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South Africa Offers Model for Palestine

Annette Herskovits
Tuesday December 23, 2003

Editors, Daily Planet: 

The responses to George Bisharat’s article on the Palestinian right of return filled me with sadness, because hopes for peace in the region rest on Palestinians and Jews—in Israel and the wider world—entering into dialogue with good faith and mutual respect—just what Bisharat was attempting. 

Avraham Shalom, one of four former directors of Israel’s Security Service who recently warned that Israel was heading toward catastrophe, said: “We must, once and for all, admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully.” 

As Bisharat insists, recognizing the other side’s feelings involves going back to 1948, the time Palestinians call “al-Naqba,” the catastrophe, and seeing it through Palestinian eyes. Israelis must find the courage to publicly acknowledge the suffering caused by the founding of Israel. 

Bisharat writes, “Accepting back refugees, who would form a larger Palestinian minority in Israel than has been deemed ideal for Jews, may be the price Israel must pay for establishing a Jewish state in Arab Palestine.” (Note that Bisharat does not call for the end of the Jewish state.) This may be the price Israel has to pay for peace—and it needs peace to survive. 

But Israel’s acknowledging responsibility for Palestinian suffering is compatible with a restricted right of return—for example, to a newly established state of Palestine, with some exceptions, as proposed by the recent non-governmental Geneva accord. Fairness and good faith, however, demand at the least extensive payments of reparations by Israel. 

To deny that in 1948 Jewish armies and paramilitary groups drove out more than 700,000 Arabs from the land that became Israel is futile—it did happen, just as the holocaust happened. 

The celebrated I.F. Stone—a Jew, the first newspaperman to travel with illegal Jewish immigrants to British mandate Palestine, and a frequent visitor to Israel thereafter—wrote in 1967 of “the myth that the Arab refugees fled because the Arab radios urged them to do so. An examination of British and US radio monitoring records turned up no such appeals; on the contrary there were appeals and even ‘orders to the civilians of Palestine, to stay put.’” Today’s 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel are descendants of the 133,000 who stayed put. 

Even if some Palestinians fled in response to Arab inducement, their flight did not give Israel the right to permanently take over their land. 

Stone further writes: “Jewish terrorism, not only by the Irgun, in such savage massacres as Deir Yassin, but in milder form by the Haganah itself, ‘encouraged’ Arabs to leave areas the Jews wished to take over for strategic or demographic reasons. They tried to make as much of Israel as free of Arabs as possible.” More recently, Israel’s new historians (e.g., Benny Morris) provided abundant confirmation of this. 

As stated in James Sinkinson’s letter, the various Arab countries in which Palestinians took refuge do bear responsibility for Palestinian suffering for denying them and their descendants citizenship, whether or not some of the refugees refused resettlement, as Bisharat writes. 

But the Arab countries’ misuse of the refugees in no way cancels out 1948. Apologies are also due on the Israeli side for the increasing horrors of an occupation aimed at forcing Palestinians from their land; and on the Palestinian side, for the policies adopted by their various resistance groups of targeting civilians. 

Maybe it would be more to the point to call for apologies from all those responsible for the current tragedy: the European nations, for 2000 years of persecution of the Jews; the Allies in WWII, for giving the Jews a territory that was not theirs to give; the Arab nations, for their self-serving policies toward Israel and Palestinians; and the United States, for unconditionally supplying Israel with vast military and economic resources it used to pursue expansionist goals. As Stone writes: “A certain moral imbecility marks all ethnocentric movements”—some form of ethnocentricity is present in every instance mentioned above. 

Could it be time to set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission like that of South Africa? Would it make sense to do it now, maybe in some neutral country—and not wait for a peace agreement? 

Annette Herskovits