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I. Articles

Refugees and Reparations in the Middle East

The New York Times

By Yoel Esteron
JAN. 13, 2001

Tel Aviv -- Before he died, my father gave me a piece of paper. He was the sole surviving member of his family, which had been wiped out in the Holocaust. Germans and Poles had murdered his parents and his brothers. He alone managed to escape the hellhole that was Europe. After World War II, he settled in Israel, established a home and a family, and contributed in his modest way to the miracle of Jewish renaissance. That piece of paper was the only evidence that my father was the legal owner of a large house in the town of Hrubieshow in eastern Poland.

I never saw the house and probably never will. My father heard that a pharmacy had been built in its place. He never wanted to go back there, to that place so permeated with pain. Perhaps he was afraid to. I still feel that the house belongs to my family, although we will never return to that life.

My father's story is not unique. My mother also lost her family and her home. Most Israelis are refugees, or the children of refugees, from Poland, Germany and Russia, Morocco, Iraq, Syria and other places. I can feel for Palestinians who hold on to their title deeds to houses in Jaffa or Haifa: I have a piece of paper, too. We are all products of a chaotic postwar world in which millions of people fled from country to country looking for sanctuary.

When I see children and their parents living in dire poverty in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and elsewhere in the region, I wonder why their Arab neighbors, especially those who have enjoyed immense oil riches all these years, have never come to their aid. The sad truth is that the Arab countries have abandoned them to a bitter fate in order to foment hatred of Israel. The misery and despair in these camps is heartrending. The need for urgent, humanitarian measures to alleviate the hardship is clear.

According to figures compiled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the Palestinian refugee population has grown from 730,000 in 1949 to 3.7 million people living today in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Although these numbers may be inflated, there seems little question that the vast majority of the refugees need assistance.

For Israelis and Palestinians, in these harrowing days fraught with terrorist attacks, blockades and now renewed clashes over the smuggling of arms aboard the ship Karine A., seeking a solution to the refugee problem may seem too much to hope for. Gen. Anthony Zinni, the American envoy, is scheduled to return to the Middle East this week to try to broker a cease-fire, which, if sustained, would be a huge stride forward. If and when the shooting stops, the "right of return" in all its complexity is bound to be the greatest stumbling block on the road to a permanent peace.

Although Israel was the one attacked in 1948, it will have to acknowledge its share in the suffering of Palestinian refugees. The establishment of a national home for the Jews caused suffering to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who fled or were expelled from their homes during the War of Independence. Israel's independence was their Nakba, or catastrophe. Israel must take part in a large-scale, very costly international aid and development effort one that could run into billions of dollars, according to various estimates to ease the distress of the refugees and help them build homes and a new life of political dignity and economic prosperity.

Reparations of this sort are possible and could be made politically acceptable to many Israelis. What Israelis cannot accept, however, is the Palestinian demand for the "right of return." To do so would be to destroy the idea of Israel as a national home for Jews who have nowhere to return to. We are not prepared to put our trust in those who promise that if we recognize such a right, the number of actual returnees would not be so great as to overwhelm the Jewish nature of this state.

The world did not stop in 1948. The clock cannot be turned back, even for those who still have old deeds. Those who imagine that it is possible to devise complicated solutions to this central question of return must remember this simple truth: The inhabitants of the refugee camps have to accept that their future homes and their Palestinian nation will rise in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel. All the talk about genuine historical compromise boils down to this: Two peoples living in peace in two states on a tiny stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Yasir Arafat refused to forgo the right of return at the Camp David talks in July 2000 because he feared that the refugees would never agree. One can understand how hard it is to put away those pieces of paper, so carefully guarded for over 50 years, and begin life anew. It is hard to give up a dream. But that is clearly the answer for the refugees and their children. The alternative is to condemn the next generation to the suffering of this one. The choice is between a life spent clinging to an unattainable dream and a life of real hope. My parents left the past behind for their children's sake. Palestinian parents need to do the same for the sake of their children.

Yoel Esteron is managing editor of Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times - All rights reserved.