However, it should not be surprising that in 2000 there were people asserting that the issue of Palestinian refugees had moved to the symbolic realm and, with this in mind, pushed for a financial settlement of the matter. To verge on their rationale it suffices to contemplate how would the descendants of those who were uprooted from Minor Asia in 1922 have responded to a compensation offer by the Turkish state in 1974. For the majority of the Palestinians though not only until 2000, but even until now it has been unthinkable to drop the “Right of Return”. Such a defiant stance may very well seem irrational to, say, a young millennial. In this regard a quick flashback to the circumstances that led to the Palestinian exodus in 1948 seems more than necessary.
Israel may have been established in the wake of the holocaust but a quick glance at the biographies of its founding fathers (and mother for nobody should forget charismatic Golda Meir) suffices to render clear that the backbone of the vanguard of the Jewish community in Palestine did not consist of those who survived Nazi atrocities. On the contrary it comprised of those who after the Russian pogroms had migrated to the then Ottoman Sanjak of Jerusalem. The Israeli narrative depicts these people so innovative and hardworking as to make the dessert of Palestine blossom. No doubt a look at the structure of Kibutz communities or the history of Tel Aviv lends some credence to the assertion. Yet, the narrative overlooks two critical factors which, if anything, enabled Jewish migrants to put their creativity and industriousness to the test. These factors pertain to the financial support from the Jewish Diaspora on the one hand, and on the other the stance of the native Arab population who reacted to the initiatives of the Jewish migrants belatedly and ineffectively.
In the aftermath of the demise of the Ottoman Empire the responsibility for Palestine passed to the British. If two things dominated the British rule those were the increase of Jewish immigration and the escalation of tensions between the Arab and Jewish communities. As the situation in both levels deteriorated after the end of World War II, and due to its dire economic situation, Britain decided to hand over the responsibility for the future of Palestine to the newly established UN. Subsequently the international organisation came up with a partition plan that bestowed 56% of the contested country to the Jewish community. No doubt such an arrangement today seems like a utopian dream for the Palestinians. Yet, but back in the day it justly caused their anathema. This was the case because UN not only gave most of Palestine’s land to a minority whose greatest part had migrated to the area in the course of a few decades, but also cut the Arab state in practically three different sectors and put Jerusalem under international control.
However, even in this format, UN partition plan had a major drawback for the Jewish community. The promised lands were nothing but demographically homogenous. To be sure, in many of the areas which were intended for the Jewish state, Arabs had either a strong presence, or outnumbered the Jews. Therefore, the prospect of armed confrontation which, after the approval of the partition plan by the UN general assembly in November 1947, seemed unavoidable did not necessarily make Jewish leaders throw arms up in despair. On the contrary, they perceived it as a blessing in disguise which could facilitate a decisive and quick resolution of the population issue.
Hence, as soon as the accumulating tension evolved into clashes between the two communities in late 1947 a phenomenon, which would repeat itself many times until the final cessation of hostilities, made its appearance. The riots in the areas designated for the Jewish state were ensued by the forced exodus of the native Arabs. Britain decided to withdraw formally from Palestine on May 14, 1948. When the day arrived David Ben Gurion, the head of the Jewish community, announced the founding of Israel. To this, the neighboring Arab states responded with a declaration of war so as to render the nascent state stillborn. That was the moment when the uprooting of the Arabs saw its peak. According to UN figures, from late 1947 until the end of the war, approximately 700,000 Palestinians had been forced to leave their abodes. To contemplate the extent of the exodus one has to bear in mind that, after the flight, the lands that eventually constituted Israel hosted 870,000 souls 150,000 of whom were Arabs that refused or were simply unable to flee. The devastating defeat of the Arab armies, alongside feelings of humiliation and despair, brought about the entrapment of the uprooted in refugee camps. For these reasons, the events of 1948 in the Palestinian collective consciousness are abstracted in the word “nakba” which in Arabic means catastrophe.
The Israeli narrative claims that the Palestinians’ flight was not designed in advance, and that it was largely geared by the cunning and ulterior suggestions of their de facto leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini. A viewpoint reproduced with clarity, among other platforms, in the 1960 Hollywood movie “Exodus” starring Paul Newman. However, as also Israel’s New Historians argue the real story seems to have been rather different as evidence corroborates that the displacement of Palestinians occurred in the context of implementing a designed operation codenamed “Plan D”.[ii] Furthermore, in the view of the Jewish militias’ atrocities Palestinians hardly needed friendly suggestions in order to flee en masse after Ben Gurion’s declaration. The massacre of Deir Yassin which took place in April 1947, and in which Israel’s future premier Menachem Begin played a leading role, is a case at point. The incident was so brutal than not only inflicted terror among Palestinians, but also caused such an outrage internationally that the Jewish community’s official leadership condemned it. The above notwithstanding, the assertion that the Jewish militias put into effect a plan of demographic decongestion acquires added credence by the simple fact that those who fled were not allowed to come back after the signing of the armistice agreements in early 1949.
The events of 1948 were a great shock to the refugees who lost not only their dwellings, but also the prospect of living in a country of their own. To be precise, they found themselves under the jurisdiction of other Arab states which, alongside the UN, could offer nothing more than a few tents and helpings of staple food. To grasp the tectonic shift in the anthropogeography of the areas where the refugees settled, it suffices to think that Gaza, with the influx of 250,000 souls, saw its population tripling virtually overnight.[iii] From their part, the more the refugees started understanding that their status was not temporary, the more they perceived themselves as the victims of a blatant and unspeakable injustice. Eventually the demand of return gradually acquired almost metaphysical attributes with keys of the abandoned houses evolving into priceless family relics and with stories about the lost homeland dominating the upbringing of the camps’ next generations. In this context, the need to undo the injustice of 1948 became a top and sacred priority thereby rendering the so called “Right of Return” in the Palestinian collective consciousness practically inalienable.
On top and in abidance with the above Palestinians started assessing the 1948 exodus as a pivotal mistake. Consequently, the perspective that despite the threats, intimidations, and persecutions it would have been wiser if the majority of the Palestinians had stayed home, became dominant. Therefore, when the Israelis in 1967 took control of Gaza, West Bank, and Jerusalem, Palestinians made sure that almost nobody fled this time. Thus, in the 50 ensuing years they were able to resist, albeit with mixed results, the appropriation and settlement of their land.
To the extent that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, it is chimerical to expect Palestinians, despite the passing of 70 years, to forfeit their “Right of Return”. This is the case because, according to their mentality, such an action would be the equal of a treason that would fulfill the grave blunder of their ancestors to abandon their cities and villages in 1948. This is why Arafat turned down Barak’s “generous offer” in 2000. And this is why Abbas, despite his numerous previous concessions and compromises, today stands firm and a priori refuses to discuss the so called “deal of the century” that Trump promotes.
Georgios Rigas holds a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Edinburgh
[i] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, (New York: MacMillan, 2005), 655.
[ii] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 163.
[iii] Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development (Washington DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995), 15.