As the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement seems quite distant at the moment, what with Israel’s last conflict in Lebanon with Hizbullah, Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, and recently holding a conference on Holocaust denial and pursuing its Nuclear programme in spite of UN sanctions imposed against it. Hamas gaining more power in Palestinian politics, maintaining their objective of the destruction of the State of Israel therefore not recognising Israel’s right to exist and not a legitimate partner to peace, and Israeli opinion polls not very faithful in its leadership to lead it through a likely next round of fighting with Hizbullah and the possibility of an attempt to take out Irans Nuclear program. Peace not being particularly promising, I would like to talk about final status negotiations.
Various solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have consisted of the vision of two states living side by side, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish state would comprise of Israel’s pre 1967 borders (with possible modifications) and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The issue of Jerusalem is one area of dispute on whether the city should be divided, shared or come to some other arrangement. The issue that I want to look at is the Palestinian claim for their ‘right of return.’ That the Palestinians who lived within Israel’s borders pre 1948 that have been displaced in refugee camps since then may return to live in their homes in Israel
Is this a legitimate claim?
It is a term that most Israelis and Jews reject, as it would mean political suicide. The Arabs in Israel already have a higher birth rate and taking in thousands more, will almost certainly affect the demography of the Jewish/non-Jewish ratio of Israel’s population.
But lets just for a minute assume that Israel did agree to some of these Palestinian Arabs to return to Haifa for example. What should be the solution to the issue of the Jewish settlers on the West Bank?
First lets remember that 20% of Israel’s population is not Jewish. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that approximately 2.25 million Palestinians lived in the West Bank (excluding Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem) at the end of 2006. And that there are roughly 260,000 Israeli settlers living on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Constituting just under 15% of the total population of the west bank.
Not all the settlements on the West Bank are the strategic settlements which were encouraged after the 6 day war, as the Israelis felt that after the six day war that the pre ’67 borders were not secure, in fact Abba Eban, Israels former Foreign minister called these boarders the “Auschwitz borders.” Not only security settlements, but religious settlements emerged where religious Zionists felt that this was a part of God’s plan in bringing about the redemption of the land and that Jews have a religious obligation to settle it and bring about the coming of the Messiah. These are the common reasons that people know regarding the settlers motivations for settling on this land but there are some other cases that are not mentioned as often.
There have been Jewish communities living around Jewish holy sites on the West bank continuously for thousands of years, particularly in the city of Hebron which is where the Cave of the Patriarchs is situated. This was the Jewish capital city before King David united the Northern and Southern Kingdom and moved the capital to Jerusalem. Prior to the 1929 Palestine riots, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in the city. In Nablus/Shechem sits Josephs grave, Ramallah is located close to the biblical Bethel, the location where Jacob had his divine revelation dream in Genesis. Jews lived here up until 1948 when the land came under Jordanian occupation, where Jews were no longer allowed to live or enter on the land and were massacred in Hebron and driven out. In 1929, Arabs killed 67 Jews and wounded 60 and Jewish homes and Synagogues were ransacked in the anti-Jewish 1929 Hebron massacre. Two years later, 35 families moved back into the ruins of the Jewish quarter, but after further riots, the British Government decided to move all Jews out of Hebron “to prevent another massacre.”
In this period of history, there were Jews forced out or who fled from land that would fall under Arab rule after the British left and there were Arabs living on land that would fall under Jewish control that also fled or were displaced. There is one difference with the two scenarios. Israel in its declaration of Independence reached out to its non Jewish population and offered them the opportunity to be a part of the new state, or if they wished to they would be free to leave. Many Arab settlements on the road to Jerusalem were destroyed during Israel’s War of Independence, due to being faced with hostilities by their inhabitants when Israeli forces made their way to Jerusalem which was at the time to be an internationally controlled zone with the road linking Israel to the city. Not all the Arab settlements were destroyed, a prime example is the settlement of Abu Gosh, which was not destroyed for not attacking Israeli forces and as a result still exists today. On the West Bank, where east Jerusalem and the Old City fell into the hands of the Jordanians, Millennia old Jewish gravestones on the Mount of Olives were used for the construction of roads and the Jewish quarter of the old city was destroyed, only to be rebuilt after Israel had conquered the city in 1967.
On the part of the Arab states contribution to this conflict, around 750,000 Jews who had lived for centuries in Arab lands arrived in Israel who had been expelled, forced to leave their property behind and leave only with what they could carry on their backs. Some came voluntarily because of the establishment of the state of Israel, however the majority left due to anti-Jewish riots as a result of the conflict in Israel.
Israel’s population more than doubled from having a population of around 600,000 to absorb displaced Mizrachi Jews in the early 50s when the building of the country still very much needed to be done, and struggled to accommodate them as well as they would have liked to, forcing many to live in transit camps. It is this point which is widely overlooked, as more Jews became refugees as a result of the same conflict than Arabs yet the state of Israel solved the problem of the Jewish refugees by absorbing them into Israeli society and today they and their descendants are not living in Refugee camps like their Palestinian counter parts.
If Israel had not absorbed them then there would be millions of Jewish refugees still in transit camps today. Israel cannot be held fully responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem, with the amount of money that the Palestinian authority has received in aid from the Arab world, the USA, the European countries and even from Israel the refugees could have been re-housed in the West Bank, like the Jews who fled Arab lands and the West bank were in Israel.
The Palestinian objectives of the peace process is that they have their own state, that the Jewish settlements be destroyed and that the Israelis withdraw from the territories, their capital be established in East Jerusalem and that the Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel. So this would mean that Israel would have an even larger Arab population than it already has and that the Palestinian state would have presumably no Jewish population at all. If it is conducted in any way similar to the way the evacuation of the Jews in Gaza was, it would mean that we would be taking part in ethnically cleansing the West Bank of Jews, on behalf of the Palestinian leadership.
Is there not another option?
If 20% of Israels population can be Israeli Arabs, why can’t 15% of Palestine’s population be Palestinian Jews? Why cant the settlers be given a choice, that Israel is withdrawing and they will no longer be under their protection, and that they will be able to remain where they are but must accept that they are under Palestinian rule now, and that the Palestinians must ensure the safety of its Jewish population just like any other country in the world has a responsibility to safeguard the welfare of its minority populations.
Many of the settlers may not accept this, and insist that the land be under Jewish rule, we are not speaking about the Jewish right to Rule the land, but the Jewish right to live on the land. From a non political Zionist perspective, this land is considered holy to Judaism, and although the Jewish state may no longer rule over it, Jews have always had a desire to live by these sites, in the same way that Christian communities choose to live in Israel in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as they are places that are important to Christianity, irrespective of the fact that Israel and Palestine are not Christian.
If any claim for the Palestinian right of return is to be taken the least bit seriously it must be confronted with the issue of compensation for the expelled Arab Jews in 1948 and the Jewish right to be Palestinian Jews. Denial of these claims only demonstrates the Palestinian aim of creating a state completely free of any Jews residing within it. Whether Israel agrees to Palestinian refugees returning or not, doesn’t change the fact that even today 20% of its population is not Jewish and there are Arab ministers represented in the Israeli Knesset.
The history of Palestinian terror goes back a long way before Israel’s establishment, where former Palestinian Leader Haj-Amin Al-Husseini or the Mufti of Jerusalem had a very strong connection with Adolf Hitler and sought to eliminate the Jewish population of Palestine. In many ways the Palestinian leadership has sought to ethnically cleanse its land of Jews either through force or under our noses through negotiating their deportations. Whilst we sit back and accept that it is ok to deny someone who has lived somewhere their whole life to live where they wish to because they are Jews. Diaspora Jews live in various different countries and are protected by their host nations. They are not forced to leave against their will because they are not protected by Israel.
And after all this, the Zionism = Racism discussion still prevails, whilst there is a failure to see the inherent Racism behind the Palestinian Leaderships agenda.
The Palestinians may have a right to a state of their own, as do we believe we have a right to our own state, but we also have a right to live by our holy sites as Palestinian Jews as do they in the state of Israel as Israeli Muslims or Christians.