By the Rivers of Babylon

The Palestine refugees’ right of return is based on international law and supported by UN Resolution 194, which is reaffirmed every year by the UN General Assembly.

In the hallowed halls of the Two-State negotiators, return of the exiles to what is planned as the permanently rubber-stamped State of Israel has long ago been written off as a lost cause. Along with Jerusalem, it is seen as something which will at best involve a symbolic gesture. PA spokesman Saeb Erekat put his demand on the table for the return of 10,000 per year over 15 years. Israel’s response was 1,000 a year over 10 years. So these are the parameters to be expected within the Two State’s Final Status bargain: out of the estimated 5 million refugees and their families, the most that could come home would be 3%, and the least would be 0.2%. The rest would be forced to  sell their heritage for cash.

Israel’s propagandists like to take a lofty view of the matter, treating significant (let alone substantial or complete) return as an extreme, unreasonable and impossible position. This is not because of lack of space (see below) or the difficulty of absorbing so many incomers.

Unlike many countries currently trying to ration immigration and asylum, Israel has ministries, officials, facilities, funds, projects, financial inducements and free “taster” holidays all dedicated to enticing more immigrants, and even converting them to Judaism. They actually have empty housing standing waiting for immigrants. Just as long as they are the right sort.

Jews once sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept “when they remembered Zion”. Today, Israel views as perverse the Palestinians’ reluctance to assimilate into their lands of exile. And it claims that permanent banishment is actually the exiles’ preference, only prevented by the host countries’ refusal to solve the “problem” by granting them citizenship.

This argument was effectively dismissed by a study conducted by Oxford University’s Nuffield College with Civitas in 2005, which found that the overwhelming majority still stood by their hope and intention to return home at the first opportunity: to live, to visit, or at the very least to be buried.

One Democracy is the only outcome that will do justice to these people’s right of return.

Wanted: “Space In Our Hearts”

Most people think that the return is a forlorn hope because of “facts on the ground”, assuming that someone else is now living in their homes and it would be unreasonable to make them leave. In fact few, if any, One Democracy advocates support turning anyone from their homes (as this site states: “no evictions”). And in practice this is not an issue of facts on the ground. The intransigence on the issue is not to do with practicality or evictions, but the determination to maintain a Jewish voting majority.

Some 800,000 refugees fled in 1948, and up to another 200,000 in 1967. Laws were immediately enacted forbidding their return and confiscating their property. Most of it is not owned individually nor even by the State of Israel, but was handed to the Jewish National Fund and WZO to own in trust in case Jews from around the world wished to exercise their “right of return”. The villages were bulldozed, and much of the land was turned into national parks, picnic sites and forests.

Palestinian geographer Salman Abu-Sitta, author of extensive analyses of the country’s geography and demography shows that the areas from which the majority of Palestinians originated are now inhabited by “only 1.5% of the Israeli population …  while 90% of former Palestinian village sites are still vacant today”. Rural resettlement would not need to displace Israelis. In the main towns, too, there was sufficient building land for Palestinians to re-settle in new homes without having to move or evict any Israelis, “thus allowing returnees to live in harmony with the present Jewish inhabitants”.

While Israel has poured resources into the colonising settlements in the West Bank, large habitable areas of Galilee and the Negev remain sparse and undeveloped. As Nahum Pachnik of the Yerushalom movement says, there’s plenty of space in the land, but there’s hasn’t been “space in our hearts”.


The Israeli “remembrance” organisation Zochrot has been keeping an archive of Palestinian oral history, way of life, and remembered stories from the hundreds of villages and towns that were wiped off the map after their people fled Israeli militias in 1948.

Zochrot send speakers round Israeli schools and colleges, organise trips to the sites of these villages, and place signposts and road signs to mark where they once stood. It’s all filmed and posted up on YouTube, so everyone (including the exiles themselves) can see it and be part of the action.

Their participants include Israelis together with those refugees who fled their villages but stayed within what was to become Israel: they too, classed in Rumsfeld-speak as “present absentees” though living within post-’48 Israel, were not permitted to reclaim their homes, farms, orchards and grazing lands. And a whole way of life has gone.

The March Home

Zochrot founder Eitan Bronstein wrote of the “Nakba” law which penalises remembrance:

The Nakba law is intended to frighten everyone who wishes to commemorate the human and political tragedy that occurred in 1948, in which the Zionists expelled most of the Palestinian inhabitants of the country, and the state of Israel destroyed most of the localities in which they lived. 

Those proposing the law hope to mobilize Zionist patriotism by threatening to forbid commemorating Independence Day as a day of mourning

They are blind, of course, to the historical context, and the development of that tradition among the displaced Palestinians who remained in Israeli territory.  Arab localities in Israel were ruled by a military government until 1966 and Palestinian citizens were forbidden to travel “beyond the pale” without a permit from the military governor. 

On Independence Day all the residents had a vacation, even the Arabs!  The most important place for them to visit was the one where they had lived, to which they were forbidden to return.  As the years went by, and they understood that the Jewish state would never allow them to return home, this event took on a national-political aspect, and in recent years it is celebrated with a “March home” to the remains of one of the localities captured during the nakba.  “Their independence; our Nakba,” became the main slogan of these events.

The government intends to impose economic sanctions on the organizers of these important commemorations, which will only increase the discrimination suffered by Palestinian citizens of Israel. The economic sanctions contradict the state’s obligation to the welfare of all its citizens, regardless of their political beliefs or national identity. 

In recent years, a growing number of Jews have participated in the return marches to Palestinian localities which Israel captured during the Nakba, and support for the right of return is increasing.  These Jews recognise that the 1948 tragedy is part of their own history.  The participation of Jews in events commemorating the Nakba undermines the effort, which is as old as Zionism itself, to bring about confrontation and schism between Arabs and Jews in the country.

It may not come as a surprise that in this difficult time for Israeli public relations efforts, the government disseminates absurd “facts” about the Palestinian refugees.  For example, that they numbered only 320,000, not approximately 800,000, as a result of the Nakba, while 150,000 “were absorbed in Arab countries” and 50,000 “ returned to their countries.”  Such new-speak insults the intelligence of many Israelis, who have known for a long time that the official government explanations for the events of 1948 are intentional lies.

Hundreds of Israelis contact Zochrot every year.  Educators, students, journalists, directors and others request long-concealed information about what happened just outside the house where they were born.  The editor of the most comprehensive web site about the Nakba, reports that the number of Israelis entering the site is second only to the number of Palestinians.  These are dramatic developments which no law that tries to compel people to forget the Nakba will be able to stop.

The Nakba is increasingly present in Israeli cultural production, no longer ignored by best-selling books and films by young directors.  Even architects are beginning to show signs of addressing the traditions of local Palestinian architecture.

Despite these positive signs, it is impossible to underestimate the danger presented by the strengthening of anti-democratic currents in Israel.  The present government is acting to greatly restrict the freedom of civil society to negotiate with the regime over the most controversial topics.  Arbitrary arrests, outrageous investigations and draconian legislation are what you find in the toolbox of a government which knows that its survival depends on creating an “iron wall” that, for now, protects the Israeli colonial regime.

A Plan for Return

Zochrot conference 2008 worked out plans for return in detail. Here are some of their ideas. See Documents for the full text.

Each refugee and his or her descendants should have a right to choose among alternatives: returning to their former home (or nearby, if it no longer exists), receiving compensation, or resettlement in the original locality or elsewhere.

When exiles were asked whether they wanted to return to Israel, the assumption was that Israel would remain a Jewish state, and many answered “no.”  We, on the other hand, propose to survey both Israelis and Palestinians on the assumption that the return will be implemented and that members of both groups will live together in full civic equality. 

Priorities should be based on age (i.e. the first generation that left), on circumstance (Lebanese are in the worst situation) and on preserving communities: either pre-’48 communities or those established since. Gradual return will help re-settlement and reassure Jews against a sudden influx and eviction

Current residents should be guaranteed against being forcibly evicted from the homes in which they live. They will be given the opportunity to leave in return for appropriate compensation, but under no circumstances will they be compelled to do so. During the return, and in hope of encouraging reconciliation, it is worth offering incentives so that both sides will be willing to make “painful concessions.”  For example, Jews who relinquish their property to returning refugees would receive appropriate compensation and public recognition, as would Palestinians who relinquish their claim in favor of the current occupants. Many refugees may not wish to return to Palestine, but they may want to be buried here. This return does not require a very great investment, but its symbolic  importance is great.  Similarly, refugees living abroad will forever have an unlimited right to visit.

Zochrot is an NGO whose goal is to introduce the Palestinian Nakba to the Israeli‑Jewish public, to express the Nakba in Hebrew, to enable a place for the Nakba in the language and in the environment. One of the basic assumptions of our work is that the Nakba is the ‘ground zero’ of the Israeli‑Palestine conflict. Awareness and recognition of the Nakba by Jewish‑Israeli people, and taking responsibility for this tragedy, are essential to ending the struggle and starting a process of reconciliation between the people of Palestine‑Israel

Nearly ten years ago …

Israel Shamir wrote: In a representative state, the return of Palestinian refugees does not have to be traumatic. If the refugees from Deheishe were to return to Sataf and Suba, it would be a short ten-mile relocation. If the peasants of Deir Yassin come back to their ancient homes, nobody will suffer. The peasants of Sheich Munis will have to settle for hefty compensation, at the expense of Tel Aviv University, which is built on their land. Maybe they will use their compensation money to build new houses next to the university, or just buy flats in Ramat Aviv Gimel.

So what are we waiting for?


Other links:  —  site for the Palestine Land Society: comprehensive, scholarly, a mine of information, maps, histories, speeches, videos, largely drawing on the work of Dr. Salman Abu Sitta All the above, and details also of all refugee camps, pictures, location, statistics etc, plus Nakba oral history project


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