Learning from the Germans and Czechs on refugees

Israelis and Palestinians should agree that the injustices caused in the past belong to the past.

palestinian refugee 2988 (photo credit: Courtesy [file])
palestinian refugee 2988
(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
As a result of the Arab League summit meeting in Riyadh on March 29, which many believe may provide a historic opening for peace between Palestinians and Israelis based on the Saudi initiative, the issue of the refugees has again risen to the forefront and appears as one of the major stumbling blocks. For Israelis the meaning of such a return of millions of Palestinians refugees would be the elimination of the State of Israel and would conflict with the right to self-determination of the Jewish people. Most Israelis today accept the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in a state of their own, but not their right to destroy Israel as the Jewish state by inundation. Is there some historic precedent to guide us in this apparently intractable conflict? The Palestinians, as a result of 58 years of telling, retelling, and expanding on their own view of their national historic narrative of the tragic events of 1948 find it difficult, if not impossible, today to accept the view of many independent historians and most Israelis that the "calamity/catastrophe" (nakba) of the Palestinians was to a great extent a result of the war declared by the leadership of the Arab nations and the Palestinian Arabs themselves, against the creation of the Israel in fulfillment of the United Nations partition decision which was to create a Palestinian Arab state along side a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1948, by rejecting the decision of the UN to create the Arab state of Palestine, the Palestinians missed the historic opportunity of achieving their own independent state. The well-documented historical studies by Benny Morris indicate that Israel is not free of partial responsibility for the problems of the Palestinian displaced persons and refugees. Local Israeli army commanders and irregulars expelled and deported Palestinians, in some cases, and the government of Israel refused to accept the return of most of the Palestinian displaced persons and refugees after the war since they were viewed as a hostile enemy people who tried to conquer and annihilate Israel at its very inception. However, there also is firm documentary evidence which reveals that important elements of the Palestinian Arab leadership, who rejected the partition plan and did not want to live under Israeli rule, abandoned their homes at their own initiative and deserted the country even before Israel declared its independence. They were followed by masses of Palestinians, many of whom abandoned their homes voluntarily. These historic facts hover over the conscience of many knowledgeable Palestinians who are fully cognizant of the disastrous mistakes of their leadership of that period that led them into their national tragedy. LET US look at the case of the tragic flight and deportation of millions of ethnic Germans from German-occupied Sudetenland returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II and the historic "Czech/German Declaration of Reconciliation" which was finally signed in January 1997 after years of bitterness and tension between the two countries. The Joint Declaration states: "The German side accepts its responsibility… and regrets the historic developments which resulted in the suffering and injustice caused to the Czech people and recognizes the fact that the German attacks against the Czech nation are partially responsible for preparing the conditions which led to the exodus and deportations of the Germans after the War. The Czech side deeply regrets that the deportations of Sudetenland Germans after World War II resulted in much suffering and injustice. Since both sides accept collective responsibility… both sides agree that the injustice caused in the past belongs to the past and thus we must direct our relations toward the future." It was agreed that there can be no "return." I SUGGEST that we must search for a similar process of reconciliation in which Israel should be ready to declare clearly and openly its deep remorse, misgivings and regrets for its part, even if limited, in the terrible tragedy that the befell the Palestinian refugees as a result of the 1948 war and the years of severe suffering and deprivations that they have gone through ever since. Ways must be found for the final resettlement of those refugees, still in camps, in permanent homes and an honorable and just compensation for all refugees for their losses and suffering. Israel together with the world community should carry its share and participate actively in helping to finance that effort as well as to find ways to allow for a the unification of families and help to resolve other humanitarian problems. In the framework of such a reconciliation, the Palestinians must accept the reality that it is now impossible to turn back the hands of the clock of history and that there can be no "return." We both must be prepared to declare, as the Germans and Czechs did, that "…both sides agree that the injustice caused in the past belongs to the past and thus we must direct our relations toward the future." Today the only honest and just solution is for there to be two states, side by side, living in peace, mutual respect and cooperating with each other in all areas. The Saudi/Arab League initiative reconfirmed at Riyadh provides a promising starting point for negotiations to achieve an honorable peace agreement. The State of Palestine must become the dedicated Palestinian homeland to which its refugees can return, and the State of Israel must remain the dedicated Jewish homeland to which Jewish refugees can return. Israel is their only homeland, their only safe haven, their only hope for refuge. The writer is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a veteran Peace Now activist.