All Things Considered: July 14, 2003

Palestinian 'Right of Return' Poll Sparks Mob Attack


One of the sticking points in any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is the Palestinian demand for a right of return--a right of Palestinian refugees to go back to their pre-1948 homes inside what is now Israel. The Palestinians consider that claim sacred. Israelis see it as potentially undermining the Jewish character of their country. Well, now the Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki has done some polling which shows that the issue may not be quite so intractable as it seems. On the other hand, releasing his findings was so provocative that his Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research on the West Bank was attacked by rioting Palestinian protesters when he tried to do so. Dr. Shikaki's center asked more than 4,000 Palestinian refugees if they were to exercise a right of return, where would they choose to live.

Dr. KHALIL SHIKAKI (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research): The overwhelming majority wanted to live in a Palestinian state; only a small minority wanted to live in the state of Israel. That minority that wanted to have the state of Israel as the place of permanent residency was only 10 percent. But even in those 10 percent, only 10 percent of them wanted to have Israeli citizenship or Israeli passports. Ninety percent of those who wanted to have Israel as a permanent place of residence said that they would rather have a Palestinian citizenship and a Palestinian passport.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that approximately, according to this poll, about 1 percent of Palestinian refugees would opt for both residence and citizenship in the state of Israel.

Dr. SHIKAKI: That is absolutely correct. This is not an exchange for the right of return; this is in addition to having the right of return.

SIEGEL: Now while you present these findings, couching them carefully as you have, evidently your release of this research wasn't taken in quite that spirit. How would you describe the protest against you and your research yesterday? What actually happened?

Dr. SHIKAKI: There were about a hundred people who basically stormed into the office. They wanted to attack me, attack the center, attack the staff. They believe that the right of return is being tampered with. Obviously, this is absolutely not the case. What it indicated is that there is a great deal of softness, practicality on the exercise of the right in terms of people electing or choosing their place of residence. That is the shocking, in terms of for the first time, having these results being made public.

SIEGEL: Have you been able to think about any bridging language or any concept that could accommodate the reality of a very small Palestinian return with the Israeli interest in not acknowledging a right which could potentially lead to an enormous return?

Dr. SHIKAKI: The beauty of the result that we have obtained is that the results are indeed a win-win situation for everybody--the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, the state and the refugees--because the results indicate that the Israeli fears that a large number of refugees would indeed be knocking at the doors once the Israelis recognize the right of return--those fears are unfounded.

SIEGEL: Two very different impressions of where things stand in the Arab-Israeli dispute then yesterday. On the one hand, your research saying a really tough nut to crack--the right of return--could be easier to deal with than you might think. On the other hand, just saying that brings down a mob protest against you which makes you think maybe it is no easier than we might think.

Dr. SHIKAKI: I do believe that the word of the overwhelming majority of the refugees that we have interviewed is indeed much, much more stronger than the views of a small number of rioters who attacked the center. I really don't give those people a great deal of weight. The weight I give is for the representative sample that we have interviewed that indeed represents the views of the refugees.

SIEGEL: Dr. Shikaki, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Dr. SHIKAKI: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Dr. Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah on the West Bank.

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