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Palestinian leaders have always insisted that Arabs whose families were expelled from or fled from their homes during the 1948 war that established Israel should have the right to “return” to them. Israeli leaders have always dismissed this as out of the question. The refugees from that war and their descendants — many still stateless — should be allowed to return only to whatever Palestinian state is eventually established in the West Bank and, perhaps, Gaza, Israeli leaders say.
At the Zochrot conference, held in late September, participants debated detailed plans on how at least a portion of those refugees could return to Israel itself in an orderly, planned manner. Palestinian author Salman Natur, a conference attendee, hailed the gathering as a “turning point in the attempt to transform Israeli consciousness” on this question. “Something noteworthy is happening here,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
The establishment of a Jewish discourse that supports a Palestinian return is newer — and much smaller — than the Israeli right’s varied proposals to annex the West Bank. Somewhat ironically, the conference promoting this discourse would likely have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the vocal protests against it by some on the right, and the media’s coverage of the resulting controversy. The Zionist group Im Tirtzu was furious that the Land of Israel Museum, a major, Tel Aviv-based institution that receives government funds, allowed Zochrot to hold the conference on its premises, and Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis called on the museum to pull the plug on it. But the museum declined to intervene.
There are around five million Palestinian refugees, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. And Israelis tend to presume that almost all would head to Israel given the chance. But speakers at the conference contested this. A “very small minority would actually move back,” Zochrot director Eitan Bronstein said, suggesting that Palestinians now established with citizenship in other countries, such as Jordan, would be unlikely to relocate.
The realistic goal of the conference, he and other organizers said, wasn’t to suddenly make “return” mainstream in Israel, but rather to begin a conversation, and to establish what “return” would actually mean.
Bronstein acknowledged that Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority in such a scenario, but he stressed that Jews would still represent a significant proportion of the country’s citizens.
Amir Asher, a translator who volunteers as a guide for Zochrot’s tours of former Palestinian villages whose structures or ruins remain within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, claimed that the right of return for Palestinians would not be just a concession by Israelis — it would also benefit them. “People always think about return in terms of the damage it would cause from the point of view of Jews in Israel,” he said, “but they never think about it as a good thing.” Asher argued that it would rectify the wrongs he believes were done to Palestinians around the time of Israel’s establishment, and thereby enable Israelis to stop “living a lie.”