In 2004, Hamas leaders, Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz_al-Rantissi, offered to end armed resistance against Israel for a 10-year hudna (a truce) which could be re-newed indefinitely in exchange for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem leaving all other issue such as the important right for refugees to return for future generations to negotiate. Israel’s response was to assassinate Yassin and al-Rantisi.
In his article Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents and professor of Journalism and Political Science, looks at the principles and practicalities for the return of the Palestinian diaspora.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) not only endorsed the Dayton agreement but urged that it be enforced by US troops. The 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended years of warfare between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, stated that “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin” and “to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities.”
Yet its CEO, David Harris, has demanded that Palestinian refugees begin “anew” in “adopted lands.”
In 2019, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – the US’s most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group – applauded Congress for imposing sanctions aimed at forcing the Syrian government to, among other things, permit “the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Syrians displaced by the conflict”.
That same year, the Union for Reform Judaism, in justifying its support for reparations for Black Americans, approvingly cited a UN resolution that defines reparations as including the right to “return to one’s place of residence”.
Jewish leaders also endorse the rights of return and compensation for Jews expelled from Arab lands.
In 2013, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed: “The world has long recognised the Palestinian refugee problem, but without recognising the other side of the story – the 850,000 Jewish refugees of Arab countries.” Arab Jews, he argued, deserve “equal rights and treatment under international law”. What they want is for the world to recognise Arab Jewish refugees’ rights to repatriation and compensation so Israel can trade away those rights in return for Palestinian refugees relinquishing theirs.
Jewish leaders to cloak their opposition in the language of universal principle – “refugee status should not be handed down” – while in reality, they don’t adhere to this principle universally. Across the globe, refugee designations are frequently handed down from one generation to the next, yet Jewish organisations do not object. Jewish leaders who decry multigenerational refugee status when it applies to Palestinians celebrate it when it applies to Jews. In 2016, after Spain and Portugal offered citizenship to roughly 10,000 descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula more than 500 years ago, the AJC’s associate executive director declared: “We stand in awe at the commitment and efforts undertaken both by Portugal and Spain to come to terms with their past.”
Israel and its allies insist that it has no legal or historical obligation to repatriate or compensate Palestinians; they also claim that doing so is impossible. Israel, the ADL notes, believes that “‘return’ is not viable for such a small state”. Veteran US Republican foreign policy official Elliott Abrams has called compensating all Palestinian refugees a “fantasy”. Too much time has passed, too many Palestinian homes have been destroyed, there are too many refugees. It is not possible to remedy the past. The irony is that when it comes to compensation for historical crimes, Jewish organisations have shown just how possible it is to overcome these logistical hurdles. And when it comes to effectively resettling large numbers of people in a short time in a small space, Israel leads the world.
More than 50 years after the Holocaust, Jewish organisations negotiated an agreement in which Swiss banks paid more than $1bn to reimburse Jews whose accounts they had expropriated during the second world war. In 2018, the World Jewish Restitution Organization welcomed new US legislation to help Holocaust survivors and their descendants reclaim property in Poland. While the Holocaust, unlike the Nakba, saw millions murdered, the Jewish groups in these cases were not seeking compensation for murder. They were seeking compensation for theft. If Jews robbed en masse in the 40s deserve reparations, surely Palestinians do, too.
When Jewish organisations deem it morally necessary, they find ways to determine the value of lost property. So does the Israeli government, which estimated the value of property lost by Jewish settlers withdrawn from the Gaza Strip in order to compensate them. Such calculations can be made for property lost in the Nakba as well. UN resolution 194, which declared that Palestinian refugees were entitled to compensation “for loss of, or damage to, property”, created the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) to tally the losses. Using land registers, tax records and other documents from the British mandate, the UNCCP between 1953 and 1964 assembled what Randolph-Macon College historian Michael Fischbach has called “one of the most complete sets of records documenting the landholdings of any group of refugees in the 20th century”. In recent decades, those records have been turned into a searchable database and cross-referenced with information from the Israeli Land Registry. The primary barrier to compensating Palestinian refugees is not technical complexity. It’s political will.
On the face of it, the notion that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of Palestinians might return to what is now Israel seems absurd. At the height of the Soviet exodus in the early 90s, when the Jewish state took in another 500,000 immigrants over four years. The number of returning Palestinian refugees could be substantially higher than that, or not. When Jews imagine Palestinian refugee return, most probably don’t imagine a modified version of Israel’s absorption of Soviet Jews. More likely, they imagine Palestinians expelling Jews from their homes. Given Jewish history, and the trauma that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has inflicted on both sides, these fears are understandable. But there is little evidence that they reflect reality. For starters, not many Israeli Jews live in former Palestinian homes, since, tragically, only a few thousand remain intact. More importantly, the Palestinian intellectuals and activists who envision return generally insist that significant forced expulsion of Jews is neither necessary nor desirable. Abu Sitta argues that “it is possible to implement the return of the refugees without major displacement to the occupants of their houses”.
Palestinians have begun imagining what might be required to absorb Palestinian refugees who want to return. One option would be to build where former Palestinian villages once stood since, according to Lubnah Shomali of the Badil Resource Center, which promotes Palestinian refugee rights, roughly 70% of those depopulated and destroyed in 1948 remain vacant. In many cases, the rural land on which they sat now constitutes nature reserves or military zones. The Palestinian geographer Salman Abu Sitta imagines a Palestinian Lands Authority, which could dole out plots in former villages to the families of those who lived there. He envisions many returnees “resuming their traditional occupation in agriculture, with more investment and advanced technology”. He’s even convened contests in which Palestinian architecture students build models of restored villages.
Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi thought it unlikely that many refugees – most of whom now live in or near cities – would return to farming. Most would probably prefer to live in urban areas.
Badil Resource Center and Zochrot, an Israeli organisation that raises awareness about the Nakba, suggest two other options, both of which bear some resemblance to Israel’s strategy for settling Soviet immigrants in the 1990s. In that case, the government gave newcomers money for rent while also offering developers subsidies to rapidly build affordable homes. Now, Badil and Zochrot are suggesting a “fast track” in which refugees would be granted citizenship and a sum of money and then left to find housing on their own, or a slower track that would require refugees to wait as the government oversaw the construction of housing and other infrastructure designated for them near urban areas with available jobs. If a Jewish family owns a home once owned by a Palestinian, first the original Palestinian owner (or their heirs) and then the current Jewish owner would be offered the cash value of the home in return for relinquishing their claim. If neither accepted the payment, Zochrot activists Noa Levy and Eitan Bronstein Aparicio have suggested a further compromise: ownership of the property would revert to the original Palestinian owners, but the Jewish occupants would continue living there. The Palestinian owners would receive compensation until the Jewish occupants moved or died, at which point they would regain possession. In cases where Jewish institutions sit where Palestinian homes once stood – for instance, Tel Aviv University, which was built on the site of the destroyed village of al-Shaykh Muwannis – Zochrot has proposed that the Jewish inhabitants pay the former owners for the use of the land.
This all sounds daunting, because it is. As fraught and imperfect as efforts at historical justice can be, it is worth considering what happens when they do not occur.
Israel did not stop expelling Palestinians when its war for independence ended. It displaced close to 400,000 more Palestinians when it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 – roughly a quarter of whom only lived in the West Bank or Gaza because their families had fled there, as refugees, in 1948. Between 1967 and 1994, Israel rid itself of another 250,000 Palestinians through a policy that revoked the residencies of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who left the territories for an extended period of time. Since 2006, according to Badil, almost 10,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have watched the Israeli government demolish their homes. By refusing to acknowledge the Nakba, the Israeli government and its diaspora Jewish allies prepared the ground for its perpetuation. And by refusing to forget the Nakba, Palestinians – and some dissident Israeli Jews – prepared the ground for the resistance that is now convulsing Jerusalem, and Israel-Palestine as a whole.
Teshuvah, which is generally translated as “repentance”. Ironically enough, its literal definition is “return”. In Jewish tradition, return need not be physical; it can also be ethical and spiritual. Which means that the return of Palestinian refugees – far from necessitating Jewish exile – could be a kind of return for us as well, a return to traditions of memory and justice that the Nakba has evicted from organised Jewish life.
The full article unedited and unabridged can be read here