At the centre of the Palestinian question stands the question of refugees and not sovereignty, and at the centre of a solution – return of the refugees. Without fulfillment of the Palestinian right of return, Israelis will also never be free of their fear and associated violent behaviour.
Earlier this month I participated in Bil’in’s annual international conference. Over the years, this conference has transformed into an important international meeting in which women and male activists from around the globe discuss means of resisting Israel’s colonial occupation.
Although I was asked to speak about “normalization and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation”, following my remarks the discussion focused primarily on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. “At the centre of the Palestinian question stands the question of refugees and not sovereignty”, I said, “and at the centre of a solution – return of the refugees”.
One of the many negative implications of the Oslo Process was creation of the impression, completely false, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily a matter of territory and borders, and nothing more. However, the conflict is also about mass deportation and dispossession of an entire people from their land-homeland.
Moreoever – this is not a conflict between two states but an ongoing colonial project, the goal of which is to create a Jewish state on the destruction of Palestine. All Israeli attempts to “compromise” were intended to receive international recognition for what had already been attained to that moment, with the intention of continuing forward. “The Negev will not run away”, David Ben Gurion said once to those who criticized him for accepting the UN partition plan, which did not include the Negev in the territory of the Jewish state; this is also how he perceived the ceasefire line of 1949, which left Jerusalem’s Old City outside of the borders of the state of Israel.
From Ben Gurion through Ariel Sharon –Zionist strategists understood the dynamic dimension of the Zionist project, and they treated all compromise agreements as a temporary solution until it was possible to march forward in their colonial process.
The fact is that the colonial process also continues within what is called the Green Line – Judaisation of the Galilee, Judaisation of the Negev, the laws of immigration for Jews, a series of upcoming laws to strengthen the Jewish character of the state. All of these annul the seemingly naive character of the Zionist left concerning “ a normal state which must make peace with its neighbours”: Israel possesses no official borders because it still sees itself in a process of creation (“the war of independence has not yet ended” Ariel Sharon once said). Facts on the ground are what determine the borders of Israel and as such additional time is necessary (fifty years, according to Sharon) until Israel can determine its final borders.
What is the connection between all of this and the question of refugees? The need for decolonialisation! Without the decolonialisation of Israel, we will continue to be in a process of colonization and in a colonial regime, not in a “state” and certainly not in a democratic state. The decolonialisation of Israel is not simply a matter of a policy change or annulling this or that law, but a structural change in both the regime and its mentality. In the centre of this mental change – the recognition of the Palestinian as indigenous, an indigenous person whose legitimacy comes before the legitimacy of an Israeli as a resident whose rights were acquired in a violent process of dispossession.
The right of return is first and foremost recognition of the “Palestine-ness” of the land, and this is an essential condition not only for a solution grounded in justice but for the freeing of Israelis from fear. The fear which endlessly plagues the Israeli psyche is the fear of the Naqba “ghosts” who, in contrast to the native Americans in North America, are still living – whether inside or outside of our borders.
Only the ability to return will free the Israeli people from their fear and the violent behaviour associated with this. In this sense, the question of return of the Palestinian refugees is not a secondary question that can be swept under the carpet while everyone is busy establishing a state and setting its borders, but is the heart of the question and the key to a solution. While in Oslo an attempt was made to push the question of refugees to the end of the process, logic requires that we put the question of return at the top of our priorities and in the beginning of the political agenda. And one who contends that “Israelis will never agree” must accept that then there will not be a solution and the conflict will continue.