"The Return of the Refugees will Bring Peace"
“Zochrot” founder Eitan Bronstein speaks about his vision for peace in the Middle East.
This week the Palestinian people noted the 62nd anniversary for the “nakba”, a term which speaks of the catastrophe of the establishment of the State of Israel. At the focus of the ceremonies in “historic Palestine” and in the Diaspora stood, as it does every year, the commitment to the right of return of refugees and their offspring to their land and their homes within Israel’s territory. In recent years, the terms “nakba” and “right of return” also come up in Israeli society. “Zochrot” is the one of the most prominent organizations which conducts activities on these matters, activities that are designed to raise awareness about the “Palestinian tragedy” and promote a political solution on the basis of the return of the refugees.
Eitan Bronstein, one of the founders of “Zochrot” and its director, explained about the organization’s objectives in bringing reconciliation between the two peoples. The full interview will be published on Israeli news website News1:
What are the goals of “Zochrot”?
We think that being aware of the nakba is a prerequisite for recognition of the price the Palestinians paid for the State of Israel to be established, and recognition of the nakba is a necessary condition for the possibility of future reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.
How do you see the success of the organization since 2001? I feel there is more discussion on the subject. Am I wrong?
You're not wrong at all... It’s hard to know what causes what, and whether it’s only because “Zochrot” exists. There is no doubt that “Zochrot” is part of the big change which is happening in the Israeli public. In recent years, there is much more engagement with the nakba.
What do you think is the reason for this?
I think that in general, the reason which is more relevant to us as Israelis, is probably that the time has come that we cannot deny it any further, I mean, for years people were trying to deny the nakba after it occurred and the State of Israel was established, we were told a story – the famous Zionist story, the story of the other side of this history. That side was completely silenced as if it did not exist, as if people were not expelled and prevented from returning and there were no shocking massacres, those things were never told and I think that as time goes by and the stories multiply... You cannot deny it anymore… Today we know a lot of other things as well, for example, that there were Jews who opposed the expulsion and the taking of Palestinian homes and fields.
How do you see this process looking a decade ahead?
I think that soon the day will come when there will be a significant discussion on the right of return. It’s not happening yet, but we at “Zochrot” are working on it. We are working on a project of an active return. We are actually promoting a number of projects dealing with the actual return of Palestinian refugees and practical possibilities of return and we believe in developing a dialogue on opportunities for return rather than just speaking about the abstract legal and moral right. Perhaps such a dialogue can promote a more informed and rational debate about the right of return. Such debate has not evolved at all in Israel, it simply does not exist... There are leaders like Netanyahu and Barak who tell stories of peace, those who tell stories of peace that includes the right of return, they are simply deceiving us or deceiving themselves... People who understand a little about this subject and ask questions about it know that it will simply never work. The Palestinians will not give up the right of return, and rightly so.
If there is a way in which the Palestinians would give up the right of return, is there a problem?
In reality I do think there’s a problem. First, I do not think there is such a thing, there can be no such thing. The attempt made at Oslo where Arafat really messed up and said that the issue of the refugees and the right of return will be postponed to the end of days and will bring the Intifada. It's obvious that nothing like that will ever happen, but if it happens it will be disastrous.
Without the right of return, we Israelis will be forever condemned to be occupiers.
Even if the Palestinians give up that right?
That’s a little strange. That’s like saying that the black slaves at the time of slavery should give up the right to be equal human beings.
Does “Zochrot” support the right of return of Jews to Hebron?
Of course. We do not really deal with it, but I think most members of “Zochrot” support an arrangement of one democratic state, and in this state Jews and Palestinians can live in any part of the country. As far as I’m concerned, also in Kedumim and Ariel and Gush Katif... Jews and Arabs can live in any part of the area, in a democracy, yes, without colonial settlements but with complete equality, sure, why not.
Do you think there is a possibility of real peace after the implementation of the right of return?
Of course. The right of return is not a sufficient condition but is necessary. I believe so. I think the hardest thing standing between us and peace is the recognition and implementation of the right of return.
Do you think there will be peace within the State of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza?
I very much accept the analysis of Miron Benbenishti, which says that we already live in one country which is two-national in some form... We already live as one unit and would it be hard to make separations... We need to live on this land in some form of shared life. Maybe it should move through a step of two independent states... I see us living in this country together, Israelis and Palestinians, whoever wants to live in it. It may be that many good Zionists who are not interested in living in this country but only in conquering it will not want to stay here, that could be. I want for us to live with those who really want to live in this country, not just to fight in it.
Do you think this country will be democratic?
I will fight for that. I think there's a good chance for it... I believe it's possible. There are significant forces who want democracy, but I think that in both sides there are large forces who don’t want it. In Israel, if we look at the current government, the government today does not really promote democratic opinions and laws. There are very big challenges to it. But, there is no doubt that I am in favour of democracy. Yes.
The regime in Gaza is an Islamic one. The percentage of Islamists in the West Bank is not small. Do you really think it would be possible to make a historic reversal and move Palestinian society against the Islamist direction, and at least in Gaza, in the direction of democracy?
I really hope so. I do not really accept the premise that you indicated. But yes, I hope for democracy. I’m not really an expert on Palestinian society. All Israelis are experts on political Islam, everyone knows that everyone has more or less become Al-Qaeda. I’m not so sure that’s true. I assume that religious Muslims have a belief that the world will be all Muslim, there are also Jews who want everyone to become Torah observant Jews. So, fine, that’s what they want. There is still a real world and I think there are forces that can promote democracy and I think it’s time for us to act to promote them. I can’t tell the future and can't tell you that we’ll all become democrats tomorrow morning.
The question is whether we can bridge the gap between the radical Islam of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and democracy.
I don’t know if we can, but every day that passes without recognition of the nakba and the right of return distances us from that possibility… If we become different people and stop the atrocities we are committing every day, then maybe the democratic forces on the other side will understand that it’s possible to live here together with Israelis.
How do we apply the right of return?
It’s necessary to implement the right of return, that’s obvious. But how do we do it? First of all we need to study the subject, make suggestions, and develop some sort of discussion on this issue.
The Palestinians are demanding their lands in Sheikh Munis, for example. Is it necessary to vacate Tel Aviv University from the area?
The demand to dismantle Tel Aviv University or Ramat Aviv and reestablish Sheikh Munis is completely unrealistic… It’s possible, for example, that all the villages in the Jaffa district will come together and be a part of Jaffa, including Jaffa refugees who will want to return and then we’ll have to figure out how to absorb an additional 100,000 Palestinians in Jaffa… If you live in Ramat Aviv, I’m against any possibility that you will be forcibly removed from your home.
Assuming the Palestinians don’t accept your approach… What do we do in such a case?
Good question... I think it is possible to find very reasonable arrangements. International laws have all sorts of ways to find arrangements... for example, to offer compensation to people who live in houses they bought, and they will move somewhere else and then the Palestinian heirs will take them, or on the flipside, make the Palestinians give up this house and receive compensation for it.
The question is what happens if that the Palestinians do not agree with this formula.
You are repeating the Israeli discourse which says that there is no way.
I did not say that there is no way, I quoted what they say...
I spoke with many Palestinians about it. The Palestinians say these things for the same reasons that Israelis say no to the right of return.
Are you saying that the Palestinians are willing to compromise?
Of course. Once there is full recognition of the right of return they are willing to compromise. They are willing to compromise on many things. It’s unbelievable how much they’re willing to compromise. But first of all there should be full recognition of the right of return. If there is no recognition of the right of return why should compromise. If the Israelis say there is no recognition of the right of return, why should they compromise on anything? As far as they’re concerned, get out of here and give us everything.
How do we cope with the option [that the Palestinians do not agree to a compromise]?
We deal with it. First we have to recognize the right and have this discussion within the framework of the full right. And then we deal with it.
Are you optimistic?
Yes, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic because I see a difference even from the standpoint of “Zochrot”. I am seeing some sort of light.