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The Right of Return
Restitution for Palestinian refugees
January 2007


The question of the Palestinian Right of Return is big and crucial. But the discussion is predicated on factors and notions which do not really help the debate or a solution. This issue needs to be looked at, to some extent separately, in two different ways: the first concerns deep emotional-historical issues and principles, which are being discussed, and the second concerns planning, sustainability and real-life viability issues, which largely are obscured.

Emotional-historical issues are rooted in a number of big assumptions. First up is the notion that most or all refugees are likely to return. Yet, once the principles of justice are sorted out (compensation, residency rights in other countries and other practicalities), how many Palestinian exiles, and their descendants, are likely to see return as a real-life advantage economically and in terms of their life-prospects and those of their families? It is neither safe nor realistic to assume that return will actually be advantageous for large numbers, with or without the presence of conflict or today's conditions in Palestine or Israel.

Second comes the well-hardened assumption that Palestinians and Israelis cannot trust one another and will always have a conflict of interest - with or without security walls, checkpoints and current restrictions. Yet many outsiders are correct to observe that the potential for symbiosis between Palestinians and Israelis is significant, and their mirroring of each other in so many details does not automatically imply conflict - equally, in time, it can imply complementarity and mutual advantage.

Third come two major under-discussed issues. These are, first, environmental sustainability - possibly, in the coming fifty years, a bigger issue than the existing context of conflict itself. Israel and Palestine are very built-up and urbanised, with serious water-supply, space and toxicity issues, and the convenient forgetting of this, between two peoples who assert that they love their land so much, does not get rid of the massive minefield that is yet to be identified and cleared. This clearance can be done only through collaboration. Water-flows, species propagation and climatic variables don't recognise security walls, green lines or classes of people.

Then there's that thorny question of national boundaries and sovereign states, established less than a century ago by, amongst others, my own country, Britain. Lost in arguments over one-state or two-state solutions, we lose sight of a bigger eventual possibility, a no-state solution - some sort of Middle Eastern union.

Before rejecting this possibility, please remember that one model, the European Union, was founded to bind previously warring states into a system where conflict would be eliminated. This has succeeded (nowadays we just shuffle feet and bicker, but we don't fight, and we haven't lost our national identities). Crucial ingredients were the free movement of people and resources, free trade and investment and collective, continental-scale legislation.

The EU is by no means ideal, but it is far better than what my father's generation once had. In his twenties he lived and fought under the belief that 'the only good German is a dead German', while in his seventies his favourite car became the Volkswagen. In his nineties he wishes well toward Germans. Things change, bigtime, over the decades, especially when they look as if they never will.

The scenario of a regional union cannot be ruled out in the debate on return and a 'final settlement', and it might even be the only viable option. This also embraces the possible return of Jews to Baghdad, Alexandria and Tehran, the freeing of nomadic Bedouin to follow their goats wherever they roam, and the freedom of Christians and Druze to spread around as they will. It embraces the fact that, before the West interfered, the ethnic groups of the Middle East defined their identities not territorially but through their social roles, while territorially they were substantially integrated and interrelated. It was Western border-drawing interference that laid the foundation for the current tragedy.

There is a big challenge here. The challenge is to inform the argument on right of return with genuine research into and storyboarding of the genuine issues, factors and full range of options before us. It is necessary to free up the argument and suspend old assumptions and fixities.

One is the Israeli assumption that they cannot trust and make friends with their neighbours, who will always have the stated or covert intention of eliminating them. It's time to revise and re-proportion this assumption, with generations in mind - generations who care more about their kids than what their parents thought.

Another assumption is that Palestinians are narrowly and solely Palestinian, when historically they are interrelated with people across the Middle East and elsewhere - today, as exiles, they are substantially internationalised, like Jews. This means we need to separate the emotional principle of return from its possible demographic realities because, in the fullness of time, it's the demography that matters.

In the next fifty years, and in the context of enormous global-scale change from which Israelis and Palestinians are not exempted, only a proportion of Palestinians will choose to return - arguably 10-50%. Of these, some will make a complete move, while others will prefer the right to visit, invest or take up partial residence (like many Israelis in Israel).

Some Palestinians and Israelis will leave too - in Britain, we have sizeable immigration but also significant emigration, especially since we are reasonably free to do so. Those who do not return are due some sort of just settlement, concerning compensation for past losses and guarantees of full rights in those countries where they now reside. The highest priority here, especially in terms of resource limitations, is not the principle of restitution, important though this is, but the restoration of full and proper life-chances for all of those who are disadvantaged and trapped in their situation. Equal rights.

Then there is viability and sustainability, economic and ecological - the big unmentioned factor. Israel has prospered in the past on subsidy from USA and international Jews, and from military and political muscle and international acquiescence, but this is not reliable in future. Many Israeli settlements are environmentally unsustainable, and they suffer many of the ills of new towns elsewhere - domestic breakdown and violence, health and psychological problems, employment and facilities problems, and others. The problem of settlements could be self-adjusting in the long term.

Many Palestinian towns are infrastructurally creaky and, while Palestinians are right to hope for better than they now have, it is important to remember Martin Bell's pertinent statement from his book Through Gates of Fire, 2003: "Peace and freedom can be defined as the peace that makes traffic jams possible and the freedom to be stuck in them".

It is not safe for Palestinians to assume that all will be well whenever peace and a final settlement comes, that the economy will thrive and that returning to Palestine will be viable and advantageous to everyone. It will be advantageous to some, and this depends greatly on the style of development Palestinians choose, and the very real limitations in terms of water, space and practicalities that are present in 'historic Palestine'.

Since the resource-hungry Western lifestyle is now under threat, Israelis might be forced to choose between a reduction of living standards or residency in Israel - with or without Palestinian return. And Palestinians might have to develop a greater equity, clean-up and collaboration between themselves than even Hamas talks about.

So, to carry out this debate properly, serious research and investigation of a variety of scenarios is necessary, without the corrupting influence of current prejudice, assumption and predication. For peace to work, all people of all kinds need to feel they are receiving an acceptable deal - and this will involve sacrifices and hidden benefits for all parties. Nothing is going to be easy and no one will get their own way.

Collaboration, normalisation, the opening of borders, the establishment of appropriate development and large-scale ecological efforts will bring many benefits but, to get there, the whole narrative needs to change. So an inventorising of resources, limitations and potentials needs to be done, based on significant future possibilities embracing climate change, political and technological developments and, not least, a variety of social-psychological variables. A seat-of-the-pants approach could work too, but part of this 'contract' involves the willingness to encounter and deal well with decisive, unavoidable crises.

It could be that Israeli population is outsized by Palestinian population, or even that the Israeli population declines - but is this truly a mortal threat to Israelis? It could be that many or few Palestinians actually choose to return, with a variety of possible consequences, but we cannot assume that most or all Palestinians shall do so or make a successful realistic transition.

It could be that, by dint of disease, toxicity or resource shortage, Palestine and Israel become less attractive. Alternatively, that with an arrival of peace and normalisation, living conditions could improve - this won't mean golf-courses and endless road-building, but it could mean a society which becomes something socially very attractive, even if materially relatively lean and economical.

We do not know until the spectrum of options is properly visualised and researched. We cannot know unless movement toward the future is permitted, unlocked from the fixed mess it now is in. We cannot know until evolving circumstances worldwide are permitted to evolve further. But we can clarify the terms of the debate and the argument by proportioning it to likely realistic scenarios and suspending fears and anticipations based on an obsolete 20th Century agenda.

Continuing along the current trajectory does no one any good, and it could be that, in future, the costs and consequences for Israelis and Palestinians rise steeply, not from threat and conflict - the old picture - but from failure to adapt to the new picture - enormously changing world circumstances.

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