Cross-posted from Gush Shalom
I was to open the debate as an Israeli, after the Palestinian representative, Salman Abu Sitta, a refugee from a Bedouin tribe in the Negev, had opened as a Palestinian.
Before the debate I was warned that Abu Sitta was the most extreme of the refugees, a notorious hater of Israel. When my turn came, I said that I had to choose between answering him or reading my prepared text. I decided to read my text and promised to invite him to a private dinner and discuss his points.
When I finished, Abu Sitta reminded me of that promise. We had dinner in a quiet Paris restaurant and I found Abu Sitta a very engaging person. Rachel, my wife, was deeply moved by his account of his flight as a boy during the Naqba, and so was I.
Abu Sitta, by now a very wealthy international contractor, has devoted his life to the plight of the Palestinian refugees and is, perhaps, the world's foremost expert on the Naqba.
This week I received from him a letter, which I feel the need to copy here verbatim:
I read with great interest your interview in Haaretz about your rich and eventful life. You stuck to your principles since the early fifties when you found that the old doctrine was neither workable or moral.
I remember vividly our chat over dinner in Paris with your kind wife Rachel, bless her soul.
You described your early days as a young German by the name of Helmut, when you joined the terrorist organization, the Irgun, and when you, carrying a machine gun on a hilltop at Hulayqat (where now there is a war memorial to "honor" those soldiers) watched the sea of humanity of expelled refugees march towards Gaza by the sea shore.
I also told you my story; how I became a refugee without ever seeing a Jew in my life and how I spent years to find out who did it by name, face and battalion.
I remember asking you "would you agree to my return to my house if it is next to you?" You said emphatically NO.
I wrote all this in my memoirs to be published this year in Europe and USA.
I am reminded of a similar story but with a different ending. I refer to Reflections of a Daughter of the '48 Generation by Dr. Tikva Honig-Parnass. It is a moving account of how truth and reality faced her, as a Palmach soldier, with the grave injustice done to Palestinians. Since then she spends her energy to defend their rights, including the Right of Return.
I saw no trace or hint of retraction in your interview or what I have hoped, namely your recognition of the Right of Return, or the atonement and remedy of the greatest sin: the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Would it not be a fitting last station of a long life (and I wish you more of it) for you to stand at hilltops (again) and shout for all to hear, summing up all your life experiences, saying: the refugees must return, we must repent the sin of ethnic cleansing?
Is this too much to ask for a principled man like you to do this? I am not asking this on behalf of the Palestinians, because no doubt they WILL return. I am hoping that it would be a crown to your life achievements in the Israeli milieu.