Essay: The compensation option

Do we really want to accept that all property lost to its owners in 1948 should revert to them now?

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
There is no small hypocrisy in the argument that the former Arab vegetable market in Hebron rightfully belongs to that city's Jewish settlers because it was Jewish property in 1948 when King Abdullah's Arab Legion conquered the West Bank. That this should be the argument put forth by the settlers is only natural. That it is accepted by the government of Israel, which has reportedly come to an agreement with Hebron's Jews whereby they will be given future title to the area in return for voluntarily evacuating it now, is something else. Let us put aside for the moment the question of how a new government under Ehud Olmert, whose apparent plan is to keep a part of Judea and Samaria for Israel while unilaterally withdrawing from most of it, intends to include Jewish Hebron, and its adjacent and much larger suburb of Kiryat Arba, within Israel's borders - a move that would involve annexing a far higher percentage of the disputed territories than the 10 or 15% that has been spoken of. Why the government should want the headache of an expanded Jewish presence in Hebron if it eventually intends to relinquish it anyway is hard to understand - but sufficient unto the day are the headaches thereof. And today's headache is: Do we really want to adopt the principle that all property lost to its owners in this country in 1948 should revert to them now? Of course, we are told, there is a legal difference between the relatively small amount of Jewish property that was taken over by Arabs in 1948 and the very large amount of Arab property that was taken over by Jews. The latter was officially nationalized by the government of Israel; the former was not by the government of Jordan, which administered it without revoking its absentee owners' title to it. Thus, this reasoning goes, when these owners were physically able to repossess their property by virtue of Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967, it was perfectly legitimate to allow them to do so. But this is legal casuistry. If resorting to it in the past was condonable in such cases as Gush Etzion, or the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, where there was an overriding Jewish interest, resorting to it on behalf of the Hebron settlers, who belong to the settler movement's meanest and most fanatical elements, is not - unless, that is, we really want to re-think the whole question of what was lost on both sides in 1948. And perhaps we should. FROM A Jewish point of view, of course, there can be no question of returning even a small part of the land and houses (the great majority of which are no longer standing anyway) that belonged to the Palestinians who fled in 1948. It's all ours now and has to remain ours. But that doesn't mean we can't say to the Palestinians: "Yes, it's all ours ' but it was once yours and we took it from you. That's not something we have to apologize for; we took it because we needed it and wouldn't have had a country to live in without it. Yet it's still only fair that you should be paid for what we took. There's a difference between expropriation and theft, and while we have no qualms about having been expropriators, we don't want to be thieves." In a word, compensation. No return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, much less any return of their property, but a willingness to pay for that property as any government guided by law pays for what it expropriates for the public good. Many reasons have been given to explain why compensation for Palestinian property is not a practical idea. This country was ours by right anyway. And besides, Israel can't afford compensation. And even if it could, there are no reliable records of which Palestinians owned what. And even if there were records, there is no way of ascertaining what this property was worth in 1948, or how it should be assessed now. And even if there were a way, the number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands that Israel absorbed in 1948, who also had their property taken from them, was roughly equal to the number of Palestinian refugees from Israel; why not, then, consider it an even swap? THESE ARE all sensible objections. But there are sensible answers to them, too. There is a difference between the national right to a country, which we Jews have, and the human rights of a property owner, which the Palestinians have. And if Israel were to take it upon itself to compensate Palestinian refugees, long-term international loans and international funding would be available. And however complicated, agreed-on procedures for determining who owned what and should be paid how much could be arrived at. And although Jewish refugees from Arab lands should be compensated, too, the two issues are distinct. The Palestinians who lost their homes and lands without payment were not the Iraqis, Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians, Syrians, and Yemenis who took without payment the homes and lands of departing Jews. Above all, compensation would be the best and fairest way of settling the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all. It would put an end to any other demands the refugees might have; it would assuage the bitterness in their and their descendants' hearts and give them the financial means to lead better lives; it would remove the moral stigma that rests on Israel for having dispossessed them; and it would put our own consciences to rest, too, so that we would never again have to think that we are living on what doesn't belong to us. But our consciences already are at rest, you say? Perhaps, but they shouldn't be. "Thou shalt not steal," after all, was not someone else's idea. It was our own. And lastly, there would be one other advantage to such an arrangement. The Hebron vegetable market would be ours without hypocrisy.