SAN FRANCISCO - It is a tragic irony that, more than 55 years ago, one desperate people seeking sanctuary from murderous racism decimated another - and continue to oppress its scattered survivors to this day. In 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, their land and possessions taken by the new Jewish state of Israel. This included the Jerusalem home of my grandparents, Hanna and Mathilde Bisharat, which was expropriated through a process tantamount to state-sanctioned theft.
Today, many assume that to achieve Middle East peace, we Palestinians must surrender our right to return to our homes and homeland. Millions of Palestinians - with memories and photographs of our stolen properties, keys to our front doors, and an abiding sense of injustice - are expected to swallow our losses in order to facilitate a “two-state solution.”
But it’s not that simple. Although Israel has claimed that Palestinians willingly abandoned Palestine after being urged to leave in radio broadcasts by Arab leaders, a review of broadcast transcripts by Irish diplomat Erskine Childers in 1961 revealed that Palestinians were exhorted by Arab leaders to stay, not leave their homes. In fact, Yigal Allon, commander of Palmach, the elite Zionist troops, and later Israeli foreign minister, launched a whispering campaign to terrorize Palestinians into flight.
Nor were we simply unintended victims of a war launched by the Arab states against Israel. As far back as the late 19th century, leaders of Political Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine) advocated “transfer” of the Palestinians, by force if necessary. In 1948, Jews owned only 11% of the land allocated by the United Nations to the Jewish state - not enough for a viable economy. As David Ben-Gurion said in February 1948 before he became prime minister of Israel: “The war will give us the land. The concepts of ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ are peace concepts only, and in war they lose their whole meaning.”
Zionist leaders knew that an Arab minority of 40% would challenge the Jewish demographic dominance they sought. Hence, nearly half of the Palestinian refugees ultimately expelled were forced out before the Arab states attacked Israel in May 1948. Israeli historian Benny Morris documented 24 massacres of Palestinian civilians, some claiming hundreds of unarmed men, women and children, during subsequent fighting. Thousands more Palestinians were, like the residents of Majdal (now Ashkelon) - a southern coastal city 15 miles north of the Gaza Strip - chased across the border into Gaza after the armistice of 1949.
Palestine had to be “cleansed” of its native population to establish Israel as a Jewish state. Ironically, those who today protest that the return of the refugees would destroy Israel unwittingly confirm this viewpoint, for the refugees are simply the Palestinians and their offspring who would have become Israeli citizens had they not been exiled.
Israel’s denial of responsibility for the refugees and rejection of their repatriation (intransigence that was condemned early on by a U.S. official as “morally reprehensible”) is nearly as offensive as the original expulsion itself. Israel welcomed immigrant Jews from all over the world but shot Palestinians who tried to return to recover movable property, harvest the fruit of their orchards or reclaim their homes. Oxford professor Avi Shlaim concluded in his book “The Iron Wall” that “between 2,700 and 5,000 [Palestinian] infiltrators were killed in the period 1949-56, the great majority of them unarmed.”
Nothing the Palestinians had done merited this treatment, something the international community has consistently recognized. A 1948 U.N. resolution recognizing the Palestinian right of return has been annually - and almost unanimously - reaffirmed ever since. The Palestinian right of return is also supported by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The two-state solution envisioned today would probably ameliorate the conditions of the one-third of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There, Palestinians face incessant military attacks that have demolished homes and orchards and killed an average of nearly 70 Palestinians per month over the last three years. A smothering matrix of closures, curfews and checkpoints restricts movement and has caused unemployment to soar to more than 70% and threaten Palestinian children with malnutrition. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers, shock troops in the grinding 36-year campaign to seize and colonize yet more Palestinian land, speed through the West Bank and Gaza Strip on “Jewish only” roads. The oppressive features of Israeli military occupation were entrenched long before Palestinians resorted in the mid-1990s to the desperate - yet still indefensible - tactic of suicide bombings to slow the colonizing juggernaut.
But this two-state solution would not address the concerns of 1.2 million Palestinians living in Israel as second-class citizens. Palestinian citizens there possess formal political rights - that much Israel can afford after expelling most Palestinians in 1948. But these Palestinians have restricted access to land (most real property in Israel is owned by the state or the Jewish National Fund and is leased to Jews only). They are also forced to carry identity cards that brand them as non-Jews, and they cannot serve in the armed forces (the key to many benefits in Israeli society). Palestinian towns and villages are starved of resources, with many lacking connections to the country’s electrical or water systems. Government policies, from immigration to family planning, are designed to counter the “demographic threat” Israelis fear in the higher birthrate of Palestinian citizens. Israeli law enshrines the principle that Israel is the “state of the Jewish people,” and it lacks firm guarantees of the legal equality of all citizens.
Nor would the two-state solution fairly redress the rights of diaspora Palestinians - permitting us only return to a new, already overcrowded and underfunded “statelet” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There is no bar to implementing the Palestinians’ right of return. If there is room in Israel for a million Russian immigrants (including many non-Jews), there is room for those Palestinians who would elect return over other legal options. The sole obstacle is Israel’s desire to maintain a “demographic balance” favorable to Jews.
Why is it self-evident that our international legal rights should give way to cement dominance of Jews over Palestinians in Israel? Why is this assumption unquestioned - especially in the U.S., which fought a civil war for the ideal of equal rights under the law? How do claims that are 2,000 years old trump our rights when we have modern deeds in hand? Why should Palestinians pay for a European holocaust? Why do U.S. officials - including our two Democratic senators in this multicultural state - unconditionally support Israel with billions in tax dollars while ignoring glaring contradictions between Jewish exclusivism and truly democratic values? Would Americans tolerate any group placing its religious symbol on the national flag, appropriating the state for some citizens rather than all and pursuing policies systematically giving privileges to its members over others?
Palestinians are prepared to sacrifice for a just and therefore lasting peace, but not to simply formalize our dispossession and exile or our institutionalized subordination in Israel.
Isn’t it time to explore a way for Jews to co-inhabit Israel/Palestine without excluding, dominating and oppressing Palestinians? The past cannot be undone - but the future can be. We, Israelis and Palestinians together, should be seeking to form a society founded on tolerance and mutual respect for each other’s humanity, a country that would truly be the “light unto nations” that Israel always aspired to be. When title to our home is restored - and the rights of its current occupants have been fully respected - I hope one day to stand in front of it with my family and welcome neighbors and visitors of all faiths and backgrounds, as my grandparents did before 1948.
George Bisharat is a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 25 January 2004.