Unraveling the Right of Return

By Friedman, Adina | Refuge, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Unraveling the Right of Return


Friedman, Adina, Refuge


Abstract

The notion of Return in many ways epitomizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Right of Return, one embodiment of this notion, has constituted a hurdle in the parties' attempts to reach a sustainable agreement. Rather than regard the conflict as of zero-sum nature, this paper assumes that Palestinians and Israelis, in their negotiations on the Right of Return and other issues, do not hear each other, and in fact are seldom speaking the same language even when it seems they are discussing the same issue. It examines the ways in which Israelis and Palestinians understand the issue of Return, and suggests a number of factors that influence their different understandings--as well as what each is able to hear from the other. A sustainable agreement would have to take these factors into account in its formulation and in the way in which it is delivered to both peoples.

Introduction

The notion of "Return" is central in the collective memories and national ethos of Jews and Palestinians. For Jews it has, for millennia, carried mainly religious connotations, while in more recent history its meaning has become--for Jews and Palestinians alike--mostly political, in many ways epitomizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and embodying its very essence. The issue has thus far constituted a hurdle in the two peoples' attempts to reach a sustainable, peaceful agreement. Notions of Return are closely linked to the concepts of "Diaspora" and "refugees," and all are, in the given context, most clearly embodied in the idea of the "Right of Return," as it applies to Jews and Palestinians alike.

While there is much to say about Jewish Return, this paper will focus on the Palestinian Right of Return as an important issue in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and a central concept in the conflict. However, it will make reference to Jewish notions of Return, which have existed for millennia, in order to help clarify Jewish attitudes towards, and understandings of, the Palestinian Right of Return.

In the eyes of some, the Right of Return constitutes, in a sense, the bare bedrock (1) upon which other layers of the conflict are mounted, and discourse and discursive processes surrounding it mirror larger processes taking place within the context of the conflict.

On the one hand, the Jewish Right of Return--institutionalized through Israel's Law of Return--is a central element of the Jewish national ethos (at the core of Zionism) and a main tenet upon which the State of Israel was established. Similarly, the Palestinian Right of Return is a central constituent of Palestinians' collective identity and national aspirations. Each people views the right as unquestionable and irrevocable with regard to itself, while illegitimate at best with regard to the other.

A resolution, or agreement, concerning the Right of Return is essential to any future sustainable peace, though it is still one of the main stumbling blocks on the road to reaching an agreement. (2) One of the many myths prevalent during the Oslo Peace Process, mainly among Israelis, was that the "occupation" (of the West Bank and Gaza) was all that stood in the way of reconciliation. (3) Recent events, especially the Intifada raging since September 2000, suggest that the Right of Return, in fact intrinsically related to the eruption of the Intifada in the first place, is very much alive and still very pertinent.

In Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Taba, in December 2000-January 2001, an agreement regarding Palestinian Refugees was almost reached, yet for a number of reasons it was not signed. In spite of this very significant breakthrough, those who might have signed such an agreement would have likely had a very difficult time delivering it to their respective constituencies.

A Dialogue of the Deaf?

The conflict's intractability is often attributed to mutual misconceptions, though some claim that in fact Palestinians and Israelis know exactly what the other side wants, and that this is incongruent with what they themselves want. …

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