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By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
TEL AVIV, Oct 16, 2011 (IPS) - In a new project that has tackled one of the most divisive issues plaguing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a diverse group of academics, architects, urban planners and Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups are examining how the right of return of Palestinian refugees can be implemented on the ground.
"Based on the right of return, we developed since 2008 a project of thinking practically about return. It’s not so much about the right itself, but more about the possibilities, once there will be the right, of how it could be implemented," Eitan Bronstein, founder and spokesperson of Israeli organisation Zochrot told IPS.
Working to raise awareness among Israelis about the Palestinian Nakba, the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians before and during the foundation of the state of Israel in 1947-48, Zochrot has launched an exhibit titled ‘Towards Return of Palestinian refugees’ in Tel Aviv.
From the re-imagined layout and step-by-step return processes for the Palestinian villages of Kufr Bir’im and Miska, to video testimonials from Palestinian refugees themselves, a handful of detailed models, simulations and other projects were put on display.
"We believe that if people would be exposed to such projects this would show Israelis that there are possibilities of return. None of the projects talk about expelling anyone. We’re talking about how to return, but based on the rights of people who are living here to live here, and all the refugees and their descendants to return," Bronstein told IPS.
"We are kind of inventing a new language that hasn’t existed until now, of thinking about the return itself and not continuing to say no, it’s not possible."
Palestinians constitute the largest refugee population in the world, with approximately six million refugees and their descendants scattered throughout the Middle East and around the world.
Akhram Salhab is the communications officer at Badil, the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, which organised workshops with Zochrot to develop the practicalities of return project. He stressed that any discussion about the Palestinian right of return must involve the input of the refugees themselves.
"For the past 62 years, most international initiatives related to the refugees have taken place against the will of the refugees. In all respects, the refugees have been left out of planning their own lives. For the project to be successful, it must be viewed as legitimate by them. Our key objective is to include refugees themselves in the planning process," Salhab told IPS.
"The project is still at the fairly early stage. I think one of the reasons for this is that the project is so unique, and we are trying to work with Palestinians and Israelis to discuss these issues. No such work has been done before."
Salhab explained that the next step in the project would be to look at how refugee return was achieved in a city in South Africa, and then build a comparative model for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area.
He added that creating a new framework whereby both Palestinian refugees and Jewish Israelis will have equal rights, and making sure that both groups have a realistic picture of what return will actually mean, is crucial.
"There’s sometimes an extent to which Palestinians may view return in an idealised manner, and obviously this is taking place as a result of struggling for rights for so many years. For Israelis of course, it’s important to realise that any return of refugees will affect their privileges and the benefits they enjoy in the apartheid system in Israel. We are trying to bring forward a new reality based on equality," Salhab said.
UN resolution 194, issued in December 1948, states that Palestinian refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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."
While the right of return of Palestinian refugees is also enshrined in international law, Israel has to date refused to allow the refugees to come back, and discourse within the country largely paints their return as something that would destroy the state.
According to Eitan Bronstein, the practicalities of return project will hopefully break through this wall of fear and misinformation surrounding the Palestinian right of return, and open up a much-needed debate within Israeli society.
"People say that return is extermination of the state of Israel or extermination of the Jews themselves. We try to say that no, it’s not like that," Bronstein said.
"If we do more and more projects like this, perhaps the discourse will change soon. I hope there will be at least some space to open discussion on these issues, which is very important."