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Editor in Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. There is a Mural of Beer Sheba showing it as a Palestinian village, a place to which Palestinians claim their descendants ought to be able to return pursuant to their "right of return."

David Ben Gurion dreamed of settling the Negev and lived in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev.

Editor's Report: A Palestinian Negev Gala: Resettling Palestinian Refugees in the Negev?

June 1, 2016

There's a beautiful shop in East Jerusalem that I have frequented over the years, which is run by a Palestinian man Mahmoud (not his real name) who was born in East Jerusalem but has spent many years in America and speaks English. He is well educated and polite and soft spoken.  Whenever nearby, I always returned to his store, usually buying a gift to take home for a family member or friend. 


We exchanged pleasantries and ever really spoke politics, but somehow I always hoped, based on his seemingly moderate demeanor that he would be a genuine advocate of a two state solution, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.


A couple of years ago, I was at a forum about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which dealt in particular with the issue of the plight of Palestinian refugees, with a question and answer period from the audience.


A Palestinian man got up to ask a question and I recognized him as the shopkeeper I knew.  He began speaking by saying that he knew many Jews would not like what he had to say, but in his view there was no reason why Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and all of their 4-5 generations of descendants (5-6 million people) couldn't come back to the State of Israel.  "It's not true that there isn't enough room for them. There is enough room for them. There is all of the Negev."   


It was the first time I had heard of the notion of settling Palestinian refugees and their descendants en masse in the Negev, and was taken a back. It is of course a complete non-starter to Jewish Israelis, in that Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state and would become a state with a Jewish minority and Palestinian majority.  The Palestinian shopkeeper I had naively hoped would be a genuine two stater had proven himself to be a one stater, and while he wasn't directly advocating violence, the proposal is so far from reality, that I could not see it implemented without violence. It was hard for me to imagine that he actually considered this to be a serious proposal. He cited a Palestinian book that put forth this solution, but I didn't catch the name.


Granted the proposal of settling Palestinians in the Negev was a little more nuanced a proposal than the usual proposal I hear from Palestinians I have interviewed, which is that Palestinian refugees will return to their previous villages (most of which do not exist any longer). It is I suppose, a recognition that the vast amount of Israeli Jews, who  live in the greater Tel Aviv area and coastal strip of Israel are not going to suddenly agree to leave their homes to make way for the return of 6 million Palestinian refugees. 


The idea of Palestinian refugees returning to the "Negev", of course, turns David Ben-Gurion's dream of Jews settling the Negev on its head. 


Historically, however, the Negev hadn't always been considered part of the Jewish state. The 1937 British Peel Commission had called for Mandatory Palestine to be divided into:(1) a Jewish state, comprising the whole of Galilee and the Jezreel Valley, most of the Beth-Shean Valley, and the Coastal Plain from Ras el-Nakura (Rosh ha-Nikrah) on the Lebanese border to Be'er Tuviyyah in the south;(2) an Arab state comprising Transjordan, the hill country of Samaria and Judea, and the Negev.


Chaim Weizman, who later became Israel's first president, fought ardently to ensure that the barren Negev be included in the Jewish state in the 1947 Partition Plan. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine accepted his argument that the Jewish state needed enough space to absorb Jewish immigrants.


Israel's sovereignty over the Negev was challenged in the 1950's by the US under Eisenhower and the British who proposed " Operation Alpha."  The proposal was for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue, with territorial swaps that gave major portions of the Negev to Egypt in order to create territorial contiguity between Egypt and Jordan. The planners of ‘Alpha’ believed that the modified borders would have marked a slight retreat for Israel, but, since they would have been guaranteed by Britain and the United States, they would have been to the advantage of all parties concerned.


But according to an article in the National Interest, the US made the mistake of "Opening with the final bid," a rule of bargaining that is not recognized in the Middle East.   Accordingly, Egypt's Nasser rejected the plan and demanded Israel evacuate the Negev completely. Palestinian, Syrian and Saudi officials also rejected it. "


There was no point of course in telling the Palestinian shopkeeper who proposed resettling Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the Negev that if ever the Palestinians had wanted to populate the Negev, the "Alpha Plan" was probably their best bet. That day has long since come and gone, as the Negev city of Be'ersheva expands, and more and more IDF infrastructure has been moved out of the Kiriya in central Tel-Aviv to the Negev.

But in the context of the possibility of land swaps for a two state solution, there have in the past been suggestions   raised that Egypt could give the Palestinians in Gaza some of its territory for breathing room, and in exchange Israel would grant Egypt a  small strip of the Negev bordering the Egyptian Sinai. As Ben Caspit writes: 


In the past, several proposals were raised regarding regional land swaps swaps, with the goal of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The framework is, in principle, simple: Egypt would enlarge Gaza southward and allow the Gaza Strip’s Palestinians more open space and breathing room. In exchange for this territory, Egypt would receive from Israel a narrow strip the length of the borderline between the two countries, the Israeli Negev desert region from Egyptian Sinai. The Palestinians, in contrast, would transfer the West Bank settlement blocs to Israel. Jordan could also join such an initiative; it could contribute territories of its own and receive others in exchange. To date, this approach was categorically disqualified by the Egyptians in the Hosni Mubarak era. Now that it seems that territorial transfer has become a viable possibility under the new conditions of the Middle East, the idea of Israeli- Egyptian territorial swaps are also reopened; in the past, these land swap possibilities fired the imaginations of many in the region. In his day, former head of Israel’s National Security Council Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland led a regional initiative on the subject. But he was stymied by Egypt.



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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.