On Saturday, 25 February 2003, approximately 20 people gathered in Tel Aviv to participate in a discussion about the return of refugees in Bosnia and its applicability to the situation of Palestinian refugees. Although the media and Israeli public do not speak about this issue, the attendance at the lecture by Paul Prettitore, legal advisor to the OSCE in Bosnia, demonstrated that there is interest in this issue among the Israeli public.

Paul Prettitore’s lecture drew an interesting comparison between Bosnia and Israel/Palestine. Millions of refugees were expelled from Bosnia and millions were expelled from Palestine. In both cases others occupied the houses of those who were expelled. In Bosnia, the political atmosphere was not conducive to return. The same holds true for Israel. Importantly, international law supports the right of return: in Bosnia, in Israel/Palestine, as well as in other cases such as Mozambique. Similarities between Bosnia and Israel/Palestine raise the question about the possibility for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. In fact, the similarity strengthens the existing belief among some Israelis and many Palestinians that the right of return is the condition for real reconciliation and the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, awareness about the between the two countries is important in order to advance the return of refugees to Israel. The Zionist Israeli state and the political environment does not relate equally to Jews and Arabs. In Bosnia the political environment was different. There is also a significant difference in the attitude of the international community, and especially the United States that could facilitate the return of Palestinian refugees. The return of refugees to Bosnia could not have taken place if the United States and Europe did not support and work for its implementation. Israel is far from being obligated by the international community to make such a change in the structure of the Israeli state. The world is still absorbed by guilt towards the Jewish people; Israel takes advantage of this sentiment. Every time the Palestinian right of return is mentioned, Israelis express feelings of fear and danger of existence.

The right of return is still not seriously discussed in Israel. Perhaps this is where there is an opportunity to challenge Zionist closure on this issue. The debate in Tel Aviv does not take place in other parts of Israel. When mentioned, the right of return is totally rejected, either out of panic or with propaganda. During the small discussion in Tel Aviv, Israeli participants expressed their honest opinions about the right of return of Palestinians. The topic is problematic even among radical Israelis. A simple discussion about the right of return might be the opportunity to re-examine Israel’s rejection of it, and it might just create the opportunity for reconciliation and historical justice.

Eitan Bronstein is a member of Zochrot, an Israeli organization established to raise awareness about the Palestinian Nakba among the Israeli public, especially the Jewish community. For more information see the Zochrot website: www.gush-shalom.org/nakba.
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