Salim Tamiri, director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bir Zeit University in Palestine spoke on Tuesday at the Biological Sciences Learning Center. Tuesday marked the 53rd anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba — the catastrophe of Palestinian exodus out of modern-day Israel. Tamiri’s lecture, entitled “The Future of the Refugees and the Collapse of Arab-Israeli Negotiations,” was sponsored by the Arab Union, the Muslim Students Union, the Middle East Studies Student Association, and the Norman Wait Harris Memorial Fund.
Tamiri’s lecture stressed the fundamental importance of the refugee issue in all Israel/Palestine talks. “Unless the Israelis address the question of refugees in a substantive way, there can be no peace,” Tamiri said. “It is now almost an uncontested fact that the Israeli army was responsible for the making of the refugee issue.”
“Refugees are former residents of Palestine from May 1946 to May 1948 who lost their homes as a result of war,” Tamiri said. While the state of Israel says that these Palestinians — now numbering over four million — left on their own, the Palestinians claim that most were forced or coerced to leave by Israeli military.
Some of these Palestinian refugees have settled in Jordan, Egypt and other countries, but the bulk remain in overcrowded, under-maintained refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Tamiri spoke of recently surfaced Israeli military documents that contain factual documentation of Israeli troops driving out Palestinians through terror and violence.
Tamiri said that the three main concepts that must be considered during Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are the issue of the refugees, disputes over Jerusalem, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He argued that progress in negotiations is impossible unless all three issues are discussed, as exemplified by the negotiations from 1991 through 1996. “Literally nothing came out of this… because these issues weren’t addressed,” Tamiri said.
Despite its failure to provide a new peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, Tamiri believes that the 2000 Camp David accords were a major step towards resolution. He said that progress was made through compromises of the unsigned agreement regarding Israeli settlements in Palestine and the division of Jerusalem.
“The problem with Camp David was Israeli pressure to have a final settlement that would effectively end the conflict. The Palestinians couldn’t do that,” Tamiri said.
Tamiri sees the current escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine as paradoxical. “We now face a familiar chicken and egg scenario,” Tamiri said.
Tamiri argued that the international community has put pressure on Israel to modify its settlement policy, which is seen by many as the primary cause of the current wave of violence. However, he said that the international community has largely ignored the issue of the refugees.
“The settlement issue is critical to the current violence,” Tamiri said. “There is a higher willingness to dismantle settlements than before and less pressure for refugees to return to Israel.”
Tamiri said that he agrees with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Arabs and Jews could live together. Tamiri said that Jews currently living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should be able to remain there, under Palestinian authority. “The heart of the problem is not a Jewish presence but an Israeli presence,” Tamiri said.
Israel has responded to criticism that its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is too severe by arguing that relaxing border controls has caused a sharp increase in terror bombings within Israel. Tamiri called Israel’s military rule over the Gaza and West Bank border areas “paranoid,” arguing that they represent a “total Israeli obsession not over what happened but over what might happen.”
Tamiri sees the refugee issue as a fault and responsibility of the state of Israel. He said that the Palestinian refugee issue is unique, because Palestinians are not fighting for a home in the place that they sought refuge and because specific cases of income and property loss have been well documented.
“What is lacking is the political motivation to take these records and translate them into demands,” Tamiri said.