by John Marks
26 March 2014
Ten years ago, I produced a series of documentaries for broadcast on Israeli and Palestinian TV about how a negotiated settlement might finally resolve the conflict. In the process, I interviewed a Palestinian who told a touching story. In 1948, during what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians term the Nakba (Catastrophe), his family and he fled from a village inside what is now Israel. This meant leaving behind, not only their ancestral home, but also the cemetery where their ancestors were buried.
During the years after the 1993 Oslo agreement, Palestinians from the West Bank were able to travel freely to Israel, and this refugee – now an old man – and his relatives went back to see the old family house. They discovered that the whole village was gone, including the cemetery, which had been plowed under and turned into a park. Palestinians, like Israelis, place great importance on the graves of their ancestors, and this family developed a novel strategy for continuing to visit theirs. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, they would drive to the park and have a picnic atop the place where their ancestors were buried.
As a practical matter, there is no possibility that an eventual peace agreement will restore the hundreds of cemeteries and villages that were leveled across Israel. Nevertheless, a future agreement might set in place a process for “memorialization” through plaques and monuments.
Similarly, a future Palestinian state could accept similar ways for remembering Israelis who had died there.
Indeed, there is a precedent for this kind of memorialization. Under terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords, Israel and Egypt agreed that the other would build war memorials on their territories that would be preserved “in good condition.”
I have visited the Egyptian memorial inside Israel. It is located in a peaceful park where mothers bring babies in strollers and children play.
In addition, there are other ways that one side’s hurt could be lessened without the other having to give up important interests. For example, to Palestinians the “right of return” to the places in Israel from which their families came is extremely important. However, to most Israelis, this is a non-starter that, if accepted, could result in Israel being swamped by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Palestinians. Although they do not openly proclaim it, Palestinian negotiators understand full well that no future agreement will provide for large scale return.
At the same time, there is a profound Palestinian need for acknowledgement that there is some “right of return.” A solution might be found that permits Palestinians who left Israel in 1948 – but not their offspring – to return to the land of their birth. Given that no Palestinian would be eligible who is not at least 66 years old and given that polls show that very few Palestinians from the Territories or the diaspora would choose to live in Israel, such a provision would have little actual impact and would raise few security concerns for Israel. Yet, it would at least symbolically help meet the Palestinian dream.
There could also be a limited number of returnees allowed on humanitarian grounds, such as reuniting spouses.
Here is yet another possibility. Both Israelis and Palestinians care deeply about their holy sites, and these are often located on the land of the other. A future peace agreement might contain clauses that assure preservation of and access to such sacred places.
There might be even apologies for pain and suffering.
As Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s recent book, “My Promised Land,” graphically illustrates, Israeli and Palestinians both have good reason to believe that the other has carried out deeply damaging acts. This past cannot be ignored or forgotten, but as truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Chile showed, public acknowledgement can go a long way toward allowing people to move into a peaceful future.
Without assigning equivalence to the actions of either side, suffice it to say that recognition of – indeed, apology for – the pain caused can have a very positive impact.
As US negotiators led by Secretary of State John Kerry push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they would be wise to include “intangibles” that can be just as important as the so-called hard issues of borders and security.
* John Marks is President and founder of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest non-governmental, peacebuilding organization with offices in 33 countries. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).