Destructive Western indulgence of the Palestinian dream

Refugee issue has no legitimate historical precedent or international parallel.

CHRISTIAN SAUNDERS, acting Commissioner-General of the UNRWA Agency for Palestine Refugees, attends a conference in Geneva in January (photo credit: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)
CHRISTIAN SAUNDERS, acting Commissioner-General of the UNRWA Agency for Palestine Refugees, attends a conference in Geneva in January
‘The reasons for the flight of the Palestinians are finally irrelevant,” literary critic and political activist Edward Said once declared. “What matters is that they are entitled to return.”
In The War of Return (a bestseller in Israel that has now been translated into English), Einat Wilf (former Labor and Independence Party MK and the author, among other books, of Winning the War of Words; Telling Our Story; and My Israel, Our Generation), and Adi Schwartz (a former staff writer and senior editor for Haaretz), provide an account of Palestinian refugees from 1948 to the present and the evolution of return as a “right.”
Perpetuated for more than 70 years, the refugee issue, which has no legitimate historical precedent or international parallel, the authors argue, has attracted much less attention than it deserves. Return, they maintain, is “not a bargaining chip... It is actually the greater goal itself” (i.e. “the obliteration of the Jewish state”).
Palestinians have “repeatedly bargained away” the establishment of a state of their own in order to keep fighting for the right of more than five million refugees to return to homes they never lived in. Informative, provocative, partisan and, at times, compelling, The War of Return may accomplish the unthinkable: change the minds of some readers about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Acknowledging that a substantial number of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes, amid “the hell of slaughter” in 1948, Schwartz and Wilf emphasize that given Palestinian rejection of UN-mandated partition, ”the Israelis’ growing intolerance for the local Arab population was understandable.”
The fact that 150,000 Palestinians, one fifth of the Jewish state’s population in 1948, stayed, the authors indicate, proves that Israel is not guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” Most important, people who wage war “cannot legitimately claim that they ‘suffered an exceptional injustice.’”
In the 1950s, Schwartz and Wilf write, the UN General Assembly declared that Palestinians had a “right” to return, opening the door to a “protracted war under the cloak of international legitimacy.” At first, Palestinians and Arab countries refused to cooperate with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the “temporary” organization set up to rehabilitate the refugees. Insisting that resettlement and compensation (policies used throughout the world by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) be dropped as goals, Palestinians subordinated humanitarian considerations, better living conditions and even permanent housing in the camps to the wider struggle against Israel: “their blind loyalty to the idea of a violent return to Palestine was absolute.”
Under pressure from Arab states and the US, which sought to protect its oil interests, UNRWA dropped rehabilitation, focusing instead on education and vocational training, and filling teaching and administrative positions with Palestinians. UNRWA became “a very successful organization for the development of a Palestinian identity;” with the exception of camps in Jordan, which granted citizenship to Palestinians, each camp became a state within a state, a breeding ground for terrorists and an outpost for the PLO. Raised on a sense of victimhood, students recited a daily oath: ‘Palestine is our country/Our aim is to return... Another homeland we will never accept.’”
Israel did not appear in geography books. Grammar exercises fostered nostalgia “for the usurped homeland.” After 1969, the General Assembly referred repeatedly to “the inalienable right” to return and to self-determination of Palestinian refugees. “Where, precisely,” the authors ask, “do they intend to return to and how can this demand be reconciled with Israel’s own right to self-determination?”
The authors insist that Palestinian leaders have no interest in a two-state solution. Two years after Yasir Arafat explicitly endorsed the right of Israel “to exist in peace and security,” they point out, he imagined riding into Jerusalem with Saddam Hussein in triumph. Secret Palestinian Authority documents reveal Saeb Erekat’s view that references to the “‘right of two peoples to self-determination in two states’ may have an adverse impact on refugee rights, namely the right of return.” Erekat proposed instead “two states living side by side in peace.”
Unfortunately, the thesis of The War of Return – “the refugee question remained (and remains to this day) the most important litmus test for understanding the true and ultimate Palestinian position” – allows the authors to give Israel a free pass. Indeed, they characterize alternative explanations of the Arab-Israeli conflict as disingenuous or naïve “Westplaining.”
Israel’s “failure to compromise,” they assert, is not the problem. The deals offered to Arafat at Camp David in 2000 and to PA head Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, they write, without elaboration, constituted “a great opportunity.” The authors do not discuss the impact on the peace process of Israeli occupation of disputed land, the expansion of settlements, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin or heightened concerns about terrorism.
Most refugees, they suggest as well, live in permanent housing (not camps), sell real estate, food and UN ration cards, are better educated than most other Arabs in the Middle East and work in white-collar professions, many of them in Western Europe.
That said, their emphasis on the role of the right of return provides a fresh angle of vision on a seemingly intractable conflict. The authors may well be right to propose replacing “constructive ambiguity” with “constructive specificity” as a diplomatic tool.
It should begin by shutting down UNRWA, the 70-year-old “temporary” agency that continues to confer legitimacy on a right of return, a right not clearly established in international law that has now been extended to a third, fourth and fifth generation of Palestinians; then persuading Western countries to appropriate funds to apolitical providers of schools and healthcare services; and endorsing a policy based on “naturalization and economic integration,” a manifestly preferable alternative to an unwilling war of return.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
By Adi Schwartz
and Einat Wilf
All Points Books
304 pages; $28.99