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July 7, 2001


By Uriya Shavit and Jalal Bana

"Who will compensate me and my family for all the suffering we went through? Financial compensation cannot replace the right of return....The main thing is to go back to where I belong." Palestinian refugee from Jaffa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv

[Ha'aretz Magazine 6 July 2001]: Belize diplomat Assad Shoman would never have dreamed that his name would come up thousands of miles away in a discussion of the thorny issue of the Palestinians' right to return.The event in question occurred two weeks ago, in Ramallah, when Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat invited a group of Israeli journalists to meet with him in his office. "Is a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians possible without a million refugees realizing the right of return?" one of the journalists asked. In reply, Arafat related the story of Shoman, whom he described as the vastly rich scion of a Palestinian family, who rose to greatness in Belize - a tiny Central American country with a population of 220,000 - and became its prime minister.

"Would such a person want to realize the right of return?" the Palestinian leader asked rhetorically. Arafat's story was intriguing, though not quite accurate. To begin with, Assad Shoman is not the prime minister of the former British colony of Belize but that country's ambassador to London.

Second, Shoman is not vastly rich. He has always earned a living from his practice as an attorney and from writing history books. His best-known work, "The History of Belize in 13 Chapters," has long since become part of the Belize literary canon. In that book, Shoman launches a bitter attack on the manner in which Western society foists its historical memory on other societies. According to the author, there is nothing more detrimental to the future of a nation than forsaking its history.

And third, Shoman is not a refugee who would be entitled, under any sort of legal definition, to exercise the so-called right of return. It follows that there is no way he can concede such a right. His father immigrated to Belize in the 1930s, married a local woman and became a shop owner. Assad Shoman was born in Belize in 1943.

Ha'aretz Magazine asked him this week for his response to the story told by Arafat. The ambassador, with diplomatic tact, declined to comment. Belize has enough problems of its own. It has nothing to gain from becoming embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.

How many Palestinian refugees are there, what is their political and economic status, and on what do they base themselves when they demand the "right of return"?

In 1949, the Palestinian population totaled 1,380,000 people, of whom 730,000 were refugees. Fifty-two years later, a second and third generation has been added to the first generation of refugees: Natural growth at a rate that is one of the fastest in the world has multiplied their number by fourfold at least. According to data of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which devotes its activity to the Palestinian refugees, their number today stands at 3.7 million.

The general opinion is that the agency's records tend to be exaggerated, for the simple reason that anyone registered as a refugee is entitled to financial support from the agency. The result is that some refugees never die; only the photographs in their ID cards change.

UNRWA defines a "Palestinian refugee" as a person who resided in Palestine for at least two years prior to May 1948 (when the State of Israel was established), lost his home and his means of livelihood as a result of the war of 1948-1949, and now lives in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. The definition is an expansive one and takes in all the refugee's offspring.

The general term "Palestinian refugee" refers to population groups whose social and political situation is extremely uneven. Thus, 22 percent of the refugees live in the Gaza Strip; according to the UN agency, 818,000 of the 1.1 million Palestinians who reside in the Gaza Strip are refugees. Most of them are members or descendants of families that in 1948 fled from the region extending from Jaffa southward. Nearly half of these refugees, 440,000 of them, live in eight tremendously overcrowded refugee camps. The Shati camp, for example, is home to 74,000 refugees who are squeezed into an area of less than one square kilometer.

The population explosion in the Gaza Strip shows no signs of abating. The annual birthrate there is no less than five percent, the mortality rate 0.5 percent; the average number of births per woman is 7.5, and half the population is below the age of 15. By the year 2020, the population of the Gaza Strip will be 2.5 million and the population density will be 7,000 people per square kilometer - the highest in the world. Taking into account the unstable economic infrastructure, even massive development in the years ahead will not alleviate the distress of the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, the refugee population is 580,000 out of a total population of 1.8 million Palestinians, according to the UN relief agency. One quarter of the refugees live in 19 camps. The refugee families in the camps maintain an attachment to their towns and villages of origin.

Israeli researcher Yitzhak Ravid, who this year published a study on the refugees within the framework of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Research at Bar-Ilan University, says that the Palestinian Authority has some reservations about improving the situation in the refugee camps, and is making an effort to emphasize that such activity cannot be construed as undermining the temporary status of the refugees or as weakening their entitlement to the "right of return." Rehabilitation activity that might be construed as acceptance of the refugees' permanent residence in the Gaza Strip encounters resistance by activist groups in the camps.

'No obstacles' in Jordan

There are 1.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, according to the UN agency, of whom 200,000 are considered "displaced persons" - Palestinians who left the West Bank in 1967. About 280,000 of the refugees live in 13 camps. The majority of the refugees in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship and have integrated themselves into the country's economic and social life.

"A Palestinian refugee with initiative who lives in Jordan and wants to get ahead faces virtually no obstacles," says Dr. Amnon Kartin from the department of geography at Tel Aviv University, who has conducted demographic research on Jordan. "In general, their economic situation is no worse than that of the Bedouin [who form the basis of the country's indigenous population]."

There are 376,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, constituting 10 percent of the country's population. According to Yitzhak Ravid, the actual number of refugees in Lebanon is between 250,000 and 300,000. Most of them are from families that fled to Lebanon from Haifa and Galilee in 1948. Of all the refugees in the Arab states, their plight is the most severe. Because of the Lebanese government's fear of upsetting the ethnic-religious balance in the country, only a quarter of the refugees have received citizenship. The majority of the refugees in Lebanon live in 12 camps. They are not accepted to government positions and are also barred from a wide range of professions, including those that require academic training.

The average monthly income of 80 percent of the refugee families in Lebanon is below $400. They are not entitled to government-sponsored education and health services or to social insurance. Their freedom of movement is restricted; if they want to leave the country, they need a special permit, which is issued for a limited period. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, Beirut has stepped up its pressure on the refugees in the country.

The refugee population in Syria stands at 378,000, according to the UN relief agency, though Ravid estimates their number at no more than 300,000. They are from families that fled from the north of Israel in 1948, mainly from Haifa and Safed, though some are from Jaffa as well. About 110,000 of the refugees in Syria reside in 12 camps.

The refugees in Syria enjoy employment and education rights, and the government helps maintain the camps. However, the refugees are denied citizenship and there are limitations on their employment in government posts.

A few hundred thousand Palestinians whose families fled from their homes in 1948 live in the Gulf states (according to the data of the PA's refugee affairs ministry, there are 274,000 refugees in Saudi Arabia, 34,000 in Kuwait and 105,000 in the other Gulf states), in other Arab countries and elsewhere in the world. The refugees in the Gulf states do not enjoy civil rights but, overall, are relatively well-off economically. The Palestinian diaspora in the United States numbers about a quarter-of-a-million people, who constitute about 10 percent of the Arab-American community. Most of them are American citizens and have integrated economically and socially.

The UN resolutions

The Palestinians have always claimed that the "right of return" was recognized by the international community. To support this contention, they cited a number of international conventions (including the 1948 Universal Charter of Human Rights), resolutions passed by the UN Security Council (notably Resolution 242 of 1967), and several resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly calling on Israel to permit the refugees to return.

The Palestinians' major legal foundation in this regard is General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 11, 1948. Article 11 of this resolution states that the General Assembly: "Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return ..."

According to the Palestinians, the wording of the resolution obliges the international community to enable the refugees to return to the territory within the 1967 Green Line, even without Israel's consent.

Israel, for its part, has adduced several arguments to rebuff the Palestinians' interpretation. First, Israel says, it was not the aggressor in the war and therefore does not bear responsibility. Second, the implementation of the resolution is not feasible because the refugees do not want to "live at peace with their neighbors." Third, Israel has pointed out that resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding.

In practice, the international community has never pressured Israel to agree to the realization of the right of return. The centrality of this issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict has gone through several transformations. At the end of Israel's War of Independence, the Israeli government expressed its readiness to take in 100,000 refugees, or about 15 percent of the number of refugees at that time, in 1949. About 30,000 returned within the framework of family reunification, but the problem of the rest remained unresolved.

Until 1967, the refugee problem was at the top of the agenda of the Arab states and the Palestinians. The Arab states kept intact the camps in which the refugees settled in order to emphasize their temporary status as refugees, and their intention to bring about the refugees' return to Israel in the future.

Following the rout of the Arabs in the Six-Day War of June 1967, and in the wake of the Palestine Liberation Organization's rise as the Palestinians' representative organization, the question of the right of return gradually took second place to the Palestinians' demand to realize their right of national self-determination. However, at the declaratory level, the PLO continued to insist on the implementation of the right of return in international forums. And from the practical point of view, the plight of the refugees was the organization's main source of strength.

Article V (2) and (3) of the "Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles" - popularly known as the "Oslo accord" - which was signed on September 13, 1993 at the White House, stipulated that the refugee question would be discussed as part of the talks on the permanent settlement: V (2) - "Permanent status negotiations will commence as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period, between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian people representatives."

V (3) - "It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest."

In August 2000, Israeli and Palestinian delegations met at Camp David in an attempt to reach a final resolution of the conflict. The Israeli delegation was led by the prime minister, Ehud Barak; the Palestinian delegation, by PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli view

Israel was convinced that the winning formulation had been found for the refugee question - until Arafat changed his mind. Although the delegations made progress on a number of points at Camp David, they did not succeed in putting together a general package of agreements that would lead to the signing of a permanent settlement. Two months later, the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted.

What happened at Camp David and what part did the question of the right of return play in the failure? Well, it all depends who you ask.

In the eyes of the Israeli negotiators, the story of the failure goes like this: The refugee question had been discussed comprehensively and in detail in talks via "the Swedish channel," which Shlomo Ben-Ami and Gilad Sher had conducted with Abu Ala and Hassan Asfur during the two months that preceded the Camp David talks. The Israeli strategy was to induce the Palestinians to make a historic concession on the right of return, in return for an Israeli concession of the decisive majority of the territories conquered in 1967. The Jerusalem question was outside this equation, the Israeli team viewing it as a separate issue in its own right.

The Swedish channel resulted in an agreement between the sides. Its first part was declaratory, consisting of a joint Israeli-Palestinian document, vaguely worded, presenting a historical recapitulation of the right of return issue in a manner commensurate with the national narratives of the Israelis and the Palestinians alike. The other part got down to the nitty-gritty: a mechanism by which to resolve the refugee problem.

The idea was that the international community would contribute $20 billion over a period of 15 to 20 years to settle all the claims of the refugees. The funds would be given as compensation to refugee households and as an aid grant to countries that would rehabilitate refugees. The refugees would be given three options: to settle in the Palestinian state, to remain where they were, or to immigrate to countries that would voluntarily open their gates to them, such as Canada, Australia and Norway.

The agreement also stated that, with regard to the absorption of Palestinian refugees living in Israel, Israel would be able to continue with its policy of taking in a few thousand refugees on a humanitarian basis and at its sole discretion. It was agreed that the declaration of the termination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be dependent on the conclusion of the process of rehabilitating the refugees. At no stage of the negotiations did Israel agree to take in more than 10,000 refugees.

On the eve of Camp David, the Israeli impression was that the question of the right of return had been satisfactorily resolved. The Israeli side also learned that members of the Palestinians' senior echelon had all given their assent to the agreement reached in the Swedish channel (there was one exception: Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy).

However, in the Camp David talks, the Israelis were astonished to discover that the Palestinians had reverted to their traditional position: a demand that Israel agree unconditionally to the right of return of every refugee who so desired. The right of return became an obstacle in the negotiations, and in the absence of a decision on all the "core issues," it was impossible to achieve any sort of agreement. The negotiations collapsed.

In the Israeli view, the Palestinians lost an opportunity to gain political independence after 53 years of struggle and to resolve the refugee question once and for all with the aid of an unprecedented worldwide mobilization. The Palestinians missed their chance, but Israel could not improve its offer. Ultimately, the sides will return to the negotiating table on the basis of the ideas that were put forward at Camp David.

The Palestinian view

In the eyes of Hassan Asfur, one of the members of the Palestinian delegation, this is the way things look: "Israeli claims in regard to negotiations over the right of return and what was achieved in them are total lies. In the Swedish channel, the subject discussed was the application of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Our position was decisive: To grant each and every Palestinian the right of return. The Israeli side kept trying to negotiate over compensation that would be given to the refugees instead of the right of return, and we refused.

"We agreed to continue the discussions under the assumption that the Israelis would ultimately become more flexible in their position. We did not conduct negotiations on the number of refugees that would receive the right to return to Israel.

"Talk about agreements in which we backed down on the right of return, about a document that would present an agreed-upon narrative, and about an agreement over a mechanism which would allow for compensation for the refugees - such talk is untenable. When we arrived at Camp David, additional discussions took place in which there was no progress made.

"I would like to clarify this issue: There is, as far as we are concerned, no option of relinquishing an absolute, sweeping right of return. Every refugee has the right to return to his homeland."

In contrast to Asfur, other Palestinian representatives describe, off the record, the failure of Camp David in a different light. It is true that in the Swedish channel the discussions resulted in agreement in principle by the Palestinians, according to which they would forgo the total and sweeping right of return of the refugees. The general contours were also worked out for the establishment of an international mechanism that would compensate the refugees and be responsible for allocating funds to the countries involved in the rehabilitation of refugees.

However, contrary to the Israeli version, the sides did not reach full agreement on the right of return issue in the Swedish channel. The Palestinians did not accept the vague wording that was intended to resolve the contradictory narratives of the two nations. They demanded that Israel assume legal and moral responsibility for the situation of the 3.7 million refugees and also apologize to them - a demand to which Israel did not accede.

In addition, the Palestinians wanted the refugees to receive special compensation from Israel for the property and land they left behind, even before they received compensation from the international mechanism that would be set up for this purpose. Israel vehemently refused to accept this demand as well.

The largest disparity between the two sides involved the numerical question: How many refugees would be permitted to return to Israel? Israel agreed to the entry of only 10,000, as part of the family reunification program. The Palestinians insisted that a few hundred thousand refugees, up to half a million, be permitted to return to Israel, this within the framework of Israeli recognition of the principle of the right of return.

At the Camp David talks, the Palestinians also retracted their initial agreement to yield on the question of a comprehensive and total right of return for all the refugees. What Israel perceived as the Palestinians reneging on earlier promises was, from the Palestinians' point of view, a political shift attesting to the democratic character of their society. Arafat discerned fierce opposition among the refugee population, and among the general Palestinian population as well, to the idea of forsaking the right of return. A few of his aides expressed the concern that by dropping the demand for a sweeping right of return, the Palestinian leadership would bring about the establishment of a new political organization that would aim to torpedo a permanent settlement, persuade the refugees to reject the compensation offer, and raise a serious challenge to the authority of the PA.

As the Palestinians saw it, the proposal made by Israel would not be the last one. Israeli consent to permit only 10,000 refugees to return will never lead to the signing of a permanent settlement. Even if it is clear that not every refugee will be able to realize the right of return, Israel, from the Palestinian perspective, will be obliged to put forward a more flexible position than it did at Camp David if it wants to achieve peace.

The numbers don't add up

Is it actually possible to come up with economic and demographic formulas that will resolve the question of the right of return?

Three quantitative issues accompany the discussions of this problem. One is how much money is required to compensate the refugees and to rehabilitate them in other countries, in return for the Palestinians forgoing the right of return. Second, in the event that a sweeping right of return is recognized, how many refugees will in fact want to exercise it? And third, what is the maximum number of refugees that Israel can take in without losing its character as a Jewish state?

Endeavoring to answer all three questions is mostly a guessing game. At Camp David, the sum of $20 billion was bandied about. The researcher Yitzhak Ravid talks about a far larger amount, $150 billion, adding, "It doesn't really matter, though, because there is no more than $10 billion available in the international community to resolve the problem. Past experience shows that no one will want to put up the money. You only have to look at the difficulties the United Nations and UNRWA have had in order to understand the problem."

Dr. Amnon Kartin, a researcher on Jordan, maintains that national longings cannot be bought off with money.

"As part of my research, I examined studies conducted by Arab and Turkish experts among Palestinian fellahin in Jordan. The impression I gleaned was that the whole existence of the refugees in Jordan is summed up in a desire to go back home. That is apparent in their conversations with their children and from their glorification of the past. It runs like a thread through their literature and their discourse. You can identify in them an angry and frustrated need to return home.

"It's not just a manipulation. In terms of scientific research, I can't say that the longing for the homeland has diminished in the young generation. On the other hand, it is impossible to estimate how many of these refugees will really want to exercise the right of return if they are given the opportunity. You can be clever and throw out a number, but that's simply not serious and not scientific."

The director of UNRWA is Peter Hansen, a Danish professor of political science. The organization has its headquarters in Gaza. No one knows better than Hansen just how elusive the mathematics of the Palestinian refugee problem is. His organization is crying out for donations. Hansen was in Vienna last week, in a desperate effort to raise funds.

"In the past 30 years, there was a gradual decline in the amount of money we can allocate for each refugee," he says. "We went down from an allocation of $200 a year per refugee to less than $70 per refugee today. The reason is not that we receive less donations, it is due to the demography of the refugee problem. The increase in numbers makes it very difficult for us to meet the expenses.

"Since the Intifada began, the situation has become worse. We are feeding 190,000 families in Gaza who are in a very serious situation. We have a budget deficit of $65 million. The deficit is the difference between the budget that the UN General Assembly allotted us and the donations we received in practice from the countries of the world."

If the world is not generous to the Palestinian refugees in normal times, what will be the point of promises made by the international community to compensate and rehabilitate them as part of a solution to the problem?

"As a professor of political science, I could say a lot about that. But I am talking about countries that are financing the organization I head, so I will not say anything about the way they keep their promises. The amount of $100 billion, which is being mentioned as the amount that is needed to solve the refugee problem, is higher than all the foreign aid that is given in any one year to all the countries of the world. It is a great deal of money. I can say that a very strong will and very strong motivation will be needed in order to finance the solution of the refugee problem.

"On the other hand, if it will be a solution that will lead to peace - and the world wants very much to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians - the effort might be made."

If a sweeping right of return is recognized, how many refugees will want to exercise it?

"That is the $64-million question. It is impossible to estimate how many refugees will want to return. There is no scientific way to answer that question. There are a tremendous number of unknowns in the equation. I have many acquaintances in the refugee camps. Some of them will want to take advantage of the right of return, but my feeling is that many of them are satisfied with their places of residence. They would like to visit Israel, but not necessarily to return to Israel.

"Many of them live in a more comfortable cultural environment than Israel. They will never give up the right of return, but they will not necessarily want to realize it. I think that on Israel's part, there is a tendency to exaggerate the number of people who will want to exercise the right of return.

"Another thing: There is a widespread view that refugees from Lebanon will want to return to Israel more than refugees from Jordan. It is clear that the refugees in Lebanon live in the hardest conditions, except for those in the territories. But I would like to point out also that many of the speculations about the refugees from one country or another give too much weight, and not necessarily correct weight, to the economic and social differences between the refugees. It is wrong that a distinction between refugees in different countries should become the basis for a solution of the problem."

The Israeli refugees

There are Palestinian refugees in Israel, too. Two months ago the Arab Culture Association in Nazareth organized, for the first time, a "back-to-the-roots" trip to Arab villages in Galilee that were destroyed in 1948. On this outing, tour guides, along with elderly people who were eye-witnesses to the destruction, told the participants the history of each village and talked about the size of its population before the "Naqba" - referring to what the Palestinians call the "calamity" of 1948 - as well as how the expulsion was implemented.

The goal of such "heritage" outings, according to the association is to acquaint the young Palestinians in Israel with the history of their people. To the surprise of the organizers, the trips have proved very popular and, to date, 35 have been organized.

Raouda Atallah, the head of the association (and the sister of MK Azmi Bishara), says the trips have an important educational value: They fill in what the textbooks of the Education Ministry leave out.

"Only in Israel are people who were expelled from their land forbidden to learn about their history," she observes. But to the organizers and the participants, the trips also have a practical value: They attest to the vitality of the demand to return the Palestinian displaced persons now living in Israel to their villages.

In the past year, awareness of the refugees living in Israel itself has increased among Israel's Arab population. These are the people whom Israel defines as "present absentees" - referring to Palestinians who left their homes in 1948, but remained within the boundaries of the Green Line and received Israeli citizenship.

The discussion about the right of return at Camp David, and the subsequent failure of the summit talks, helped generate interest in the subject, which is expressed not only in the form of the heritage outings of the Arab Culture Association, but also in articles in the press, books and in a more thorough study by young Arabs of their past.

Attorney Wakim Wakim is secretary of the National Council for the Defense of the Rights of Displaced Persons in Israel, the major group involved in advancing the right of return of the refugees in Israel. The organization is gathering momentum from day to day, he says.

"There is no such thing as 'present absentees' - under international law they are refugees," Wakim explains, adding that he estimates there are 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Israel. "Historically, the refugees in Israel made their demand to return to their homes part of the demand to find a solution for the problem of the refugees overall. But since the Oslo accord was signed, activity has begun inside the Green Line and our association was established."

What are your demands?

Wakim: "We demand unequivocally to return to our villages. In March 2000, we held a conference in Nazareth at which we emphasized that we reject any alternative to a return to the villages. There were 280 representatives of the refugees in Israel at the meeting, who stated unequivocally: We will not agree to any other solution. We insist on our right to realize the right of return. We will not agree to accept compensation. Any agreement that is signed between the PA and Israel that disavows our right to return to our villages will not be binding on us, and is null and void. We have not forgotten and we will not forget our homes.

"There is a complete consensus on this subject among the Arab public. Today the Arab public understands that a solution of the problem of the refugees living in Israel will also solve our land distress as well. This is not a problem of history or nostalgia. It is a day-to-day, existential problem.

"In the al-Safafra neighborhood of Nazareth, where refugees from the village of Sefuria [Zippori] live, the residents preserve their identity and their ties to the village from which they were expelled. They have no land on which to build. But two kilometers away, there is a Jewish community that has thousands of dunams of land, even though there are only a few hundred residents there. People have to understand this problem."

What kind of concrete activity do you engage in?

"We intend to hold a population census in the near future, in order to find out the exact number of refugees living in Israel. During the census, we will go from locale to locale, we will learn about the economic and political situation of the refugees, and we will examine how many of them want to realize the right of return. We will not put up with the situation as it is now. We are not even thinking about expelling or removing Jewish settlements inside the Green Line, but we insist on our right to return to land on which there are no Jewish homes."

On what do you base your demand?

"Legally, Israel is obliged to uphold UN [General Assembly] Resolution 194. In addition, the Israeli legal system views us as citizens, and therefore we enjoy the right to live anywhere in Israel and to move about anywhere. We are not just refugees, we are refugees who have backing by virtue of the fact of being citizens."

What you are saying is straight out of the greatest nightmare of the Israeli left. In fact, you are saying that even an agreement with the PLO on the right of return will not put an end to the claims of the Palestinians.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as an 'Israeli left' because I don't see it anywhere. As a Palestinian living in Israel, who is aware also of his national affiliation, I say it is impossible to achieve a durable peace if the root of the problem is not resolved. If the Israelis will not understand that the root of the problem lies in the fact that 72 percent of the Palestinian people are refugees and displaced persons, there will not be a peace agreement. From our point of view, that is self-evident, it is something that passes from one generation to the next.

"The fact that Israeli public opinion doesn't understand this is due to the fact that the Israeli governments always hid all the crimes and massacres that were perpetrated against the Palestinians. Many Israelis don't know that there are 4.5 million refugees outside the borders of Israel. Do you know that a massacre was perpetrated in nearly every Palestinian settlement?"

Expulsion or flight?

A new study describes the events that led to the abandonment of Sheikh Munis, the village that became a symbol. Like attorney Wakim, official Palestinian publicity maintains that the story of the 1948 refugees is the story of people who were expelled from their land by force.

"The Palestinian refugee problem was not created out of a confrontation in which the Zionist forces defeated numerically superior Arab forces and the Palestinians left voluntarily, it was created by a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing," states an information document of the Palestinian ministry for refugee affairs. "The Israeli troops forcibly expelled 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land; the residents of 418 villages were uprooted and the villages destroyed."

The truth is both different and more complex than the propaganda. An example is the story of the village of Sheikh Munis, which was located north of Tel Aviv, on the land where the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv was built. The resplendent house of the mukhtar (headman) of Sheikh Munis, known as the "Green House," is now the flagship restaurant of Tel Aviv University. Ramat Aviv and Tel Aviv University are considered bastions of the Israeli left.

The abandoned village of Sheikh Munis has become one of the symbols of the Palestinian refugee problem. Both Palestinians and right-wing Israelis say that it symbolizes the hypocrisy of the Israeli left, whose supporters are living and prospering on Palestinian land and have the effrontery to preach peace and reconciliation to others.

The historian Haim Fireberg is currently making a study of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict in the urban area of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. One of the subjects of his research is the village of Sheikh Munis. Personally, he supports giving the Palestinians a sweeping right of return - but also supports the right of the Jewish settlers to remain in their homes (he himself is a resident of the urban settlement of Alfei Menashe).

Fireberg's historical findings will not necessarily serve the interests of the Palestinian narrative. In his study of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, he found no evidence of the violent expulsion of Arabs or of any intention to expel them by force. On the other hand, the residents of Sheikh Munis did not simply wake up one morning and decide to leave their homes for good.

>From Israel's point of view, Sheikh Munis was of considerable strategic importance in the War of Independence. It overlooked both Sde Dov, which in 1948 was the major airport of the state-in-the-making, and the Reading power plant. The armed residents of the village posed a potential threat to the surrounding communities.

Toward the end of February 1948, the senior commanders of the Haganah - the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces - began to take note of what was happening in Sheikh Munis. Their concern was that the growing self-confidence of the Palestinians in Jaffa would spread to the village leaders. At the beginning of March, the Haganah General Staff received reports according to which Arab volunteers had entered Sheikh Munis, carrying large quantities of arms. Contradictory reports that arrived from veteran informers of the Haganah did not allay the fears.

Fomenting panic

On March 7, Yigael Sukenik (Yadin) ordered the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade to lay siege to all the access roads to the village. On March 12, five residents of the village were kidnapped and taken to an unknown destination. According to one version, the kidnappers were members of the dissident underground IZL (Israel Military Organization), while other accounts attributed the act to the more extreme underground group Lehi (Israel Freedom Fighters).

On the same day, several Palestinians complained to the commander of the "General Service" in Tel Aviv, Zvi Averbuch, about thefts committed by Jews in Sheikh Munis. They also complained that they were being humiliated by Jews and were objects of their contempt. Haganah soldiers who conducted patrols around the village and opened fire randomly contributed to the sense of panic.

According to the written testimonies, the Haganah did not intend to expel the residents of Sheikh Munis. Fireberg found that the Haganah's intentions were purely military in character: To impose a siege that would isolate the village and not enable the residents to link up with Arab forces in the Jaffa-Lod sector. Shmaya Bekenstein, a top officer in the Kiryati Brigade, expressed the hope, which was documented in the operations log of the brigade on March 17, 1948, that it would be possible to ensure quiet in the region by means of cooperation between the "moderate" circles in Sheikh Munis and "Jews who are well-acquainted with the village and its residents."

On March 20, 1948, soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade began to encircle Sheikh Munis. Houses on the edges of the village were seized. Within 24 hours, a mass flight began of more than 3,000 inhabitants of the village. Residents of Sheikh Munis - rich and poor, young and old - left in a panic, leaving behind much property. In the Green House, the home of the village mukhtar, Ibrahim Abu Kahil, boxes of household utensils were found afterward, as well as many other items laid out on the floor, ready for packing.

The direct cause of the flight from Sheikh Munis is not entirely clear. One possibility is that the residents were fearful of the Haganah's "true" intentions, or perhaps Jewish "friends" intimated to them that it would be best for them if they left. Or, possibly, the leaders of the Arab forces in Jaffa called on them to leave the village, based on the mistaken assumption that this would induce the British to intervene in the area of north Tel Aviv.

Maybe the combination of all these factors precipitated the mass exodus.

In any event, after the residents fled, units of the Kiryati Brigade entered the village. The headquarters of the task force were set up in the Green House. The soldiers, along with officials of the Tel Aviv Municipality, immediately began to make a record of the property left behind by the Palestinians.

The chief of the General Service, Zvi Averbuch, was concerned that the village would become the object of looting by Jewish forces. He recommended the "speedy entry of [Jewish] refugees" from the outlying areas of Tel Aviv into Sheikh Munis. The village became the home of destitute Jewish refugees, who clung to the land and the homes they received. Within a year, some 3,000 Jews were settled in 200 of the village's abandoned homes.

The study shows that the circumstances under which Sheikh Munis metamorphosed into Ramat Aviv are not black-and-white. In fact, it doesn't really make a difference. As Prof. Edward Said notes, the reason for the flight of the refugees is totally irrelevant; what matters is their right to return.

Your home is my home

Not even in return for a million dollars will Ahmed Jarmi forsake Jaffa. Jarmi was five years old when his family left Jaffa in 1948. First they fled to Taibe, and a few weeks later, they moved to the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tul Karm, just across the Green Line. At the age of 12, Jarmi was sent to Damascus to live with his uncles, refugees from Tiberias. He worked in a bakery and didn't attend school. When he was 19, he joined the Fatah organization and moved to Lebanon. He was a fighter, driver and chef.

In 1967, at the order of his superiors, he went to Jordan, where he was wounded, three years later, in the events of "Black September" (the battle between Jordanian troops and the PLO, which climaxed in September 1970), following which he returned to Lebanon and married, eventually fathering seven children. In 1982, he was expelled from Beirut along with the Palestinian forces and moved with them to Tunis. In 1986, following an improvement in relations between the PLO and Iraq, Jarmi was ordered to move to Baghdad.

Eight years later, in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian Cairo agreement and Arafat's return to Gaza, Jarmi and his family moved to the Balata refugee camp next to Nablus in the West Bank. Thirteen members of the family - Jarmi, his wife, their children and their grandchildren - now live in a four-room rented house.

Jaffa is a distant memory in the life of Ahmed Jarmi, who is now 67 and still in "active service" in the Palestinian police. He remembers only that he lived close to the sea and that the house was somewhere in the center of the city. Nevertheless, Jarmi says, he will never give up his right of return to his Jaffa home, not under any conditions or circumstances. And, he says, it's not just a matter of sentiment.

Then why?

Jarmi: "It is a sacred principle. I have lived in many countries and everywhere I went, I was treated as a refugee. Here, too, in Balata, I am treated as a refugee. I hear it at every opportunity. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have stayed in Iraq. There, at least, I got used to the surroundings I lived in. I still have not got used to Balata. The whole peace process was a deception and a bluff. What do we get out of it if I can't go back to Jaffa?"

You live in harsh conditions. If you get financial compensation, will that persuade you to remain in Balata and give up the right of return?

"Even if I will have enough money to buy half of Nablus, that would still not solve the problem. Even if I had a million dollars, I would still be treated as a refugee. What good will money do me?"

Where exactly in Jaffa would you return to?

"I don't know. It's not important. The main thing is to return to Jaffa."

Bassem, Jarmi's son, who is 25, also serves in the Palestinian police. He has never been to Jaffa. Yet he clings to the right of return even more tenaciously than his father.

"In every Arab country I studied in I was treated like a stranger. One day, in Iraq, I had a quarrel with another student over a pencil. He said the pencil was his, I said it was mine. And then he said, 'Isn't it enough that you are a refugee, do you want my pencil, too?'"

Asked if returning to Jaffa will solve the problem, and whether it would be better to make do with compensation, Bassem answers: "Who will compensate me and my family for all the suffering we went through? Financial compensation cannot replace the right of return. I prefer to live in a tent in Jaffa than to stay here. The main thing is to go back to where I belong."

July 2001


(July 31, 2001)
The Arabs are so weak in the Middle East and in the world for reasons that go deep into history and culture. This isn't a genetic matter, it's the way they are politically and socially organized in "modern times" that creates an absurd situation whereby a small resourceless country like Israel can dominate some 23 Arab countries with a population nearly as large as the United States.

(July 31, 2001)
Arafat has once again trapped and imprisoned his own people -- keep reading. Wherever he has set up his headquarters corruption, repression, nepotism, and scandal have followed. And always these realities of what we have termed the "Arafat regime" are exploited to further fracture and weaken the Palestinian people -- a people whose basic claim to independence, "return", and reparations should at this point be unassailable.

(July 30, 2001)
About that report published "in full" in the Saudi Royal Family London newspaper Al-Hayat over the weekend and then, it now appears erroneously, picked up by Israel's top newspaper Ha'aretz. We already mentioned that the whole thing seemed suspicious. And sure enough with the Monday dawn of a new week and a little fast checking it seems the author, long-time military analysis and close CIA confidant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Anthony Cordesman, says he didn't write it and the whole thing looks like a set-up.

(July 30, 2001)
The report in Saturday's Ha'aretz is not up to their usual standards as names are misspelled and context missing -- it appears to be a journalistic quickie. But even so, and though the Israelis aren't going to admit it, they are becoming more nervous and insecure about their future. And among other reasons that's why they choose the heretofore unelectable Ariel Sharon as their Prime Minister.

(July 29, 2001)
In 1967, as the Israeli army took control of all of Jerusalem, the Israeli Flag flew on what the Jews call "the Temple Mount" for the first time since Christ and Mohamed walked the area. Sensing what this could lead to General Moshe Dayan quickly ordered the flag lowered, turned the area that the Muslims call "the Noble Sanctuary", al Haram al Sharif, back over to the Islamic authorities, and though Israel claims sovereignty it's flag has never flown again over the area of the Temple Mount

(July 29, 2001)
It was "radical" groups that emplanted themselves in the city of Hebron a long time ago, back in fact when the Labor party was still supreme in Israeli affairs. And just look today at that city where the common forefather of both the Jews and the Arabs is buried.

(July 28, 2001)
Arab leaders have warned that a messianic Jewish organisation's plan to make the first move towards rebuilding the Biblical Temple in Jerusalem is a "dangerous step" that could lead to uncontrollable consequences.

(July 28, 2001)
After today's previous MER article was published -- "God War Emerging In Holy Land" -- this Agence France-Presse article has just come over the wires. Characteristically the representatives of the Hashemite Kingdom -- the regime that has been most complicitous in secretly collaborating with the Israelis for decades to control the Palestinians sandwiched between them -- are publicly posturing in one way while actually acting in another.

(July 28, 2001)
In the years since the turn of the millenium the Arab-Israeli conflict is being transformed into an even more dangerous and potentially cataclysmic Muslim-Jewish war. Ariel Sharon's "visit" to the Temple Mount last year, accompanied by a huge military force, helped sparked Intifada II -- make no mistake about that.

(July 27, 2001)
In the end the Israelis are likely to find a way to deal with this new situation. They have great resources at their disposal when it comes to the media, intelligence information, lobbying capabilities, help from key governments in the US, UK, and Germany. They have a long history of twisting things to their advantage one way or another. And those opposed to them have a long reputation for much the opposite in fact.

(July 27, 2001)
The Israelis probably prefer Arafat dead at this point; but not at their own hand, at least not directly. Indeed, many of those who used the "Oslo Peace Process" to end Intifada I probably thought Arafat would have either been assassinated or died by now, leaving behind a "peace process" legacy as did Anwar Sadat when he was gunned down by his own soldiers just a few years after reluctantly signing on-the-dotted-line at Camp David 1.

(July 26, 2001)
NEWSFLASH Thursday Evening 9pm ET: An Israeli teenager has been killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank and three bombs have gone off in the West Bank near Israeli vehicles. The attacks came hours after Palestinians buried a militant killed in an Israeli missile attack. Israeli tanks also shelled Palestinian police posts in a village north of Ramallah and a checkpoint run by Force 17, an elite unit of the police, south of the town, not far from the site of the shooting, said Palestinian security sources.

(July 26, 2001)
Everywhere the settlements continue to expand even as the Israelis constantly twist their words as well as the facts. The Israelis know very well what they are doing and what they want -- they are taking the land and the resources from the indigenous people and then isolating the people in what amount to ghettos and concentration camps calling them "autonomous" areas.

(July 25, 2001)
The Israeli army is partially mobilized and positioned for a quick and multi-directional assault on the forces of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, ironically armed by the Israelis themselves in years past. Draft mobilization offices have been opened by the Israelis in key U.S. and European cities. The Israelis propaganda machine has been beefed up and already beginning to operate on all cylinders.

(July 25, 2001)
"Israel says Arafat is not doing enough to bolster a US-brokered truce, demanding he arrest activists and stop attacks against armed Jewish settlers and soldiers in occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza. But Arafat has said he is not in control of security in occupied areas. Palestinians blame Israel for the on-going violence"

(July 25, 2001)
Ariel Sharon has always been scamming everyone. His long career in the military is full of deception and treachery in public while committing blood-curdling massacres in private. In the most notorious case of all, the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps of 1982 ...

(July 25, 2001)
The latest dueling, in advance of the "big bang" which Arafat himself now says is definitely coming -- and whose real purpose by the Israeli right-wing is to end the "Oslo Peace Process" once and for all -- is a battle for public opinion conducted through a convoluted debate over who offered what to whom and who is responsible for the failing of the "peace process".

(July 24, 2001)
The following two articles are from publications associated with Janes Intelligence Weekly in the U.K. But what's looked at here are the short-term implications and the correct assessment that the very weak and in most cases U.S.-controlled Arab "client regimes" in the region will find one way or another to avoid any military clashes with the vastly superior Israelis.

(July 24, 2001)
Those who have read MER for some time know that we have long indicated that one of the Israeli goals was to foment a Palestinian civil war. Some of the Israelis, dubbed the "peace camp", preferred to twist Arafat into totally succumbing and signing some kind of "end of conflict" agreement along with creation of a rump and everywhere-controlled Palestinian State.

(July 24, 2001)
The latest dueling, in advance of the "big bang" -- whose real purpose by the Israeli right-wing is to end the "Oslo Peace Process" once and for all -- is a battle for public opinion conducted through a convoluted debate over who offered what to whom and who is responsible for the failing of the "peace process".

(July 23, 2001)
Ehud Barak is in the U.S. explaining why his former "peace partner" Arafat is really a big thug who can't possibly be believed or trusted, and how he Barak proved it, kind of sacrificing himself he continually implies.

(July 21, 2001)
Goebbels himself could not have done a better job. For those who don't recognize the name, check back in the not too distant history books under the heading Nazi Information Ministry.

(July 20, 2001)
At first we had the adjective "cowardly" as a preface to "Arabs" in the headline. Let's be clear what we mean here. We're not talking about the Arab peoples, nor about those who do the brave struggling...and the real suffering...and the bleeding and the dying.

(July 20, 2001)
No way to know for sure, but if we had to predict at this moment the "Big Bang" (see previous "War Drums" articles for context) will be heard not this week but next after the Maccabiah games have ended and the G8 leaders survive Genoa.

(July 19, 2001)
With the unprecedented "Red Zone" in Genoa; with key Washington buildings surrounded by concrete and high-tech survelliance; and with Americans warned again by their government to "beware" following on last month's Threatcon Delta alert; the "terrorists" have already accomplished a small part of their goal.

(July 19, 2001)
It's that little old problem rearing it's ugly head again -- calls that come much too late and even then call for much too little. Worse yet the calls come in very self-serving ways from persons and institutions whose past records make them not very credible, and certainly not very potent.

(July 18, 2001)
The "Oslo Peace Process" -- which would have been more aptly named the "Rabin" or the "Clinton" -- has been brain-dead for some time now; kept alive only by extraordinary life-support efforts by its parent surrogates.

(July 18, 2001)
With both Turkey and India the Israelis are developing formidable military, financial, and intelligence alliances surrounding the Arab and Muslim worlds. These relationships tremendously strengthen the Jewish State financially, militarily, and strategically at a very critical time.

(July 17, 2001)
"This could result in a bloodbath and thereby set the entire region aflame. It's not out of the question that demonstrations could topple unpopular regimes in Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia... The tinderbox is awaiting a match."

(July 17, 2001)
It's beginning to appear that it's just a matter of time now for Arafat to finally be gone. As far as the Israelis and Americans are concerned, it no longer really matters like it use to.

(July 17, 2001)
"No power in the world can stop the resistance operations that come as a reaction to the Israeli aggression ... we have nothing more to lose."

(July 16, 2001)
A few years ago when the Americans essentially forced Yasser Arafat to sign one of those deals, this one about Hebron, that was supposed to push the "peace process" forward, it was foreseeable that sooner rather than later Hebron would once again erupt.

(July 15, 2001)
Today the Egyptians hosted Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat in Cairo. It's a replay of this kind of thing they've been doing for quite some years now. The Egyptians are at it again, fronting for the Americans as they have ever since the original Camp David extravaganza in 1978.

(July 15, 2001)
Longtime top adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Osama el-Baz, has issued a not-so-veiled warning to the Israelis not to attack Syria. The head of Egyptian military intelligence rushed to Israel a few days ago supposedly to warn the Israelis not to dethrone Yasser Arafat.

(July 14, 2001)
While the Israelis and the Arabs confront each other in a conflict that may now last for a very long time and even lead to a Middle East holocaust in the future; and while the other "peace process" in Northern Ireland also collapses due to its similar duplicitous nature; it is in the subcontinent that the race toward a possible nuclear conflagration is furthest advanced at this moment in history.

(July 13, 2001)
It was another top General turned State Department Secretary who gave Ariel Sharon the behind-the-scenes "green light" back in 1982 - General Alexander Haig.

(July 13, 2001)
What we feared has come true: Two ethno-national groups, living in each other's backyards, are going through a proces of regression to superstitious tribalism. The sounds of the drums are heard throughout the land calling both tribes to gather around the campfire, dress in the colors of war and head out to battle to eliminate the very last member of the other side.

(July 13, 2001)
What are we to call this situation? "War Watch", the sides are far too uneven, it's not really going to be a war...not unless one or more of the Arab regimes should find itself cornered or facing revolution.

(July 12, 2001)
A few barks from the sniffers dogs and even after all the security checks required to get into the White House grounds the Secret Service pulled the alarm and quickly began the evacuation procedure.

(July 12, 2001)
Israeli generals have updated plans for an all-out assault to smash the Palestinian authority, force out leader Yasser Arafat and kill or detain its army, according to a report published Thursday in London.

(July 12, 2001)
The report that a force of some 30,000 Israeli troops is preparing to take on Arafat's "Authority" and bring it to an end was just published in one of the most reputable international publications, one published by the Janes Intelligence network in the U.K. and available only to members who pay a sizeable yearly subscription fee.

(July 11, 2001)
Whatever the truth of Israel's latest allegations against both the Arafat Authority and Iran, there should be little doubt what the Israelis are really up to at this point, with Shimon Peres leading the charge.

(July 11, 2001)
It's all part of the same game. The Israelis think they have the Palestinians trapped. They publicly debate how to put them in their place with bulldozers, expulsions, invasion, awaiting the "big bang".

(July 10, 2001)
Nearly half of the Israeli Jewish population got a stern warning yesterday - don't drink the water. Today Israel's lifeline, it's international airport between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is under virtual siege with huge traffic jams as all vehicles undergo the kind of rigorous fender-to-fender inspection previously reserved for just "Arab" cars with special blue plates.

(July 10, 2001)
While the legacy of British colonialism still lingers in Palestine and Kashmir, still threatening cataclysmic conflict in both regions, in Algeria it is the legacy of French colonialism, which also of course still has loud echoes in Lebanon and Syria.

(July 10, 2001)
The Egyptians are arming with missiles to deter Israeli strikes against Egyptian cities or strategic targets such as the Aswan dam. These may be conceived as deterrent weapons; but they also could be used in other situations.

(July 9, 2001)
"The stage, therefore, has been set for the outbreak of the next wear: wall-to-wall political approval for a military solution to the current crisis, the appropriate international preparations during the period of restraint."

(July 7, 2001)
"Who will compensate me and my family for all the suffering we went through? Financial compensation cannot replace the right of return....The main thing is to go back to where I belong."

(July 7, 2001)
This is the way such things are done these days. Lots of testing of the waters. Lots of preparing the way. Lots of trial balloons. If (probably no longer when) the Israelis "remove" Arafat one way or another -- just as it was they who put him where he is in the first place -- it will no longer come as such a great shock.

(July 6, 2001)
Having to a considerable extent succeeding in colonizing the "occupied territories", especially the most important areas around Jerusalem and the most cultivatable areas along with the crucial water resources, the Israelis are now ready for more fences and barricades.

(July 6, 2001)
He's not likely to be stopped now. He's prepared most of his life for this moment in history. And as Israeli Prime Minister for just the past few months he's already visited the American President twice, Downing Street, and now both Germany and France, applauded in public more for his "restraint" as the "new Sharon" rather than for his war criminal past and the neo-apartheid oppression machine he now bears full responsibility for.

(July 5, 2001)
Just what "cease-fire" is Sarid talking about? And if he really wants a serious outside force, why is he not appealing to the U.N. under Chapter 7 and why are not the Arabs included?

(July 4, 2001)
Ariel Sharon and his government are preparing the way to kill more Palestinian street and faction leaders using various forms of high-tech assassination. They are also preparing world public opinion not only for bringing the Arafat "Authority" to an end but for killing and expelling as many Palestinians as circumstances will allow.

(July 3, 2001)
Of course Sharon's comment yesterday is ridiculous. Problem is the strategy behind it is not. "You must comply, resistance is futile" is indeed the loud message from Sharon to Arafat; and Sharon does intend to prove his words in the weeks and months ahead, make no mistake about that.

(July 2, 2001)
Ariel Sharon has Yasser Arafat cornered now -- right where he wants him. Sharon has in essence forced Arafat to publicly call off the Intifada -- or else Sharon made it rather clear, most of all to his American allies, that he would call off Arafat's regime whatever the consequences.

(July 1, 2001)
Five Palestinian militants have been killed by Israeli forces, three in a pinpoint helicopter attack and two in a clash with soldiers. The helicopter fired missiles at a car in which the three men were travelling near Qabatiye in the northern West Bank, Palestinian security officials said.

(July 1, 2001)
The Arabs have an amazing tolerance for being struck. Partly it is because of their weakness of course; coupled with their long history of subjugation and occupation. But those who know Arab society also are aware that after taking it and taking it there sometimes comes a moment of powerful emotional uproar screaming for revenge.

(July 1, 2001)
While Ariel Sharon uses the greatest pressure of all so far in order to bow the Arafat regime into submission -- the possibility of crushing Arafat's "Authority" through brut military force -- at the same time he holds out the carrot.

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