Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Discourse on the Right of Return, 1948–59

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VOL. 40


No. 4
P. 45
Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Discourse on the Right of Return, 1948–59


Palestinian Citizens of Israel   and the Discourse on the Right of Return, 1948–59


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By Maha Nassar
This article traces the evolving discourse on the “right of refugee return”among the Palestinian citizens of Israel during the first decade of Israeli statehood, with emphasis on the role of the local Arabic press in shaping and reflecting that discourse. More particularly, it focuses on al-Ittihad, the organ of the communist party (MAKI), which paid the greatest attention to the refugee issue. In tracing the party’s shift from a humanistic/anti-imperialist stance on the issue to one emphasizing the refugees’ inalienable right to return, the article sheds light on MAKI’s political strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinian minority. It also illustrates the political vibrancy in the early years of the community, generally viewed simplistically in terms of a pre-1967 quiescence and post-1967 politicization..

In late autumn 1959, Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Communist Party (ha-Miflagah ha-Komunist ha-Yisra’ilit—MAKI) central committee, wrote an essay in the party’s Arabic-language newspaper, al-Ittihad (The Union), reviewing the ongoing attempts to compensate and resettle Palestinian refugees outside Israel. In his view, such offers would never succeed because of “the vigilance of the refugees themselves and their strong insistence on their right to return to their country.” Khamis’s invocation of “rights” (huquq) permeated his analysis, appearing fourteen times in his half-page essay.# His comments also reflected a shift in thinking of many Palestinian MAKI leaders during the first decade of Israeli statehood.

As the only legal non-Zionist party during the 1950s, MAKI was the political home for many Palestinian citizens of Israel who held Arab nationalist beliefs but had no other outlet for political expression. Like its predecessor, the Palestine Communist Party (PCP), MAKI’s platform stressed internationalism and Arab-Jewish brotherhood, though disagreements over the party’s attitude toward Arab and Jewish nationalism occasionally led to tensions within the party. In 1944, Arab leaders broke away from the PCP to form the National Liberation League (NLL), which had a closer affinity to Arab nationalist positions. Although the Jewish and Arab branches reunited in 1948 to form MAKI, such disputes once again led to the party’s split in 1965 into the predominantly Jewish MAKI and largely Arab RAKAH parties. During the period under review, MAKI’s Arab and Jewish leaders worked together to maintain an internationalist outlook while tailoring their political messages to appeal to their respective communities.

Given the disproportionately large Arab makeup of the party, MAKI’s Arab leaders used their party’s publications to enhance their reputation as the champion of Israel’s Palestinian minority and to convince readers to vote for MAKI in parliamentary elections. While we cannot know with certainty how widespread the views expressed in al-Ittihad actually were, a close review of the paper gives us insight into the political positions MAKI leaders believed would resonate in the Palestinian community, thus providing us with a useful lens through which to examine Palestinian political discourse in Israel during its early years. Reports and editorials that appeared in al-Ittihad throughout this period show how two threads in the discourse on return developed, crystallized, and ultimately converged.

Initially, the few articles written on this subject were by party leaders with a strong pro-Soviet tilt and were aimed at convincing Israeli decision makers to allow refugees to return to their original homes and lands on humanistic and anti-imperialist grounds. However, by 1959, a host of regional and domestic factors led al-Ittihad to emphasize the collective and inalienable right of Palestinian refugees—both the “external” refugees mainly in the surrounding states and the “internal” refugees still in Israel but prevented from returning to their villages—to do so. These factors included mounting Palestinian calls for the right of return, which, coupled with growing Soviet support on the issue, gave MAKI some of the political cover it needed to take a stronger stance. At the same time, competition with the newly formed Arab nationalist group al-Ard and the leftist-Zionist party MAPAM for the political support of Palestinian Israelis, along with pressure from internal refugees themselves, further convinced MAKI’s Arab leaders to emphasize the refugees’ right of return—a position they have held ever since. This confluence of domestic and regional developments makes 1959 a useful endpoint for our discussion of MAKI’s transformation.

Understanding how and why these changes occurred not only gives us keen insight into the dynamics of Palestinian activism in Israel during this early period but also demonstrates that the direction of this activism was often bottom-up rather than top-down. Furthermore, it shows how al-Ittihad helped connect the geographically and politically isolated Palestinians in Israel to the rest of the Arab world, paving the way for a reunited Palestinian political entity in the post-1967 era.

The refugee issue is one of the most contentious of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians have long argued they have a legal right to return to their homes in historic Palestine. This was based in part on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provision, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” as well as on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), which recognizes “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”Israel, however, has maintained that Palestinians do not have a legal right to return and that a solution to the refugee problem must be part of a broader peace agreement focused on the resettlement of refugees. While Israel did allow a few thousand refugees to be repatriated under family reunification provisions negotiated at the Lausanne conference in 1949, it has resisted pressures to accept large numbers of refugees since then.

Much of what has been written on the Palestinian refugees has focused on the origins of the problem and their prospects for return. Studies of internal Palestinian refugees in Israel have outlined the mechanisms by which they were deprived of access to their lands and their own attempts to return. Less attention has been paid to how Palestinians in Israel viewed the refugee issue as a whole, especially during the early years of the state. One reason for this may be the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel are often viewed as having been quiescent prior to 1967, whereas after 1967, exposure to Palestinians in the newly occupied territories and in exile led them to challenge government policies more forcefully. This was certainly true to some degree: the military government imposed on the community between 1948 and 1966, coupled with land confiscations, economic discrimination, and travel restrictions, greatly hindered any attempt at political mobilization during that period. Nonetheless, bisecting the political history of Palestinian Israelis into “pre-1967” and “post-1967” periods glosses over more nuanced developments within the community during the early years of the state. Among the aims of the present study is to determine when the concept of “right of return” became commonly used in MAKI’s discourses on refugees.

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MAHA NASSAR is assistant professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. An early version of this article was delivered at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies/Near Eastern Studies Colloquium Series at the University of Arizona in February 2009. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this article are that of the author.