A settler’s argument for the right of return

By Eliaz Cohen | Translation: Dimi Reider

The story of the return of the descendants of the members of Kfar Etzion, a Jewish kibbutz destroyed in the war of 1948, can offer a healing model to the conflict between the two nations in this one country.

For over sixty years, Israel’s independence and Palestine’s Nakba have been marked simultaneously and seen as intertwined; and for over forty years, the consciousness of “liberation and return” and the consciousness of “occupation and dispossession” tussled between them for the right to describe and define the result of the Six Day War.  As someone who grew up in a community in Samaria and built his home in the kibbutz of Kfar Etzion, I wish to offer a handful of observations and insights, in an attempt to step beyond the familiar discourse and the ever-wrangling narratives.

I’d like to begin with the right of return. Not the national Palestinian right of return, which is still perceived as a threat by the majority of Israelis and, as illustrated recently by the Palestine Papers, experienced as the most basic and legitimate of rights by the Palestinians; but the “right of return” claimed and realized a few months after June 1967.

The right was claimed by the “children’s group of Kfar Etzion”, the children of the kibbutzim overrun by Jordanian and Palestinian forces in the war of 1948; by then, young people in their twenties, most of them orphans of fathers killed in the battle over the Etzion bloc. In 1967, these young people met over the fresh grave of one of their number, Meir Schnor, killed in the Six Day War, and declared: We are coming home.

Both this spontaneous declaration, leaning on a lasting connection and continued affirmation of the memory of a ruined home and the aspiration to return, and the group’s later negotiation with the Eshkol government, were based on the idea of “ancestral right,” a deeply-seated sensation of a bond to a place and of the “historical justice” in resettling it. Their particular story eventually overcame the general longstanding policy of the Israeli state of neither “swallowing nor vomiting” the “retained territories,” until their status is determined in the international diplomatic arena and an opportunity to establish peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors has arrived.

But the story of the return to Gush Etzion has much to teach us on the greater story of the conflict. It is a story of two distinct national groups with shared ethnic, cultural and even religious roots, who under recent historical circumstances came to clash, time and again, over the same piece of land. Moreover, the story of each group is comprised of many stories of individuals, families, clans, villages and communities, whose lives, histories and consciousness have been etched into a particular landscape; while customs, oral and written traditions and “imprints of the landscape of the homeland” have cut into the individual and collective souls.

From the very first encounter between the two groups there came to be a dominant consciousness of war, triumph and defeat: A war over the land, a demographic war waged by both parties (I’ve often thought how ironic it is that the sons of Abraham, who was promised his descendants will be innumerable, are constantly busy counting each other’s numbers); and worst of all: A war of blood, accompanying the Jewish-Arab conflict in this land for over one hundred years. All this had already happened. But must it go on?

Today we, Israelis, know we never arrived in an “empty land.” Today we know that however right it may have been to establish Jewish sovereignty in this land, the Arabs of the land of Israel were directly harmed by this move, and that alongside our own national awakening they have begun developing a national awareness and national aspirations of their own.

None of this goes to remove responsibility from either party’s shoulders. But of all things, it is the story of the return of Jewish settlers to a home destroyed by 19 years of Jordanian occupation that can allow us to begin training the consciousness, as one trains an atrophied muscle, for accepting the bond of the Palestinian refugees to the places in which they lived, some for decades and centuries before the outbreak of the War of 1948 – our Independence War, their Nakba.  My gut feeling and my accumulating impression from meetings and discussions with Palestinians of both 1948 and 1967, is that today it is possible to begin slowly transforming our consciousnesses from a state of war and conflict to a state of joint integration in the geographic space.

The unique characteristics of the return to Kfar Etzion offer a preparatory model for returns yet to come – this, time, perhaps, returns by Palestinians. For example, the fact that the areas in which the four kibbutzim of the Etzion bloc existed until 1948 were left unsettled during the Jordanian occupation, and that no Palestinians needed to be displaced to allow for the kibbutz children return, teaches us that a wrong cannot be mended by causing another wrong. In whatever scenario that may come to pass, whether something closer to “two state for two peoples,” or a binational federation/confederation, we must not allow further dispossessions of residents of this land, whether Jewish or Arab, anywhere between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. However, there will clearly be a need to think through the return of refugees to the places in which villages and communities existed within Israel proper, especially in proximity to or directly upon locations that were not settled since 1948 and stand desolate to this day.

And to allow the war for the land to lapse, in any political scenario, a new, fair land policy must be devised and operated, one that would be co-managed by both parties and would aspire to an equitable distribution of land resources  – as well as other vital resources, such as water, air, and quarried substances.

As this process unfolds, it may bring about a new and fascinating reality in all of Israel-Palestine: Palestinians continuing to live within the borders of 1948, Jewish settlers continuing to live beyond the Green Line, even under a kind of a different sovereignty, and the returning refugees among them anywhere between the river and the sea; all groups serving as “bridge populations” and “ambassadors” between the two nations, no longer be experienced as “symbols of the occupation” or “ticking bombs”. Then, at long last, the chance of a gradual establishment of trust and shared responsibility may once again return to the tent of our forefather Abraham.

The author is a poet and a social worker, member of kibbutz Kfar Etzion and co-founder of the Yerushalom movement.