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Each time we Israelis hear the words "the problem of the 1948 refugees," our stomachs knot in anxiety and repudiation. For us, the "refugee problem" has become a synonym for the "right of return," and granting Palestinian refugees the right to return to their original homes means the end of Israel.

Perhaps the time has come for us to put our thoughts in order - to make a distinction between the refugee problem and what is called the right of return. After all, the refugee problem can and must be solved, but not by returning the refugees to the territory of the state of Israel within its peace borders. The demand that the refugees be returned to Israeli territory must be rejected, because if that were to happen, there would be two Palestinian states and no state at all for the Jewish people. But the problem of the 1948 refugees needs a remedy. Moreover, solving the refugee problem is a vital Israeli interest because as long as the problem is not solved - as long as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees rot in camps in inhuman conditions - we will have no peace.

Who is guilty of the Palestinian refugee catastrophe? According to Israel, blame lies with the Palestinians' leaders, who began a war with Israel in 1948, and with the refugees themselves, who fled their homes in panic. According to the Arabs, Israel is guilty of cruelly expelling Palestinians from their homes by force. There is truth on both sides: The 1948 war was a total war, village versus village, neighbourhood versus neighbourhood, home versus home. In such wars, populations are uprooted. About a dozen Jewish towns and villages, among them the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City, were conquered in 1948 by the Arabs. The entire Jewish populations of these places were either murdered or forcibly expelled by the Arabs. Conversely, hundreds of Arab towns and villages, inhabited by hundreds of thousands of civilians, were uprooted in 1948. Some of those Arab civilians fled, and some were expelled by the Israeli army.

The time has come to acknowledge openly that Israelis had a part in the catastrophe of the Palestinian refugees. We do not bear sole responsibility, and we are not solely to blame, but our hands are not clean. The state of Israel is mature and strong enough to admit to its share of the blame, and to reach the necessary conclusion: It behooves us to take part in the effort to resettle the refugees, in the framework of peace agreements, and outside Israel's future peace borders.

Israel's admission of its share in the blame for the Palestinian refugee catastrophe, and its expression of willingness to bear part of the burden of a solution, are capable of causing a positive shiver to run through the Palestinian side. It would be a kind of emotional breakthrough that will make further dialogue much easier. The catastrophe of the 1948 refugees is the single most bloody wound in the flesh of the Palestinian nation.

On the Israeli side, there is a habitual tendency to postpone, for as long as possible, the conflict's "core issues": refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements. This postponement may well have been the bane of the Oslo agreements, and it certainly is not good for the current state of negotiations. Israel's tendency to evade talk about these main issues makes the Arab side justifiably suspicious that Israel wants quiet, but is not prepared to reach a comprehensive solution.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile for Israel's leaders to initiate a discussion of the refugee problem, and to offer Israeli participation in its resolution - the removal of all the refugees from the camps where they currently rot, and the provision of work and citizenship for every refugee who wishes it within the boundaries of the future Palestinian state. Of course, to resolve the problem comprehensively will require Israel to acknowledge its partial guilt for the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), and the responsibility that is the corollary of that guilt. A comprehensive solution will also need to address the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were uprooted from their homes in Arab countries, with all that implies.

Both for moral reasons and for its own security, Israel must seek a solution of the 1948 refugee problem. The solution will bear a price tag that will have to be borne by the Western world, by Israel, and by the wealthy Arab countries. Violence will diminish and the despair that gives birth to fanaticism will begin to fade when those camps of suffering and degeneration hear that their life in the trash heap is coming to an end. For Israel's part, even if we sign peace agreements with all our enemies, we will have no peace as long as there is no remedy for the plight of the refugees.

AMOS OZ, Israeli novelist and a founder

of Peace Now

Translated by Haim Watzman.

© Amos Oz 2007

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