Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Flicker of Hope at Haifa Conference on "Right of Return and Just Peace"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Flicker of Hope at Haifa Conference on "Right of Return and Just Peace"

Article excerpt

For many close observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinian refugee issue continues to be the heart of the conflict and the key to peace in that region.

Recently Democratic presidential nominee-apparent John Kerry joined President Bush in supporting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's rejection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. Often forgotten, this position violates international law, the same law-affirmed in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and U.N. General Asssembly Resolution 194-guaranteeing the rights of Kosovars, East Timorese and Rwandans to return home, and conversely, of those Jews who left home in the Soviet Union.

With Israel and both major American parties in lockstep on this, and absent American press coverage to the contrary, Americans might assume no support among Israelis for implementing the Palestinian right of return.

Meanwhile a quiet revolution recently happened in Haifa.

Launching the "Haifa Initiative"

Over 300 Israelis-Jews and Palestinians-and a sprinkling of internationals gathered for two days to make their own history on this issue. Co-sponsored by an alliance of Israeli NGOs and the Emil Tourna Institute for Israeli and Palestinian Studies, a landmark "Right of Return and Just Peace Conference" took place. With it, the "Haifa Initiative" was launched.

For the first time in their country, Israeli citizens publicly refuted the claim that there is no support among Israelis-particularly Jewish Israelis-for Palestinian refugees to return home to Israel.

As Haifa University Professor Ilan Pappé stated, "It's not true that there are no people in Israel who are willing to share this country....The hundreds of people attending the conference showed that a growing number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel regard the implementation of the Palestinian right of return as the only road to a lasting peace and reconciliation."

But why spin their wheels on the refugee problem given the realpolitik of this issue?

Because, they say, it mirrors the heart of the conflict-the Nakba, or "Catastrophe," Arabic for the 1947-49 dispossession and expulsion by Zionist military forces of about 800,000 native Palestinians-more than 80 percent of the Arab Palestinian population-from their homeland by Zionist military forces.

Together, these Israelis are challenging their government's denial of responsibility by placing the facts of the Nakba before the public. They assert that only by acknowledging this truth about their shared history can Palestinians and Israelis start down the road to freedom from 56 years of conflict.

These Iraelis are placing the facts of the Nakba before the public.

Witnessing this gathering was like observing the revelation of an Israeli-Palestinian family secret-everyone knows the truth but no one is talking, even as denial bleeds over three generations, bringing dysfunction, insecurity and violence to everyone in the region.

Much of the conference was devoted to spreading the word by developing educational workshops, a Nakba museum, oral histories of Nakba survivors and preparations for the second Haifa conference.

Significantly, evidence was presented challenging a common view that implementing the right of return means displacing Israeli Jews, for example, data gathered by Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta based on current Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli population patterns predict minimal dislocation even if all 4 million United Nations-registered Palestinian refugees chose to return: 78 percent of Jewish Israelis live in 15 percent of the country; and over 90 percent of former village refugees would return to empty sites. …

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