We Took their Land
James Ron

(BALTIMORE, July 24, 2000)-- Prime Minister Ehud Barak must prepare Israelis for territorial concessions by publicly acknowledging what most Israelis already know in their hearts. We took their land. The occupied territories are not Israel*s to keep.

Although Israeli Jews tacitly understand that these lands, including East Jerusalem, belong to another people, they rarely acknowledge so openly. Ever since the 1948 war, the subject of Palestinian land claims have been one of Jewish society*s greatest taboos. Even Israel*s most liberal leaders gingerly skirt the issue, fearing that acknowledgment of
Palestinian rights will hurt them at the polls.

Israelis hate to admit they took Palestinian land because they are all morally implicated. My own experience is a case in point.

My family first came to Israel from the U.S. in 1973, taking up residence in a beautiful Arab home overlooking Jerusalem*s Old City. We must have realized the property originally belonged to a Palestinian, but we avoided raising the topic in family
discussions. Instead, we enjoyed its tasteful architecture, delightful views, and picturesque surroundings.

After growing up in Israel and serving in the army, my first rental was in Ein Karem, a former Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Unlike many such villages, Ein Karem was not destroyed during the 1948 war, and eventually became a desirable neighborhood coveted by upscale Jewish intellectuals for its old world charm.

Although I and many of my neighbors belonged to Israel*s political left, we rarely spoke of Ein Karem*s Palestinian origins. Instead, we discussed our good luck in finding such choice property in Jerusalem*s tight real estate market.

Many Israelis* unwillingness to acknowledge Palestinian rights stems from their secret shame over the events of 1948. During that conflict, Jewish soldiers forced -- or *encouraged* -- some 750,000 Palestinian to flee their homes. Through a process today known as ethnic cleansing, Israel seized control over vast swathes of Palestinian land and denied refugees their right to

After 1948, the new Israeli state flourished on the ruins of Palestinian society. Some 400 Palestinian villages were bulldozed after the war, and their land was given to Jewish agricultural cooperatives. Thousands of Jewish families moved took possession of Palestinian homes in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, gaining control of what would later become highly lucrative

Estimates set Palestinian wartime losses at $100-150 billion in current terms. These resources entered the Jewish economy in the form of land, housing, and agricultural equipment.

Israel grew from strength to strength from 1948 to 1967, building on the 78 percent of historic Palestine it controlled. Although Jews had owned only seven percent of the land slated for Jewish control under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, Israel
controlled over 90 percent by the war*s end. Palestinians, meanwhile, were forced to make do with U.N. rations and refugee

Israelis know their country would not have survived as both *democratic* and *Jewish* if Palestinians hadn*t been forced out. Had Palestinians remained in their homes, they would have eventually challenged the state*s Jewish identity at the polls. Israel
could have remained a *Jewish homeland* only through apartheid-like repression.

Few Palestinians today expect to return to their pre-1948 homes, realizing full well that their parents* villages are gone forever. Refugee experts believe that most will remain where they are, and that others will use the international compensation package to resettle in the West Bank or Gaza.

What Palestinians do want, however, is to assume full sovereignty over what little of Palestine still remains. They aren*t asking for much. After all, the post-1967 lands comprise only 22 percent of what was once theirs.

Barak must summon the courage to openly say what most Israelis secretly know: the occupied territories belong to another people. Although many Israelis will initially respond with anger to such a statement, the prime minister*s honesty will pave the way for fundamental change. Over the long run, his forthrightness will break the taboo, forcing us all to confront painful realities.

Common decency requires Israel to return the lands seized in 1967 to their rightful owners. A full withdrawal, moreover, is the only way to win genuine and popular Palestinian support for a peace treaty. Although Israel may eventually compel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to accept a partial withdrawal, it can*t force millions of Palestinians to support the deal.

If Israel makes a full withdrawal and generously compensates Palestinian refugees, however, it will have signalled its wholehearted willingness to live in peace with its neighbors.