Bassem Eid v Ali Abunimah

The Palestinian Right of Return was considered 28 March 2007 at the Doha Debates, a public forum for dialogue and freedom of speech in Qatar. Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member and Chairman of the Meretz-Yachad party, and Bassem Eid, of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group, argued for the motion that “the Palestinians should give up their full right of return.” Ali Abunimah, cofounder of The Electronic Intifada and the son of Palestinian refugees, and Israeli academic Ilan Pappe challenged the motion, which was rejected by almost 82 percent of the audience. The Debate will be broadcast on BBC World on the 14th and 15th of April. The following is an email exchange between Bassem Eid and Ali Abunimah published on the Guardian’s Comment is free blog.

Bassem to Ali:

Bassem Eid (PHRMG)

It was a pleasure meeting you at last week’s Doha Debate on the Palestinian right of return. I think that both of us are in very interesting positions to discuss this issue as we are both refugees, but neither of us changed the other’s beliefs. My belief is that building peace between enemies needs painful compromise.

In 1947, the Palestinians rejected the UN Partition plan for the division of our country and after that, Israel reoccupied us in 1967. Even though the Oslo accord didn’t guarantee the future foundation of the Palestinian State, on 13 September 1993 Yasser Arafat signed a peace accord with Israel but the right of return for the Palestinian refugees became an obstacle to any potential peace plan.

Since the UN resolution 194 of 1948 until today, nothing has changed. Regardless of propaganda or enthusiastic declarations by Palestinian leaders entering refugee camps in Syria or Lebanon, nothing has changed.

I believe that the foundation of a nation state that has struggled with occupation for more than 40 years will only be achieved if some rights are abandoned. If the International Community won’t guarantee the right of return for the Palestinian Refugees then what is the Palestinian guarantee for this right?

Ali to Bassem:

Basically you are admitting that despite the concessions the Palestinians granted to the colonial movement that dispossessed and occupied them, Israel has given them nothing. Therefore, Palestinians should make even greater concessions in the hope that the coloniser will finally take pity on them.

This country has proven unpartitionable and yet people who insist on Jewish supremacy are trying to find a Bantustan solution that will absolve Israel of giving political rights to the five million plus Palestinians it rules, while maintaining the fiction that it is a “Jewish democracy”. This racist state can only maintain this fiction by insisting on the exclusion of millions more Palestinians and their descendants forced out of their homes.

The only viable solution is to end this structure of racism and to allow all people who live in Palestine-Israel to live in peace and democracy

The only viable solution is to end this structure of racism and to allow all people who live in Palestine-Israel to live in peace and democracy. This will not be easy, but it will be better than the apartheid that exists now. Our willingness to respect the right of return is a measure of whether we consider all the humans who call Palestine-Israel home to be equal.

There are racist arguments that the Palestinians are incapable of living in peace with Jews, but history belies this. Palestinians want peace, and that means ending the occupation, ending racist discrimination against Palestinians inside the 1949 ceasefire lines, and ending the forced exile of refugees who want to return and live in peace with their neighbours. That is the key to peace.

As Professor Ilan Pappe put it so eloquently at the Doha Debate, no people should have to choose between military occupation and forced exile. The Palestinians are being asked to make this choice for the sake of preserving the racist state that oppresses them. It’s no wonder you lost the debate by such a massive margin. [In a vote almost 82 percent of the audience rejected the motion: “This House believes the Palestinians should give up their full right of return.” — Ed.]

Bassem to Ali:

We are losing time in not doing what it is necessary to reach peace. Yes, we may be losing property but when compared to people losing their lives the choice seems clear.

Remember that when President Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979 he got back all of his country’s land from the Israelis, without shedding any blood. This is a real peace. Arafat rejected Sadat’s offer to join him in Israel but imagine if he had accepted. Think how many settlements would never have been created in the occupied territories and think that Palestine could have been established all that time ago.

I want to move forward and to look to our children’s future. In my opinion, history should be dismissed and people like us should look ahead.

Palestinian leaders continue to demand that Israel remove more than 160 checkpoints in the occupied territories, evacuate so-called “the illegal settlements”, allow Palestinian workers to enter Israel to work, and demolish the wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis (and other Palestinians). But to what end? After the last six years of Intifada, we Palestinians have lost so much — not least more than 4,000 of our people killed by the Israelis.

Consider also that since Israel left Gaza in September of 2005, the Palestinians have created chaos. So who will make this right of return applicable? In January 2007 there were 17 Palestinians killed by Israelis, but there were 35 Palestinians killed by Palestinians, so, right or return of right to live?

Ali Abunimah (

Ali to Bassem:

What’s most notable about your reasoning (if one can call it that) is that you equate the occupier with the occupied, the settler with the dispossessed. Well, you should never forget that your occupier does not view you even as entirely human, let alone equal. As a Palestinian in the West Bank, you have no right, legally or morally, to try to trade the rights of your fellow Palestinians in exile for slightly better conditions from your jailers.

There’s no evidence Israel is interested in giving you a state: it continues to invest billions in new Jew-only colonies up and down the West Bank. As you know, only one-third of Palestinians live in the West Bank. Since 1993, PLO leaders have tried to sell out the majority of Palestinians in order to try to achieve a little tinpot statelet for them to rule over in the West Bank.

The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is only one face of Israeli racism and colonialism. Instead of trying to sell out your Palestinian sisters and brothers who live as third-class citizens inside Israel, or as refugees in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan or Canada, you ought to be standing in solidarity with all Palestinians.

Bassem to Ali:

I really don’t want to go move away from the subject and discuss the issues you mention in your last email. Let us go back to the issue of the right of return.

Three years ago, I went to visit the Palestinian village of Qariut, located between Ramalla and Nablus. The Israeli occupation confiscated their land and established a settlement called Eli. When I left the people in Qariut I asked them once specific question: if the Israelis were to evacuate Eli settlements tomorrow, would you agree to give the land and the houses for your brothers, the refugees? And nobody agreed …

So, if even the Palestinians are not willing to accept this right of return, how can we expect Israelis will do it?

For the lack of the common ground, we are loosing, land, property and lives

All of the peace accords and initiatives since 1993 talk about the return of the Palestinian refugees to the Palestinian state, and all of these peace accords and initiatives got the blessing of the Palestinian leaders, but all of these initiatives have been rejected by the Palestinians refugees themselves. There is no common ground or status between the Palestinian refugees and their leaders. And for the lack of the common ground, we are loosing, land, property and lives.

Ali to Bassem:

You are talking about settler colonialism and racism as if they are lifestyle choices that we are bound to respect and accommodate ourselves to. The reason the settlers do not want to give up the land is because (a) they believe they have special and better rights than the Palestinians and (b) because they do not have to; they have the power.

There is an obvious analogy to apartheid South Africa. As long as whites did not have to give up power and recognise the rights of the majority, they did not. It was only because of internal pressure, as well as the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Instead of advocating that Palestinians abandon more of their human rights in order to appease racist settlers, you should be supporting the call made by hundreds of Palestinian organisations to support the international academic and cultural boycott of Israel. I believe strongly in peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But peace can only be based on justice and full equality. Can you imagine if Mandela had adopted your sort of reasoning?

Bassem to Ali:

I would like to say that racism, extremism and corruption are spreading around the world so these reasons make no sense for the right of return. I would never support a boycott because it is not an effective measure. I believe that South Africa is a totally different place with a different catastrophe at that time.

The cause of the Palestinian refugees is precisely Arab countries

We have to remember that the cause of the Palestinian refugees is precisely Arab countries. They opened their borders for the Palestinian refugees during the war of 1948, and these Arab countries today like Syria and Lebanon, are using these Palestinian refugees for their own confrontation with Israel. So these refugees have become a strong card to play for the Arab regimes. This is racism and also corruption. So, if you are seeking justice and equality in Israel-Palestine, please ask for justice and equality for the Palestinian refugees in the Arab countries where they have been living for more years than the settlers in the occupied territories.

Ali to Bassem:

As you know, the largest number of Palestinian refugees have lived under Israeli military tyranny since 1967. So while you can fault Arab states for how some of them have treated Palestinian refugees, it is Israel’s treatment of them which is by far the worst. And of course it is Israel that uses them politically. By denying them their fundamental human right to live in equality and dignity within their country, Israel hopes to maintain an illegitimate racist ethnic state and stave off democracy.

I have been to refugee camps in Lebanon, as well as Jordan, and of course I join you in calling for proper treatment of refugees in all countries. But none of this absolves Israel of its responsibility for expelling the refugees and keeping them out. Your argument is very weak Bassem. It seems to boil down to this: “Israel is strong so we should appease it and give up our struggle. The Arab states are bad and corrupt, so we should turn a blind eye to Israel’s crimes.” But Palestinians have the right to fight for justice for their own country. Israel is the last settler colonial state supported by Western power and ideology. There is a moral duty, as there was against apartheid, to oppose its practices, and advocate for democracy for all the people who live in it.

Bassem to Ali:

As you know, I am still struggling against the occupation. Over the past 18 years I put myself on the front line, defending the rights and the lives of the Palestinians. As you also know, I am still leaving in a refugee camp but while I am living in a hole I must stop digging. I would not wish anyone, even my enemies, to live in a refugee camp. Believe me Ali, life in a refugee camp is a miserable life. The sewage runs out in the narrow streets that my children are growing up in. Imagine the unhealthy situation we are living in.

I envy you because you live in Chicago. I can only imagine the wonderful life you live. I believe that you are still full of energy to continue fighting and struggling, but I am totally out of energy. Believe me Ali, it could be better for you to continue fighting and struggling from one of the Refugee camps in Gaza Strip or the Wet Bank. Then your struggle would be much more effective than the one you are having in Chicago.

Ali to Bassem:

Who is steadfast in defending the right of return? It is the millions of dispossessed in the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan

I don’t think its right to try to reduce this to a personal issue and to try to play off my privileged position against your suffering. There are people who have suffered and sacrificed much more than both of us, and who have not lived off the foreign grants you receive who have not given up their rights. Who is steadfast in defending the right of return? It is the millions of dispossessed in the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan. Who is willing to give it up? It is a tiny segment of the Palestinian elite who signed the Oslo Accords and benefited from them personally. It is the small western-backed coterie around Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas who are desperate to maintain their privileges.

The fact is this: despite the efforts of this co-opted minority, the vast majority of Palestinians have shown at every opportunity (including the democratic election in the West Bank and Gaza in January 2006) that they refuse to give up their human rights and equality in order to submit themselves to a racist state that considers them unwanted garbage. The difference between me and a refugee in Beirut’s Shatila camp is only this: I was lucky that when my mother’s family was expelled they drove east to Jordan, while theirs drove north to Lebanon. Dumb luck.

I will not betray them and I will use my privilege and opportunity to stand up for their rights from wherever I stand. I really hope you will join us and join the growing movement that understands that peace will only come in a decolonised Palestine where Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or any other arbitrary characteristics.

Bassem Eid is the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Ali Abunimah is the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

To watch the Doha Debates here.

Related Links

  • Doha Debates backs Palestinian refugees’ right to return, The Peninsula (29 March 2007)
  • Prominent Jews to speak at Doha Debates, The Peninsula (25 March 2007)