A number of new surveys shows that at least a fifth of Israel’s Jewish citizens are open to the idea of Palestinian refugees returning to their homes. So how do we reconcile this with the violence being meted out to Palestinians on the Gaza border?
By Eléonore Bronstein and Eitan Bronstein Aparicio
A Palestinian refugee, Saleh Saleh Abu Rass, holds up a key from his original home in Be’er Sheva, located in southern Israel, during a rally, in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, May 12, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
What is it about Gaza’s “Great Return March” that so threatens Israelis? What is it that Israelis are so actively preventing? The Gaza fence symbolizes the essence of the Jewish state, which was founded through the dispossession of the Palestinians, expelling the majority of them beyond its borders. Walls and fences were built — above and below ground — to prevent the return of those refugees. Today, as in the 1950s, they are considered dangerous “infiltrators.” Not much has changed when it comes to colonial thinking and practice.
Unfortunately, we must also admit that even when the atrocities become too much to bear, the violent Israeli response is not surprising. It almost goes without saying; perhaps the fact that there is nothing surprising in this kind of behavior is the real atrocity. That the emergency in Gaza has become a trivial matter.
That is why it was so surprising to discover the results of a new survey, conducted by the Geocartography Knowledge Group among 500 Jewish Israelis, for our book, Nakba in Hebrew. The survey shows that quite a few Israeli Jews, or at least many more than one would think, support the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.
Jewish Israelis were asked the following question: “In 1948, during the War of Independence, the majority of Palestinians who lived in the country were turned into refugees and have since been spread across the world. The right of return of the Palestinian refugees refers to the possibility of every Palestinian refugee (and his/her descendants) to decide between actual return to the place where they lived until 1948, and other forms of compensation. The significance of the recognition of the right of return may be that more than seven million Palestinian refugees will choose to return to Israel. To what extent do you support or oppose the right of return as presented?”
Palestinian citizens of Israel pass photos of Palestinian refugees during the anuual ‘March of Return’ to Lubya, a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948. (Activestills)
The detailed wording and inclusion of “over seven million” Palestinian refugees were meant to ensure that the respondents fully understand the significance of recognition and implementation of the right of return. This was done after the wording in two previous surveys was less explicit, yielding more than 20 percent results in support of the right of return. And yet, 16.2 percent of respondents in the new survey answered that they support return, or that they support it “provided the refugees return in peaceful conditions.”
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According to the survey, nearly twice as many women support the right of return than man (17.2 percent as opposed to nine). An especially optimistic figure can be found when breaking down the responses by age: Israelis between the ages of 18 and 34 support the right of return at a particularly high rate (25.9 percent), compared to adults over the age of 55 (15.1 percent) and those between 35-54 (7.3 percent). Meanwhile, Israelis who earn an average income are twice as likely to support the right of return than those who earn an above-average income (21.9 percent as opposed 12.7 percent).
One sees a clear and predictable picture when accounting for degree of religiosity. Support by secular Jews for the right of return was four times higher than that by ultra-Orthodox Jews (22.3 percent as opposed to 5.2 percent). An interesting difference was also found between second-generation Israelis, Israelis whose parents were born in Europe, and Israelis whose parents are of Mizrahi origin. The first support the right of return at a much higher rate (22.6 percent) compared to those born to European immigrants (14.1 percent), and those born to Mizrahi parents (11.7).
These surprising results are supported by the results of other surveys. The first of these was also conducted for Nakba in Hebrew by Geocartography in March 2015. In that survey, 500 Jewish Israelis the following question: “Will you personally support the right of return for Palestinians if recognizing that right does not involve the uprooting of Jewish Israelis from the homes in which they live?” Twenty percent responded positively, compared with 60.8 who answered in the negative.
An ultra-orthodox Jewish man walks in the depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta, located on the edge of West Jerusalem, Israel, March 4, 2014. During the Nakba, the residents of Lifta fled attacks by Zionist militias, resulting in the complete evacuation of the village by February 1948. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
In a survey conducted by the Smith Institute for Israel Social TV in July 2017, 400 Jews living in northern Israel were asked the following: “Do you support or oppose the right of Arabs to return to live in the areas where they lived before 1948, as long as there are no Jewish residents in these areas today?” Around 26 percent responded positively. It is possible that the particularly high result stems from phrasing the question, which does not clarify precisely who will return. In other words, the question does not mention that these refugees are currently living outside the borders of the state. It is interesting to note that in this survey, too, almost twice as many women supported return: (30 percent versus 17 percent).
How, then, can we reconcile the violent and unequivocal Israeli response of firing live rounds on the marchers in Gaza, eith the consistent results in various surveys that show that around one-fifth of Israeli Jews are open to the possibility of Palestinian refugees returning?
In our view, that gap stems from the different ways in which the issue of return is publicly discussed. The public discourse prevalent in Israel vis-a-vis return is a contrarian one. Return, in the eyes of many, is equivalent to another Holocaust — a zero-sum game. In other words, the return of Palestinians means that Israeli Jews have no place in the country. A few days ago we asked Adnan Mahameed, a refugee from al-Lajjun, during a visit to his destroyed village, what would happen to the Jews living in Kibbutz Megiddo (which was built on the remains of his village) should his right to return be recognized. His answer excited the listeners: “We do not want to cause others the suffering we are going through, and we will find a way to compromise on these lands.”
It turns out that when Israelis are asked about the right of return as a basic human right — the purpose of which is to live in peace in Israel — quite a few of them respond positively.
Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)
The issue of implementing the return of the Palestinian refugees deserves a separate and in-depth discussion, which has been gaining momentum in recent years. It should be noted here that the Palestinians’ consistent demand for recognition and implementation of the right was never accompanied by a demand to expel the Jews. On the contrary, the realization of the right of return is beholden to the demographic and cultural conditions that have changed since the Nakba. Adnan’s answer, therefore, represents the prevailing perception among Palestinians — both refugees and those living on their historic land. The return will not be be accompanied by the forcible uprooting of people from the houses in which they live.
In order to promote justice and reconciliation in Israel, we must develop a discourse that recognizes the injustices of the past and seeks coexistence. There is no point in arguing about “their rights” as opposed to “our rights.” This kind of argument only emboldens fences, and gives justification to open fire at anyone who approaches them. We must practice a new language that includes all the inhabitants of the country and its refugees. This will be the beginning of a process aimed at ceasing to be settlers and occupiers, in order to live here together — alongside all its residents and refugees.