Can $5 Billion Holocaust Litigation Show the Way to Palestinian Reparations?
With Sec. John Kerry re-engaging in Middle East peace negotiations, the thorny issue of cash for refugees returns to the fore
A few NGOs have recently made this claim more visible, such as Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, which seeks to educate people about refugees from Arab countries. JJAC’s director, Stanley Urman, wrote a doctoral dissertation in which he argued that the United Nations has treated Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Palestinians differently—the bias leaning in favor of Palestinians. “It’s a core issue of recognition,” Urman said. “One million Jews were displaced, and it is important that their story is not lost.” I asked him if their suffering should be equated with that of the Palestinians, to which Urman responded, “No. All suffering is unique. But both populations are refugees under international law, and they were both made so by the same conflict: The Arab-Israeli conflict. The peace fund is an equitable approach to resolving the question of compensation,” Urman said, though he believes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also in order.
And more recently, even Congress has gotten on board with the idea of parity between the two refugee populations. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Republican Congressman, sponsored a resolution in 2008 that was passed by the House in which “any resolutions relating to the issue of Middle East refugees, and which include a reference to the required resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, must also include a similarly explicit reference to the resolution of the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” Nadler is now at work on “bi-partisan legislation, H.R. 6242, that calls on the Administration to report to Congress on its progress in pursuing justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries,” according to a September press release.
But linking Palestinian reparations and recognition with that of Jews from Arab Countries is a political act with very real political consequences. “Equating the refugees from Arab countries with Palestinian refugees means that Israel is off the hook,” Fischbach told me. “It means that there was a big Middle East reallocation, or population exchange, and just as those Jews will not be going back to their homes in Iraq or Syria, so too, it is implied, these Palestinians will not be returning to their homes. How can they? Their villages are gone.” It’s not about the money, Fischbach said. “Equating these two populations of refugees deflates the moral claim of the Palestinians, which is what it is designed to do. This is political football.”
The PLO has always been against linking the two groups of refugees, as are most Palestinians, Fischbach said: “Their thinking is, we’re not accountable for what those countries did, so why should we pay? Don’t negate our right of return because of something Iraq did.”
“I’m all for people getting reparations for what they suffered,” Fishbach added, “but what links these two issues? You have to wonder, why now?” Fischbach asked. “Where was everyone 30, 40 years ago?”
Nor is it even clear it would work. “For Palestinians, by and large it would not be acceptable to take money,” Amjad Alqasis, legal advocacy coordinator of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refuge, told me. “First we would need the state of Israel to acknowledge that an atrocity happened and that it continues to occur in the displacement of Palestinians, the confiscation and destruction of their property, and the building of settlements. This is not just a historical problem, but it is linked to today, an ongoing process,” he said. Furthermore, Alqasis says, it is crucial that the question of monetary reparations be detached from the possibility of refugees returning. “If they are only offered money, it is not a fair discussion. But a wide range of possible reparations must be offered, such that refugees have the choice to return or to accept reparations.”
“Israel has been offering money to Palestinians since 1948,” said Eitan Bronstein, director of the Israeli organization Zochrot, which seeks to make Israelis aware of the events of 1948 from the Palestinian perspective. “Since 1948, Israel has had the policy to pay individuals if the individual signs a paper that says, ‘I have no more demands.’ They pay per dunam. But they do not pay at market rate, though nobody knows how much they do—it’s top secret. It’s also a sensitive topic among Palestinians, a few of whom have accepted the money due to economic pressures,” he said. “Money is not a real acknowledgment. It’s not enough. It’s part of the solution, but it must be part of a choice. Otherwise, offering money is not the moral option.”
Bronstein believes that fewer than 1 million Palestinians would choose to move back should they be granted the right of return and thinks more would visit and enjoy owning land.
Indeed, in 2003, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research released a survey that showed that when given a choice between the option to “stay in the Palestinian state that will be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and receive a fair compensation for the property taken over by Israel and for other losses and suffering” and the option to “receive fair compensation for the property, losses, and suffering and stay in host country receiving its citizenship or Palestinian citizenship,” 38 percent of residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip opted to receive compensation and statehood, and 0 percent opted for compensation without statehood. Interestingly, 33 percent of Palestinians living in Jordan opted for compensation without statehood. The survey estimated that “the number of refugees wishing to move from Lebanon and Jordan to the Palestinian state in an exercise of the right of return would be 784,049.” Perhaps most crucially, only 33 percent of the refugees polled, estimated to be the equivalent of 373,673 individuals, including refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon, stated a wish to physically relocate to land currently inside Israel.
The individuals who applied to Eizenstat’s foundation signed away their right to any future claims, which is why Neuborne believes that this model would work for Palestinian reparations. “My sense is, if you’re going to deal with a refugee problem, you have three options. You can ignore it, which is unfair and politically unrealistic. Or, you can give the right of return, which Israel wouldn’t accept and which would be unjust, because it would unbalance the Jewish state, which would eliminate it as a Jewish refuge. Or, you can give some portion the right of return, and some portion reparations. I can’t think of a single instance in the history of the world where a country has agreed to the right of return where it would mean that country was swamped, erased as a political institution.”
When I told Neuborne the results of the survey, in which only 700,000 Palestinians actually claim to desire to return, he said, “Oh, that’s perfect! The foundation could negotiate that cap, and the rest would be granted restitutions. The administrative body would decide.”
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