On Refugees, Creativity and Ethics

On the second anniversary of the second Palestinian intifada, I would like to focus not on the pain, the destruction and the calamitous loss of life that accompanied it, but on what I consider the most momentous of its achievements: its resurrection of the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees as the immutable core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nowadays, it is fashionable for ambitious and bankrupt politicians alike to come up with inventive plans to solve that conflict. Some parrot old mantras in new tunes; others, who are less lazy, invest more time and energy trying to outdo the rest by proposing a “creative” approach. Creativity in this context is always judged according to the ability of a particular politician to reconcile what are perceived as intractable and mutually-exclusive “claims” at the core of this historic conflict. As such, this creativity has nothing to do with resourcefulness in finding new paths to achieve justice and end repression. The Machiavellian methodology is deemed irrelevant in this case, as politicians strive to change the ends, and not to merely modify the means. Of all those untouchable issues, inundated by creative peace-making, the thorniest, by far, is the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homeland, from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and after.

Here’s the story of how creativity became crucial …

The basic assumption by the relevant world powers is not just that Israel has a right to exist on what was Palestinian-Arab land, but that it is entitled to do so qua Jewish state. Even the Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat, in one of his relentless attempts to stay “relevant,” conceded that much in an eye-catching op-ed in the New York Times. But for Israel to live as a Jewish state –i.e, an exclusivist state of all the world Jewry– there are two necessary conditions that must be met:

(A) The Palestinian citizens of Israel, who survived the 1948 Nakbah (catastrophe) and persevered on their lands in what became Israel, should never be allowed to acquire real power (i.e., equal citizenship) in the state apparatus, or to grow in proportion to the Jewish population; otherwise, their demands for a “state of all its citizens” might get too vociferous and troubling.
(B) The indigenous Palestinian natives who were uprooted from their ancestral homes and lands in 1948 –to make room for the incoming Jewish refugees/colonists– should not be allowed back, lest they disturb the demographic dominance of the Israeli Jews.

Israel has done quite well in regards to (A), keeping both the political power of its Palestinian citizens and their demographic profile in check. By relying on an intricate system of institutionalized racial discrimination in every vital domain, Israel managed to marginalize its Palestinian citizens and to minimize their influence in the key decision-making functions. This harsh reality has been entirely ignored by the international community, especially the West, which has conditioned itself to reflexively turn its face the other way when confronted with smacking symptoms of an Israeli version of apartheid.

As to the demographic dimension, although it has recently become nothing less than an obsession for Israel, it is not new. “Fear of the ‘demographic threat’ has haunted Zionism from the very beginning,” states the prominent Israeli scholar, Boaz Evron. “In its name Ethiopians were turned into Jews over the objections of rabbis. In its name hundreds of thousands of Slavs came here wearing the Law of Return as a fig leaf. In its name emissaries have gone out across the world seeking out more and more Jews,” he elaborates. [“Demagography as the enemy of democracy,” Ha’aretz, September 11, 2002]

The current Israeli far-right minister, Effi Eitam, suggests a fanatical solution to this challenge: “If you don’t give the Arabs the right to vote, the demographic problem solves itself.” Furthermore, Eitam, together with several other Israeli politicians and a rapidly rising number of intellectuals and academics, advocate an even more radical solution to the rest of the demographic and political problem, namely in the West Bank and Gaza. They bluntly call for another wave of ethnic cleansing –tactfully called “transfer” in typical Israeli terminology–of the Palestinians from the 1967-occupied territories. Their argument is horrifyingly simple: if Ben-Gurion succeeded without much world fury to uproot and expel close to 800,000 Palestinians, and to mercilessly destroy hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1948, when Israel was still in an embryonic stage, why can’t our currently omnipotent Israel employ the same methods now to solve our current problem with “the Arabs”? Many Israelis are starting to subscribe to this quick fix.

Regardless whether they agree with “transfer” or not, a majority of Israelis perceives the birthrate of Palestinians as an existential threat to the Jewish state, or rather to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. In a stark example of this sweeping obsession, the Israel Council for Demography was reconvened a few weeks ago to “encourage the Jewish women of Israel – and only them – to increase their child bearing, a project which, if we judge from the activity of the previous council, will also attempt to stop abortions,” the courageous Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, has exposed. This prestigious body, which comprises top Israeli gynecologists, public figures, lawyers, scientists and physicians, will mainly focus on how to increase the ratio of Jews to Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) in Israel. Issues such as “methods to increase the Jewish fertility rate and prevent abortions,” and “techniques to encourage abortions and reduce the birthrate among Arab women,” will be “at the center of the committee’s discussions,” according to Levy. [“Wombs in the Service of the State,” Ha’aretz, September 9, 2002]

Dissenting from the mainstream Israeli view, Evron argues that, “When we give up defining our national essence by religious criteria, and forcing conversion on people who are good Israeli citizens, and give up the effectively illegal preferences afforded to Jews, it will suddenly become apparent there is no need to worry about the ‘demographic threat’.”

Unfortunately, Evron is in a shrinking minority in Israel that still upholds such principled positions. In the diametrically opposite direction, several academic and professional initiatives have sprung lately in Israel to tackle the perilous Palestinian demographic “danger.”

Israel’s view of a part of its own citizenry as a “threat” has convinced Palestinian citizens of the state that they are not just on the margins, but altogether unwanted. Amir Makhoul, the General Director of Ittijah, the umbrella organization of 1948 Palestinian NGO’s in Israel, writes: “The state of Israel has become the most significant source of danger for the million Palestinians who are citizens of the state that was forced upon them in 1948; a state that was erected on the ruins of the Palestinian people … . The Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot defend themselves by relying on the legal system and the Knesset. This public has no trust in the state and its institutions, because the Israeli rules of the game enable only discrimination, racism and repression of collective aspirations.” [“Looking for a Different Framework of Legitimation,” Between the Lines, www.between-lines.org, March 2002] This bitter verdict further attests to the efficacy of Israel’s campaign to meet condition (A) mentioned above.

It is (B), however, where Israel has desperately needed all the “creativity” from its friends –of principle or convenience– around the world, the Arab world included. After all, ethnic cleansing of the enormity and duration practiced by Israel against the Palestinians in 1948, 1967 and beyond is unmistakably a flagrant contravention of international law. Preventing the resultant refugees from returning to their homes, as Israel has done since its creation, further compounds and aggravates the original crime. Consequently, Israel knew that it had to be held responsible and accountable one day. Being astute in the art of preemption, Israel never waited for that day to arrive, but started, immediately after its inception, marketing several arguments to forestall any just resolution of the refugees’ plight in the future.

By constantly referring to the Holocaust and to the “absolutely unique” circumstances created as a result of it, Israel has argued that, unlike any other country, it must preserve its Jewish character to be a safe haven for the world Jewry, the “super-victims” who are manifestly unsafe among the goyim. No other country in the world today can ever get away with a similarly overt, racist attitude about its right to ethnic purity.

But, if Jews in Europe and elsewhere have historically struggled against discrimination and for equal rights, a rational person might argue, what gives “their” state the right to practice the exact opposite of what they’ve preached. Moreover, while denying Palestinian refugees their right to return, many Israelis whose grandparents were German citizens, before their citizenship was stripped by the Nazis in 1941, are ironically exercising their right to return to Germany –granted by the German Government in 1949. “Nearly 2,000 Israelis applied for German citizenship [in 2001] and the number is expected to rise further again in 2002,” according to the German Foreign Ministry. [Reuters, printed in Ha’aretz, Monday, June 17, 2002]

Based on the above, Israel felt compelled to come up with more creative explanations for its rejectionist position vs. the Palestinian refugees.

The most potent argument Israel and its apologists have given to counter the compelling Palestinian quest for return is based on Israel’s sheer might. Israel’s uncontested control over virtually the entire territory of historic Palestine, added to its menacing military superiority in the region and its impunity from international censure –both religiously guaranteed by successive U.S governments– have convinced Israel that it can perpetuate the status-quo. Indeed, it may even be considered magnanimous of Israel to allow Palestinians to continue living on its hard-won land. So, for it to give back to the Palestinians a significant portion of the occupied West Bank and Gaza — as offered in Camp David II — it had to get something precious in return. Henry Kissinger alluded to that price when he advised the Israelis to insist on a “quid pro quo” that included “a formal renunciation of all future [Palestinian] claims.” That, he maintained, was “the essence of reasonableness to Americans and Israelis.” He further defined Israel’s ultimate objective as “a normality that ends claims and determines a permanent legal status.” [Henry Kissinger, The Peace Paradox, Washington Post, December 4, 2000] The main “claim” Kissinger was referring to was the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. This shift in the Zionist argument from a principled rejection of that right to a business-like proposal to ditch it in return for other goodies reflects Israel’s feeling of legal and moral — if not yet political — vulnerability on this accord.

To Israel’s misfortune, though, the second intifada has rekindled the flame of return among Palestinian refugees, forcing even the most “moderate” of Palestinian and Arab politicians –with some notable exceptions, like Sari Nusseibeh– to either avoid delving into the previously rampant “compromises” on the matter, or to give it lip service to avoid looking odd. After coming terribly close to convincing the Palestinian leadership to scrap, or at least circumvent, the right of return, Israel had now to reckon with the genie after its release from the lantern.

Needless to say, this development was not nicely received. A new wave of anti-return sentiment swept Zionists like never before. In their adamant and unmasked attacks on the right of return, Israeli politicians and intellectuals, even those self-proclaimed as “the left,” have revealed a degree of racism or ethnic exclusivity that made the far-right parties of Europe sound as humane as Mother Teresa. The crucial difference, however, is that in the case of Israel, the immorality is aggravated by the fact that, unlike the foreign immigrants to Europe, the “other” is in fact the original inhabitants of the land.

The percentage of refugees among Palestinians and their overwhelming insistence on exercising their right to return to their lands both make the issue of return the essential test of morality for anyone suggesting a just and enduring solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Needless to say, not everyone agrees. Even some of the well-intentioned and principled supporters of the Palestinian struggle against occupation have persistently advised them to drop that “dreamy” demand, in order to reduce the suffering of the refugees by delivering them from their miserable life in refugee camps, and to establish an independent state, which will emancipate millions of Palestinians from Israel’s heinous military occupation.

However, there are some patronizing underpinnings to this “reducing the suffering” principle. It implicitly assumes that those supporters know exactly what the oppressed are suffering from, and can even prescribe tools to assuage their suffering, without bothering to survey the refugees’ own opinions and thoughts. The principle of self-determination means above everything else the right of the oppressed to speak for themselves, to decide what exactly they are suffering from, and what their collective aspirations are to correct the injustice from which they’ve suffered. As the Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé jointly wrote in the Guardian [September 19, 2002], “Connecting the entire refugee community to issues that concern them so they can participate in shaping their destiny is the only way forward. Whatever compromises that will surely be considered can only be made by the people themselves, as these concern their basic rights – which every refugee is aware of.” No one, not even the Palestinian leadership, has a right or a mandate to speak or decide on their behalf, chiefly because the right of return is an “individual right” guaranteed by international law.

Furthermore, this principle of “reducing the suffering” entails that the oppressed have less than normal human needs, that their suffering can be defined in terms of lack of food and shelter and a little more. In essence, though, their (our) suffering, their longing to a dignified living in their homeland, cannot be reduced to a logical construct, nor a simple corporeal dimension, but is rather an amalgam of emotions, history, belonging, attaching moral significance to a place, social and psychological needs, …etc. This essence is largely ignored by this principle, as if not fitting into “their suffering,” but being the exclusive right of their sophisticated and civilized oppressors alone.

Finally, according to this principle, Palestinian refugees should accept any magnanimous offer from Western countries to resettle them in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (among others). By any reasonable yardstick, within a few years their standard of living will be elevated dramatically, and they will overall lead much better lives as far as food, shelter, even health and education are concerned. For that matter, and by the same token, any ethnic group which suffers from ethnic cleansing ought to opt for an escape into third countries, to reduce its suffering. The East Timorese should have just left their disaster-prone land and escaped to Australia, or any other country that could have welcomed them, rather than fight what seemed for many years as a lost cause. The Kurds in Turkey should just go West, rather than prolong their unbearable suffering at the hands of their Turkish oppressors. The same should have applied to the Algerians, the South Africans … and so on and so forth.

Moral and legal consistency, however, demands that we apply the same standards in addressing the Palestinian refugee problem as in similar situations around the world. One of the distinguished organizations that has maintained a consistent approach to all refugee problems was Human Rights Watch. During the most contentious period in the “negotiations” between Arafat and the Barak-Clinton alliance at Camp David II, it urged all parties “to uphold the right of return for Palestinian refugees as part of a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” insisting that individual refugees should be “permitted a free and informed choice.” Noting that the organization has defended the right of refugees to return to their homes in Bosnia, Chile, China, East Timor, Rwanda and Guatemala, among others, Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director, unequivocally declared “It is a right that persists even when sovereignty over the territory is contested, or has changed hands.”.

From all the above, Palestinians cannot just forget or forgive simply to mitigate some immediate aspects of their suffering. Little wonder the great majority of refugees, according to all recent polls, cling on to their right of return even more devotedly than ever before. This should not come as a surprise for our well-intentioned supporters.

Among the not so well-intentioned, the rejection of this right has been the clearest indication of the moral collapse of almost all shades of the official Israeli left. They simply joined the consensus herd. In the early stages of the current intifada, self-proclaimed peaceniks, including influential figures such as A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, upheld an unambiguous position on this matter in large advertisements placed in several newspapers saying, “We shall never be able to agree to the return of the refugees to within the borders of Israel, for the meaning of such a return would be the elimination of the State of Israel.” Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz party termed it “suicidal.” The relatively left-leaning former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, acknowledged some justice in the Palestinian demand for this right, but quickly offered the Palestinian leadership a sobering choice between two options: “justice or peace.” From Ben-Ami’s point of view, the two are mutually exclusive in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

University of Maryland scholar Jerome Segal also suggested controlling the “rate of returning refugees” so as to maintain “the character of Israel as a Jewish State.” In language reminiscent of passé racialist ideology, Segal also proposed making a distinction between older and younger refugees, the former being “less threatening,” mainly because they are “well past childbearing age.”

A more creative attempt was presented by Danny Rabinowitz, who suggested “dropping the definite article ‘the’ ” before the phrase “right of return” in order to sway that right from the “maximalist” interpretation that is demanded by international law. Talk about ingenuity!

Uri Avnery, a veteran peace activist, severely criticized the mainstream Israeli left’s position, especially as articulated by Yehoshua and Oz, and ridiculed the suggestion of the pioneering Israeli historian Benny Morris to allow only a “trickle” of refugees to return, which is blatantly inconsistent with his “important role in exposing the expulsion of 1948.” Avnery recognized this right as the “core of the Palestinian national ethos,” yet censured Barak for bringing it up, “kicking the sleeping lion in the ribs,” by insisting prematurely on “end of the conflict” language at Camp David. Proposing an “annual quota of 50,000 for ten years,” and keeping in mind Israel’s absorption of 50,000 Jewish immigrants a year, Avnery’s proposal was meant to preserve the “Jewish character” of the state and does not jeopardize “the demographic picture.” It is incumbent to note that even Avnery’s “generous” offer would require the large majority of Palestinian refugees to give up their right to return.

The most prominent non-Israeli to also flunk this morality test was former US President Bill Clinton. In a speech before the Israeli Policy Forum in 2000, Clinton reminded Israelis that their homeland is also the Palestinians’, but he rejected the refugees’ return to Israel, insisting that a future Palestinian state should absorb them instead. For otherwise, it “would undermine the very foundations of the Israeli state or the whole reason for creating the Palestinian state.” [My emphasis] This phrasing reveals one central purpose behind the US government’s willingness to establish a Palestinian state: to absorb the refugees in Israel’s stead, allowing the latter to maintain its Jewish majority, and to forsake any further “claims” against Israel, as Kissinger had stipulated.

Perhaps one of the most recent “creative” ideas on how to literally get around the problem comes from former US diplomat Robert Malley and former advisor to the Palestinian delegation to Camp David II, Hussein Agha, who admit that their primary objective is to avoid “calling into question Israel’s Jewish identity.” The way to do that is to convince the Palestinians that their original homes and lands “either no longer exist or are now inhabited by Jews.” Therefore, they had better accept to “return to the general area where they lived before 1948 … among people who share their habits, language, religion and culture — that is, among the current Arab citizens of Israel.” Then, according to this quintessence of creativity, “Israel would settle the refugees in its Arab-populated territory along the 1967 boundaries. Those areas would then be included in a land swap and end up as part of a new Palestinian state.” [“A Path to Peace,” Washington Post, April 28, 2002] If one were to ignore the not-so-innocent inaccuracies of the Malley-Agha assumptions their proposal would certainly hit two birds with one stone, as the Arabic saying goes. Actually, it would really be hitting three birds, not two, from an Israeli perspective:

1. Israel would trade relatively impoverished, heavily populated Palestinian lands in Israel for expropriated, prime real estate in the Jerusalem-Ramallah-Nablus axis –inside the 1967 occupied territories– where the most important illegal Jewish settlements are built.
2. The Palestinian refugees would be tricked into thinking that they’ve “carried out” their sacrosanct right of return, while effectively being led to waive their claims to their stolen lands and properties inside Israel.
3. A significant percentage of Palestinian citizens of Israel would be ethnically cleansed, or “statically transferred,” as one Israeli politician puts it. As Malley and Agha admit, “For Israelis, this solution would improve the demographic balance, since the number of Arab Israelis would diminish as a result of the land transfer.”

At the most fundamental level, what all the above moments of creativity have in common is their perception of the very existence of Palestinians on their own ancestral land as a “threat,” a “problem,” an “identity crisis,” or a “demographic bomb” for Israel’s Jewish population. In no other conflict in the world can any prominent academic or politician suggest anything close to the above instances of racism with impunity.

To be fair, however, there were many brave voices among Israelis who have countered the attempts to demonize the Palestinian right of return, which is regarded as a most basic human right in every other conflict.

“Palestinians are demanding what Jews are doing,” says Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/ Palestine Center for Research and Information, a Bethlehem-based independent think tank that develops public policy options. “What the Israelis will try to do as part of a negotiated agreement is to have Palestinians sign a statement that there will be no further claims.” Baskin admits, however, the difficult situation Israel is in, as he believes that if Israel accepts responsibility for the suffering of refugees and recognizes their right to return, it would be saying that it is an illegitimate state. [Jeffrey Ghannam, “Where Will They Go?”, American Bar Association website http://www.abanet.org/journal/dec00/frefug.html, December, 2000]

Even at the height of the intifada, in January 2001, a group of conscientious Israeli artists organized an exhibit where they presented their alternative vision to how this conflict may be settled. In their exhibit “manifesto,” they declared:

“If the state of Israel aspires to perceive itself as a democracy, it should abandon, once and for all, any legal and ideological foundation of religious, ethnic and demographic discrimination. … The State of Israel should strive to become the State of all its citizens. We call for annulment of all laws that make Israel an apartheid state, including the Jewish Law of Return in its present form. … [T]he Palestinian right to return, and the strive for peace must be anchored with a persistent attempt to redefine the local cultural-political community.” [Tamar Getter, Aim Deuelleluski, Roee Rosen, A Fifty Year Long Monologue, Artists Against Israel’s ‘Strong Hand’ Policy – An Exhibition , “Beit Ha’Am”, 13 January 2001]

But even on the extreme right of Israeli politics there are those who sometimes ask the right questions and raise the proper moral dilemmas, albeit only to reach a very immoral conclusion. Emuna Elon, a fanatic settler leader and wife of the former tourism minister and transferist Benny Elon, wrote in Yedioth Aharonoth:

“We reached this country worn down and weary, and hold onto it with the last of our strength, like a drowning man clutching a log … but if this log really belongs to another people, no tragedy, not risk of drowning, can justify its theft. If indeed we established our country in another people’s country, there can be no redemption for us. … If we invaded their national home,why should they agree to a ‘compromise’ in which we continue to live in their house while generously offering to ‘return’ their porch?” [Yuli Tamir, “The danger of seeing Netzarim as Tel Aviv,” Ha’aretz Monday, May 06, 2002]

Of course Elon is arguing in her own dramatic way that the land really belongs to no one other than the chosen people, and that if Israelis keep proposing withdrawal from the marginal Gaza-settlement of Netzarim, they should also be thinking of withdrawing from Haifa and Jaffa for the exact same reasons. It goes without saying that from Ms. Elon’s perspective the creative solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is not just to absolutely reject their return, but also to get rid of the rest of “the Arabs,” and keep them all out by the “power of the sword,” to borrow Sharon’s diction, for as long as it takes.

* Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian doctoral student of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He is also an electrical engineer and a dance choreographer. His articles have appeared in the Hartford Courant, Al-Ahram (Cairo), CounterPunch and Z magazine.

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