The irony of holding a conference focusing on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and their descendants over the ruins of an abandoned Palestinian village — now the site of Eretz Israel Museum in north Tel Aviv — did not escape the organizers of the event. In fact that village, Sheikh Muwannis, was highlighted on the conference poster.
A few dozen Jews and Arabs gathered Sunday and Monday at the museum — which, no less ironically, was named by its former director Rehavam Zeevi, an Israeli tourism minister and advocate of Palestinian transfer assassinated by terrorists in 2001 — for a conference titled “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees,” organized by Israeli NGO Zochrot.
Truth and redress are elusive terms in the context of the Arab Israeli conflict, though. The aftermath of the war of 1948 — known by Israelis as the War of Independence and by Palestinians as Nakba, or catastrophe — remains a major emotional and political point of contention for Israeli Jews and Arabs. While the notion of returning refugees to Israel proper may be gaining traction among some in the American Jewish left, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis find it difficult to square with UN Security Council Resolution 181, otherwise known as the Partition Plan, which calls for the creation of a Jewish nation state alongside an Arab one, west of the Jordan river.
Im Tirzu, an Israeli NGO which last year published a booklet titled “Nakba Kharta” (Nakba is nonsense), appealed to Finance Minister Yair Lapid to cut the museum’s funding for housing the Zochrot conference.
Yet the conference went ahead, with presentations varying from the extremely personal to the wholly abstract. Absent, unsurprisingly, were speakers from the Israeli mainstream or right, for whom the notion of a “right of return” for Palestinians currently living outside sovereign Israel is anathema, since a sizable influx would dilute Israel’s approximately 3-1 Jewish-Muslim majority. Also missing were speakers from that external community — Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza or beyond — meaning that the Arab speakers were Arabs from Israel, whose relocation to abandoned villages would not remake Israeli demography, only its geography.
Amir Ashqar, a 19-year-old from the Galilee village of Kufr Yassif, told the audience of a decision he took last year with 14 friends to resettle his abandoned ancestral village of Iqrit, near the border with Lebanon.
A Christian village, Iqrit was emptied of its inhabitants in November 1948 during Operation Hiram by the nascent IDF, which promised residents they would return within days. That pledge was never realized, and in 1951 the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the army to allow the return of Iqrit refugees, but its homes were demolished before the decision could be implemented. Only the village church and cemetery remain on the site today.
“Returning to the village physically is different from hearing about it,” Ashqar said. “Today I know things about Iqrit which I never heard in the family stories.”
The family of Salma Heibi, a 30-year-old veiled woman and member of the Communist party, hails from the ruined village of Mi’ar in the Upper Galilee, on which four Jewish communities currently lie: Ya’ad, Segev, Misgav and Manof.
Heibi, who lives in the nearby village of Kabul with her three children, said she was unsure about what to do with “the settlers” occupying Mi’ar today.
“Should we deport them the same way they deported us? I’m undecided. I say: ‘The land is mine and I want to return to it.’ For now, my emotions override my logic.”
In a memorial video about Mi’ar screened following her presentation, Heibi sounded more resolute: “Mi’ar is for the Palestinians, not the Zionists.”
Ibrahim Abul-Heija said he can almost see the village of Al-Ruways — which his father fled at the age of 12 — from the window of his home in Tamra, northeast of Haifa. He is currently completing a history book on Al-Ruways based on oral testimonies he gathered, meant to educate the younger generation about their origins.
“I don’t care if my neighbor is Moshe or Yossi or Issa, or who rules me. Let me return to my land. If you live on the tenth floor of an apartment building in Tel Aviv, who cares who lives on the eleventh?”
Every refugee from Al-Ruways, “even those living in London,” knows exactly where his home stood before 1948, Abul-Heija asserted.
American Michal Ran-Rubin helped Zochrot design the potential future layout of Mi’ar and Al-Ruways to receive returning Palestinians as part of her PhD dissertation in urban planning for the University of Chicago. Traditional one-story Palestinian homes would have to give way to four- and five-story buildings to accommodate the masses of incoming returnees, she said.
The descendants of Mi’ar and Al-Ruways are mostly Israeli citizens, still living in close proximity to the abandoned villages. That reality, coupled with the fact that Israel has no urban planning intentions for the land, makes Palestinian return to these two villages theoretically possible.
“This was the perfect site to test out some of the ideas about how urban planning could facilitate transitional justice, allowing people to re-envision what a space might look like,” she said.
While insisting on avoiding the political aspects of her research and focusing on the technicalities of planning, Ran-Rubin said there was significance in acknowledging the Palestinian Nakba even where the rebuilding of a destroyed village is impossible.
“In the US, we spent a lot of time thinking about the spaces we walked upon. When I was at Berkeley, before every talk a professor would stand up and remark upon the Native American villages that used to stand on the grounds that Kroeber Hall or any one of our administrative buildings are now based on.”
As a “society in transition,” it is normal for Israelis to fear being thrown into the sea by returning Palestinians, Ran-Rubin added, but said she herself did not share such concerns, which “almost never, and for very obvious economic and political reasons, come to bear.”
Some participants supported the return of Palestinians as a way of cleansing Israel of what they viewed as the primordial sin of Zionism. Ami Asher, a translator from Jaffa, joined Zochrot after realizing in 2009 that the mulberry trees on the corner of Arlozorov and Ibn Gavirol in north Tel Aviv were planted by the Palestinian villagers of Summayl. He urged the audience to embrace Palestinian return not as burden but “as something we really want to happen.”
“Our country is very sick and needs a remedy,” he declared. “Merely addressing the issue helps Jews overcome the phobia of return.”
Haim Yacobi, head of the MA program in urban design at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy, said that Israel must go through a process of “decolonization” in order to level the playing field between Israeli “colonizers” and Palestinian “refugees.” He wondered out loud, however, whether the entire debate was nothing more than a new form of political defiance, a mirage, given Israel’s current political reality.
That’s exactly what the conference was, said 84-year-old Amnon Neumann, injured in the Negev desert during the 1948 War as a combatant in the second and ninth battalions of the Palmach, the precursor to the IDF.
“As long as our leaders remain in power, all this talk is baloney,” said Neumann, whose vision of one state on the entire land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, enabling mass Palestinian immigration from overseas, opened the second day of the conference. “It all depends on our regime. If our government is fair to everyone, hostility will dissipate with time. Of course such deep hatred will take a long time to disappear.”