|Of all the issues confronting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders these days, one of the most contentious is that of the "right of return". That is, whether or not refugee Palestinians will be allowed to return to their land be it in Israel or in a future Palestinian state.
I came to this part of the world with a fair amount of ignorance about the plight of the Palestinian people. I didn't know, much less understand, the distinctions between Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living in occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), and Palestinians in refugee camps within the occupied territories.
In trying to get a handle on all this, we travelled a bit off the beaten track visiting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Ramallah as well as a refugee camp near Bethlehem (also in the West Bank). We observed and we talked to people but due to the limits of time, this isn't enough. So we read.
Given the topical nature of the issues, we turned to newspapers for information. Regular visitors to madnomad.com will have seen references to Al-Ahram—the Arab weekly from Cairo—and Ha'aretz—the Israeli daily from Tel Aviv. Fortunately for us, both of these papers are available in English language versions.
My first introduction to the issue of the right of return came from an opinion piece in Al-Ahram written by Edward Said. Said is a Palestinian living in New York—a writer and a thinker. He is one of the strongest voices within the Palestinian diaspora and a critic of Yasser Arafat and the so-called peace process.
In the aforementioned piece—published in early August—Said credits the PLO—and Arafat— with "restoring us to oursleves and to each other, making it possible to see ourselves as a whole people despite our dispersion and agonizing pain".
This was prior to 1993. Arafat's signing of the Oslo Accords in that year is seen by Said as the dissolution of the unity which Arafat himself had created. Furthermore, he sees subsequent PLO behaviour as causing refugee Palestinians to be delinked from the process.
While acknowledging that the final status negotiations will theoretically deal with the refugee issue, Said writes that "it has been made clear that no major repatriation or compensation is contemplated, much less planned."
Was he saying that a Palestinian state might not welcome the members of the Palestinian diaspora? I was shocked. In sharp contrast with this, the state of Israel welcomes—in fact, encourages—Jews from all over the world to relocate to Israel and grants them citizenship upon arrival.
Said believes thatthe dissolution of Palestinian unity was part of the Israeli-American intention—that is, "to reduce the Palestinian cause to a matter only of residency on the West Bank and Gaza, and not of dispossession or national eviction—in effect, ethnic cleansing".
Thus, according to Said, there is a new insistence among exiled refugee Palestinians that their right of return must be maintained no matter what Israel and the Arabs agree on now. In other words, Arafat no longer speaks for the refugee Palestinians.
In my ignorance, I had seen the peace process as a complicated series of negotiations revolving around numbers—percentages of land, numbers of prisoner releases. Once Arafat and Rabin shook hands—transforming Arafat from pariah to "our man"—it was just a matter of working out the details. As long as the radical element—the terrorists—could be kept at bay, it was just a matter of time.
It's not that simple.
Bottom line, according to Said, is that despite "moments of triumphal exultation for the signatories and their media chorus", what is agreed upon in the end will not last. Said's piece had a big impact on me. Whatever optimism I'd had before about the peace process was gone.