Israeli diplomats across the globe have recently been reporting that what, until now, has been limited to a discourse of accepting “the other’s tragedy”—namely, the story of the 750,000 Arabs who were forced to leave their homes in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence—is turning into a discussion of the practical aspects of how the so-called Palestinian “right of return” to Israel within the 1967 borders will be implemented. This includes mass “return” to cities like Jaffa, Lod, Akko, Ramle and Haifa, among others, and the reestablishment and repopulation of hundreds of villages that were abandoned and/or destroyed during the war.

For a while, it was mainly various BDS groups, Palestinians living abroad, Arabs in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, and some Arab Israelis—particularly in mixed cities—who were focused on the issue. Now, a probe by Israel Hayom reveals that some left-wing Israeli groups (Jewish, Arab and Jewish-Arab) have been laying the groundwork, both in terms of public opinion and practicalities, for “the return.” They are preparing lesson plans about the possibility as well as documents designed to help people “imagine the return” so it can be “implemented.” The groups are busy allocating lands to the refugees or their descendants and trying to sell the idea to the Jewish public.

A little background: During Israel’s War of Independence—which erupted after the Arabs rejected the U.N. Partition Plan and launched an assault on the Jewish community in Israel—hundreds of Arab villages and populated areas were destroyed. Of the some 750,000 Arabs who lived there, only about 160,000 remained. The rest became refugees. Since then, the Palestinians have demanded that Israel allow the remaining refugees and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to exercise what they call “the right of return.” The Palestinians number these refugees at about 7.4 million. Palestinian refugee status is the only one in the world that is passed down from one generation to the next. The U.N. even established a refugee organization exclusively for them—UNRWA.

Israel rejects the return demand. The right and the Zionist left agree that, if it were allowed, it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and possibly as a state at all. Veteran historian and educator Dr. Zvi Zameret defines “return” as “an end to the vision of a Jewish state, as it is expressed in the Declaration of Independence.”

“When Jews join some of the Arabs in marking the ‘Nakba,’ the significance is that they are marking the Arab failure to annihilate us. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘Sorry we won,’” Zameret notes.

“Rejecting the ‘return’ was never a matter of dispute between the right and the left. Former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid was among the most stringent opponents of the ‘right of return,’ and so was [former Labor MK] Lova Eliav,” he adds.

Ben-Dror Yemini, who has written many books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notes that the people who mark the Nakba do not seek to commemorate a humanitarian disaster, but rather delegitimize Israel and help eliminate it. Yemini reminds us that, in 1948, Arab leaders were planning to kill all the Jews. There is no reason to commemorate their defeat, he says, “Just like there’s no festival to mark the ‘Nakba’ that the Allies perpetrated on Germany.”

Zameret says, “The Declaration of Independence makes various references to the Jewish people 19 times, and emphasizes the fact that we are a people, not just a religion.” He adds that the fact that, today, Jewish Israeli organizations promote Palestinian “return” is inconceivable from a moral, Zionist and Jewish point of view.

‘A tool to train the imagination’

But the extreme left in Israel has long since abandoned the codes of morality, Zionism and Judaism—which the large majority of the Jewish public shares. They’ve shifted gears. A leader of the battle to implement Palestinian return is the organization Zochrot, which was founded 20 years ago. Zochrot now hosts workshops, conferences, study groups and activities to inculcate the “practicalities of return.”

Zochrot also cooperates with Palestinian groups in Bethlehem, Haifa and Nazareth and hosts workshops for Palestinian youth “while thinking together what the return would look like in reality, when most of the former Palestinian homes have been destroyed or are populated by Jewish Israelis.”

One of the actions Zochrot has taken is to found a “Council of Return,” a forum of Jewish Israeli men and women, which launched in 2018. Since then, the word has spread through different channels. The council has prepared a work plan that suggests using “a model of tours hosted by Zochrot [of abandoned Arab communities] as a tool to train the imagination in the practical aspects of return and a symbolic act of return, if only for a short while.” A chapter titled “How Israel Will Look After Return” explains that “as part of the understanding of the significance and feasibility of return, the space it will create must be imagined and planned for.”

The chapter on land ownership is illuminating: “Return will demand reforms to land ownership that can be based on the state holding 93% of the land, when that land was mostly owned by Palestinians until the establishment of the state and stolen from them.”

An action plan from the council goes on to explain the “guiding principle”: that the refugees’ land be returned to them, while finding “appropriate and humane solutions” that will not harm or create distress for the current residents. The council proposes setting up special courts to be charged with expediting the return of land and proposals for solutions. In certain circumstances, they say, it will be possible to lease land to the people currently residing on it and compensate the owners for not being able to return to it. Former Palestinian communities can opt to merge when they are reestablished, and local economic assets can be transferred to the ownership of Palestinian communities, the council suggests.

But these unprecedented proposals are just the beginning. The work plan goes on to suggest that the state build homes, infrastructure, hospitals, schools, create places of work near home and handle the problem of population density that will be created. The council wants the government to “encourage” different groups to mix more and live with less separation. One example would be to send the returnees to Jewish communities or urban neighborhoods built on the ruins of previous villages.

A few of the activists who took part in preparing the work plan convened in the Left Bank club in Tel Aviv. The event was documented in a forgotten video, which reveals a great deal about the internal world and values of its authors. Yossi Makaitan, for example, a resident of Beersheva and a member of the Jewish-Israeli Forum for Return, talked about preparing the Israeli public for the process and defined “the attempt to imagine a collective Jewish existence without a Jewish state” as a “brilliant” idea.

Norma Musih, one of the founders of Zochrot, said that she had begun thinking about return during a tour of abandoned Arab villages. She suggested that the tours could be “return practice” and used to train ourselves to think about it. Former Balad MK Nibin Abu Rahmoun admitted that the event made the Palestinians feel good, since, “They always talk about [return] as if it isn’t real.”

‘We want to win’

Zochrot insists that hope is a “radical position.” According to the watchdog NGO Monitor, one of its conferences included groups that receive money from the New Israel Fund and the European Union. The conference was co-hosted with the Palestinian organization Badil, a radical anti-Zionist group. In 2012, NGO Monitor said, “The two groups, Zochrot and Badil, published a document calling for de-Zionization and a one-state solution. The conference was supported by an American Christian group that leads anti-Israel campaigns and BDS campaigns in churches and on college campuses. That group is also involved in promoting proposals to divest from Israel, and receives support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.”

Zochrot and Badil are not alone. In recent years, another dozen or so groups have moved their focus from the “Nakba” to “return.”

For example, Sali Abed, one of the leaders of the Jewish-Arab group Standing Together, was quoted in another report saying, “When we talk about the Nakba, which is an important step, we’re always aware of how it affects our strategy—we don’t want to be right. We want to win.”

The group Sikkuy-Aufoq—for a Shared and Equal Society—founded by Professor Faisal Azaiza from Sakhnin and the late Aluf Hareven, has recently been talking about recognizing the Nakba as well as “righting the wrong” by bringing the refugees back. It refers people to “Zochrot’s excellent content.” Another group that has recently seen some of its members talk about return is Combatants for Peace. These members conduct guided tours of abandoned Arab villages in Israel and hold Israeli-Palestinian Nakba commemorations.

Many have forgotten that in 2001, Israel passed a law rejecting the right of return. The law states that “refugees will not return to Israeli territory unless it is with the approval of a Knesset majority.” The law discusses Palestinian refugees, but without going into details about Palestinian identity, and it rejects any right of return. The Nakba Law, passed in 2011, gives the Finance Ministry the authority to dock the budgets of government-funded institutions that call for or work toward the end of Israel as a Jewish state, as well as deny funding to groups that mark Independence Day as a day of mourning.

This law is virtually unenforced, while the government continues to effectively fund MKs and parties like Ra’am and the Joint List, many of whose members publicly speak out against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and hold Nakba ceremonies on Independence Day. For the first time, an Arab party—Ra’am—became a member of the governing coalition, despite its official support for implementing return for Palestinian refugees.

‘We murdered the Arab Jebusites’

The Arab school system in Israel still teaches a book by Ghassan Kanafani called Return to Haifa. Kanafani, a native of Acre who was a writer and spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was killed in Beirut by Israeli forces in 1972, two months after the slaughter at the Lod airport perpetrated by a branch of the PFLP. The book deals with an encounter between Arab refugees who return to their homes in Haifa after the 1967 Six-Day War and the Holocaust survivors who live there. The book centers around the Nakba experience and Palestinian return.

Zameret, who was chair of the Education Ministry’s Pedagogic Department, disqualified the book from the curriculum and was attacked for his decision by radical leftists and groups like Zochrot.

“The book supposedly presents both sides of the conflict,” Zameret says. “The Palestinian side represents Zionism as having allied itself with British colonialism, fulfilled its aspirations, stole another people’s country, erased their identity and oppressed every liberation movement. Mount Zion is described by the Palestinians as a mountain that looks over the eastern half of Jerusalem, which is in Palestine, and [the book] explains that in that same part of the city, the Jebusites once lived. When King David conquered the city [it says], he emptied Jebus [as Jerusalem was then known] of its residents, seized the fort that was on the mount and called it Zion. In short, we are criticized as having expelled and murdered all the Jebusites, the ‘Arab Jebusites.’ That is what they wanted us to approve.”

Zameret cannot comprehend how the Israeli school system allows Arab schools to teach Return to Haifa.

“Then they wonder that left-wing Israeli groups, Jewish and Arab, are actively promoting right of return, and preparing lesson plans to further increase awareness of the lies about the nakba,” he says.

Q: The groups that mark the Nakba claim that a disaster befell the Arabs who lived here, that this is their narrative and a democracy must accept that.

A: “But you see that it doesn’t end there. Marking the ‘disaster’ leads to growing activity to implement return. By the way, a disaster befell us too. There were 6,000 casualties and about 30,000 wounded in the War of Independence. Today that would be the equivalent of 60,000 dead and 300,000 wounded. We were lucky we had [Josef] Stalin. Yes, Stalin. David Ben-Gurion once told me, in these words, ‘We have a state thanks to Stalin, curse him.’ The entire west abandoned us. If it hadn’t been for Stalin, who ordered six countries to vote in favor of founding a Jewish state on Nov. 29 and supplied us with weapons, and vetoed the idea of taking the Negev away from us … it’s doubtful we’d have a state.”

Q: Still, those organizations will ask, don’t you have any empathy for the people who lost their homes in the war?

A: “I have sympathy for anyone unfortunate, but for those who moved 20 km. (12.5 miles) away, from Netanya to Tulkarem, well, I don’t see that as a great tragedy. Plenty of wars have created much bigger catastrophes, have sent populations long distances away. As for those who base their position on the obligation to ‘know’ and ‘recognize’ the ‘other’s story’—first of all, they should know their own story. Students in Israel should acknowledge our own history. Right now, they can’t possibly, when history studies, general and Jewish, from the First Temple to the present day, are allotted only two hours a week.”

Zameret, 77, who founded the Melitz Jewish Zionist educational initiative and served as principal of schools in Sde Boker and Kiryat Shmona, still teaches at the Academic College.

“I encounter ignorance time after time,” he says. “And the extent to which the young generation doesn’t know Jewish history or the history of our people. Still, that says something optimistic about the fringes of the Jewish public who turn their backs on Jewish identity: In the 20th century and the last few centuries, there have been Jewish populations who turned their backs on their identity. We got over that, and we’ll do so in the future. What scares me isn’t those groups, but the other group—the ones who don’t study history, who are ignorant and therefore become easy prey for extremist Jewish groups that after endless focus on ‘the Nakba’ have turned their obsessive attention to implementing return.”

Recently, Zochrot launched an app that maps hundreds of once-populated areas whose Arab residents abandoned them at the start of the War of Independence. Zochrot has also put out lesson plans designed for official and unofficial use. The lesson plans were prepared over a period of three years and, according to Zochrot CEO Rachel Beit Arie, have been distributed to about 1,000 educators. She says that more than 2,000 people took part in Zochrot activities in 2021, all of which focused on the “right of return.”

“The essence of our work,” Beit Arie says, “is to discuss the matter as pragmatically as possible, to examine the fears and concerns around it, and raise the possibility that return is also an opportunity to create a better, more just society. We don’t pretend to have the final answers to all the questions about the matter, and it’s clear to us that this is an enormous project that will require the commitment of organizations, people and political bodies. At the current stage, we are doing the best we can to present the issue in places where it is not discussed and cause as many people as possible to consider it seriously … to break the taboo about the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”

Adi Schwartz, who wrote The War of Return with Einat Wilf a few years ago, says that the facts revealed here indicate that the widely-held belief that the demand for a return is symbolic and “the Palestinians don’t really mean it” has no actual basis.

“The moment people arrive with concrete plans, people who think about return in very pragmatic terms, it’s not symbolic and not an obligation they feel obliged to discharge. Today, there are a lot of people—I don’t know whether it’s thousands or millions—who definitely intend to implement that ‘right,’ to take back or occupy territory in Israel. It’s very, very serious, certainly, in their minds. This can be seen in construction plans [and] plans to reallocate land. It absolutely bolsters the understanding that this is not a game. They mean it. None of us should delude ourselves that, at the last minute, after they are given some territory or other in Judea and Samaria, they’ll tell us that they’re forgoing return, will be satisfied with something symbolic.”

Q: The extreme left is asking, ‘What’s so bad about return if it helps end the conflict?’

A: “Certainly a mass return of refugees would mean an Arab majority in Israel, which would mean that the Jews no longer have a nation-state, that Zionism is giving up. This means there would be no State of Israel, that the project of Israel ended in failure. Great sadness. The loss of sovereignty. The end of Herzl’s dream. This is still the Palestinian national movement’s goal—not to live alongside us in peace, but rather to supplant us and wipe out the Jewish state. Today, return is a mechanism for that. Since the Yom Kippur War, their hope of defeating us with tanks and planes has been lost. And when they realized that wasn’t going to happen, the only possibility that remained was to bring refugees back and wipe Israel out politically, completely.”

Schwartz says, “This is a wake-up call for decision-makers in Israel, and the international community as well. All this happened under their noses, with the focus on it increasing. In our minds is it still something ‘small and symbolic,’ but in theirs, it’s a very concrete issue. The guys on the other side really mean it.”

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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