In Arabic, the term “al-Awda” means “the return,” and it symbolizes the dreams and hopes of millions of Christian and Muslim Palestinians forced into exile as refugees by Israel in 1948. It is the essence of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
In order to create a Jewish state, Jews had to increase their population through immigration. When the notion of a Jewish homeland was embraced in 1917, there were about 85,000 Jews and 650,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians. That changed 30 years later to 614,000 Jews and 1.4 million Palestinians. They were still short of what they needed.
The United Nations proposed a partition plan to create a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state.” But, the “Jewish state” had as many non-Jews as Jews. The proposed “Arab state” was overwhelmingly non-Jewish. Israel was faced with a harsh reality. It had to forcibly expel the non-Jews.
The 1947 war sent more than 700,000 Palestinians into exile. Israel also occupied half of the “Arab state,” leaving Arabs with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, about 22 percent of the original land.
That population change has stymied all progress toward peace. To remain a Jewish state, Israel cannot take the refugees back. Yet how do you reconcile refugee rights, which are supported by clear and irrefutable international laws?
It is such a difficult issue that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat could not accept Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s plan because it brushed off refugee rights and failed to provide a real sharing of Jerusalem.
For years, Palestinian refugees have been fed endless empty promises from the Arab countries that they will someday return. It’s the main reason why most have lived and died in refugee camps rather than relocate and assimilate into the Arab world.
The problem has also created a powerful movement called “al-Awda,” which is run by uncompromising ideologues and extremists who use the right of return as a political bludgeon to prevent Palestinian moderates from compromise with Israel.
The newly formed American Task Force on Palestine, an advocacy group based in the nation’s capital, became one of the first Palestinian organizations to publicly define a moderate approach, writing: “Implementation of the right of return cannot obviate the logic of a resolution based on two states.
The challenge for the Israeli and Palestinian national leaderships is to arrive at a formula that recognizes refugee rights but which does not contradict the basis of a two-state solution and an end to the conflict.” The ATFP was immediately denounced as “traitors” by the international al-Awda movement, even though compromising on the right of return is fundamental to achieving a two-state solution.
The Palestinian refugees have a legal and moral right to return to their lands. But the reality of the world today is not the reality of 1947, when the conflict forced the refugees into camps.
Fifty-five years later, Palestinians have no choice but to accept a full and fair compromise, which Israel has yet to embrace. That compromise must include compensation and, more importantly, Israel’s acknowledgment of their role in causing their plight.
Surveys show that despite the uncompromising al-Awda movement, most refugees do not expect to return to their original homes or lands.
So what’s the real problem?
The al-Awda movement’s rejection of compromise is based on generations of suffering that are easy to exploit. But it is the height of irresponsibility for any Arab group to tell the refugees that they should sit tight because one day they will return to the hills and valleys of 1947 Palestine. It is never going to happen.
The al-Awda activists, who rallied this past week at the University of California in Los Angeles, insist no one has a right to negotiate away the right of return.
That is not true. In fact, when a people turn to democracy and elect a government, as Palestinians have done twice, the government has a greater right to act above the individual interest and preserve the more important national interest.
The refugees deserve the truth, not more lies. Some may be able to return as a part of a negotiated deal with Israel. The rest will live in a smaller Palestine, compensated by their memories. In order to save Palestine, the bulk of the refugees must accept that reality.
A negotiated Palestine state will be their final homeland. Organizations like al-Awda are wellintentioned but are doing a great national disservice to Palestinians by insisting on the “legal right of return” while irresponsibly ignoring the “reality of the return.”
(Ray Hanania is an Award Winning Palestinian American columnist, author and peace activist. Information on his unique Palestinian-Jewish comedy is available at www.Comedy4Peace.org. His columns are archived at www.Hanania.com. He is a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East spme.org )