestinian cities, towns, and villages stolen by Jewish terrorists in 1948 is a no-starter for Israelis and their supporters in any future negotiations with the PLO; its realisation automatically contradicts the foundations of political Zionism, and consequently undermines the embodiment of Der Judenstaat (Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State”), the essence of which advocates the emergence of an exclusively-Jewish sovereign entity among nations.

To pioneers of political Zionism like Herzl and, at a later stage, Chaim Weizmann, the underlying message to the Palestinians is still echoed by prominent leaders and scholars in modern day Israel, namely that we (Palestinians) are part of the greater Arab world, and can, therefore, conveniently be absorbed into any neighbouring country of this “disputed” narrow strip of land west of the River Jordan, while the roaming Jewish nation has finally settled in “God’s Promised Land;” the ONLY land on which the self-proclaimed “chosen people” may unite after centuries of persecution.

This position, despite its blatant negation of the Palestinian narrative and identity, and victimisation of an entire native population at the twilight of a fading colonial era, is clearly asserted and defended by the state of Israel to the bitter end, unlike the contradicting stances traditionally adopted by both the Palestinian leadership and society concerning the issue.

It is hardly a secret that the refugees issue is almost taboo to most Palestinians, albeit for different reason and in different contexts. For staunch advocates of the right of return, any attempt, or even insinuation, to adopt a more flexible stance in the interpretation of UN resolution 194 is immediately undermined as compromising of legitimate Palestinian legal, political, and ethical rights, destructive to Palestinian national interests, and even (by radical standards) indirectly conducive to Zionist aspirations.

On the other hand, the passionately consistent discourse adopted by the pro-return movement constitutes a disturbing reality to the cynics and calculating pragmatists of modern Palestinian society, whose realist outlook on history dictates their inability to even contemplate the return of one refugee to his/her rightful home, let alone the flow of millions back into a “non-existent” Palestine. By broad definition, the governing dynamics of this logic is arguably founded on decades of oppression under a brutal Israeli military occupation, whose impact on ordinary Palestinians inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has had its toll; whose overwhelming destruction of life calls for the desperate preservation of what is left. Ironically, this sense of submission is ultimately the outcome of which Israel’s occupation regime has essentially sought.

While this ongoing debate between the return of the Palestinian refugees to Palestine and their integration/absorption into their respective host countries continues, there is an unmistakably disturbing sense of self-delusion and even self-deception: after almost 60 years in Diaspora, a wider Palestinian consensus on the right of return is long overdue. Essentially, should we opt for the full adoption of 194, hasn’t the time come for a unified Palestinian stance concerning the means to implement it? Equally important, should the Palestinian leadership finally decide, even unwillingly, that the reality far exceeds the dream, and ultimately the refugees would have to be absorbed, wouldn’t the PLO have to begin the painful process of adapting our refugees to this unthinkable reality? This is not to advocate any particular position, but rather to provoke a more mature debate on a cause that, at worst, deserves to be addressed with integrity and transparency, and away from shallow rhetoric and misleading nationalistic bravado.

Meanwhile, millions of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, continue to live in limbo in the impoverished camps of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, among others, with the increasingly remote hope that one day they may realise the return to their own promised land.

-Rami Bathish is director of the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). He can be contacted at mip@miftah.org

© www.MIFTAH.com, October 26, 2006

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