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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.

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    1. Maya

      Thank you for this perspective. I really enjoy the content on +972 but I’m curious as to why you feature Israeli Jewish bloggers in Israel proper and illegal Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories but do not have any Palestinian bloggers?

      You chose the name +972 because it is the shared telephone area code of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, you use the headline “commentary from Israel and the Palestinian Territories,” yet there are no Palestinian voices, neither of those living in OPT nor those living in Israel. This troubles me.

      Reply to Comment
      • Maya, we do feature Palestinian guest bloggers – here and here. We are in the process of recruiting more, and are always interested in referrals or suggestions.

        Reply to Comment
    2. sh

      Yerushalom seem to be the only people thinking outside the one-state two-state boxes. Thanks +972.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Raed Kami

      Dear Mr Cohen
      suppose you are so “noble” to let us return to our stolen lands. Why then, should we accept uninhabitable lands while you get to keep the best land that you stole? This brings up a second point. Why should we make an agreement with you when we know the world is behind us, and with time will give us a better result? Finally, Palestine cannot sustain both its legitmiate inhabitants and colonists. Thus, this solution wont work

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kibbutznik

      ” …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. ”

      That is the ” one-state box ” sh .

      By the Rivers of Babylon :

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jan P

      Jews returning to Israel/Palestine is every bit as legitimate as Muslims (inclduing Palestinians) setting up colonies and enclaves int eh Western World.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Matan

      I’ll add to Jan’s response to Raed – Jews returning to their ancient homeland (yes, you can deny it all you want, but it’s a fact that Jews come from the Mid East – read the Quran), is every bit as legitimate (and even more) as Muslims and Arabs invading the Levant, forcing Islam on the locals, destroying ancient cultures, and then bitching about stolen lands.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Waleed

      My question is , those members of Kfar Etzion , were they born in Palestine ? did they buy the land their Kibbutz was built on ?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Onyx

      MATAN- So I guess the world got South Africa wrong in your view? After all, those poor white folks were just returning to their ancient homeland.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Matan

      ONYX –
      The Europeans invaded the Cape, the same way that the Visigoths invaded Gaul and that the Moors invaded Spain. Peoples migrated throughout history.

      The Whites in South Africa have less of a legitimacy over Africa than the Jews in Israel. But even so, they have every right to live there – as they have been there for four centuries and made numerous sacrifices.

      Many of the Blacks in South Africa are descendants of immigrants themselves, from African regions far away from South Africa.

      Enslaving and discriminating against the Blacks well into the 20th century was immoral and stupid, but it can’t take away the Boers’ rights over the land.

      So yes, to your question, the world did get it partly wrong about the Whites in South Africa. But I resent you insinuation and highly flawed comparison to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel

      The land Kfar Eztion is on was purchased by a man named Holzmann in the 1920’s. There were a couple of attempts to settle there that failed, but the Kfar Etzion made famous in the 1948 War of Independence was founded IIRC in 1943.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Zvi

      @Waleed, I do not know how the kibbutzim of kfar etzion acquired their lands, but most likely they were “purchased” from someone. As for whether or not the people who were born there were born in Palestine, they most certainly were. They and anyone else born in the region pre 1948 would have had birth certificates from the British Mandate authorities indicating the place of birth as “Palestine”.

      The question is, do you accept their right to live here? But fighting over ‘historic’ rights will get us nowhere. As the author noted, evicting yet more people from their homes will do little to resolve the underlying issue of how can we all live in this region together.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Dimi Reider

      @Ben Israel, I’m kinda curious to hear more of what you think about Eliaz’s proposition, seeing as it combines key elements of both Left and Right (or, if you’d like, key elements of both Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian nationalism).

      Reply to Comment
    13. Herbert Kappler

      this comment was deleted

      Reply to Comment
    14. Waleed

      @Zvi , If (and only if )they purchased the land , then they have the right to live there ,they must show the lease or any paper that proves that.
      If (and again only if ) they were born there ,were their parents born there too ?
      We both know the vast majority of Israeli towns and kibbutz werent purchased but taken (stolen) from the naitves (Palestinians).Do you think those people living in those towns have the right to be there ?
      The only people being evicted are the naitves , so I guess we have one stubborn side.
      We can live all together when all of us have equal rights, when a Palestinian can return back to his village or appartment in Jaffa or Haifa .Any (solution)excluding our right of return is nothing but a big fraud and deception .We arent asking for a historic imaginary right that goes back to 20th centruy BC.
      If an Israeli dreams about a pure Jewsih state let him have it somewhere else , a state in the US will be the best suitable place .

      Reply to Comment
    15. nyclawyer

      The “right of return” is one of the most laughable, delusional and immoral ideas I have ever heard of. For the following reasons:

      1. The 1948 war was initiated by the Arab calls for violence and the rejection of the partition plan (partition plan was based on a UN RESOLUTION – the same resolutions they like to cite when attacking the settlements).

      2. Only a small number were actually expelled – I suggest you read the literature on this matter.

      3.There are tens of millions of 20th century refugees from numerous conflicts – Balkan, African, Word War II – all have been resettled. The international community doesn’t let them rewind time to somehow undo existing facts on the ground.

      4. If there is a statute of limitations on the return of refugees then they can’t come back

      If there ISN’T a state of limitations on the return of refugees then all of the nations usurped by Arab expansionism during the 8th century and onwards can reclaim their rights.

      There are other reasons that can be listed.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dimi

      @Herber, I don’t know if it merits comment. The notion that Palestine-Israel cannot sustain all who live here is geopolitically nonsensical; and the description of a people who had lived here for nearly a century and developed their unique national identity as mere “colonialists” is infantile – sounds like someone reading Fanon using SparkNotes.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Dimi

      Btw, Herb, didn’t you die in 1978? If you didn’t, I know some good Roman people who’d like to have a word with you..

      Reply to Comment
    18. Ilana Sebba

      I think this is a great essay, how it would work in reality would have to be left to people who know and have the guts and the will.

      Onyx, the comparison with South Africa is not really relevant in my opinion, if it was, then what about the U.S. and Canada vis a vis Native Americans, etc., etc.Humans migrating all over the wolrd has happened and will happened for millenia; what’s being discussed here is a plausible solution to this specific conflict. NYC Lawyer expresses this by talking about statute of limitations for 8th century arab conquests.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Michael W.

      What’s the deal with all the commentators using the names of dead Nazis on these threads?

      Reply to Comment
    20. Dimi Reider

      It’s not all commentators, it’s just one creep.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Michael W.

      A few days ago, someone used the name of a Jewish woman that collaborated with the Nazis, long since gone.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Dimi Reider

      Same creep

      Reply to Comment
    23. Koshiro

      Dear Mr. Cohen!
      Your attitude is commendable. That being said, I unfortunately have to add that your suggestions are not realistic. There are several reasons for this:

      1.) This scenario could result in a Palestinian majority not only in the whole area, but also in Israel proper. If there is one condition that Israel will not accept even under the strongest imagineable pressure, it is probably this one.

      2.) You are not representative of the settlers as a whole. I do not see how the majority of them would willingly give up their privileges and make an effort to integrate with Palestinian society. Most of them vote for right-wing, even extremist parties. Many of them are racists who dispute all rights of Palestinians.

      3.) Both in the settlements and in Israel proper, Palestinians have had huge tracts of land stolen from them. Yes, there are exceptions, as you mention. But to say ‘No further dispossessions’ while maintaining the status quo on previous dispossessions is not only unjust, it is also not likely to result in peace.

      I would hope that the future Palestinian state would have the option for Jews to apply for residence or immigration – provided, of course, they prove to be peaceful and willing to integrate themselves into Palestinian society. Unfortunately, will this might include you, it includes the large majority of settlers.

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    24. Wishfull thinking won’t solve any problem. If it would have been so easy to make an agreement it would have been done long time ago. As of the Israelis,the instinct to survive was highten by the survivors of the concentration camps. The worlds powers decided to solve their problems dumping us on the Arabs living in so called Palestine. So we did go to Israel we didn’t want to return to the concentration camps. There is no need to describe the situation in Israel in 1948. We did not attack Cairo, Beirut or Damascus. As human beeing we can’t be ask to give up our instinct to survive. The question is not what happened but what can be done to live in peace. Nature isn’t fair. There are smart people and talented and the opposite. The only thing in common we have is the will to survive, no matter if we believe in one God, many Gods or no God at all. We are experts in killing each other,in the name of Gods or any other myth we want to believe in. The only thing left is hope; that too is an illusion.

      Reply to Comment
    25. David Fonteyn

      @Raed Kami – why should Palestinians do a deal with the Israelis?: It’s the Israelis who you will have to make peace and live with, not the rest of the world – and vice versa. Basically, you’re both in it together and stuck with each other. You need to find a way to solve the conflicts between yourselves, which will involve some compromise but compromise in ways that both can accept.

      It’s a fair point though about land – it’s not generous to offer Palestinian refugees the bad lands and Israelis keep the good lands within Israel. Basically though the refugees returning will have to be integrated into Israeli cities and offered compensation for loss of their homes and businesses and farms.

      Finally, I don’t see from the Israeli government any desire to stop building more settlements illegally – stealing Palestinian lands – or stop bulldozing houses and farmlands and evicting/cleansing Palestinians from the land and replacing them with Jewish settlements and neighbourhoods. While this is ongoing and there is no pressure politically in Israel to end this let alone reverse it, how can there be any talk of peace or a ‘process’ of sharing the land equally?

      Reply to Comment
    26. max

      Waleed, I assume that in your opinion only Palestinians with valid leases are entitled for the RoR, right?

      Reply to Comment
    27. Sarah

      I find it fascinating that the Palestinian narrative here insists that all the good land was “stolen” and that this region, one of the richest in the ME, cannot support two populations (it can, esp. with Israeli technology). Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and many other across-the-armistice-line “settlements” were purchased from Palestinian owners before Israel was a state–contrary to the assertion here, the Palestinians kept arable land under cultivation and sold windswept barren hillsides to the Jews, who developed them. So long as the Palestinian narrative insists that Jewish presence here is completely illegitimate and that all lands were “stolen” (such as Tel Aviv, built on legitimately purchased sand dunes), there isn’t much hope for peace and reconciliation.

      Reply to Comment
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