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‘Why do I not cry out for the right of return?’ — an exchange between Uri Avnery and Salman Abu Sitta

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Uri Avnery is a co-founder of the Israeli “peace bloc” Gush Shalom, a former Knesset member and a journalist. In his youth, he was a member of the paramilitary group the Irgun, known for its terrorist attacks on Palestinians and the British Mandate authorities. He is the first Israeli to have met with the late Chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat. 

Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian who became a refugee at age 10 during the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1947-49 war. He is a foremost scholar on mapping Palestinian villages before the Nakba, and is the founder of the Palestine Land Society, a group that drafted practical plans for implementing the Palestinian Right of Return. 

This exchange of correspondence took place from 2014 to 2017 and was given to Mondoweiss by Abu Sitta. 

From Salman to Uri:

7 May 2014

Dear Uri

I read with great interest your interview in Haaretz about your rich and eventful life. You stuck to your principles since the early fifties when you found that the old doctrine was neither workable nor moral.

I remember vividly our chat over dinner in Paris with your kind wife Rachel, bless her soul [at a UN conference on the Palestinian refugees]. You described your early days as a young German by the name of Helmut, when you joined the terrorist organization, the Irgun, and when you, carrying a machine gun on a hilltop at Huleigat (where now there is a war memorial to “honour” those soldiers) watched the sea of humanity of expelled refugees march towards Gaza by the sea shore.

I also told you my story; how I became a refugee without ever seeing a Jew in my life and how I spent years to find out who did it by name, face and battalion.

I remember asking you ‘would you agree to my return to my house if it is next to you?’

You said emphatically NO.

I wrote all this in my memoirs to be published this year in Europe and USA.

I am reminded of a similar story but with a different ending. I refer to (Reflections of a Daughter of the “‘48 Generation”) by Dr. Tikva Honig-Parnass. It is a moving account of how truth and reality faced her, as a Palmach soldier, with the grave injustice done to Palestinians. Since then she spends her energy to defend their rights, including the Right of Return.

I saw no trace or hint of retraction in your interview of what I have hoped, namely your recognition of the Right of Return, or the atonement and remedy of the greatest sin: the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Would it not be a fitting last station of a long life (and I wish you more of it) for you to stand at hilltops (again) and shout for all to hear, summing up all your life experiences, saying: the refugees must return, we must repent the sin of ethnic cleansing?

Is this too much to ask for a principled man like you to do this?  I am not asking this on behalf of the Palestinians, because no doubt they WILL return. I am hoping that it would be a crown to your life achievements in the Israeli milieu.

As I wrote repeatedly: The history of the Jews will not be marked any more by the alleged killing of Christ nor by the Nazi atrocities in WWII, but will be indelibly marked by what they have done to Palestinians, deliberately and constantly, without remorse, regret or remedy, thus reflecting that side of the human spirit which does not learn from history and that which empty itself of its own moral posture.

Best regards.
Salman Abu Sitta

Salman Abu Sitta (center, back row) in the village of al-Ma’in with his family, 1944. This photograph was used at the cover image of his book “Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir.” (Photo: Salman Abu Sitta/Al Jazeera English)

Uri replies to Salman in his weekly column on 17 May 2014:

 

DEAR SALMAN,

I was profoundly moved by this letter. It took me days to find the courage to answer. I try to do so as sincerely as possible.

I also vividly remember our conversation in Paris, and wrote about it in the second part of my memoirs, which will appear in the course of this year. It may be interesting for the readers to compare our two descriptions of the same conversation. About the scene near Hulayqat I have written in the first part, which has already appeared in Hebrew.

When I was wounded in the 1948 war, I decided that it would be my life’s mission to work for peace between our two peoples. I hope that I have been true to that promise.

Making peace after such a long and bitter conflict is both a moral and a political endeavor. There is often a contradiction between the two aspects.

I respect the few people in Israel who, like Tikva, completely devote themselves to the moral side of the refugees’ tragedy, whatever the consequence for the chances of peace. My own moral outlook tells me that peace must be the first aim, before and above everything else.

The war of 1948 was a terrible human tragedy. Both sides believed that it was an existential battle, that their very life was hanging in the balance. It is often forgotten that ethnic cleansing (not a familiar expression in those days) was practiced by both sides. Our side occupied large territories, creating a huge refugee problem, while the Palestinian side succeeded in occupying only small Jewish areas, like the Old City of Jerusalem and the Etzion settlement bloc south of Bethlehem. But not a single Jew remained there.

The war, like the later Bosnian war, was an ethnic war, in which both sides tried to conquer as large a part of the country as possible – EMPTY of the other population.

As an eyewitness and participant, I can testify to the fact that the origins of the refugee problem are extremely complex. During the first seven months of the war, the attacks on the Arab villages were an absolute military necessity. At that time, we were the weaker side. After a number of very cruel battles, the wheel turned and I believe that a deliberate policy of expulsion was adopted by the Zionist leadership.

But the real question is: Why were the 750,000 refugees not allowed home after the end of the hostilities?

ONE HAS to remember the situation. It was three years after the smokestacks of Auschwitz and the other camps had gone cold. Hundreds of thousands of wretched survivors crowded the refugee camps in Europe and had nowhere to go but to the new Israel. They were brought here and hastily put into the homes of the Palestinian refugees.

All this did not obliterate our moral obligation to put an end to the terrible tragedy of the Palestinian refugees. In 1953 I published in my magazine, “Haolam Hazeh”, a detailed plan for the solution of the refugee problem. It included (a) an apology to the refugees and the acknowledgment in principle of the right to return, (b) the return and resettlement of a substantial number, (c) generous compensation to all the rest. Since the Israeli government refused to consider the possibility of the return of a single individual, the plan was not even discussed.

WHY DO I not stand on a hilltop and cry out for the return of all the refugees?

Peace is made between consenting parties. There is absolutely no chance that the vast majority of Israelis would freely agree to the return of all the refugees and their descendants, who amount to six or seven million people – the same number as Israel’s Jewish citizens. This would be the end of the “Jewish state” and the beginning of a “bi-national state”, to which 99% of Israelis strenuously object. It can be imposed only by a crushing military defeat, which is currently impossible because of Israel’s infinite military superiority, including nuclear arms.

I can stand on the hilltops and shout – but it would not bring peace (and a solution) one step closer.

To my mind, waiting for a solution in a hundred years, while the conflict and the misery continue, is not really moral.

DEAR SALMAN, I have listened attentively to your presentation.

You say that Israel could easily absorb all the refugees by putting them into the Negev, which is almost empty. That is quite true.

The vast majority of Israelis would reject that, because they are fiercely resolved to have a large Jewish majority in Israel. But I also ask myself: What is the logic of that?

When I met with Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the war of 1982, I also visited several Palestinian refugee camps. I asked many refugees whether they wanted to return to Israel. Most said that they wanted to return to their villages (which were eradicated long ago) but not anywhere else in Israel.

What is the sense of putting them into the harsh conditions of the desert in a Zionist dominated and Hebrew speaking country, far from their original homes? Would they want that?

Arafat and his successors limit their aim to a “just and AGREED solution”, giving the Israeli government a veto right. That means, in practice, at most the return of a symbolic number.

My latest proposal is for the Israeli president to apologize and express the profound regret of the Israeli people for its part in the creation and prolongation of the tragedy.

The Israeli government must recognize the moral right of the refugees to return.

Israel should organize the return of 50,000 refugees every year for ten years. (I am almost alone in Israel in demanding this number. Most peace groups would reduce that to 100,000 altogether.)

All the other refugees should receive compensation on the lines of the compensation paid by Germany to the Jewish victims. (No comparison, of course.)

With the foundation of the State of Palestine, they would receive Palestinian passports and be able to settle there, in their country.

In the not too distant future, when the two states, Israel and Palestine, shall be finally living side by side, with open borders and with their capitals in Jerusalem, perhaps within a region-wide framework, the problem will lose its sting.

IT HURTS me to write this letter. For me, the refugees are no abstract “problem”, but human beings with human faces. But I will not lie to you.

I would be honored to live next to you (even in the Negev desert)

Salamaat,

uri.

Two years later after miscellaneous correspondence, from Salman to Uri 10 June 2016:

Dear Uri

Just finished reading your article today (Friday 10 June 2016).

I am amazed at how many stories, anecdotes, religious, historical and personal references and insights you marshal in your writings, particularly this one,  on Tin disguised as Gold.

A wealth of knowledge. I printed it.

You certainly do not live in the Israeli bubble of denial, those who committed the Nakba crimes and who refuse to talk about them, even close the archives describing them.

You obviously do not belong to the present generation who do not know that these crimes have happened; nobody told them. It is taboo.

Israelis live in a drugged world. But you do not, you could not.

This begs the question: why do not you, then,  publicly support the natural right of Palestinians, the natural inhabitants of Palestine, to live freely in their homes?

I do not care a hoot about a two state solution or umpteenth state solution. State recognition is a political act, which could be revoked, expanded or cancelled. Look at Europe or the legacy of Sykes-Picot. Look at Israel. It existed by virtue of political recognition, mostly Western, not by international law.

But Human Rights are fundamental, permanent, non negotiable, unless humanity is for sale or bartering.

On which side are you?

Best regards.

Salman

PS did you receive your copy of my book “Mapping my Return”?

From Uri to Salman 11 June 2016:

Dear Salman,

Good to hear from you.

I have not yet seen your new book. Am very interested.

Israelis at large do not want Israel proper to turn into an Arab-majority country. They have toiled for five generations to create a Hebrew-speaking country.

This is a fact of life, so the other vision can only be achieved by a bloody war. This may change in a few generations, though I doubt it.

So those who want peace have to look for another solution, probably a complicated one, in the framework of the two states plan.

All the very best

uri

From Salman to Uri 30 Sept 2016:

Dear Uri

As usual, your article on Peres last week and Abu Mazen this week are spot on. At least from your perspective which is widely accepted.

I had a debate at Tokyo University, Japan in Sept 2013 with the late Ron Pundak on Oslo and I said that Abbas government is a Vichy government. He was upset, not because Abbas was not Petain but because Israel is not Nazi Germany.  I pointed out that in 1941 the Nazis signed “Paris Economic Protocol” with Vichy for the same purpose and name that Israel signed fifty years later with Abu Alaa —who now say, oh… oh, Oslo was a big disaster.

I am not going to ask you if you read my book. First edition was sold out and a paperback edition is due in November. It was reviewed a dozen times including by the Guardian.

It describes my uprooting from my village Al Ma’in (60,000 dunums) on which now is perched Nirim, Nir Oz, Ein Hashlosha and Magen Kibbutzim. My extended family is now 10,000, mostly living in refugee camps 2 km away, not forgetting once their right to return.

Nirim lies on my father’s land with 174 Kibbutz members plus their children etc.

I have a suggestion, a mere suggestion.

Could you contact these four Kibbutzim and ask them, do you know how they got there in 1948? do you know the owners still insist on return? If yes or no, what are you going to do about it?

I know their existence is precarious hanging by a thread (the gun). That is why they hide in their denial bubble, afraid to face the fact.

Is there any one of them brave enough to shout and say we were wrong?

Some would say about them; if they were brave, not cowards,  they would have fought the Nazis who pulled them out of their homes and killed them, not attack, with the army strength of a battalion, a small village far away in Palestine, armed with a rusty dozen rifles and then butcher and expel its people. If they were brave and with a conscience, they would not call ethnic cleansing “a war” of any thing, let alone of “independence”.

Could you act on my suggestion?

I hope so.

Salman

No reply from Uri. A renewed note from Salman to Uri 27 Jan 2017 :

Dear Uri

Reading your weekly article became a ritual for me. It is full of knowledge and appreciation of facts and understanding of the lessons of history. In all matters and about all countries. Except Palestine.

You did not respond to my last letter. Perhaps you thought it was strong and harsh. But it was true. Sometimes truth cannot be answered.

You did not read my book or did not wish to comment. That is not a problem.

Europeans of Jewish faith gave Europe a lot of culture, philosophy, science and ideals of liberation. That was not because they read the Torah daily, but because they were the product of European “civilization”. Einstein, Lenin, Marx did that and the world should be grateful to them as decent human beings.

Those Europeans, Ashkenazim, aka Israelis, when they descended upon Palestine, acted against every humanitarian principle they espoused when they were in Europe. They smashed children’s brains (Dawayima), bayoneted pregnant women’s stomachs (Dayr Yassin), burnt old men alive (Lajjun), shot farmers in ditches they were forced to dig as graves (Tantoura), threw them in a well (Sa’sa and Ayn Zeitoun), put a village ablaze and threw grenades at people inside their homes (Bureir).

Above all, they depopulated 600 Palestinian localities, the worst event in Palestine’s 5000-year history.

They were terrorists of the worst kind. Those who should know better did these awful things.

You belonged to Irgun, the “worst” terrorist group, if grading can be made.

I know you have spent years calling for “peace”. But your peace meant that the killer should be forgiven, the thief should run away with the stolen goods and those expelled from their homes should be thrown a few pieces of silver to shut up.

No remorse, nor repentance, no justice done, no remedy. Just empty words.

How could those settlers live with this double life, liberty in Europe and crime in Palestine?

The answer is schizophrenia. The European Jews, aka Israelis, live in a bubble of denial. A fake world. They shut the world of crime out of their minds and the minds of the adoring West. And preach peace, democracy, science and art, instead.

No Nakba. Perish the thought. No word “Palestinian”. No flag. Oh yes. There are no refugees. Those were Arabs who drifted from Arabia Deserta to the land of milk and honey, created by the European settlers who came to this empty desert land and made it a paradise.

They are cowards. I say this again.

Some years ago, my nephew, now a professor in Berlin, visited my birthplace Al Ma’in, with his uncle showing him the places he knew. My nephew told me this story. While they were walking around, an older settler with a little girl came by in a car and asked: where are you from?  The uncle said: ‘from here’ and pointed to the land. The settler said: Then you are Abu Sitta?

His teenage daughter or granddaughter was curious, leaned over, looked at them and asked her grandfather: who are they?

He pushed her away and drove fast. The little girl must have discovered the fraud in the old man’s tale.  He did not have the courage to explain. He hid in his bubble.

How long will this last? The bubble will burst one day.

Would the European Jews amend their ways? Was their preaching in the Age of the Enlightment a big hoax?

Time will tell. At a price.

Salman

No reply from Uri again. From Salman to Uri 18 Feb 2017:

Dear Uri

I realize you did not wish to reply to my letters. They are either painful or could not be rebutted.  Certainly they are not irrelevant.

I keep writing to you since we met in Paris over a decade ago because I think you have unique characteristics.

You have been a terrorist. You witnessed al Nakba, so you cannot deny it. You tried to forge peace with Palestinians (only on Zionist terms). You have a grasp of all the facts. So you cannot claim “I did not know”.

Then WHY you are still in a Denial Bubble?

Say it clear and loud. Al Nakba is near-complete ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Israel is a colonial project and its umbilical cord is colonial powers.

God-given  Palestine or empty uninhabited Palestine is a hogwash.

Say it.

Say it as a last minute CONFESSION. It purifies the soul and gives a good scent to memory.

I am waiting. Because I have hope in human redemption.

Salman

From Uri to Salman 18 Feb 2017:

Alas, the story is much more complicated,

All the best

uri

 

The end

 

 

 

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“Alas , the story is much more complicated.”Uri Avnery.

Avnery is just another liberal zionist posing as a man of peace seeking a just solution .

Kudos to Salman for outing this fraud.

This is a fascinating exchange. “Liberal Zionists” come in a number of different varieties. Avnery, Derfner, Beinart, Slater are among the best, with Avnery perhaps topping the list. His contributions to the debate, framed by his general honesty about horrible behavior of the Israeli “right”, are considerable. But in this… Read more »

Salman refers to a memoir entitled Reflections of a Daughter of the “‘48 Generation” by Dr. Tikva Honig-Parnass. Does anyone know who the publisher is or how to obtain it?

All of us on the Israeli Left owe a huge debt to Uri Avnery. Indeed, I can’t even a imagine the Left without his groundbreaking efforts. In the aftermath of the 1967 war, proposing a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel (what’s called today “the 2 state solution”) was considered a… Read more »

It’s kind of like if your nice multimillionaire neighbor’s dog comes over and bites your kid on the back of the neck and you ask for restitution and they reply “It’s complicated”.