Behind the Headlines: Israeli Arab Leader Stirs Debate over Palestinian Right of Return
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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Arab Leader Stirs Debate over Palestinian Right of Return

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It is the one issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians that appears irreconcilable. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes in Israel they abandoned during the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War is different from the other topics slated to be discussed in the final-status negotiations because it seems to offer little promise of compromise.

All the other final status issues — including borders and the question of Palestinian statehood — are likely to be resolved.

Even the question of Jerusalem has its potential compromise: Members of the previous Labor government floated the idea of giving the Palestinians a capital in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis — and the Palestinian leadership was at the time apparently considering the idea.

But the question of the Palestinian right of return is something else altogether.

So when a member of an Israeli Arab delegation visiting Syria last week raised the issue, red lights flashed across Israel.

“I swear to you in Allah’s name that you will return to Palestine,” Knesset member Abdel Wahab Darawshe told 20,000 cheering Palestinians at the Al-Yarmuk refugee camp outside Damascus. “If not you, then your children and grandchildren.”

To make sure no one missed his point, he used the Arabic word for “return” — “awda” — three times.

Darawshe, who was a member of the Labor Party before he founded the Arab Democratic Party in 1988, is a seasoned politician: He knew the effect his comments would have on all Israeli Jews, regardless of their political persuasion.

Indeed, the reaction came swiftly.

Darawshe and the other 41 Israeli Arabs who visited Syria are “acting against the very existence of the Jewish state,” said Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, reflecting the fears of many Israelis.

Darawshe’s comments were also criticized by doves like Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin of Labor.

Even some Israeli Arabs joined the choir of criticism.

“Darawshe speaks in Damascus to please [Syrian President Hafez] Assad, when he is in Gaza he wants to please [Palestinian Authority leader Yasser] Arafat, and when in Tel Aviv he wants to please” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Lutfi Mash’ur, editor of the popular Arabic-language newspaper A-Sinara that is published in Nazareth.

Writer Salem Jubran took a similar stance, describing Darawshe’s speech as “political prostitution.”

Darawshe later sought to backtrack on his speech, explaining that his remarks actually referred to the right of Palestinians to move to an independent Palestinian state, once it is established.

With some 350,000 Palestinians living in Syria and a total of some 3.3 million refugees elsewhere in the Middle East and other Arab countries, it comes as no surprise that Israeli Jews do not accept the Palestinian right of return.

For days after Darawshe made his speech, the Israeli media would not let go of the issue.

“The criticisms would not have been that sharp, had not members of the delegation touched a very sensitive Israeli nerve — the issue of return,” columnist Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

“Whenever the Palestinians raise the issue, there is an Israeli sigh of relief: `Why, here lies the ultimate proof that the conflict has no solution. There is no one to talk to. They want Jaffa.'”

Whether used as a rallying call, or as nostalgia, the right of return has repeatedly been raised by Palestinian politicians, artists and the average person on the street.

Arafat has referred to the issue in many of his speeches.

Emil Habibi, one of the most popular Palestinian writers, wrote about it years ago in his book “The Opssimist” — a combination of optimist and pessimist, which is the way he describes Israel’s Arab population.

Mohammad Darwish, who is one of the Palestinians’ leading poets, has written love poems for the Palestine of his childhood.

“The Palestinians have never really given up on their right of return,” said Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Beshara of the Communist Hadash Party. “They have the right to dream.”

Journalist Jawdat Odeh, also a member of the delegation, got a chance to witness the emotions attached to that dream.

“You should have seen those people at the refugee camps,” said Odeh, who drove more than 200 miles from Damascus to the town of Homs so he could visit with family members he had never met.

“The entire camp came out to see me. They held on to me, they smelled me, as if they could smell the land through me. They asked me: `Why didn’t you bring with you some soil?’

“Yes, they want to come back,” Odeh added. “Most of them realize that it is not politically feasible to return to their homes, but they want to come back to the places they — or their parents — had left 50 years ago, at least for a visit.”

Professor Yossi Ginat of Haifa University, a former Arab affairs adviser to Israel’s premier, agrees with Odeh’s assessment.

According to Ginat, most Palestinian refugees have given up on their former homes and would prefer to stay where they are — although under better conditions — even if they were given the choice of returning.

Ginat based his conclusion on studies he has conducted in Palestinian refugee camps in the territories, as well as in Lebanon and Jordan.

The refugees are become rooted: They are building two- and three-story homes in the refugee camps and their children are marrying members of the local population, according to Ginat.

“No father will leave his daughter and his grandchildren behind to go to Palestine,” Ginat said in an interview. “Yes, the dream to come back exists, but the real dream is to turn the existing refugee camps into better homes.”

Even the Palestine Liberation Organization has been purchasing land near the refugee camps in Lebanon, because, according to Ginat, PLO officials also realize that this is the only workable long-term solution.

“One should draw a line between ideology and reality,” said Ginat. “It is difficult to change reality, therefore the Palestinians should change their ideology.”

A potential resolution to the right of return question would be for Israel to offer compensation to the refugees for the assets they lost.

But will the Palestinians sell their dream for money?

Past experience shows that they would not: In 1971, the Knesset passed a special law offering Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem compensation for real estate they owned in western Jerusalem prior to the 1948 war.

Few Arabs accepted the offer at the time. But if, as Ginat suggested, the Palestinians change their ideology, a future offer of compensation could elicit a far different response.

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