Monday, January 22, 2007

The illusion of Palestinian return

Samir al-Youssef is a brave man. He is a Palestinian who thinks his people ought to renounce their 'right of return'.

Last week Samir al-Youssef was talking about his new book. The title says it all: 'The Illusion of return'. He described how, growing up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, he and his classmates would be asked by the teacher where they saw themselves living in the future. "Jerusalem!" they responded dutifully, one by one. Until one lone voice piped up:"Paris!"

"Hong Kong!" said another, emboldened. "New York," said a third. From then on, the illusion of return to Jerusalem - a backwater which their grandparents had no interest in visiting, even at the time - was shattered.

For years, peacemaking efforts in the Arab-Israeli dispute have run aground against this particular Palestinian demand. Even so-called 'moderate' initiatives, such as the Saudi peace plan of 2002, carry the Palestinian 'right to return' in the small print. Only last week, the 'moderate' Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas made a stirring speech proclaiming that the Palestinians would never give up 'their right to return'.

Never mind whether the Palestinian 'right to return' has any basis in international law. To them, it is non-negotiable and sacrosanct. No Arab leader has dared renounce this central plank of their ideology. Of course, as far as Israel is concerned, the 'right of return' is a non-starter. To permit the refugees of 1948 and 1967 and their descendants to flood back into Israel would destroy the country and achieve by demographic means what the Arabs have failed to do militarily.

Though a whole industry exists to promote the Palestinian demand to return, al-Youssef knows that the Arabs have been building castles in the sand. What would the refugees come back to? Where would they all live? Al-Youssef's grandfather had a plot of land that could accommodate 10 people. But his descendants now number 100.

Let us not get too excited. Although Samir al-Youssef's realism gives hope, he is in a tiny minority of Palestinians (Sari Nusseibeh and Bassem Eid are the only others on record as saying that the 'right to return' is incompatible with a two-state solution). For breaking this taboo, Al-Youssef, who for the last six years has lived in England, has been called a traitor and a Zionist.

And from al-Youssef's realism, people could be led to draw the wrong conclusions. At the launch of al-Youssef's book someone in the audience asked the writer: "Is there not a symmetry between the Jews, who claim a right to return to a land they left 2,000 years ago, and the Palestinians? If the Palestinians renounce their right of return, should the Jews, logically, not be expected to renounce theirs to Israel?"

In fact, in 2002, 45 Jewish intellectuals in the UK did write a letter to the Guardian renouncing their right of citizenship in Israel. But there is no symmetry between the Jewish literati - comfortably and securely esconced in western society - and the great masses of desperate, destitute and persecuted Jewish refugees clamouring for a safe haven.

Tactfully, Samir al-Youssef's answer sidestepped the issue: what the Jews do with their right of return is their own affair.

If there is any symmetry, it ought to be between two sets and roughly similar numbers of Middle Eastern refugees - one set Palestinian, the other Jewish. The Jews expelled from Arab countries did not have the luxury of choice (neither, indeed, did Holocaust survivors, most Russians and Ethiopians). Not having the money or the connections to go elsewhere, the refugees welcomed the chance to rebuild their lives in Israel. And Israel welcomed them as citizens.

I called this blog 'Point of no return' because Jewish life in the Arab world is effectively over. Dead, deceased...is no more. The Iraqis stamped the passports of fleeing Jews ' one way - without return'. At the airports in Egypt they made the Jews sign a pledge that they would never return. And if the Jews could not return, why should the Palestinians? There is a rough justice to this particular exchange of populations.

Back in the 1970s, realising the inconsistency in their position, the PLO, Libya, Iraq and the Sudan all made declarations inviting the Jews who had left Arab countries to return. Some Jews had pleasant memories of their birthplace. But for those who remembered the knock in the middle of the night, the nagging fear and insecurity of living in a hostile environment, an invitation to return to an Arab country was a bad joke. Rebuilding their lives from scratch in Israel or the West was tough. But who in their right mind would wish to return to hell?

One Jew did return to Iraq. He appeared on Iraqi TV. Then he vanished, never to be heard from again. Even if Arab countries were suddenly to become paradise on earth, it is highly doubtful whether a single child or grandchild of Jewish refugees would go back.

If the Palestinian refugees want a 'right of return' it should be to a state of Palestine. Else, they should be absorbed into their host societies, with which the vast majority - who have never known Palestine - share a religion and language. They should be given rights which all states except Jordan deny them: the right of citizenship, jobs, the right to own property. The Palestinians should follow the example of the Jewish refugees and, like them, move on.



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