Whose land is it anyway? – A journey into the heart of the matter

The Israeli town of Shefaram – in which four Arabs were quite recently (August 2005) killed on a bus by a crazed Israeli soldier – is situated about 3 miles away from the kibbutz where I was born. As small children we used to visit the town on school trips bewildered somewhat by the unknown different scenery. The inhabitants of the town-which has been in existence long before the creation of the State of Israel – were law-abiding and loyal citizens like the rest of the 1.4 millions Israel Arabs who are regarded by political commentators as one of the world’s most subservient and dormant ethnic group. Yet, the murderous Israeli soldier seems to represent many Israeli citizens who regard the Israeli Arabs as a "fifth Column" enemy which should be expelled and transported to other Arab countries.

The Israeli-Arab conflict seen by most historians and experts as inherent part of the circumstances whereby two different ethnic populations claim the right for the same territorial land. However, many commentators, especially the Israeli "new historians" see the establishment of the State of Israel as a watershed point where the conflict became centered upon the thousands of Palestinian refugees who were made homeless and dispossessed in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

My personal Journey into the root causes of the conflict has begun while reading Dr. Ghada karmi’s book – In Search of Fatima ((2002) alongside Jonathan Freedland’s book – Jacob’s Gift (2005) – which tells, in parts, the story of the birth of the State of Israel through the eyes of his great-great uncle. Though Mr Freedland’s book is diving into the history of my own people it left me rather untouched. It could be seen as a scholarly attempt highlighting the main two threads interwoven into the collective conscious of the Jewish people – the belief of being a unique and chosen people on one hand, and a deep-rooted sense of victimhood on the other.

In contrast, Dr Karmi’s book caused me a genuine pain by unfolding a forgotten past. I felt as if a mirror was held up to my face asking me to look truthfully at my own image which is inextricably interlinked with that of the Palestinian people. Indeed, I was there when Dr Karmi and her family had to flee their home in West Jerusalem in fear of my own compatriots. Like Ghada Karmi I was a small child when the 1947/8 Arab-Israeli war broke out, and for a number of days I felt a deep fear of the raged battle in the vicinity of my kibbutz. But when the sound of the gunfire died down I discovered that the three Arab villages nearby were razed to the ground and were left abandoned by their inhabitants who fled the horror of the fighting. In the aftermath, the almond groves and agricultural fields of these villages were confiscated by the State of Israel and were allocated to the neighbouring kibbutzim as well as to the local municipality which turned them to large housing estates for new Jewish immigrants.

My own parents emigrated to Israel in the early 30s in order to escape the ghetto mentality and create there a new social order. Yet, they instilled in me the two main ideas highlighted by Mr. Freedland’s book – namely, the Jewish people possess a unique right to the Land of Israel where they will cease to be the eternal victims of the Gentile (non-Jews). Looking back, it took me many years to realize that by trying to escape and resolve the past experience of victimization we made victims of another people – the Palestinians – who became refugees and prisoners on their own land. While Jewish people from all over the world are granted an automatic citizenship by the Israeli constitutional law of the "right of return", the Palestinians are not allowed to return to the land they inhabited for hundreds of years and are left imprisoned in refugee camps and walled territories in the West bank and Gaza.

The Palestinians that did not flee, or expelled by, the Israeli enemy -who amounts now to 20% of the population of Israel – are confined to small enclaves in the Northern Israel, or on the Green Line borders where they are considered as second class citizens with a limited access to jobs, education, the media, social services, public utilities and land ownership. As the Jewish author Susan Nathan, who has been living among an Israeli Arab community for a number of years, observed painfully – "It seems to me the height of irony, given our history, that the Jewish state has so little concern about the ghetto living it has forced the its Arab citizens" (The Other Side of Israel – 2005 p. 37). In reality, the Israeli Arabs are regarded by their host society as "those who are here, but practically not here" – groups which exists but has no public face, no independent entity, and no collective destiny, or acknowledged past and present. (David Grossman- Present Absentees, Hebrew 1992).

Ghada Karmi’s family, together with about 750,000 Palestinian refugees, left behind them about 400 villages – including 740,000 acres of agricultural land – 25,000 urban homes, 11 ,000 businesses, shops and workshops as well as many assets, bank deposits, and art treasures which became the property of the State of Israel under, the now defunct, The Custodian of Absentees Property (D. Grossman p.65).

The injustice of this is crying out and has become the crux of any permanent peace settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is incumbent upon the Israeli Government to issue an official announcement acknowledging the major responsibility of the state for the refugees problem as well as a declared commitment to resolve the intolerable situation by, possibly, a joint Israeli-Palestinian commission under the auspices of UN which will set out acceptable solutions for both sides. Such an official declaration will go a long way to establish a mutual trust between the two sides and help revive the Roadmap to Peace which ought to be revised to include a well-defined schedule for an unconditional staged withdrawal of the Israeli military and settlements ( a total withdrawal of the Israeli forces beyond the "green line" will be inevitably followed by a voluntary evacuation of the unguarded Jewish settlements in the Occupied territories – as was pointed out by a number of commentators). The Arab League, which so far has not been brought into the peace negotiation process, ought to join the Quartet as a signatory to the re-invigorated Roadmap II that needs to be ratified by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps only then will the peace process start in earnest recognizing the Palestinians as an equal partner in the negotiations. Thus, eradicating one of the major causes cited by Muslim extremists for their radical actions against the West which is seen to be oblivious to the plight of the Palestinian people for many decades.