Should the Palestinians give up their right to return to their homeland after decades of misery and sufferings in refugee camps across the world? A huge majority of the participants at Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates yesterday rejected the idea when they overwhelmingly defeated the motion that suggested Palestinians should give up their full right to return. Only 18.4 per cent of the participants voted for the motion.
The debate was marked with the presence of two prominent Jewish personalities from Israel, opposing each other. Equally interesting was the presence of two Palestinians facing each other on the two sides of the panel. Speaking for the motion were Bassem Eid, founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and Yossi Belin, currently a member of the Israeli Knesset and Chairman of the Meretz, Yachad Party. He has been a leading proponent of the peace process with Israel’s neighbours and especially the Palestinians.
Dr Ilan Pappe, a noted Jewish author and historian and senior lecturer of political science at the Haifa University spoke against the motion. He was joined by Ali Abunimah, son of a Palestinian refugee and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, an Internet gateway about Palestine and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Tim Sebastian was the moderator of the Debates.
Bassem opened the discussion by arguing that the Palestinians living in miserable situations in refugee camps are fed up with their 60 years long suffering. They can no more pin their hopes on the corrupt and inefficient Palestinian political leadership and the only option left for them is to comprise their right of return to Palestine to get a decent living elsewhere. “Having spent 40 years in a refugee camp I have lost all hope and energy to fight. If any Palestinian still maintain that spirit, he is most welcome to continue fighting,” said Bassem.
His views, however, found only a few supporters among the audience, which included several Palestinian students, who are children of refugees. One student participant at the question-answer session went to the extend of questioning his right to call himself a human rights activist. ” What role model you are presenting to the younger generation of Palestinians?,” he asked Bassem.
The view that dominated the debates was that strongly upheld by the panellists who opposed the motion. Right of return to the homeland is a fundamental right of any human being which has to be protected at any cost. It is unacceptable to say that Palestinians should give up this right to gain few concessions from Israel, pointed out Pappe.
Abu Nimah said during his visits to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, he found that despite their sufferings, majority of the refugees are still longing to go back to Palestine. Both the speakers called for a solution to the Palestinian issue in the same way the Apartheid system in South Africa was tackled. The racist system in South Africa prolonged for about 300 years but now the Blacks and the Whites live in harmony in the country. “The same could happen in Palestine, if there is international pressure on Israel to change its racist policies,” said Pappe.
Both the panelists proposed a one-state solution to the Palestinian issue, where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in harmony under a joint government. Yossi Bellin said on the practical front, majority of the Jews in Israel will never accept the full return of the Palestinian refugees, which is sure to change the demographic pattern of the Israeli society. Israel can allow a limited return of the refugees and provide a compensation for those who agree to give up their claim for return. No peace process is going to succeed without a permanent solution to the refugee issue, he added.