Priority: Statehood

By Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist and founder of the Arab world’s first Internet radio station, AmmanNet. He is teaching a course on new media in the Arab world at Princeton University (THE WASHINGTON POST, 12/05/08):

In the spring of 1948, my father, George Kuttab, and his brother Qostandi fled Musrara, a Jerusalem neighborhood just outside the walled city, after their sister Hoda’s husband was killed in front of her and their children. When Dad used to tell us about the Naqba, the catastrophe that befell Palestinians in 1948, he never talked politics or hatred. He would laugh as he told us how his brother secured their home near Damascus Gate. To assure his mother and brother that the house (in what is now Israeli west Jerusalem) would be safe, my uncle joked that he had double-locked the door, turning the heavy metal key twice. He took that key with him to Zarqa, Jordan, expecting to be able to use it again one day.

As Palestinians look back on the 60 years since they became refugees and Israelis celebrate the 60th anniversary of their statehood, it is important to take stock of Palestinian aspirations.

Our family took refuge from the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, but only my uncle had a U.N.-issued refugee card allowing him rations. No one in my family lived in tents or refugee camps; even if we are technically refugees, I do not pretend to understand that particular part of the refugee tragedy. I do, however, understand the aspiration of Palestinians to return to their homes. Palestinians’ inalienable right to return is sacred and must be honored. How politicians implement this right is negotiable. But regardless of what terms are reached, the Palestinian public must be able to vote in a referendum on the proposed deal.

The long-term desire of most Palestinians to return to their homes and lands in Jaffa and Haifa is little more than a dream today. Return is not a priority for everyday Palestinians; certainly it is not a priority for Palestinian negotiators. If forced to choose between continuing the conflict or living in an independent, democratic and free state of Palestine without the return of all refugees, Palestinians overwhelmingly would take the latter.

Pre-state armed Zionist groups were responsible for creating the refugee problem. Israeli researcher Ilan Pappé details what happened in his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.” And since its establishment, Israel has refused to implement successive U.N. resolutions demanding that it permit refugees to return.

In every Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation, while Palestinians have demanded the right of refugees to return to the lands where they lived before 1948, they were always willing to make concessions on how this right would be implemented. The basic demand is not the physical return of all refugees but for Israel to take responsibility for causing this decades-long tragedy.

Palestinian negotiators have said that in various rounds of talks, whether in Oslo, Stockholm, Camp David or Taba, issues such as Jerusalem and borders were the real obstacles.

Jews worldwide, including modern-day Israelis, should be the first to understand Palestinians’ desire to return. For 2,000 years Jews reminded each other of the prayer for Zion, repeating the hope “next year in Jerusalem.” No one opposed that dream. Likewise, no one should demand Palestinians stop yearning to return.

Palestinian refugees who have lived away from their homes for 60 years have established themselves elsewhere. Few have a sincere desire to live in today’s Israel. Respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found in 2003 that only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were willing to move to the areas that today constitute Israel.

What Palestinians want is for Israel to admit its historic and moral role in creating the refugee problem and its moral responsibility to them. Such an admission by a courageous Israeli leader would satisfy, and neutralize, many Palestinians who hold their keys and demand the literal right of return. As part of a bilateral agreement, surely Israel would allow divided Palestinian families to reunite with relatives who stayed in what became Israel after 1948.

These or similar suggestions cannot be implemented alone. They must be part of a comprehensive agreement that includes real Israeli withdrawal and the creation of a sovereign, viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity within the 1967 borders.

My father, aunt and uncle all passed away never having had the opportunity to return to their homes in Musrara. Yet their absence has not diluted the yearning of Palestinians for an independent homeland in Palestine. That yearning lives on in my children and their grandchildren and in our people around the world.