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Re-turning rights

Like everything else with Zionism and Israel, their conception of rights is never universal but always particular.

Last Modified: 20 Apr 2013 11:02
Joseph Massad

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
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The Palestinians have neither died away nor forgotten their rights, and those among them who remain on the land continue to be steadfast in the face of Israelís colonial expulsion policies [AFP]

Since its inception, the Zionist project was clear in its goals and the strategy required to achieve them. In order for Jews to colonise the lands of the Palestinians and establish an exclusivist Jewish state, Zionist strategists insisted, the natives must be driven out of the country. For Zionism, colonisation and expulsion were to be simultaneous processes that could not be decoupled from one another: indeed, they would become the very same process. 

Colonisation as expulsion

At the same time, Zionism insisted, following Millenarian Protestant Restorationist claims, that European Jews, rather than being descendants of European converts to Judaism, were actually descendants of the ancient Hebrews who had been allegedly exiled by the Romans in the 1st century AD. Based on this double fiction, Zionism claimed that European Jews were in fact "returning" to Palestine in order to colonise it, indeed that European Jews had the "right" to return to their original "homeland". Thus Jewish colonisation was one and the same as Jewish "return" to Palestine, just as it was one and the same as the Jewish expulsion of the Palestinians from the country. 

Once Zionism had political control of Palestine, it followed two policies to ensure that its colonial project continued unhindered. On the one hand, it insisted that the Palestinians it expelled had no right of return to Palestine and that it would prevent their attempt to return by military means while expelling as many as possible of those who remained; on the other hand, it decreed in 1950 a "Law of Return" for Jews, endowing them with the right to colonise Palestine, which it presented as a right to recolonise it. Turning the rights of the Palestinians to their homes and homeland into the rights of European Jews to "return" to Palestine was and continues to be the main political, legal and ideological strategy of Zionism and the principal policy of the state of Israel. This translates into the only political formula that Zionist and Israeli leaders as well as the Palestinian people agree on, namely that Jewish colonisation means expulsion of the Palestinians, and Palestinian return means Jewish decolonisation. What the two sides disagree on is which part of the formula they want to enforce. 

Understanding the transfer of the rights of one people to another, Edward Said affirmed that:

"The colonisation of Palestine proceeded always as a fact of repetition: The Jews were not supplanting, destroying, breaking up a native society.  That society was itself the oddity that had broken the pattern of a sixty-year Jewish sovereignty over Palestine which had lapsed for two millennia...  Zionism therefore reclaimed, redeemed, repeated, replanted, realized Palestine, and Jewish hegemony over it. Israel was a return to a previous state of affairs, even if the new facts bore a far greater resemblance to the methods and successes of nineteenth century European colonialism than to some mysterious first-century forebears." 

The propagation by the Zionist movement of the Protestant Restorationist slogan that Palestine was "a country without a people for a people without a country" betrayed not only the wishful thinking of Zionism but also its understanding that its planned expulsion of the Palestinians would not garner international support. Thus the propagated slogan was really a conscious cover up for the Zionist belief that Palestine was "a country with an undeserving people for a deserving people without a country". The representation of the Palestinians as a parasitic people who have done nothing to improve Palestine over the centuries, and who allegedly left the land fallow without cultivation drives the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to exclaim in his novel Alteneuland: "If only we had the [Jewish] people here" to restore the land. It bears noting that Zionists borrowed the notion of a "parasitic" people from anti-Semitic representations of European Jews and from the corresponding racist colonial representation of the Natives of the Americas, Australia and Africa. 

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Planning the expulsion

Many Zionist plans were devised over the decades to bring about the expulsion of the Palestinians, starting with the simple plan advanced by Herzl, which proposed expelling Palestinian peasants off their land after the Zionists purchased it from absentee landlords for Jewish colonisation. Dispossessing Palestinian peasants of their lands, however, would not be sufficient; Herzl understood that Palestinians as a whole must be dispossessed of their homeland altogether in order for Zionism to establish the Jewish settler-colony. In his 1896 pamphlet Der Judenstaat, Herzl explained:

"An infiltration [of Jews] is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the government to stop further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration." 

To achieve a take-over of the land, Herzl proposed in his Diaries that the Jewish colonists would "gently" expropriate the natives' property and

"try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country… The property-owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly… Let the owners of immovable property believe that they are cheating us, selling us things for more than they are worth.  But we are not going to sell them anything back." 

Herzl's understanding would percolate through the Zionist movement and would be adopted by his Zionist followers, who would suppress all future dissent on this matter. Speaking of Palestinian resistance in 1923 and arguing against those who were proposing a compromise with the natives, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, the rival of mainsteam Zionism, understood well how colonisation and expulsion were one and the same thing:

"Any native people - it's all the same whether they are civilised or savage - views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not only a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked… [and] who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will, but this exhausts all of the internal differences… They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervour that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon the prairie… this childish fantasy of our 'Arabo-philes' comes from some kind of contempt  for the Arab people… [that] this race [is] a rabble ready to be bribed or sell out their homeland for a railroad network." 

Jabotinsky understood well that the Palestinians "are not a rabble but a nation". Unlike Herzl who thought the expulsion process would be carried out "gently" through dissimulation, Jabotinsky's strategy was to expel the Palestinians from their homeland using military force. He declared that "Zionist colonisation must either be terminated or carried out against the wishes of the native population," concluding that "Zionism is a colonisation adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force."  Brushing aside any ethical concerns, he concluded in 1939 that:

"There is no choice: the Arabs must make room for the Jews of Eretz Israel. If it was possible to transfer the Baltic peoples, it is also possible to move the Palestinian Arabs." 

The debates that the Zionists would have in the 1920s and 1930s about what they termed the "transfer" of the Palestinians are rich in detail, but their conclusion was inescapable. Concuring with Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the colonial settlers of mainstream Zionism, declared in June 1938: "I support compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it." His statement would follow the policy adopted by the Jewish Agency (the main Zionist organ in charge of advancing Jewish colonisation of Palestine), which set up its first "Population Transfer Committee" in November 1937 to strategise the forceful expulsion of the Palestinians.  

A key member of the committee was Joseph Weitz, the director of the Jewish Agency's Colonisation Department. This was hardly coincidental. As colonisation and expulsion are part of the same policy, Weitz's views and role were central to both. Weitz articulated the matter famously:

"Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country. We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries - all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left."

The Jewish Agency would set up a second "Population Transfer Committee" in 1941, and a third yet during the Zionist conquest of Palestine in May 1948 (on the Transfer Committees, read Nur Masalha's important book Expulsion of the Palestinians). 

All this planning would come to fruition in the form of the ethnic cleansing operation encapuslated in the Israeli army's "Plan Dalet", which was adopted in March 1948 by the Haganah. Plan Dalet's precepts, however, were enshrined in earlier versions of the same plan, and were put into practice four months earlier, beginning on November 30, 1947, the day after the UN voted to partition Palestine and when the expulsion of the Palestinians by Zionist military force started. 

There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries - all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.

Joseph Weitz 

If Jewish colonisation of the country was inaugurated in the 1880s by evicting Palestinians from their land through legal and financial means, Zionism's failure to acquire more Palestinian lands made it clear that only a forceful illegal eviction would achieve this goal. In 65 years of aggressive purchases and legal and illegal acquisition of Palestinian land under the protection of the British occupation, the Zionists were able to acquire less than 7 percent of the lands of Palestine and could only expel tens of thousands of Palestinian peasants living on that portion of the land. If this was the rate at which land purchases were to continue, the best case scenario meant that the Zionists would need another nine centuries to buy the rest of the country and expel the rest of the Palestinians. That the Palestinians raised a massively successful national campaign against selling lands to Zionists rendered even that scenario a very optimistic one. This surely was not an acceptable solution for the Zionists, and one that they had anticipated and expected and which necessitated forceful ethnic cleansing as the most effective way to successful colonisation. 

Expulsion was the cause of the 1948 war

By May 14, 1948, about 400,000 Palestinians had already been removed by advancing Zionist forces, who were not only securing the borders of the Jewish settler colony that the Partition Plan granted them, but were already well into the territory of the projected Palestinian state. It was this expulsion and territorial encroachment that became the casus belli for the weak and ill-equipped neighbouring Arab armies to intervene to put a stop to the ongoing expulsion and colonisation. The weaknesses of the Arab armies was well-known to the Americans and the Zionists. US secretary of state Gerorge Marshall's assessment was as follows:

Whole govt structure [of] Iraq is endangered by political and economic disorders and Iraq Government can not at this moment afford to send more than [the] handful of troops it has already dispatched. Egypt has suffered recently from strikes and disorders. Its army has insufficient equipment because of its refusal of Brit[ish] aid, and what it has is needed for police duty at home. Syria has neither arms nor army worthy of name and has not been able to organise one since [the] French left three years ago. Lebanon has no real army while Saudi Arabia has [a] small army which is barely sufficient to keep tribes in order. Jealousies between Saudi Arabia and Syrians on one hand and Hashemite governments of Transjordan and Iraq, prevent Arabs from making even best of existing forces. 

American officials understood this very well. Indeed, Robert McClintock, a member of the US delegation to the UN, observed on May 4 - 11 days before the Arab armies intervened - that the Security Council would soon be confronted with the question as to "whether Jewish armed attack on Arab communities in Palestine is legitimate or whether it constitutes such a threat to international peace and security as to call for coercive measures by the Security Council". McClintock further observed that if Arab armies entered Palestine, this would lead the Jewish forces to claim "that their state is the object of armed aggression and will use every means to obscure the fact that it is their own armed aggression against the Arabs inside Palestine which is the cause of [the] Arab counter-attack". 

Preventing return

Given their weakness and the strength of the invading Zionist army, the Arab armies failed to stop the ongoing expulsion of the Palestinians and the colonial expansion of Israel. Ben-Gurion did not dissimulate when he described the situation on the ground: 

"Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves ... politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves... The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country." 

He would add that:

"If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural; we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it's true, but that was two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?"

Understanding the Palestinian position however did not deter Ben-Gurion from assessing the success of Zionist policies, namely that successful Jewish colonisation can only be achieved through successful expulsion of the Palestinians. A reversal of the expulsion would undo this coupling, and indeed reverse colonisation. This is why Ben-Gurion and all subsequent Israeli governments categorically refused to allow the Palestinian refugees to return home. While the expulsion was ongoing in July 1948, Ben-Gurion insisted that "we must do everything to ensure that [the Palestinians] never do return". Indeed, the leadership of the Jewish settler colony had hoped that the Palestinians will never come back to their homes - that the old will die and the young will forget. 

But this was not to be. The Palestinians have neither died away nor forgotten their rights, and those among them who remain on the land continue to be steadfast in the face of Israel's colonial expulsion policies. Thousands of Palestinians, contrary to Ben-Gurion's expectations, attempted to return between 1948 and 1956 under the cover of darkness by crossing Israel's makeshift colonial borders, but Israeli guns awaited them. The Israeli army would kill 5,000 of them during this period, calling them foreign "infiltrators". 

Return as decolonisation

Rhetorically, Zionism has understood the power of the right of return, not only in its legal and ethical dimensions, but also in its ability to undermine the meaning that Zionists attributed to that very same conept. After all, it was Zionism which insisted that European Jewish descendants of European converts to Judaism were in fact descendants of the ancient Hebrews who had been allegedly expelled from ancient Palestine and whose "repatriation" and " return" was a moral and political imperative 2,000 years later. Note that Zionism's argument is not a historical one, wherein it was and is not claiming that the alleged Hebrew exiles of the first century should have had the right to return to Palestine then, but rather that their fictional descendants should have the right to do so two millenia later. These ideological premises would be enshrined in Israel's very own "Law of Return" passed by the Knesset in July 1950. Yet, it is the same Zionists who insist that the return of the Palestinian refugees, whether immediately following the expulsion in 1949, or every year since is imparctical and impossible. Today, they express shock that refugees should have a right to return to their homeland a mere 65 years after their expulsion while they insist on the rights of Jews to "return" after 2,000 years. 

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In an attack on a Right of Return conference held at Boston University last weekend, one Richard Cravatts, a Boston-based Zionist propagandist, expressed his horror in The Times of Israel. Echoing standard Zionist arguments, he stated that "no population of refugees has ever presumed that the right of return - if such a right even exists - could be claimed, not only by the original refugees, but also by all of their descendants". Cravatts, like many Zionists who deny the right of the Palestinians to return, seems to have forgotten that it is European Jews, as fictional descedants of the supposed Hebrew refugees of the first century, who have "presumed" that very right in the name of which they colonised and colonise Palestine. While for Zionism Jewish "return" is the very condition of colonisation, Israel understands very well that the return of the actual Palestinian refugees and their descendants means nothing short of decolonisation and the undoing of the Zionist project. Israel's leaders are of course correct in their assessment.  

It should be noted here that international law's understanding of the rights of refugees includes the rights of their descendants to return. In addition to the annual UN reassertion of the Palestinian refugees' right of return, the right of return was upheld in principle and practice after the Bosnian War. Upwards of half a million refugees and internally displaced persons returned with international assistance, following the 1995 Dayton Agreement, to their homes to areas in Bosnia (a country of three and a half million people) dominated demographically and politically by members of another ethnic community. As the Bosnian case clearly demonstates, the right of return of the refugees trumped the racially separatist policies of the local authorities who sought to continue to control the land of the diaplaced refugees and to populate it demographically with their own ethnic group at the expense of the refugees. International enforcement of the Bosnian refugees' right of return was based on the well-established right of return of refugees in international law and UN resolutions, while demographic racial separatism had no moral or legal standing whatsoever in enforcing the refugees' rights of return. 

The problem for Zionism and Israel is not the right of return, as that is central to their ideology and their colonial-settler project, but rather with who is allowed to be a right-of-return-bearing subject. Like everything else with Zionism and Israel, their conception of rights is never universal but always particular, indeed always Jews-specific. Whereas, for Zionism, Jews, by definition, are right-of-return-bearing subjects whose exercise of the right of return translates immediately into the colonisation of Palestine, Palestinians can never be permitted to become right-of-return-bearing subjects, as their exercise of such a right translates immediately into decolonisation. It is this particularism that informs the Israeli commitment to Jewish colonisation, racial separatism and supremacy, which US President Barack Obama supports unequivocally, and which stands in the way of Palestinian return. 

But unlike the Palestinians who have the right to return to their homes according to international law and United Nations resolutions which apply their criteria universally, not being refugees from Palestine, Jews are not granted the right to "return" to Palestine or Israel in any international convention or United Nations resolution. Indeed, it is Israel that has granted them that right on its own. All the international foundational documents of Zionism not only insist on the rights of the Palestinians and the rights of diaspora Jews to remain safe in the diaspora, but ironically they grant no right of "return" to Jews. 

The British Balfour Declaration of November 1917 grants British support for the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", but it does so on the condition "that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious' rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country". The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine reiterated the very same language, mentioning only the rights of non-Jews. The UN Partition Plan itself guarded in explicit terms against any expulsion of the population of the Jewish or the Arab states that it proposed. Once the expulsion was under way, the United Nations General Assembly issued its resolution 194 on December 11, 1948, granting the Palestinian refugees the right of return and compernsation for lost or damaged property. There is not one UN resolution, not one international legal document that grants Jews the "right of return" to Palestine or Israel. 

The concessions of Arafat and Abbas

Whereas the Palestinians are considered right-of-return-bearing subjects in a universalist international law, Jews have acquired that right only in a particularist Israeli law. This discrepancy is a central one to Israel's rejection of the Palestinian right of return. While the Israeli-granted Jewish right of return guarantees Jewish colonisation and safeguards Jewish racial and religious supremacy just as the expulsion of the Palestinians guarantees Jewish demograhic supremacy, the Palestinian right of return, if exercised, would undermine both. Israeli leaders are clear on this, and do not mince words when addressing this problem. Binyamin Netanyahu is only the latest Israeli leader to reiterate them, namely, that the return of the Palestinians will "wip[e] out Israel's future as a Jewish state". 

The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country.

David Ben-Gurion

To guarantee his continuation in good standing as part of the Oslo process with his American and Israeli partners, Yasser Arafat conceded the Palestinian right of return in a New York Times editorial in 2002. Arafat frankly expressed his "understanding" and "respect" of the Israeli need to maintain Jewish demographic supremacy. He asserted that:

 "We understand Israel's demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns." 

Arafat proceeded to state that he was looking to negotiate with Israel on "creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns", that is, "respecting" its Jewish supremacist demographic concerns. However, what makes the right of return of Palestinian refugees whom Israel expelled and whose land it stole and steals uncreative is not some geographic or "demographic" consideration, not some environmental or logistical obstacle; what makes their return not pragmatic is that they are not Jews and therefore not right-of-return-bearing subjects.  

Arafat's position was recently reiterated by his American-picked successor Mahmoud Abbas, who conceded his own right to return to the city of Safad, now in Israel, from which he and his family had been expelled in 1948. Ten years after Arafat's concession, Abbas declared on Israeli television in November 2012: 

"Palestine now for me is '67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever... This is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel." 

The reaction of the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, in Gaza, in the diaspora was swift, and their anger uncontainable. Abbas was burned in effigy and denounced across the Palestinian political spectrum. Palestinians understood that his renunciation of their right of return was an endorsement of Israeli colonialism, and a Palestinian ratification of the Jewish settler colony. So did Israeli leaders, Israel's President Shimon Peres described Abbas' statement as a "brave and important public declaration" and that Abbas understood that "the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue cannot be in Israel's territory and to the detriment of Israel's character". Whereas Abbas' vision of the future of Palestine is shared by Israeli Jewish leaders and most Israeli Jews, it is not shared by most Palestinian refugees, as evidenced by the hostile popular reaction to his statements. Abbas', however, is not the only Palestinian vision for the future. 

The Palestinian vision of return

Another vision continues to animate Palestinian hopes and strategies for a restoration of their rights and for returning them to their homes. The Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani articulated this vision more than four decades ago. In his important 1969 novel Returning to Haifa, Kanafani explored the return of the expelled Palestinians to their homes. Kanafani's novel depicts a Palestinian couple, Said and Safiyya, refugees from Haifa who were expelled to the West Bank, driving back to their home in Haifa, a return made possible by Israel's invasion and occupation of the West Bank in June 1967. 

In the frenzy of the 1948 expulsion, the Palestinian couple's firstborn son, Khaldoun, was left behind. Dreaming for 19 years of returning to their home in Haifa and of recovering their lost child, the Palestinians arrive at their home, now occupied by a European Jewish family and their Palestinian son. Khaldoun, it turned out, had been abducted and adopted, taken over by Zionism just as the family home had been, as the entire country had been. Renamed Dov, their son was now serving in the Israeli army. 

The Palestinian couple's second son, Khalid, born in the West Bank, wanted to join the Palestinian guerrillas but his parents had opposed his decision before returning to Haifa. Yet their return to their still colonised homeland forced them to pose the question, "What is a homeland?" Said's answer to himself and to his wife Safiyya resists their erstwhile reactionary nostalgia that sought to return to a Haifa that once was and insists, not on a pre-colonial past, but on a decolonised future:

"I am looking for the real Palestine, the Palestine that is more than a memory… more than a son…, as for us, you and I, [Palestine] was something we searched for under the dust of memory, and look what we found under the dust, yet more dust! We made a mistake when we thought the homeland was only the past, for Khalid, the homeland is the future… this is why Khalid wants to carry arms. There are tens of thousands like Khalid who are not halted by the tears men shed while looking in the depth of their defeats for scraps of their shields and broken flowers, but look forward to the future, and in doing so, they correct our mistakes, indeed the mistakes of the entire world… Dov is our shame but Khalid is our enduring honour. Did I not tell you from the beginning that we shouldn't have come back… and that our return requires that a war be waged? Let's go." 

The war continues to be waged, but it is not a war of arms. There is an ongoing Palestinian legal and political struggle that aims to achieve a decolonised future for Palestinians and Jews. It is the war of boycott, or more precisely the war of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). BDS understands well that colonisation and expulsion are one and the same process and that the reversal of one is the reversal of the other. The non-violent war launched a decade ago by the Palestinian BDS movement and its international allies demands an end to Zionist colonisation and a reversal of it through the dismantlement of the settler colonial racial structure that governs Israel and prevents the return of the Palestinian refugees, hence the insistence by the BDS movement that overturning the racial legal privileges of Israeli Jews, and turning Palestinians and Jews into equal citizens is the only programme for decolonisation and the only condition of and for the return of the Palestinian refugees. 

Joseph Massad teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question published by Routledge. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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