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Issue No. 657
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There is a right of return

Shiko Behar* replies to Ha'aretz

My little daughter truly believes that when she intentionally closes her eyes the external material world she faces disappears, myself included. Several visits to her kindergarten convinced me that this belief might actually be a collective one among her adorable little comrades. It now seems that a leading Israeli daily and many of its adult readers also believe that when they intentionally close their eyes the direct effect is that Human Rights Law, Humanitarian Law and at least one UN resolution (194III) disappear from the material world as well.

In a misleading and politically unproductive editorial that yet again seems to voice verbatim the official line of Ariel Sharon's government, the most prestigious Israeli daily Ha'aretz exclaimed "There is no right of return" (18 August 2003). Ha'aretz chose to devote its most authoritative space -- its unsigned editorial -- to deny a fundamental human right to millions of Palestinian refugees as a base from which to unleash a provocative declaration against their human right of return. As such, the editorial was neither a slip of the tongue, nor mere historic-legal sophistry about the principled rights of refugees. Rather, it unreservedly urged the state of Israel to ignore -- and even contravene -- established international law.

The editorial of Ha'aretz excluded categorically any possibility for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel as a contributing factor to a solid Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Typically, it failed to comprehend that the Palestinian right of return (which is referred to even by the roadmap as one of the fundamental elements of a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians) cannot but be an integral part of any peace initiative. Furthermore, the editorial unfortunately failed to grasp that such a possibility -- contrary to prevailing perceptions -- does not contradict the material self-interest of those Israelis who are truly interested in a future of peace and security based on full human equality between themselves and their Palestinian fellow humans.

Ha'aretz correctly highlighted that statements about a right of return (particularly those made recently by Nabil Sha'ath in Lebanon) sparked vehement rebuttals not only from Israel's right-wing government but also from "opposition" personalities such as Shimon Peres (until recently Sharon's right hand man) as well as from Knesset members Yossi Sarid and Ran Cohen (of the left Zionist Meretz Party). Predictably, these self-proclaimed-oppositional politicians wasted no time before loudly declaring that they would adamantly oppose a peace agreement that includes a Palestinian right of return to Israel, since they claim that such a right poses a threat to the state's identity (whatever that is) and to the solution of two states for two peoples.

In this context, the Ha'aretz editorial failed to observe that the lingering Israeli phenomenon of a "non- oppositional opposition" testifies to the existence of a "virtual" Israeli peace camp whose leading politicians and supporters have always chosen to conform to the whims of the Israeli right in order to secure (extreme anti-Palestinian) national unity. To utilise Ha'aretz's tedious didactic tone, the paper's editorial writers would be well advised to distance themselves very seriously from the nearly united Israeli-Jewish front that opposes so vehemently the simple, standard, straightforward application of international human rights law, including the Palestinian right of return.

Ha'aretz claims that "the most committed [Israeli] supporters of the Oslo Accords believe that a concession of refugees' right of return to Haifa can be traded fairly for a concession of Jews' right of return to Hebron." Additionally, according to Ha'aretz the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem -- that, to begin with, came into being as a direct consequence of Israel's establishment -- "cannot include a return of refugees to the State of Israel; instead, the return should be to the Palestinian state that will arise alongside Israel."

Many questions should bother concerned and honest readers. How can a legitimate, internationally-guaranteed right (the Palestinian right of return) possibly be traded for the illegal and internationally-condemned practice of theft whereby Israeli settlers colonise Palestinian cities, such as Hebron? The Israeli human rights organisation Betselem recently reported that 43 per cent of Palestinians have been forced to leave the old city of Hebron due to these settlers who are generating yet one more wave of Palestinian refugees at the very same time that Ha'aretz publishes its pompous editorial.

Moreover, during the nearly six years of Labour-Meretz rule in Israel between 1993 and 2001 the "right of colonisation" of Zionist Jews in Hebron was not at all compromised. In fact, none other than those "most committed Israeli supporters of the Oslo Accords" -- 1) enabled the doubling of the number of settlers both in Hebron and throughout the entire 1967 occupied Palestinian territories and 2) oversaw the building of new settlements and the robbery of fertile Palestinian land in order to lay-down the infrastructure for the succeeding Sharon government to complete the apartheid matrix which permits colonial settlers to terrorise the indigenous Palestinian population (and that might as well result in the formation of a series of Palestinian Bantustans in 42-45 per cent of the occupied Palestinian territories).

To recycle the words of Ha'aretz, virtually all its editorials have poorly served their innocent Israeli and international readers by consistently cultivating among them the dangerous illusion that a lasting peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reached without substantively addressing the Palestinian right of return, rather than courageously encouraging Israelis to confront their history of expulsion and dispossession. With its irresponsible editorial remarks, Ha'aretz constructs bypass roads around important chapters in the political history of Israel, and in so doing, throws dust in Israeli eyes and sullies prospects of forging any agreement.

* The writer, a doctor of Comparative Politics, is the director of the Alternative Information Centre, a Joint Palestinian-Israeli Organisation based in Jerusalem and Beit- Sahour (www.alternativenews.org).

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