Return: sacred cow or dialogue?


The issue of the Palestinian right of return has been recently enriched by the polemic arising after comments by professor Sari Nusseibeh (the Palestinian diplomatic representative of Jerusalem) and spirited responses by scholar Salman Abu Sitta and Badil Resource Center’s Terry Rempel. An individual from the Al Awda Network even initiated a petition to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, demanding professor Nusseibeh’s dismissal from his post.

In this context, I would like to express some thoughts that do not necessarily fall within the rubric of one position or another, but are instead intended to stimulate more debate.

Before focusing on the core issues, I would first like to say that the importance of the right of return should not interfere with the intrinsic value of the right to free expression. Just as some within the Islamist movement discourse argue that some topics are not up for discussion due to prevent violation of “God’s Will” or the “contravention of the Koran,” a new fundamentalism, nationalist and secular, appears to be referring to a “national consensus” to silence the opinions of Sari Nusseibeh and others.

But what is this “national consensus?” Is it a consensus concerning the establishment of two states, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, or one secular state? Is it a consensus over the targeting of civilians during a national struggle? Or is it a consensus concerning the position of Palestinian refugees that await the implementation of their right of return?

Any new idea, whether valid or invalid, is often considered a break from the national consensus and thus paramount to treason. Ironically, the discourse of national consensus has historically not been consensual, but used instead as a tool for dominant forces to retain their positions. In the past, the gamut of national movements have had wide interpretations for the means to the end (and even the end) of struggle during the colonial period – in Algeria, in Bosnia and in Egypt. Even the Zionist movement itself had no “national consensus,” encompassing different political forces, through which some groups dominated over time and with self-representation.

Hence, the argument of the “national consensus” in this case is not sound. The Palestinian Authority should be proud to embrace those who do not agree with its global vision. Otherwise, dominant political forces in Palestine are in danger of establishing a one-party state like many throughout the Arab world.

There are, however, other reasons to take issue with professor Nusseibeh’s claims. He highlights two major issues: the concept of the right of return and the volume of the refugees who would exercise this right.

Regarding the first point, I fear that Nusseibeh did not adequately evaluate the centrality of the right of return, even in the framework of a two state solution. My position is that there are two dimensions to the right of return: symbolic and material. In order for Israel to recognize the Palestinian right of return, it must not only acknowledge the refugees’ rights but also redress the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s central role in the dispossession of Palestinians for the past 52 years. No matter whether the concluding solution to the conflict is one of two states or a bi-national state, the refugee issue cannot be considered secondary.

The current Intifada has uncovered the importance of the refugees, as they represent the social and political actors most unable to bear the impasse of the Oslo process begun in 1993. The Al Awda network has been the primary force in defining the issue of the right of return as essential to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Western and Arab public sphere. This network, composed of Palestinian Diaspora activists and supporters of Palestinian causes, has attempted to lobby Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for positions in favor of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This reflects a rare case of a Southern network undertaking the Herculean effort of influencing the policies of Northern organizations.

Beyond the moral and symbolic victory of realizing the right of return, this victory may be useful in creating the framework for providing refugees with the choice between remaining in their host countries, returning to their village of origin or coming to the political entity in the Palestinian Territories. This right is a necessity for those who have for half a century been forced to live as foreigners without basic civil rights, in miserable camps and in states that have not always embraced them with open arms. The right of return and the right of choice, however, do not only depend on Israel’s recognition, but also depend on the policies of Arab countries as the rights of the refugee population are addressed.

This leads us to the second point, concerning the volume of the population that might exercise the right of return. I find both Nusseibeh and Abu Sitta’s perspectives problematic in this regard. Both scholars assume the position that the implementation of the right of return will trigger the return of a huge number of refugees. While the former believes that such an influx would change the “character” of the Jewish state within the framework of a two-state solution, in my opinion, the latter has not adequately explored the potential sociology and implementation of the return once it is possible.

Thus, the question I pose as a necessary enrichment of the debate concerns the potential manifestation of the return. What pattern of return will be realized by what type of returnee? Will there be a literal mass of refugees rushing in simultaneously or the trickle of fragmented groups induced by factors greater than nationalism and identity and the experience of exile?

Before delving more deeply into such issues, I must highlight the importance of Abu Sitta’s work in opening the debate concerning geographic absorption in Israel. He demonstrates, after dividing Israel into three demographic areas (A, B and C) that the majority of Israeli Jews – or 68 percent of the population – is now concentrated in Area A, which makes up 8 percent of Israel. Area B is 6 percent of Israel and has a largely mixed population including another 10% of Israeli Jews. Abu Sitta’s seminal work has thus pointed out that the areas in and around the former Palestinian villages remained empty and unused and could readily absorb returning refugees.

But the ability to absorb the refugees should not be the only factor in determining return scenarios. Irish-Americans did not return to Ireland following the end of British colonialism, few Armenians returned to Armenia after its independence and a small number of Lebanese returned to their country of origin following the end of the civil war. In all these cases, there was not only ample capacity, but the political will for re-absorption. In general, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees data demonstrates that the number of refugees returning to their various countries of origin, once return is possible, is far less than the number choosing resettlement in the host country or repatriation to a third-party state.

Without going too much in depth, as a sociologist who has conducted comprehensive research on the analysis and economic sociology of this population, I believe that return is determined by many factors. Field work and studies conducted in 13 countries have not uncovered a homogenous population of 4 million refugees who would exercise their right of return, but in actuality a far smaller number. The exact percentage or number is impossible to give and the uncertainties of the results of the Oslo process and the possible reaction on the part of the Arab states would cause such a figure to vary tremendously, in any case.

Abu Sitta refers to polls conducted in some areas, particularly within the Palestinian territories, that demonstrate a refugee “consensus” in intending to return. In this regard, there exist some salient critiques of such polls, whether they be conducted by amateurs or highly professional research centers (including any research program based on questionnaires in Arab dictatorships). No matter how the question is presented, responses will obviously tend towards the expression of a political position that is influenced more by the continuation of a protracted conflict, disillusion and the prospect of defeat, rather than the subject’s actual intent.

Factors influencing the subject’s decisions range from the experience and memories of exile to his or her economic situation. If the question of their desire to return is posed only in conceptual terms, interviewees might get a 100 percent positive response to whether the refugees will return. If the question is narrowed, however, to include such social, economic and political factors, such as the prospect of returning to a village under Israeli sovereignty or one without guaranteed adequate employment or housing, the percentage might drop significantly.

Moreover, a Palestinian residing in Lebanon may not be able to determine his or her intention to return if the Lebanese position remains unclear. Will the Palestinians be literally thrown onto the border, as occurred in Libya, or will he or she be given the right of choice? A questionnaire may not be able to take into account the many possibilities. Research of an anthropological nature is preferable for understanding such issues.

If such factors often invalidate the methodology of polls and surveys then what of the methodology of empirical studies? Fours years ago, for example, I visited my family living in a Palestinian refugee camp in an Arab host country. My father refused to see photos I had taken in Haifa because, in his words, it was not “his Haifa.” Haifa was now an Israeli city, he declared, and was adamant that he could not return as long it remained under Israeli sovereignty.

The very next day, however, a Swiss journalist friend of mine interviewed my father and asked him if he would return to Haifa if it became possible. His discourse became quite suddenly ideological and elegant as he announced that, “as a Palestinian, like any other, I long to return no matter the conditions.”

Similarly, methodology is important. I was very surprised when I learned that in some cases, political actors were allowed to become involved in the collection of polling data, in particular surveying for a poll by the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. The poll results were that 95 percent of refugees declared that they intended to return. Considering my own father’s statements, that figure is not surprising and I do not mean to single out IPCRI here, as we are all struggling with difficult issues and circumstances. Instead, I want to suggest that it would benefit us all to discuss the setting of standards for the research at hand.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that it is highly unproductive to correlate the right of return with a mass return. Israeli public relations campaigns are working to convince the world of this very possibility in order to bolster Israel’s claim that return means the erasure of Israel through the destruction of the state’s demographic balance and its “Jewish character.” This perspective has been disseminated in many articles published in Western newspapers by well-known members of the so-called Israeli “peace camp,” including Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. Many responses to my lectures in Europe reveal this fear, not only in a public largely ignorant of the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also in those who already claim solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

I mention these issues for the specific reason of demonstrating the necessity of conducting better research in the area of Palestinian return migration. It is not sufficient to prove that return is legally enshrined in international human rights laws and humanitarian laws. We must also demonstrate that recognition of return is a necessity for regional security and, in some cases, a humanitarian necessity, as well. The latter would be determined by analyzing the individual right of choice of each individual of the refugee population.

A decade after Oslo, it has become apparent that Palestinian negotiators have reached an impasse and that the debate concerning refugee return and their rights should be opened to creative discussion outside of the “sacred” discourse. I would offer the work of Jan De Jong along these lines. In a special bulletin published by Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, PASSIA, at the beginning of the year, De Jong proposed an extension of the Palestinian territories to include the Galilee and some areas of the Negev in order to absorb portions of refugee populations (without denying the remainders’ right of return), a solution that resolves the Israeli fear of altering the character of the Jewish state. Whatever my opinion of his position, it certainly represented a creative response to the issue and one that sparked debate and created new discourse.

(De Jong went so far as to say that the Galilee communities should be annexed to a future Palestinian state, a proposal vehemently opposed by Palestinians inside Israel and one that I oppose for that very reason. At the same time, the spirit of his idea was included in the Taba talks, where Israel proposed giving up five percent of land within the 1948 borders to a Palestinian state, in exchange for 1967 land that it has appropriated with its illegal settlements. New ideas, even those that won’t work, can shake loose new possibilities.)

There are countless issues, such as the creation of socio- economic pre-return profiles that should be researched and studied in order to better prepare Palestinian negotiators. The importance of the relationship between refugees and their host countries cannot be overlooked, just as study of the function of kinship networks (in Israel and the Palestinian Territories) in encouraging and facilitating return would be of great value. We must also examine current and prospective return patterns, be they definitive or alternative, en masse or individual, chosen or sudden and unanticipated. Finally, we must also focus on essential demographic aspects, such as natural growth and out- migration.

The author expresses his gratitude to Omar Yassin for help editing this article.