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The Palestinian Return and Right of Return—No Deal!

Thursday 3 July 2008, by Michel Warshavski

The following is a talk given by Michael Warschawski at The Haifa Conference for the Right of Return (June 20-21, 2008)

Before dealing with the topic of the Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return, I would like to say a few words following the interesting remarks of my friend Omar Barghouti on the issue of “one democratic state.” In my opinion, the core of our discussions should not be about solutions and models, but values and rights. In that perspective, one has to unequivocally reject the very idea (and existence) of a Jewish state, whatever will be its borders. For a Jewish state (in the demographic sense of the concept) necessarily implies the drive for exclusion and expulsion. Any ethnic (or confessional) state considers the non-dominant ethnicity as a threat, and aspires to its disappearance through more or less violent means. As former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have tragically shown, ethnic states are always both the cause and the result of mass-expulsions and massacres, and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-1949 is one among many examples of that historical phenomenon.

Our conception of democracy is based on a state of and for all its citizens (and refugees), with no discrimination based on ethnic, national or religious belonging, a state where all the cultural or national groups comprising its society are treated in an equal manner.

Ultimately, a Jewish state is also a tragedy for the Israeli Jews, as it implies a closed society, doomed to decline as all closed societies throughout history. The development of civilizations has always been the result of openness, inter-and multi-culturalism and exchange. Moreover, the drive to maintain the “ethnic purity” of its state renders the Israeli society a paranoid entity. Fighting the “Jewish State” conception and institutions is a duty, independent of the political structure of the solution we defend.

Let’s address the issue of the Right of Return, the core issue of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the last decade, a new approach to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees has been suggested, primarily by the Zionist Left. It is a sort of compromise based on the separation between the Right of Return and the actual return of refugees. According to this “compromise,” Israel will repent its sins of 1948 and formally recognize the Right of Return of the Refugees, and, in exchange, the Palestinians will renounce their Right of Return. What a deal!

This compromise is obviously unacceptable, including from a mere juridical point of view: the right of a refugee to return home is non-negotiable, individual and heritable, quite similar to property rights under capitalism. Neither the PLO nor the United Nations can bargain away the individual rights of the Palestinian refugees.

The immorality of a deal in which Israel will recognize a right in exchange for the renouncement by the victims to implement that right is so blatant that the US mediators have required a “symbolic implementation” (of a few thousand old people) that Israel will be able to describe as “humanitarian family reunification.”

But—and this is not less important—such a deal is not good for the Israelis either. The existence of the Palestinian refugees is the core factor in the Israeli mental disorder and neurosis of Israeli society’s collective psyche. Consciously or not, Israeli society is haunted by the ghosts of the Naqba, and the brutality—domestic violence as well as the violence directed toward its Arab surroundings—of Israeli behavior, is the result of a permanent fear. Not the fear of the Arab armies, nor the fear of the alleged Iranian nuclear armament, but the fear of the ghosts of 1948, the refugees.

Deals can work on diplomatic arrangements, but they will never work on the sub-conscious. This is precisely why the return of the Palestinian refugees—or their possibility to return, if they so wish—is the only way to liberate Israeli society from its structural anxiety, because only such a return—and not a fictional “recognition of the right of return without return”—will end the existence of the Palestinian refugee as a refugee. As long as there will be even one single refugee, Israeli society will continue to be haunted by guilt and fear.

To conclude, I have a practical suggestion. In order to be accepted as a member state in the United Nations, in 1949, Israel was required to endorse General Assembly Resolution 194, which recognizes the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and commits itself to the return of all “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours” (700,000 in total at the time), to its sovereign territory.

Israel accepted, was made a member state and immediately after announced it has no intention of implementing the UN resolution. The Palestinian national movement and the international solidarity movement should initiate a long-term campaign for the suspension of Israeli membership in the United Nations until Israel complies with its formal commitment concerning the return of the refugees. Such a campaign will again put the refugee issue in its legitimate place, at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the heart of its solution.

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