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March 30, 2001
Fears of Destruction are the Obstacle

by Ali Abunimah


Editor's note: Ali Abunimah wrote this article in response to a Moshe Arens article in Haaretz. They published it in the Hebrew Edition substantially unchanged, except for the last paragraph. Now, I know Famous Amos, the publisher of Haaretz, would have a fit if his last paragraph was truncated. wink. wink. nod. nod. know what we mean?

Haaretz (Hebrew Edition), March 27, 2001.
Fears of Destruction are the Obstacle
by Ali Abunimah

Moshe Arens argues that "Israel needs to seek an accommodation with the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and not with the Palestinian 'diaspora,' with whom a settlement is impossible." (Crime and punishment, March 20, 2001) Such accomodation is impossible, argues Arens, because the Palestinian insistence on the right of return is tantamount to asking "Israel to sign its own death warrant." Israel's "original sin," therefore was to recognize the PLO in 1993, and thereby to allow the Palestinian diaspora to enter negotiations and bring its "impossible" and insatiable demands. Arens no doubt represents a broad segment of Israeli public opinion.

In fact Arens has this backwards: What Israel thought it had achieved in Oslo was getting Arafat to agree to reduce the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the administration of the population in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria, as Mr. Arens has it) and Gaza Strip. Indeed, in the view of many Palestinians when Arafat went to Oslo he did not take the Palestinian diaspora with him, but left them behind.

It is perhaps for these reasons that Arafat occupies today a far smaller relevance for Palestinians and role in their vision of the future--especially in the diaspora--than he does for some Israelis and American Zionists who demonize and inflate Arafat and his powers to almost super-human proportions.

Even had Israel approached the Oslo Accords with the minimum of good faith, carrying out the timely hand over of territory as agreed and stopping the seizure of land and settlement construction, it is doubtful that this formula would have provided a permanent solution to the conflict. Other outstanding issues including the rights of refugees would have remained a fundamental source of conflict.

More than half of the Palestinian population lives in forced exile. This exile is a direct consequence of the creation of Israel in Palestine, a country whose population and land ownership Palestinians overwhelmingly dominated not 2,000 years ago but only a few short decades ago. Many Israelis say they fear the 'destruction of Israel.' If you want to know what the destruction of a country, of an ancient society, of a settled and peaceful life means, just ask your neighbors in Gaza. Ask the old people in the refugee camps in Lebanon what it means to be thrown into the sea.

I can understand that this is the hardest thing for Israelis to accept, and I have true admiration for how some Israelis--albeit too few--have come to terms with it. But the knee-jerk reaction to any discussion of the right of return does not bode well for the long-term prospects of reconciliation.

No serious Palestinian expects the sudden return of millions of refugees, as depicted in the most common Israeli scenarios. But, these apocalyptic scenarios have the effect--perhaps deliberate--of preventing Israelis from seriously thinking about the issue. After all, when 'survival' is presumed to be at stake, what is there to discuss?

What Palestinians want is a recognition of their right to be in the places which they were forced to leave, and serious negotiations on how this right could be implemented for those who choose to return and compensation given to those who choose not to return.

UN resolution 194 guarantees these rights for the Palestinian refugees and was accepted by Israel as a condition of membership in the United Nations. 194 holds that return and restitution are the essence of peace, not its antithesis.

Refugee return as a human right must be acknowledged and cannot be repudiated. At the same time modalities for return must be negotiated between Palestinians and Israelis which would ensure that the apocalyptic scenarios of those who want the Palestinians to remain in permanent exile do not materialize. This can be imagined and therefore it can be done.

For decades, ideological barriers, enforced by empty slogans about an "eternal and undivided capital," prevented Israelis from even considering the possibility of compromise on Jerusalem. The shedding of the taboos on Jerusalem has done Israelis a service and brought us closer to accomodation, however incrementally. Despite the best efforts of the far right, it is unlikely that these taboos will be resurrected. The same shedding of taboos needs to happen regarding the rights of the refugees.

The Israeli right for many years considered the Palestinians in the occupied territories to be merely a population to be regulated rather than a part of a people with whom Israel must find a modus vivendi. Arens is trying to bring Israel back to that view, but most Israelis have realized that their peaceful future depends on accomodating the rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The same applies to the refugees although this reality is at this time recognized by a much smaller number of Israelis.

It offends me, not just as a Palestinian, but as a human being when I hear Israelis say that living in the same country with other human beings is tantamount to "destruction" just because those people are not Jews. As a Palestinian, I find nothing repulsive about living with Jews or Israelis, nor would I consider it the "destruction" of my state whether it was called "Israel" or "Palestine." But the condition for such peaceful coexistence is that we live together as equals with the same rights and responsibilities.

Ali Abunimah