The role of Israeli Jews in planning for Palestinian return

Perhaps the most important area in which Jewish Israelis can be active regarding Palestinian return is preparing the Israeli public for that eventuality.

By Eitan Bronstein Aparicio

A Palestinian woman carries a key, a symbol of the Nakba and the right of return, May 15, 2012, Ramallah. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/
A Palestinian woman carries a key, a symbol of the Nakba and the right of return, May 15, 2012, Ramallah. Many Palestinians took the keys to their homes when they fled or were expelled in 1948, thinking and hoping that they would soon return. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

The Nakba has entered the mainstream Israeli discourse in recent years in ways that were unthinkable in the past. A large majority of Jews in Israel know it is a word in Arabic connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has a negative connotation, shows a public opinion poll to be published soon by De-Colonizer, a research and art laboratory for social change, that provides materials and tools to expose and challenge the colonialist nature of the Israeli regime.

In response to that public recognition we have seen a dramatic shift on the part of the Israeli government and right-wing group Im Tirtzu. The “Nakba Law,” which passed in 2011, is aimed at preventing the study and commemoration of the Nakba. At the same time, Im Tirtzu launched a major campaign encouraging Nakba denial. And yet, despite the burgeoning awareness of the Nakba, most Israelis do not know what it actually is.

Even fewer Israelis recognize that Israel has any kind of responsibility for turning most Palestinians into refugees and destroying most of their towns and villages in 1948 in order to establish the Jewish state. Among those who understand the importance of Israeli recognition of the Nakba, a minority supports recognition of the right of return (Hak al-Awda in Arabic) of Palestinian refugees as determined in international law and specifically in UN Resolution 194 from December 11, 1948.

Since Israel’s establishment, the bitter debate over the right of return has been dichotomous: Zionists are against and the anti-Zionist are for. It seems to be a dispute between two sides that aren’t engaging in any constructive dialogue. Obviously this is not a dispute restricted to legal terms, but one whose basis is the Jewish state, a state that uses legal mechanisms to maintain a Jewish majority and in which only Jews can be full citizens.

In order to move past this and achieve a real discourse on the matter, in order to promote the right of return, we should focus more on practical return and less on a theoretical right. In addition to studying and recognizing the Nakba, it is necessary to start planning the actual return itself. Planning for the return of Palestinian refugees is based on two fundamental principles: nobody should be uprooted from their home; and every refugee and their offspring should have the freedom to choose whether to physically return or opt for some sort of reparations.

The Israeli non-profit Zochrot began an initiative in this spirit 10 years ago. Several texts have been written by Israelis and Palestinian on the subject, exhibits and conferences were held which presented return plans, Palestinian refugee communities began planning their return and some have already returned to the villages of Iqrit and Bir’im within the framework of a project that has been going on for over a year.

It is not surprising that Palestinians are engaged in efforts to advance return, but Jews engaged with the matter are few and far between. The last text we are aware of written by Jewish Israelis was part of a project by the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI). In 2014 Noa Levy led a working group that formulated a document addressing the policy of immigration and return of refugees. Nothing else has been done in recent years by Jewish Israelis on planning the ‘Awda.

Why is it important for Jewish Israelis to participate in planning the return of Palestinian refugees?

  1. Because Israelis are (the descendants of) those who expelled Palestinians, so they should do what they can to help refugees return, which includes helping plan the return itself
  2. Because they benefit from the uprooting of Palestinians, which makes them responsible for correcting the situation and not just taking part as passive supporters.
  3. Because the uprooting of Palestinians is part of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict from which they also suffer. Helping refugees return also helps end the conflict.
  4. Because planning the Awda will teach Israelis about the Nakba.
  5. Because planning the return will prepare Israelis for coexistence with Palestinians – not the empty slogan of the Zionist Left but a shared existence under terms of full equality, including immigration laws. Planning the return of Palestinian refugees is the most radical step one can take to counter the Zionist policies that have trained us to remain separate.
  6. Because when Israelis are involved in planning the return, it has an impact on the Israeli public. There is nothing out of the ordinary about Palestinians planning for return, but if Israelis are involved it draws attention as unique and subversive.
  7. If Israelis are involved in the plan of return, it has more chances of become accepted by more Israelis.
  8. Because the return of refugees is in the interest of everyone who lives here – not just Palestinians. Palestinians need to lead the initiative but Israelis who live here must be allies in designing a post-Zionist shared way of life.


So what is the role of Israelis who support the right of Palestinian return?

Israelis should not be involved in the planning of a re-built Palestinian community. The Palestinian group should do that in a safe space. Questions about the composition of the town, style of construction, location of shared spaces, etc, should be address by the future residents. Interference by Israelis is paternalistic and can only be done with express request by the relevant Palestinians.

However, Israelis should respond to ideas about the Palestinian return. Criticism can always be constructive when it comes from a place of support.

There are also obligations. Everything beyond internal planning has consequences for everyone who lives here and obviously Israelis have an interest in the matter. Construction of a new town cannot be detached from its surroundings. If it is an existing town that will be expanded in order to absorb refugees that wish to return, this also has an environmental impact that affects Israelis as well, which is why they should be partners in planning. For example, if 50,000 refugees chose to return to the city of Nazareth, this will have an impact on the Jews that lives in the area.

Maybe the most important area in which Israelis should be active regarding return is preparing the Israeli public for that eventuality. They should organize activities, for example, conducting a survey or focus groups and discussions ahead of the return, where they examine Israeli positions on return and on its aftermath. Such activities will prepare Israelis for the dramatic shift. It is also vital to address Israeli fears on this matter.

Another option is to present Israelis with Palestinian positions on return. This is important since Israelis are usually exposed to the issue by people who do not support return; “experts” in media or academia. They present a picture in which the Palestinians who return pose demographic and security risks, endanger democracy, etc.

Israelis who support return have an important role to play in presenting a different, more balanced narrative — not to present an idyllic picture of how things will be after return, but to offer ways of coping with the fears that prevent any movement on this matter. Planning the return of Palestinian refugees is an act of utopian politics that encourages thinking about what is possible, beyond the current agenda. It gives hope at a time when it feels like we at a dead end.

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio is the co-founder of De-Colonizer, a research and art laboratory for social change that provides materials and tools to expose and challenge the colonialist nature of the Israeli regime. The organization is holding an event, ‘Should Israelis plan the ‘Awda,’ on May 11 in Tel Aviv. View the event here.

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