A Flicker of Hope at a Haifa Conference

by Justine McCabe

The Litchfield County Times — (reprinted with permission)

For many close observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinian refugee issue continues to be the heart of the conflict and the key to peace in that region.

Recently Democratic presidential nominee-apparent, John Kerry, joined President Bush in supporting Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s rejection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. Often forgotten, this position violates international law, the same law—affirmed in Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN GA Resolution 194—guaranteeing the rights of Kosovars, East Timorese and Rwandans to return home, and conversely, of those Jews who left home in the Soviet Union.

With Israel and both major American parties in lockstep on this, and absent American press coverage to the contrary, Americans might assume no support among Israelis for implementing the Palestinian right of return.

Meanwhile a quiet revolution recently happened in Haifa.

Over 300 Israelis—Jews and Palestinians—and a sprinkling of internationals, gathered for two days to make their own history on this issue. Co-sponsored by an alliance of Israeli NGO’s and the Emil Touma Institute for Israeli and Palestinian Studies, a landmark “Right of Return and Just Peace Conference” took place. With it, the “Haifa Initiative” was launched.

For the first time in their country, Israeli citizens publicly refuted the claim that there is no support among Israelis—particularly Jewish-Israelis—for Palestinian refugees to return home to Israel.

As Haifa University Professor Ilan Pappe stated, “It’s not true that there are no people in Israel who are willing to share this country.... The hundreds of people attending the conference showed that a growing number of Jews and Palestinians in Israel regard the implementation of the Palestinian right of return as the only road to a lasting peace and reconciliation.”

But why spin their wheels on the refugee problem given the realpolitik of this issue?

Because, they say, it mirrors the heart of the conflict—the Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” Arabic for the 1947-49 dispossession and expulsion of about 800,000 native Palestinians—more than 80% of the Arab Palestinian population—from their homeland by Zionist military forces.

Together, these Israelis are challenging their government’s denial of responsibility by placing the facts of the Nakba before the public. They assert that only by acknowledging this truth about their shared history can Palestinians and Israelis start down the road to freedom from 56 years of conflict.

Witnessing this gathering was like observing the revelation of an Israeli-Palestinian family secret—everyone knows the truth but no one is talking, even as denial bleeds over three generations, bringing dysfunction, insecurity and violence to everyone in the region.

Much of the conference was devoted to spreading the word by developing educational workshops, a Nakba museum, oral histories of Nakba survivors and preparations for the second Haifa conference.

Significantly, evidence was presented challenging a common view that implementing the right of return means displacing Israeli Jews. For example, data gathered by Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta based on current Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli population patterns predict minimal dislocation even if all 4 million registered Palestinian refugees chose to return: 78% of Jewish Israelis live in 15% of the country; and over 90% of former village refugees would return to empty sites.

Still, feasibility of return was coupled with psychological reality—fears among Jews of being “thrust into the sea” and among Palestinians of being “transferred” again. Jewish/Palestinian sensitivity to these mutual fears was palpable in the mutual behavior of conference participants: Jews and Palestinians speaking both Hebrew and Arabic; Jewish-Israelis living in Palestinian-Israeli communities—not to settle Palestinian land but to share their lives; and among members of groups like Zochrot (“remember” in Hebrew) whose members regularly visit the remains of over 500 depopulated Palestinian villages, posting signs in memory of their former inhabitants.

Most surprising, no one protested. Unlike in the US where events defending Palestinian rights are frequently met by accusations of anti-Semitism, in Haifa there were no protesters and there was straightforward coverage in the Hebrew press.

Obviously many simply write off these Jews and Palestinians as ostriches sticking their heads in the sand of a hopelessly lost cause. Why not dismiss them as “radical fringe” or naive idealists?

As a psychologist, I’d argue that they’re on terra firma. Despite their ethnic differences, they embody a deep, indispensable recognition that no roadmap or peace accord has yet to include: both peoples are exiled from a missing part of their history—you might say a missing part of themselves—which can only be found in connection to the other, and to which—however painful—they all long to return.

I left Haifa imbued with hope—not easy to inspire on this issue. Rather than naiveté, I witnessed what that late advocate of Palestinian-Israeli binationalism, Edward Said, described as “humanism,” whose purpose is making

More things available to critical scrutiny as the product of human labor, ... There was never a misinterpretation that could not be revised, improved, or overturned. There was never a history that could not to some degree be recovered and compassionately understood in all its suffering and accomplishment. Conversely, there was never a shameful secret injustice or cruel collective punishment or a manifestly imperial plan for domination that could not be exposed, explained, and criticized.

In truth, the US plays a crucial role in perpetuating this conflict. Americans particularly should know about these Israelis—Jews and Palestinians—who live the consequences of American policy as they challenge those who would dismiss the rights of so many. They should know that these Israelis are struggling to expose “shameful secret injustice,” and want our support for the rule of law—not for human rights violations or the weapons that permit them. And, they should know that these peacemakers—explicitly drawing on South Africa’s experience and its demands for reconciliation—simultaneously embody outrage at their country’s formative act of ethnic cleansing while representing compassionate understanding “in all its suffering and accomplishment.”

Indeed, to those like Madeline Albright who in 1994 declared all UN resolutions on Palestine “contentious, irrelevant and obsolete,” or to Messrs, Bush, Kerry, and Sharon who continue to prefer power politics to making peace, there are some Israelis who now say, “Next year in Haifa.”

Justine McCabe Ph.D. lives in New Milford

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