Refugee Property and the Right of Return
By: Scott Leckie, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)
04/2005

I will be talking briefly about the questions of Refugee Property and the Right of Return and how these questions might be considered in the context of the Palestinian / Israeli conflict. I will do that, first, by giving some general ideas and impressions about the whole issue of restitution: what are the legal terms, political terms, etc. Second, I will discuss some of the experiences that we have had working on this issue in a number of post-conflict societies around the world.

Before I start, I just want to say thank you on behalf of COHRE, to Zochrot and all of you, for arranging this meeting; and just to let you know, personally, how extremely satisfying it is to be working jointly together with Palestinian groups, and now Israeli groups, on this particular issue. I cannot encourage you any stronger than to say that you are doing spectacular work and that you should really never give up and keep going forwards because you are totally doing the right thing. It is very inspiring to see.

When I saw Eitan [Bronstein], who is Israeli, today at the meeting with the Dutch government; and sitting in between us was Ingrid, representing the Palestinians, and me representing an International NGO – that alliance of Israelis and Palestinians with International groups – that, to me, is the essence of the solution to the problem that has plagued this part of the world for nearly six decades. And so, I have every anticipation that we will continue to work together for a long time to find the best way forward on this issue.

The whole question of refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) is a big one in the world. There are about eighteen million refugees in the world and another twenty-five to thirty-five million IDPs, depending on how you define them. If you add people who are evicted due to development projects, slum removal and urban gentrification – all those other kind of development forces – the number goes up even more: probably over 100 million people, due to violence, in essence, not living in their original homes.

Many other people voluntarily migrate for economic and other reasons to other countries or other parts of their own country. That is a separate group of people. Here, we are talking about those who are displaced due to circumstances beyond their control. It is a big problem. Not as big as the right-to-water problem or the right-to-housing problem, which is much bigger in terms of the numbers of people in the world who do not have access to those types of things; but nonetheless it is a huge problem.

As you know, there are international institutions, such as UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and a range of others, who are specifically entrusted with assisting refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world. UNHCR has a budget of almost $2 billion, over 6000 staff, with something like 250 offices around the world; headquartered in Geneva. It is a serious division. UNHCR is traditionally in charge of all the world's refugees. But, one group that UNHCR does not address, and it has no mandate to address right now, is the Palestinian refugees; despite the fact that they are by far the world's largest group of refugees.

There are one million Serb refugees in Europe right now that are unable to return home. That is a big group. There are a hundred-thousand Bhutanese refugees (refugees from Bhutan) who are living in Nepal who were ethnically cleansed from Bhutan in the mid 1980's. There are millions of different refugee groups in Africa – by far the world's most refugee continent (most of the refugees are in Africa, but in separate countries). The largest single group of refugees in the world, however, is Palestinian refugees: five to six million, depending on how you look at it.

Why does UNHCR have no mandate to look at these things? Well, under the Convention – the guides by which UNHCR work – (the Convention on Status of Refugees for 1951 and the protocol of 1967), in essence, it says if another United Nations agency is involved in assisting certain refugee groups, then UNHCR's involvement cannot be central. This other UN group is UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). UNRWA does many positive things for Palestinian refugees: providing schools and food-aid, and a bunch of other services. But it, self-admittedly, does not provide protection to the refugees. Protection means all the legal work, where they actually are engaging in protecting the human rights of the refugee group involved. That task is meant to fall on another UN institution, called the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP).

In essence, refugee work is divided into protection and program. Programs are the camps and the food, and the jobs; the money and the social services that are needed to survive. The protection-side is helping to find asylum somewhere, helping to maybe resettle in a third-country; making sure rights are not violated; making sure one can go home if one wants to: all of the legal and human rights aspects. So the program side of the equation, with regard to the Palestinian refugees, is carried out by UNRWA, and they do a pretty good job in many ways doing that; and they have been doing that for a very long time.

UNHCR provides both programs and protection for refugees everywhere else in the world except for Palestinians. UNRWA is only for Palestinians. The protection side is meant to be carried out by the UNCCP (United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine) which, in essence is a defunct body. It exists but it does nothing. What has happened is that all the refugee responsibilities have been laid at the door of UNRWA and UNCCP says, "We can't do anything until there's actually a resolution to the problem." So every year they issue, basically, a one-sentence report to the General Assembly, which says that nothing significant has changed in accordance with the subject that they are meant to address, therefore they have taken no action. That is the entire report on the body that is meant to be providing protection to the Palestinian refugees. So, in essence, this group of refugees has no protection under the international institutional framework. It is a fundamentally unique case.

My wife works for UNHCR and I serve as a consultant for UNHCR all around the world. So I know UNHCR very well and I know hundreds and hundreds of staff members. I have been trying for ten years, or more, to get them to become interested in the Palestinian refugee question. They can do a lot: they save lives everyday; they provide solutions; they help people to return to their original homes, in all sorts of countries. But they still are very reluctant to do it in Israel / Palestine. The main reason is, of course, if you are in HCR, it is primarily funded by the United States. UNHCR's hands are already full with twelve to fourteen million other refugees in very difficult circumstances all around the world. Who in their right mind would want to take on six million more, in a totally intractable, very difficult conflict situation?

They do not want to. They are not going to get the money for it; they are not going to get the prestige associated with it; the powers associated with it. So, they have said that the articles in their Conventions are relevant now, UNRWA's doing the job, and they are not going to take it on. It may change eventually, maybe not. I am just saying all of this to put it into context to show you how different the Palestinian question is looked at, even at the institutional level of the UN.

If this was anywhere else in the world, you could count on UNHCR. They have hundreds and hundreds of staff members, around the world, trying to find durable solutions to the individual plight of every single refugee. A durable solution is basically a return to the place of origin, facilitating asylum, resettlement to a third-country, or integration to where they are right now. Asylum and resettlement is essentially the same thing. There is an UNHCR office in Jerusalem but they do not deal with Palestinians, only with refugees from other countries. Most countries of the world have an UNHCR office. This is the context for which we address the Palestinian refugee question. These things [above] need to be dealt with at a whole other level, entirely; but it is always good to know what you're up against.

UNHCR and the international community generally have just one specific element of their work to look at. They have changed their policy dramatically in the last 20 years, with regard to the "return" question: the right of refugees to return to their original homes.

Previously, from the end of the Second World War, until the 1970's, it was really UNHCR's job to find third-countries that would accept refugees fleeing persecution. There are five grounds in which to claim persecution: [race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group, or political opinion]. If you can prove that you have experienced persecution for these things, then you can claim asylum and UNHCR will help you move. They were not focusing very much on the return question because they were busy finding third-countries for refugees (i.e. moving all the Chilean refugees to countries throughout Europe; they were not focusing on moving them back to Chile.)

But when the 1980's and the early 1990's came around, there was a push to encourage refugees to return to their original counties. Part of that push was very negative, it was very anti-refugee, "We don't want them in our society, we'll only give temporary protection; we want them to go back." That push, politically, got UNHCR and some other institutions to start thinking much more in the direction of returning refugees to their original countries and their original homes. Most refugees, if you ask them, do not want asylum, they do not want to live somewhere else; what they really want is to be able to return to their original country and their original homes.

So, those two forces, a negative one and a positive one, combined to begin a process, now routine, throughout the work of the whole international community that increasingly affords all refugees and internally displaced peoples the right to return: voluntary repatriation is what they call it. The right to go back, not only to your country of origin (which was the original way this was interpreted) but now to your original home, your original piece of land, from which you were originally displaced.

So now in peace agreements across the world, in the last twenty years in particular, you will find explicit mentions of this right. All persons displaced during a conflict have the right to recover property from which they were displaced. This is a very positive development in terms of what refugees have a right to. If you ask refugees what they want to do, return to their original land and homes is their top priority. Even if it is a 'terrible' piece of land in the 'middle of nowhere,' that is what they still consider home. For that reason, and for many others, there has been a big shift away from asylum to return. This process is generally called the Right to Housing and Property Restitution (sometimes Housing and Land and Property restitution).

There is now a big body of international law, international standards, on this topic that very clearly stipulate that this is a right. There will be a new law / standard adopted in August (2005) to get a new standard of initiatives adopted. On August 12, there will be a new comprehensive standard for housing and property restitution for refugees everywhere.

More and more you see institutions and laws, and procedures being created that are designed explicitly to help refugees to return to where they came from. So that brings us to the question of the Palestinian issue and the issue of return, the recovery of property and the repossession of property: the "restitution" questions. Before I get into all that, it is important to remember that there are literally dozens of countries in the last two or three decades that have undergone voluntary restitution programs. From South Africa, following Apartheid; to Mozambique, following the war there; to Tajikistan, in central Asia; to Iraq; Bosnia; Albania; Croatia: many countries of Eastern Europe. Rwanda, to a certain extent; Burundi is now implementing one. Cypress is trying but not yet ready; they have a plan but its not happening, yet.

In essence, you have three types of instances where restitution rights come into effect. One is called post-Communist restitution programs, like in Eastern Europe: in Latvia there is a big restitution program; Czech Republic, as well. Then, there are post-Authoritarian restitution programs. Then there are post-Conflict restitution programs. There are really these three kinds.

Not all types of restitution programs are exactly the same because the initial displacement is not exactly the same. But in terms of length of time, if you were a black or coloured South African, and you were displaced because of discrimination since 1913, you could submit claims to achieve the restoration of your original land and properties. That is probably the most relevant case for Israel / Palestine, now, because there is a similar intention to create a certain kind of state based upon a certain kind of ideology that needed displacement in order to exist. Hundreds of thousand of people have returned to their original lands in South Africa. There were also about six million people who were displaced.

One of the crucial issues is what happens when the refugee's place is inhabited by someone else; how that party is compensated. In South Africa, for example, there were many white farmers, equivalent to Israeli settlers [in terms of encroachment], who, when they knew that the laws were going to change and they were no longer going to be able to stay, were actually very willing to move, as long as they got either some sort of relocation somewhere else or some sort of compensation; perhaps the purchase of their home at market value.

There was recognition that they [the white farmers] also had rights. And whatever scenario you have here, this is also going to be a key feature of any restitution program involving the return of Palestinian property. And this is something very important to emphasize in Israel: to take away the fear of any Israelis living inside Palestinian homes now, in terms of the recognition of their rights. International standards say you do not just protect the rights of the returning refugees; you have to also protect the rights of what is called the "secondary occupants" – the ones living inside the homes now. You cannot just kick them out and treat them as if they have no rights. If they have been there one day or thirty years, they also have rights. They can not be made homeless and they cannot be discriminated against. Their rights need to be protected. This is very important to recognize.

On the negative side, because the South African government made a policy decision to pay current market value for properties, they found they were not able to purchase very many of them, compared to the need. They simply did not have enough public funds to buy the land back at market value. So they came up with interim arrangements and agreements that allowed many to return but also in some instances allowed the farmer to stay: perhaps they cut the land in half. There were all sorts of different ways in which this was carried out.

In many ways the South African (SA) example is valuable for Israelis and Palestinians, particularly in the angle of the white SA's who were so dominant and how their particular fears were dealt with by the restitution program. Recall that SA whites, during the apartheid, made up only thirteen percent of the country's population. In fact, it was much less of a percentage than Israel / Palestine. Here it is basically fifty-fifty.

There are many lessons, not just on restitution, that you can get from SA. There are many political lessons to be found there. They have had the wisdom of many people, but also two or three people who have made just the right political decisions at just the right time that turned SA into a leader in many ways, in terms of human rights throughout the world. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the decision to institute a "Sunset clause," in particular, which was Joe Slobo's doing. Slobo was the former head of the Communist Party and a leading ANC official – Minister of Housing, in fact – who insisted that no civil servant be fired when the ANC took over (because they were almost all white). He said the ANC must not fire any of them because they would all flee, then SA would be left with a huge vacuum, creating a chaotic situation. Many people attribute that decision as being one of the most important ones for insuring a painless transition from white to black rule, from what it could have been. It could easily have been civil war. It was very close to civil war at certain steps along the way. I would not only look at South Africa; I would also look at all these different restitution cases, to get guidance in terms of how things might be pursued in Israel / Palestine.

First of all, we should get rid of this word "side." There should be no side; there should be no Israeli "side," nor a Palestinian "side." "Interests," perhaps, is more desirable. The whole debate needs to be reframed and rephrased. All the people engaged in this debate, from both the Israeli "part" and the Palestinian "part," are forced into a box and this box has been created primarily by various Israeli governments. "This is the acceptable area that you can discuss, and anything outside of this box you can't discuss." People have been sucked into this box, in this society in particular. The need is to get out the box and no longer frame the parameters of your discussion by this box. Open the sides of the box to see what else is out there.

There is a lot out there. You can get a lot of inspiration from the incredible willingness of the current person who is living in the house, to move away when the original owner of the house comes back and starts speaking to them. I have heard of this in Cypress; in various African countries; in the Balkans; in Eastern Europe; in some parts of Asia. They are willing to move, much more frequently than you would think. They are not so much wedded to the house, or the piece of land, that they would not move.

Now this is only one piece of the pie; but I think there is a general knowledge that there are only one to two hundred-thousand Israelis that are living inside actual former Palestinian homes right now. Not on the land, but in the actual house. Mostly in the cities: Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Tiberias, etc. The percentage of the overall problem is actually smaller.

There is fear of living in someone else's house (which creates a willingness to move). Israel, even more than almost any other country, has a system that has not privatized most of these houses. In most other countries they have been privatized: the state steals the land or the house from the refugee and the refugee goes away. Then the state either gives it or sells it to the occupant, who then sells it, who then sells it, who then sells it. Thus, it enters the private sector. In Israel, it is basically public sector. They are not sold at the private level. So, therefore, returning the property, in legal terms, would be much easier than, say, in Bosnia or in the republic of Georgia, or Tajikistan, or many places.

There are several reasons why countries take on this voluntary return after coming out of conflict. One is because there is a self-interest question by the international community: "We don't want refugees in our country, therefore we need to find solutions for them in their own countries" – that is the cynical answer. But it is partially true. Another is that it is not politically acceptable, anymore, to allow acts of ethnic cleansing to stand.

Restitution is the remedy against ethnic cleansing. Restitution provides a system which allows you to turn the clock back and return it to how it was before the crime took place. And that is very important: it allows the clock to be turned back. And it is one of the very few ways you can fix a human rights violation to the point where it is actually fixed. You are not just paying somebody money for having hurt them, you are actually giving back what was taken away. And that is the beautiful side of restitution: that people do actually get to go back. I have seen it all around the world.

It is always a process; it does not just happen overnight. Face-to-face interaction with the current occupant and the returning refugee is absolutely imperative. Especially here, where people know their house is public sector. Since it is actually owned or controlled by the state, they do not have that type of connection to it in terms of if they actually owned it, whether in emotional terms or financial terms. But it helps a lot if you guarantee people that they are not going to end up with nothing. And, almost always, people know if they are not doing the right thing. And if they are confronted by the person who actually has the papers and the keys and the photographs to the original house: ("Look, here I am with my mother fifty-seven years ago in my original house, and here's the key, and here's the formal papers that say I'm the owner") – if you show that to the people living there now, and you do not scare them, you just tell them that under law it is your house; people are willing to talk much more often than you can imagine. No matter their ideology, they know they do not belong in that place.

Not always, however. I have seen just the opposite in Croatia, for instance, as one example of many, when Serb families have tried to return home upon their own initiative. Very often a big, burly, two-metre tall man opens the door, who happens to be a policeman (who got the house because he was a policeman) and a little one-and-a-half metre Serb woman says, "Can't I please take my photo album? It's just that book, there, on the second shelf; I just want my family photos; that's all I want." He'll slam the door in her face, "Get out of here," he'll shout, "Don't try to steal my house; it's my house!"

There is no guarantee how people will react; but it is important to not close the door on the possibility of people reacting reasonably because many times they will.

I think at the bottom of the issue is the question of fear: fear of losing your home; fear of losing the state that you live in; fear of losing the nature of the state that you live in; and a whole range of other fears that guide people's perspective and people's decision-making and people's lives. Removing fear from the equation is going to be very liberating for people of this country once this issue of restitution finally makes it to the political agenda and is begun to be spoken about in realistic terms. I think no Palestinian would say that every single Palestinian refugee is going to come back to Israel tomorrow if they have the right to. Realistically, we have to get the idea out of our heads; it is not going to be like that. Bottom line is, though, it has to be their choice.

Taking land, arbitrarily, or a house, arbitrarily, is a crime, which it is under international law (it needs to be done legally, under a judicial process – all sorts of procedural criteria need to be met for that to be legal). When confiscation is done with a view of creating a certain type of State, it is not legal; and everybody accepts that. So, to fix the problem, that, of course, needs to be the starting point. And the refugees need to be given a choice. Safeguards need to be in place to assuage the fear of both occupiers and returning refugees. We need to have realistic assessments of how many would want to come back. We do not have those numbers now. Just imagine that suddenly the political winds in Israel changed – a very progressive government took over, which was a lot less attached to the idea of a Jewish state than the current one – and they made an agreement with the Palestinians. How many would really want to come back? It needs to be figured out. Realistic surveys need to be done. There have been some – occasional surveys done in different places.

The whole question needs to be rephrased in terms of the possible, not in terms of the impossible. It is now seen as the impossible dream, on both sides. One side says, "Never allow return, ever; it will destroy us!" And on the other side, "Absolute Return!" It has got to meet somewhere in the middle. The restitution question needs to be seen in really practical terms. What will it exactly look like? Will every Palestinian have a right to fill in a form that says, "I used to live at this place; I want to claim this place; this is my address"?

Here is an important point: no people on earth have benefited more from restitution than Jewish people, ever since 1933 and the whole beginnings of the Nazi question. To this day, I am sure that many of your families and friends are still getting payments from Germany for the crimes that the Nazi's committed against the Jewish people. Many Jewish people are still able to reclaim properties throughout Eastern Europe. It is still going on.

You know, as a people, as a nation, what the restitution question is all about: it is about justice; it is about getting back that which is rightfully yours; and it is about following a legal procedure and a clear process to actually achieve justice for everybody who was victim of a series of a whole bunch of different crimes. Plus, you all have the right to return. It is written in your law; it is the nature of this entire country, whether or not you have ever lived here. Every Jewish person, even if they were born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for example, and have never once set foot in Israel, has the right to return here. And Palestinian families, many hundreds of thousands of them, who have lost their lands, who used to live here, have no such right. It appears to the outside world to be extraordinarily unfair, extraordinarily discriminatory and unjustifiable in most other countries. How one group can have the right to return comprehensively and how the other, who actually has been here, cannot exercise that right seems just unbelievable to many people.

Therefore, I think it is really important to remember that the restitution question has really benefited Jewish people throughout the world, and rightfully so; absolutely rightfully so. The injustices and crimes committed against the Jews are famous and everybody knows about them; and there was at least an attempt to rectify the injustices that were done.

One of the most important things was the acknowledgement by Germany that they did wrong. The admission: "Please forgive us, we know we did wrong; we'll never do it again. Here's some property and some money and some other things to help you to get over this process and to have normal relations between our two peoples." And that acknowledgement of doing wrong is so utterly important to any victim or any crime; even if it is a mugging and in court the mugger says, "I'm so sorry," it makes such a huge difference to both the victim and the offender. And when a country can do it to another country, or a people can do it to another people, that is the path to a permanent peace.

That is the way to go forward for decades, maybe centuries, as equals. But when one side pretends that it did nothing wrong and that it says it has no responsibility for what happened, there is a guaranteed recipe for continual disaster: continued war, continued conflict.

When it comes to restitution on a macro level, it involves both planning and rights. Restitution only works when you have a pretty large institutional framework in place to make it happen. If it ever comes to this, in the case of the Palestinian refugees, it is probably going to mean that several hundred-thousand claims will need to filled-in. Palestinians will need to be assisted to exercise their right to claim: by counselors, by legal service organizations, etc. These claims will have to be sent to a central building, an institution; they will have to be looked at and processed: some will be put in this pile, some in that pile, etc. Many will be decided administratively; just on the facts, no court. The difficult ones will have to be sent to a court and decided by an independent judicial body. Maybe one Israeli judge, one Palestinian judge and one international judge – something like that.

These things need to be thought about now. We need to come up with structures and approach both parties and say, "Let's try it this way." That is the legal way; but the practical part, the planning part, is also a crucial aspect. You need to know exactly where people are going to return to. You are going to need to know who is living in that area now. You are going to need to find solutions to those people that are living in that area. So, it is going to take a lot of planning and a lot of detailed work. It is going to involve thousands and thousands of employees of some "Restitution Body" – or whatever is set up – to make sure it flows smoothly.

Now, what do you do in terms of a specific village? It comes down to a case by case basis. You have to look at every case separately because every case is different. You have got to apply the same principles to every case but you have got to give every single case an individual hearing. The presumption must be that restitution is the first remedy that is sought. You have to prioritize restitution as the remedy. In other words, if it is clear (the property is empty, no one is there, no one is contesting it, there is no competing claim), then give it back. That is easy; those are the easy cases. Those are "pile A." "Pile B" could be cases where somebody else is living there and the house is still intact. It has to be decided on an individual basis. The main point is that you have to go for restitution as the first option, not the last. Now, it is seen as the last option; essentially a non-option. It is not even seen in Israel.

It is the same thing in terms of the question of evictions. If the government wants to evict ten thousand people in Bangkok to build a shopping mall, the government could just say, "Sorry, we're going to evict you – we're building a shopping mall." Or they could say, "You're ten thousand people, you've lived here a long time, and we know that you don't really want to move...do you have an alternative because we really want to build a shopping mall? Give us your alternative." Very often if they take the latter approach, where eviction is the last option, the community itself will come up with a great solution, totally practical, realistic, not complicated, which allows them to stay in the same neighborhood and allows the government to build a shopping mall, too. It is all in how you look at it.

With restitution, obviously, the priority has to be on restitution. The question of compensation only comes way at the end, when every single possible alternative has been explored. Here, now, in Israel, we have no template for solution and sometimes you hear words about compensation being paid to people for lost property. As you all know, very often when compensation has been offered in limited cases to Palestinians families living inside Israel or the West Bank, etc., they reject it. And they reject it for very much the right reasons: because they do not want to give up their land or their house. So, we have to be very careful with the compensation question.

Moreover, when compensation programs have been envisaged in other countries where there are restitution programs, almost never has the money been put on the table to actually pay people off. They say, "Yeah, you'll get compensation for your property, etc.," But when it comes down to it, some nominal sum of a thousand dollars may be paid out; but not the market value.

That is an important thing to remember, too, in regards to these settlers who are asked to leave Gaza. How can it be that illegal settlers under international law are going to be compensated a minimum of USD$100,000.00 per family, and in some cases $400,000.00 per family? (All settlers in this country are illegal. You might not see it this way in this country; but they are; which is seen by the entire international community, even, EVEN, the United States – even they say the settlements are illegal. If they are saying it, you can imagine how illegal they are!) So, these Illegal occupants of someone else's land are being asked to leave and are provided with a new house somewhere else in a very strategically chosen location, pretty much for free, or at a reduced cost, with a bunch of other incentives (lower tax rates, no military service, etc.). On top it, they are given an extra $400,000.00! I would assume that a big chunk of that money comes from the U.S., although I am not sure exactly how much.

That is an incredible precedent. If that is how much compensation Israel is going to give to illegal settlers who have to move, how much more will Israel have to give to legal owners, who want to come back but are not allowed to come back? The bill is going to be in the trillions, rather than billions...if all things were equal. But, remember, this is, once again, a totally extraordinary situation. Without the United States to pay that bill, it would not be paid.

That is why whenever the conversation of compensation for Palestinian refugees comes up, you have to be extremely skeptical because if you look at even the lowest estimates of how much would have to be paid to take into account all the land that has been confiscated, under military order, etc., since 1948, the lowest estimate that I have seen is around $500-600 billion. The highest is well over one trillion dollars, at current market value. Who is going to pay a trillion dollar compensation fee to the Palestinian refugees? Nobody. Many promises will be made. That is another strong argument for restitution: restitution turns out to be the least expensive approach. It is more cost-effective to allow people to go back to where they were, rather than to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars.

Restitution claims do not lapse, they do not go away. It is not like when ten years passes you do not have restitution rights. In some situations you do; but not in situations that involved conflict between two nations. These restitution claims are going to be here until they get resolved. That might be a hundred years, or less. Who knows? Planning needs to be thought about now. If they are paying $400,000.00 now, then every single Israeli family, who is living on a piece of Palestinian land, is going to surely request at least that much in order to move in the future. This means that the Israeli state could be out hundreds of billions of dollars, itself, to pay off these people. So, what do you do then? To get around paying a trillion dollars, either to Israelis or Palestinians, you negotiate the whole thing on equal terms.

And, I think, this is the main thing that Palestinians want: an acknowledgement that wrong was done; an acknowledgement that the right to return exists. Now, I am not Jewish and I am not Muslim; I am not Israeli and I am not Arab; but every Palestinian I have ever spoken to has said, essentially, that everything is negotiable, but you have to recognize those two things: that wrong was done and that the right to return exists. And that is a good thing, too, because restitution is a path to peace. You start talking about these things and you start finding mutually agreeable ways to deal with it. And once you do that, it suddenly becomes a non-issue and you wonder why the whole thing happened in the first place.

That is what happened in lots of these places. South Africa has only been a post-apartheid country for ten years. And they have the world's best constitution; they have sought to solve so many problems associated with a hundred years of a racist government. Or, who would have ever dreamed that the wall separating Eastern and Western Europe would have fallen in a matter of months in 1989? No place is ever perfect; every place is home to huge human suffering and huge misery. We are not talking about changing things here to a new paradise on earth.

We do not often use this term "evolution" to refer to politics; but politics, like everything else, evolves and changes and usually, certainly not always but more often than not, tends to evolve in a good direction, rather than a bad one, throughout the world; meaning more respect for human rights, more demands for human rights, more demands for equality. So, there is no reason why the basic principles of political evolution will not also come to this part of the world. Taking restitution seriously, acknowledging that wrong was done and that there is a way to fix it is really crucial. So often we say that, "There's no way to fix it," or that most people do not even think there is a problem. But it does need to be fixed. I think things like Zochrot's movement is so important in addressing this problem – it is unbelievably important. And this is how countries like SA and many others have gone through transition in the last twenty years. There were always groups like Zochrot in those countries, in one way or another, who actually played the role of facilitating change in a positive direction. Only so much change can come from outside – it has to come from within.

The dispossession of Palestine continues to this day, so it is a mistake to only frame everything in terms of 1948. That wall is being built everyday. They may have temporarily stopped house demolitions, but they have been going on for a very long time. Confiscation of land continues to this day; discrimination inside Israel and inside the Occupied Territories continues to this day. So it is a continuing problem and it is important to not push everything back to 1948.

As with all things, the change has to come from within, there has to be a realization – as there was with many countries that used to be colonizing powers. Colonialism ended, not necessarily because of Guerilla fighters – like guerilla fighters in Congo, Sierra Leone, India, etc. In part, yes; but the colonizers realized that to continue to be colonizers was not just unjust, it was untenable, it was not workable; it was not in their interest, anymore to be colonizers. So they decided, "Look, we've gotten everything out of this that we can. All these people are agitating for us not to be here anymore; we're treating people like dogs; let's stop this and get over this." And they did.

It is those kinds of lessons from history that need to be looked at. And from a real self-interest perspective, too; what is truly going to be in the best interests of Israel in the long-term? An approach which says, "We don't want to look at history in other places of the world because we're totally unique," is wrong. We should look at history because a lot of countries could have had a lot less problems if they had acted in slightly different ways. And that approach needs to be brought in. Once again, it is this question of how you frame the question. 


From a lecture presented at Zochrot on May 4, 2005

Transcribed and edited by Darren Birch

Zochrot online