Headliners: Right of return, but not in my backyard
By MARCUS SHEFF
There might be a serious split within Palestinian society over return to a future Palestinian state.
On a recent afternoon in Nablus, during the Id al-Adha Muslim holiday, a group of Palestinian men sat down to a conversation in an office suite.
As traffic honked and rattled in the streets of this bustling West Bank city, the discussion ranged from the relative popularity of Fatah and Hamas to the man most likely to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president.
Seated around a conference table, the mini-parliament debated the wide-ranging issues facing ordinary Palestinians: the economic gains that have been made in Palestinian society, Abbas’s attempts to bypass negotiations in favor of a unilateral bid at the United Nations, and the new-found sense of peace and security they were enjoying in Nablus.
Nablus is notorious as the former suicide bomber capital of the West Bank, where dozens of attacks on Israeli cities were planned and from where they emanated.
The discussion might have been reflected in dozens of homes and workplaces across the city, but these Palestinians were members of a focus group commissioned by The Israel Project.
The Israel Project has been conducting polling and focus groups in Gaza and the West Bank for two years as part of the Arabic People to People Program.
The research helps to understand thinking in Palestinian society beyond the public slogans voiced by the Palestinian leadership, to better communicate about Israel and to figure out how to get to peace and a better future for both sides. Today, the program has 200,000 friends on its Arabic Facebook page and 30 million postviews.
We already knew that just as in America and elsewhere, the top issue for Palestinians is the economy and jobs, and a high percentage use their PC or mobile phone to browse Facebook for some two to five hours a day. That sounds like an extremely high figure, I know, but we have tested that several times.
The Palestinian leadership continue to insist on “right of return” of Palestinians to Israel (“48” in the Palestinian lexicon), and Israel and the international community stand sideby- side in saying that Palestinians will return to a future Palestinian state. But surprisingly, Palestinians in the West Bank are less than enthusiastic about return to a future state of Palestine.
Today, after having waged a bloody intifada, Palestinians enjoy the fruits of economic peace generated by several years of quiet cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and by large sums of US and European aid. Fewer roadblocks, easier access have resulted in money and goods flowing through the West Bank. The West Bank national bird is the crane, as dozens dot the skyline of Nablus and other Palestinian cities for high-rise projects.
The city has a new shopping mall, a modern movie theater and thousands of new housing units. Life is beginning to look good, and residents don’t want their new-found prosperity threatened by the sudden influx of refugees, many of them impoverished – and intentionally kept impoverished – from camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
They argued that there aren’t enough houses – and certainly not enough jobs.
“If they come, they’ll have to bring their own businesses with them,” said one man. Another grudgingly accepted it was the “right” of the refugees to return but displayed little enthusiasm at the prospect.
And one man said, “There might be another solution, maybe compensation by Israel, but they can’t return. They can come visit...”
Why were we so surprised?
Israelis assume that a future Palestinian “ingathering of the exiles” will be a mirror-image of the daring mass immigration that accompanied the birth of the State of Israel – an aliya in Arabic.
But that assumption says much more about us Israelis than it does about the Palestinians. We have a tendency to view Palestinian aspirations through the lens of our own experience, and this may hinder our ability to understand Palestinian aspirations clearly.
The ingathering of the exiles is deep in the Israeli consciousness, an ideology nurtured over two millennia by Jewish prayer that burst into full bloom with the modern rebirth of Israel.
Jews came back to Israel from Russia following the 1881 May Laws and anti-Jewish pogroms across the Pale of Settlement. They came from Europe as they fled the Nazis, and afterwards those who survived the Holocaust came.
More recently from North Africa and the Middle East fleeing Arab anti-Zionism and later still, from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. And constantly, from the US, Western Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, inspired by modern Zionism.
Jews from dozens of countries speaking more than 100 languages, but with one thing in common – the commitment of those living in Israel to accept and absorb the next wave of immigration.
But false assumptions based on the projection of our own consciousness and history do not dovetail with Palestinian reality. In Nablus, indications are that there is a an understanding that refugees’ return to Israel is impossible. And there might be a serious split within Palestinian society over return to a future Palestinian state.
This has significant implications for Israel and we need to listen to the Palestinians more closely.
The writer is the executive director of The Israel Project’s Israel office.