Proximity talks signaling the restart of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which have been on hold for years, are beginning amidst an important reminder of the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Saturday, May 15, marked Nakba Day. The Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” was the depopulation of Palestine of its native inhabitants which took place around the emergence of the state of Israel from 1947-1949. Little known to most Americans is the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin, which left dozens of women and children slaughtered. It is marked on April 9, a date which highlights the fact that Palestinians were being ethnically cleansed even before the Arab armies declared war on Israel in May of 1948. The Dahmash mosque massacre, marked on July 12, witnessed the gunning down of Palestinian civilians seeking refuge in a mosque. It was one of the worst massacres of the period.
Yet the day on which the Jewish state was established, is the day Palestinians mark their suffering. This is not, as some would suggest, because Palestinians oppose the existence of a safe haven for Jews. Rather it is because the existence of this state means that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees could not return to their homes – and still cannot to this day.
Some will say that Palestinians and Israelis have two irreconcilable narratives and for this reason ought to avoid talk about history. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in other countries have, however, played a key role in helping victims of terrible injustices to understand in more detail what was done to them and by whom. The facts known today tell of the reality that befell Palestinians and tragically and terribly altered the trajectory of their individual and collective existence. Yet there is much more that will surely come to light as Israeli archives are examined and as aging conquerors examine their consciences.
At the moment, there remains a difference in the telling of the history. Some historians argue that the Palestinians fled from their homes. Other historians, including leading Israeli historians, argue that there was a systematic effort on behalf of the Israeli forces to expel the Palestinians. These different historical perspectives remain dueling narratives, but the weight of evidence is increasingly favoring the Palestinian perspective of a concerted and planned drive for ethnic cleansing to clear the way for a more homogeneous Jewish state.
But one simple historical reality – which no objective person, Israeli or Palestinian will deny – transcends the entire debate over who is at fault for the ongoing predicament of the refugees. The creation of the state of Israel meant a Jewish majority in Palestine would be maintained by force, and this state, now in control of still-more-expansive borders, has refused to permit refugees to return to their homes and land.
Frankly, whatever one’s view of history, it doesn’t matter why Palestinians left Palestine during the war. All that matters is that after the war, refugees should have been allowed to go back to their towns and villages in accordance with international law.
The right to return to one’s country is a human right ensured by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. By preventing the return of Palestinian refugees to their country, Israel is and has been violating the human rights of the refugees for 62 years.
Much of the discussion today is centered on settlements and borders, but the idea that an agreement on settlements and borders would end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is rooted in a fundamental ignorance of history. While the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967, the conflict existed well before that. The roots of the conflict are in the refugee issue.
Former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have recently suggested that Palestinians should take back East Jerusalem in exchange for dropping demands for the right of return. This reminds me of when we used to play tricks on the younger kids on the playground: “If you give me that dime,” we used to say, “I’ll give you this big, shiny nickel.”
The patronizing tone that accompanies such suggestions is insulting to Palestinians who have been subjected to dispossession and occupation. Now we are being told to accept the former to end the latter, when both are ethically and morally abhorrent.
On this Nakba day, as Special Envoy George Mitchell prepares to shuttle back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, it is critical to keep in mind that until the human rights of Palestinian refugees are acknowledged, there can be no lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yousef Munayyer is executive director of The Palestine Center.