BADIL: There was a time, in late 2000, when the right of return was discussed in the mainstream Israeli press. So what did these articles mean?
THP: They were there to prove to the Israeli public that the Palestinians want to destroy the state of Israel. You see, they use the language of "destroying" the state of Israel, which is very vague,which implies even killing people, bringing about a physical end to the 'state'. But they don't say that the issue is the danger of transforming the nature of the state. At the same time, there are some 'progressive' Israelis who use justifications against the ROR, coming from a position of culture and identity, claiming the need for a Jewish majority for these things to be sustained.
BADIL: How do you explain the fact that the right of return was not a central issue, even for the small group of anti-Zionists in Israel until recently?
THP: For the small group of anti-Zionists, support for the right of return was always beyond question. However, they had on their agenda other urgent issues to fight for such as in the 1960s, the struggle against the Israeli military government which had controlled the Palestinian-populated areas in the country since the 1948 war. Later, in the 1970s, there were additional factors that lead to the "freezing" of the issue of the right of return.
By then it was the belief of Matzpen that the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees could be implemented only as part of an all-Arab socialist revolution. Then there was in the 70's the Fatah position which supported the solution of a Palestinian state alongside Israel - a position which inevitably gave the impression that the PLO was ready, at least in public, to accept the Jewish state.
In the mid-1980s, Israeli anti-Zionists changed their perception: as I said, while the earlier assumption was that Zionism must be defeated before the Palestinian question can be resolved, and that even the 1967 occupation cannot be ended without dismantling the Zionist Jewish state, it was assumed now that - due to specific circumstances within the imperialist system and interests, the Israeli occupation might be forced to withdraw from the 1967 occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip while the existing Jewish-Zionist state would remain in place.
This new perception brought them to follow the 1988 decision of the PLO on the two states solution and focus their political agenda on the battle against the 1967 occupation in cooperation with the Palestinian forces, and to raise the demand for the recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
BADIL: So those Israelis, mainly from the Left- Zionist circles, who claim today that they were made to believe by their Palestinian partners that there was no longer a Palestinian demand for the right of return to Israel proper are correct?
THP: In a certain way they are correct, although their conclusion that the PLO or the Palestinian Authority could give up the demand for the right of return was perhaps made too hastily. There was ground to think that this demand would not stand inthe way of a final agreement with the Palestinians based on a territorial compromise. If Palestinians argue today that the refugee question was simply delayed because of the Oslo timetable, they are hiding part of the problem.
In 1975, an interview by one of the founders of Matzpen (the Israeli Socialist Organization), Moshe Machover took place with Said Hammami, who was then the official representative of the PLO in London [See Forbidden Agendas, Al Saqi Books, 1984]. After portraying the future solution of two states, a question about the right of return was asked: "Moshe Machover: But what about the right to return to the part that will be Israel, within the pre- 1967 boarders? Ever since the foundation of Matzpen we fought for the right of the refugees of 1948 to return to their homes[..]?
Said Hammami: Yes, their right must be maintained. I believe that in principle everyone should have the right to live and work anywhere. […] [However] We have different cultures, and this background of violence cannot be a very good step towards coexistence. So I say, let us have a state. This would draw the poison out of the hatred [...] and then give it time: In ten or fifteen years the Israeli Jews will find out what nice people we are. [...]"
BADIL: But still, the fact is that many of the Israeli peace camp did not meet only with Palestinian leaders who might have indicated that the right of return is no longer on the agenda. These Israelis also met with Palestinian activists who did not necessarily represent the official position. They must have told them something different.
THP: You are right. They knew that the issue was there, but they, in typical racist fashion, believed that, "Yes, the refugees won't give up, but the leadership will do what it wants." I remember an article by journalist Danny Rubinstein, who is one of the best commentators among the Zionist Left. He reported about a public meeting with the newly arrived PA in Balata refugee camp in which he participated: Rubinstein himself described how an old man standing in the back of the hall called out, "But you won't forget the refugees and our right of return will you?" and how the speakers of Fatah and the PA calmed him down, saying "yes, yes, of course." And I remember how happy and proud I was to read it. I told myself that this shows that the issue is there and alive. But of course you can understand this differently, if you want to live in self-illusion.
BADIL: We are often told that while it is true that the demand for the right of return has a sound legal basis in international law and UN resolutions and has been applied in many other cases, it is simply not realistic in the Palestinian case because Israel will never accept it.
THP: This is certainly correct. The right of return - the very recognition of this right - contradicts the Zionist project as a Jewish, colonialist, and expansionist project, because the right of return challenges the fundamentals of the Zionist state. Not just on the level of demography in the sense that the Jewish majority will lose its special 'benefits'. It also implies a real danger that the Jewish state will not be able to continue its policy of dispossession which is ongoing until today, both inside 1948 and in the 1967 Occupied Territories.
Another reason why Israelis cannot accept the right of return is the fact that they are challenged today by the Palestinian community inside, which has started to raise the demand for its national collective rights and to get back their confiscated lands. To bring more Palestinians into the country by the return of the refugees seems absurd in this context.
Now, to say that because the right of return is not "realistic", we must give up the demand? I reject this totally. What is realistic today? A Palestinian state while we are talking about Israeli control of air, water and borders? Neither the state, nor the right of return is realistic today. Does this mean that we have to accept the Israeli consensus as a starting point for a solution? It is absurd, because if we take this consensus as our reference, we would also have to relate to the large majority of Israelis who are now supporting the bombing of Palestinian areas and the political assassinations.
So what can we do with the Israeli consensus? We must differentiate between the right of return as the component of an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, which is an absolute right that cannot be achieved at this point, and the right of return as an important slogan for the mobilization of joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle for the de- Zionization of Israel; to bring the Israeli public to recognize the need to change the fundamentals of this apartheid state.
BADIL: You say that the right of return must be a demand used for the mobilization of the struggle against Zionism, but who is there to mobilize and to lead this struggle?
THP: First of all the 1948 Palestinians. You see, those who benefit from the Zionist state are the wrong address which unfortunately the PLO has turned to for support for many years. They are the bourgeoisie, the middle classes of European origin, who, even if it be subconsciously, benefit from the Jewish state and thus support it. These are not social forces you can rely on to be in solidarity with the Palestinians and fully recognize their national rights.
Many of their intellectuals and political activists against the occupation, however are connected to the '48 Palestinians, who are now in a position to lead the transformation of Israeli society. Take the example of the recent boycott of the Israeli elections by 90% of the '48 Palestinians: there were several thousand Jewish Israelis who joined them. The struggle for the right of return is also important for the mobilization of the Palestinian community for the protection of their national identity and unity as a people. It should serve as a tool for cracking the position of the international community, which has been so supportive of Israel until today. The right of return has indeed a central role in the long-term struggle for a better Palestine, which will include Israelis as well as Palestinians.
BADIL: Putting aside the above, and assuming that we were at a stage in which the right of return can be implemented, have you ever tried to picture for yourself how return could be implemented concretely?
THP: Assuming the utopian scenario that Zionist Israel is weakened enough to accept the right of return, Palestinians could return to the lands which are still empty as Abu Sitta has indicated, and people would live together in a multi-cultural society, with different frameworks in which they can express their identities. However, the aim of the political structure of the state would no longer be to propagate the benefits of one people at the expense of another. But all this is a utopian scenario. We cannot speak about the right of return separate from a fundamental transformation of the Zionist state.
BADIL: How can you convince Israelis who benefit from the Zionist system that they have something to gain by supporting an egalitarian Israel and the right of return?
THP: You must not try to convince them about the right of return alone. You must start with shaking the entire self-righteous image that Israelis have. You do it by raising the right, as a human right, as part of a wide campaign aimed at cracking the nature of the Jewish-Zionist state and the image of it as 'the only democracy in the Middle East'. Palestinian NGOs cannot do this alone. It is the role of the Palestinian political parties both in 67' occupied territories and inside Israel.
Even today you can already see that there are young anti- Zionists Israelis joining Palestinians in Israel who do not come from the traditional anti-Zionist, socialist circles. But they are here, at the universities, for example, and I hear them say things, that even Matzpen did not dare to say. For example, the statement, in a recent debate on the ALEF email list serve (coordinated by teachers at Haifa University) about the right of return that even Jews who were born here have less rights than Palestinians because it is inadmissible to think that we can dispossess and deport a people and then, after 50 years, we suddenly have rights. These people are very few in numbers, but they are the potential forces needed .