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A seemingly intractable point of contention in Palestinian Arab – Israeli negotiations is the claim of a sacrosanct “right of return,” the right of any Palestinian Arab to settle in Israel.
The claim is unrealizable because it defies the laws of physics and common sense. Here’s why.
In the 1930s and 1940s, many Palestinian Arabs farmed small plots as sharecroppers on plots owned by Arabs in Damascus or Beirut; others farmed communal lands registered to local sheikhs. Few had clear land ownership records. In 1949, many farmers fled to avoid the war or at the urging of Arab leaders; some were chased out by the Irgun or Hagana. In the 1950s, Israel assigned unused farmland in the north to remaining Arab families.
In the intervening 60 years, the population of displaced Palestinian Arabs has skyrocketed. This is partly because the United Nations provides welfare benefits to anyone descended from a single displaced Palestinian Arab, creating an incentive to identify as a “refugee” no matter what one’s circumstances. Most famously, Yasir Arafat claimed he was a Palestinian refugee from Jerusalem, when in fact he was born in Egypt while Israel was under British rule. Even Palestinian Arabs driving Mercedes and living in expansive homes enjoy a welfare package from the UN thanks to their status as permanent “refugees.”
The Palestinian Arab population explosion means that the four acres worked by farmer Ahmed in 1930 might have to be divided among his 60 descendants today, creating miniature plots too small to farm. As Fakhri Abu Diab, Director of Jerusalem’s Al-Bustan Center, noted in the context of the Jerusalem municipality’s restrictive building codes, “My parents had a house of 602 square feet. They had ten children, each of whom has married and had more children. Does the city really think that all of us can live in 602 square feet?” (Jerusalem Report, 30 March 2009, p. 13). (For reference, BEKI’s George G. Posener Daily Chapel is about 1,000 square feet.)
Farmer Ahmed might also find that another Israeli Arab family is already working “his” land, or that his former farmland is now a fish pond, highway interchange or shopping mall. In the past 60 years, Israel has become about as developed as Connecticut. The world has changed.
In short, “returning” to the family’s original farm or house is often physically impossible, or would mean displacing a new vast population of Israeli Arabs. The adherence to a “right of return” is akin to the notion of the resurrection of the dead, a religious view held deeply by many, including some Jewish sects. If there is bodily resurrection, what happens to people who had multiple spouses, missing body parts, or chronic pain? Are all the dead who once lived in my house coming home? Those who believe in resurrection in this literal sense have no answer, other than “our Mighty God can manage it.” That is fine for a matter of faith set to take place in the indefinite future, but not for a political program for which imminent implementation is sought.
If we agree that farmer Ahmed does not need to return to the exact plot he left, but will accept a substitute nearby, then why can’t “nearby” be in the Palestinian territories, which are only nine miles from Tel Aviv, three miles from Afula, or one mile from Jerusalem, or in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and Jordan, or the uninhabited contiguous tracts of northern Sinai? Why insist on settling in Israel?
The “right of return,” while deeply resonant in the hearts of those who feel dispossessed, is brought to the public forum specifically in order to deny Jews the very rights Palestinians demand for themselves. It seeks to displace Jews, who have every right to autonomy and safety in our small portion of historic Israel.
The majority of Palestinian Arabs are descendants of Bosnians, Armenians, Georgians and other Europeans who colonized during the 19th and 20th centuries, or Arabized Turks who came during the 300- year Ottoman (non-Arab) period immediately preceding British rule. This is a simple demographic fact, though not widely recognized. Many came during the time of Zionist development or British rule to enjoy the benefits of the economic growth that the Jews and British brought.
That is why so many Palestinian Arabs have Turkish, Egyptian and other foreign last names. That is why all of the cities and towns west of the Jordan River have original Hebrew, not Arabic, names. Even the name Palestine, imposed by the Romans to suppress Jewish identity, is not Arabic. Arabic doesn’t even have the letter “P.”
Those Arab families with the deepest roots in Palestine are descendants of the Arab conquerors. If conquest creates national autonomy rights, then the Israelis who “conquered” the land through population growth, immigration, development and defensive armed struggle must be declared the outright winners.
Connecticut was “white” well before Palestine was predominantly “Arab.” That is, Arab ethnicity came to dominate much of Palestine only in the past two hundred years. When Maimonides lived in Acco 850 years ago, French was the predominant language in Jerusalem.
None of this is to deligitimize Arab claims; after all, most of Israel’s Jewish population is descended from immigrants from Arab countries, Africa and Europe. The fact that my great-great-great grandfather Dov ben Ze’ev lived in northern Israel does not give me a “first come” claim over people who subsequently lived there. But the notion that Arabs are somehow more “native” than Jews is an historical absurdity. Yet it is a notion that underlies much of the writing of the European and American press, and that is held dearly by some Palestinian Arab proponents.
Nor does this detract from the valid claims of Palestinian Arabs to national autonomy in Palestine, civil rights in Israel, and human rights everywhere. It does, though, detract from the offensive and hostile claim of exclusive rights.
The population of the State of Israel (its citizens), not counting the territories, includes about 18% Palestinian Arabs. Israel has defined itself as a state that embraces, or at least tolerates, a large non-Jewish minority. However, since the early 1920s, no Jews have been permitted to live in the balance of Mandatory Palestine, that is, Jordan; and no Jews are tolerated in the Palestinian territories west of the Jordan (Gaza and the West Bank). There is a certain asymmetry, in which Palestinian Arabs demand the right to live among Jews but refuse to grant the reciprocal right in return. America is built on the ruins of native civilizations obliterated in genocidal conquest. I sympathize with Palestinian Arabs who, like whites in Connecticut, have enjoyed the fruits of their ancestors’ conquests, only to find the once-vanquished nation rising again. Like post-frontier Americans, Palestinian Arabs must face up to their own history and let Jews live on the Jewish reservation in peace.
If Americans can claim the right to regulate the migration of Mexicans into Texas and New Mexico, or any of the millions who in theory should have just as much right to live on these shores as the native born, then surely Israel, like any society, has a right to define itself and protect itself from inundation by larger surrounding ethnic groups.
Some “working groups” of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs have proposed that Palestinian Arabs can be mollified with some symbolic implementation of this “right of return.” Even the settler’s movement, in its plan to annex certain Palestinian populations and the land on which they reside, has acknowledged that “The State of Israel can digest an additional 4% [of Arab citizens] (out of 7.3 million) without a drastic impact on its Jewish character” (Adi Mintz, Nequda May 2006). Will the Palestinian Arabs then recognize the right of Jews to live anywhere in historic Palestine? Ultimately, peace and pragmatism must override theoretical claims of right by all parties.
Let the “right of return” mean the right of any Palestinian Arab to settle in the ample Palestinian-controlled territories. Once Palestinian Arabs reconcile to living in peace with Israelis, they will find that they have no better friends than their Israeli neighbors. Israel is eager to share agricultural, medical and other technology, offer a hundred thousand good jobs, and celebrate the uniqueness of each nation.