The Palestinian 'Right of Return'
Jude Wanniski
June 4, 2002


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: What this is all about

If you are trying to follow the story in the Middle East these days, you will read about a sticking point in deliberations between Arabs and Israelis involving the Palestinian "right of return." Because the story of this conflict dates back to 1948, few of you will know about this issue unless you are elderly or Jewish or Palestinian, and most of what you will find in the newspapers is colored by prejudice or propaganda. If you really want to dig into the origins of the conflict, my recommendation is that you buy a paperback book by Norman G. Finkelstein, "Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict." Finkelstein is an unusual fellow who believes very little of what he reads in the newspapers and has written several books bearing on this topic, giving serious weight to the Palestinian point of view. He is a professor of history at DePaul University in Chicago, whose interest in the plight of the Jews and the founding of Israel after the war developed out of the experience of his parents, both survivors of Nazi concentration camps in Poland. Written in 1995, the book is not popular with elements of the Jewish political community in the United States. This seems to be because he has practically been a one-man truth squad in making sure the history of the period is founded on documented fact.

I'd never heard of Finkelstein until a month ago, when I realized I had to dig into the history myself as I saw conflicting stories in various accounts of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. Someone sent me an account of something he had written and I tracked him down by e-mail, asking him if he had a distinctive view on the origins of the 1967 Arab-Israeli view. He wrote back saying he had covered that story in Chapter Five of "Image and Reality," and when Amazon delivered the paperback, I found a scrupulous account that bore little relation to my conventional recollections. I've since read the rest of the book and have thus discovered a whole new way of thinking about the 54-year conflict, where the "white hats" and "black hats" follow a different distribution pattern.

Most interesting is his account of what happened at the time of partition in the spring of 1948, when the United Nations drew the lines that created Israel out of the "Holy Land" then under the sovereignty of Jordan and occupied largely by Jordanian Palestinians. A "state" of Palestine was not created at the same time as Israel gained "statehood," and that issue has been up in the air all these years. There are varying accounts of the population of this territory in 1948, but Finkelstein has devoted enormous time trying to get the numbers straight, and I have no reason to dispute them. He e-mailed me Sunday: "The Jewish population of Palestine in 1948 was about 650,000, the Arab population about 1,300,000, (900,000 in the part of Palestine that became Israel, of which 150,000 remained after the expulsion)."

The "expulsion" is the Palestinian way of describing the departure of 750,000 Palestinian men, women and children from the villages and towns of Palestine after the November 1947 UN Partition Resolution through the end of the first Arab-Israeli war in early 1949. Finkelstein notes that even before Israel declared statehood in May 1947, some 250,000-to-300,000 Palestinian Arabs had been expelled - one reason why the neighboring Arab states invaded. The Israelis refer to it as the "exodus." These are the Palestinian refugees whose offspring continue to dwell in the lands occupied by Israel as a result of their victory in the 1967 war – as well as in refugee camps throughout the Arab world, including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. They are expecting that in a negotiated settlement with Israel involving the establishment of a Palestinian state, they would have the "right of return" to the homes from which they were "expelled" in 1948. The difference between "expulsion" and "exodus" is the difference between leaving of their own free will and leaving because of the use of force or the threat of the use of force. If Finkelstein had used Arab sources for the "expulsion" point of view, his assessment would have little value. He uses either the writings of the Zionists themselves or of an Israeli historian, Benny Morris, who over the years has written differing versions of the events. Finkelstein makes the case that David Ben-Gurion, the political leader most identified with the founding of Israel, was on record stating in a June 1938 Zionist meeting: "I support compulsory transfer. I don't see in it anything immoral."

In December 1947, "when the Palestinians first began to flee before the Zionist assaults... ‘Ben-Gurion grasped that the moment was at hand to implement transfer.’ Morris writes: ‘With a little nudging, with a limited expulsion here and the razing of a village there, and with a policy of military conquest usually preceded by mortar barrages, this trickle of an exodus, he realized, could be turned into a massive outflow.’" With the exception of the exodus from Haifa, where the Jewish mayor pleaded with the Palestinians not to leave, Finkelstein finds plenty of evidence that the Zionist defense forces frightened the Palestinian peasants into taking off with a few selected "massacres," by which he means incidents where several hundred civilians were killed by Israeli Defense Forces defending themselves against "snipers." It was enough then to broadcast the news in other villages to hasten the exodus.

When I sent an e-mail back asking Finkelstein for his further thoughts, he replied: "Regarding the expulsion of the Palestinians from the area of Palestine that became Israel, I suggest you read my analysis of Benny Morris's book in 'Image and Reality.' The large-scale Israeli massacres (apart from Deir Yassin) don't come until the end of the 1948 war when the Palestinian refugees realize that if they depart they're not coming back (the Israeli cabinet officially decided in June 1948 to level the villages from which the Palestinians fled), so they put up more resistance and needed - in Morris's nice euphemism - to be "nudged." Hence the Israeli massacres."

This is of course water over the dam a long time ago, but it does help explain the hatred on the Palestinian side. Prevailing Jewish historians, including Morris, count the bloodletting and expulsion as collateral damage in wartime. The Palestinians remember the civilian deaths as massacres, in the same way they view Ariel Sharon's demolition of the West Bank in recent months as heinous.

What is extremely important to note is that Yasir Arafat at Camp David in 2000 made an offer to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak: "a state of Israel incorporating some land captured in 1967 and including a very large majority of its settlers; the largest Jewish Jerusalem in the city's history, preservation of Israel's demographic balance between Jews and Arabs; security guaranteed by a U.S.-led international presence." This is according to the account of President Bill Clinton's representative at the Camp David negotiations, writing in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. In other words, the Palestinians are so serious about gaining statehood after 54 years of trying, that they are prepared to give up the right of return. When you read that the Saudi Arabian plan is scoffed at by Israel because it insists upon the right of return, please note the Saudi plan only refers to a “just resolution” of the refugee question. At least that's the way it seems to Professor Finkelstein. And to me as well.