Winnipeg Jewish Review

When Peace Seems Further than Closer

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Rhonda Spivak

In Beit Jallah, just outside of Bethlehem, a group of Israelis and Palestinians met at a conference last month sponsored by the Israel-Palestinian Centre for Research and Information [IPCRI], an organization promoting tolerance, co-existence and compromise. But even there, the gaps between the parties were so glaring, that it is virtually impossible to see how a peace plan could ever be enacted on the ground between the Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank and the government of Israel.

At the conference, Osama Alhrithi, a fourth year law student at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem said he believes that even if Israel went back to the 1967 green line and all Jewish settlements over the green line were removed, “ any Palestinian refugee who wants to return to his home that he left in 1948 in Israel should be able to come back…There are a lot of Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and if they want to come back, that is their holy right.”

Alhrithi’s view about Israel being obliged to take in waves of Palestinian refugees, rather than those refugees returning to a future Palestinian state only, was typical. It was one echoed by virtually all of the Palestinian delegates to the conference, even though these delegates were affiliated with Fatah, not Hamas, which now rules the Gaza Strip. However, for all of the Israeli Jews present at the conference, it was inconceivable to let Palestinian refugees return en masse and overtake their country.

At the end of the conference Gershon Baskin, the dovish Israeli co-CEO of IPCRI spoke in favour of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. However, he said what all of the moderate Israelis say, which is that Palestinian refugees will be able to go to the Palestinian state only, and not back to pre-67 Israel, or they will be given monetary compensation instead. When Baskin said this, he was challenged by Ra’id Abdalla Otair, director of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health in Hebron.

“All refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere should be asked to come back to their land in Israel-in Haifa, and Jaffa and Akko,”

Ra’id shouted.

Baskin shouted back,

“No Ra’id-you can’t live under that illusion any more–Israel can’t be overrun with Palestinian refugees, because then there will be two Palestinian states, and no Jewish state…I don’t want to occupy you Ra’id, but Israel won’t allow itself to become a Palestinian state.”

After Baskin’s response, Ra’id, who is also the Palestinian representative for the NGO Future Vision, stormed out of the room. During the conference Ra’id had told me he had been jailed by Israel for throwing rocks in the intifada.

Ra’id, and the other Palestinians who spoke out at the conference, also ruled out the possibility of “land swaps” in any peace agreement. They maintained that Israel would have to withdraw exactly to the 1967 lines, eliminating the possibility that it could retain large Jewish settlement blocs, comprising about 4% of the West Bank, in exchange for giving the Palestinians the same amount of land elsewhere, such as in the Negev. For the Israelis present, including Baskin, land swaps would have to be part of the deal.

As Firas Arafat, a pharmacist from Hebron said,

“I know Jimmy Carter just came to the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement area [over the 1967 green line] and told the Jews there that they would remain part of Israel in the future, but I don’t agree. Israel must get out of every Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.”

Other Palestinians, such as Mazin Qumsiyeh, a scientist at Bethlehem University, spoke of a “a one state solution” for all people between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River- a state that would have a Palestinian majority. When confronted with the fact that that there was no support for this proposal among Israeli Jews, Qumsiyeh said,

“So what?…Twenty years ago Israelis didn’t recognize such things as a Palestinian state……but that changed…As a scientist [I think] that a one state solution has a 1000 times more probability of happening… than a two state solution.”

At the end the conference, as Baskin advocated an “internationally imposed solution,” since he has lost hope of a negotiated peace, I went away with the feeling that peace has never seemed further.

Finally, when I left the conference, I begun to notice that a number of the Palestinians at the conference seemed to work for the Palestinian Authority, and I began to wonder if the reason they were even at the conference was because they were being paid by the PA to attend—in order to fill the seats on the Palestinian side.