Among Middle East observers, there has long been a view that the demand for a Palestinian “right of return” is a bargaining chip that would be negotiated away in a final status agreement, perhaps in exchange for a symbolic but small number of Palestinian refugees admitted to Israel and a substantial amount of money as compensation.
In a new book, two prominent Israeli progressives argue that this assumption is wrong, that the right of return is an unwavering demand from the Palestinian side and, as a result, represents a poison pill that guarantees no resolution to the conflict or to Palestinian statelessness.
“The Palestinian conception of themselves as ‘refugees from Palestine,’ and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews,” write Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf in the book The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace (All Points Books, 2020).
Wilf, a former Labour member of the Knesset, and Schwartz, an academic and journalist for Ha’aretz, have undeniable left-wing credentials. But, while the Israeli left has long been associated with the idea of compromise and idealism, the authors contend that there is little room for any sort of resolution as long as Palestinians cling to the idea that five million or more of them have the right to citizenship in Israel. Part of the failure of successive peace plans, they write, stems from the inability of negotiators to recognize the Palestinians’ tenacity in holding fast on this core issue – and argue that Israelis need to recognize that truth.
“[D]ecades of shuttling, strong-arming the sides, and endless hours of negotiations came to naught because none of the diplomats or negotiators truly understood and dealt with the root causes of the conflict, choosing instead to turn away and focus on that which appeared easier,” they write.
The status of Palestinian refugees is unique in the world. They have their own international agency devoted to the issue: UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, while all other refugees fall under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In this sole instance, the definition of “refugee” has been amended to become an inheritable status, meaning that the several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs dislocated by wars in 1948-1949 and 1967 have ballooned to more than five million – even though many or most of the original refugees have died and the vast majority of those seeking “return” have in fact never lived or set foot in the state they claim for their own.
While exponentially more people were made refugees in the same era – in Europe, in the Indian subcontinent and at least 800,000 Jews forced from Arab- and Muslim-majority lands across the Middle East and North Africa – Schwartz and Wilf argue that Palestinians view themselves as having experienced a unique injustice.
They quote Aref al-Aref, a Palestinian writer who was mayor of East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule in the 1950s: “We have been afflicted by a catastrophe, we the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, during this period of time in a way in which we have not been subjected to catastrophe in centuries and in other periods of time.…” Another Palestinian scholar, in 1950, wrote: “It is the most terrible disaster befalling the Arabs and the Muslims in modern history.… It is a deep-rooted disaster, far-reaching and full of dangers. It is an evil growing by the day and by the hour.” Another writer compared it with the Muslims losing Spain in the Middle Ages.
This almost apocalyptic language precludes compromise on what Palestinians have been promised through the generations by their leaders, according to the book. And, while plenty of voices, including academics, activists and politicians, have argued that the right of return would not be such a terrible thing for Israel’s well-being, the authors provide plenty of evidence that the proposed migration of millions of Palestinian Arabs into Israel is perhaps less about justice for refugees than it is about doing to the country through demographics what the Arab world has been unable to do militarily.
“It is well known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the homeland and not as its slaves. With greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the state of Israel,” said a senior Egyptian politician in 1949, at the beginning of the refugees’ long history.
As an article in a Lebanese newspaper put it, the Palestinians’ return would “create a large Arab majority that would serve as the most effective means of reviving the Arab character to Palestine while forming a powerful fifth column for the day of revenge and reckoning.” Arab League Secretary-General Azzam Pasha viewed the refugees’ return as making it possible for “an irregular army that would be in a position to cause a great deal of inconvenience to the Jews by acts of sabotage.”
To ensure that the plan was not foiled, no matter how long it took to reach fruition, a now-seven-decade-old scheme was hatched to prevent Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere from putting down roots, argue the authors.
“The rehabilitation of the refugees in Arab countries would have meant the end of the war, but that was not what the Arabs wanted,” they write. While the Palestinians were made pawns of the Arab League’s campaign of “denormalization” against Israel, the book portrays most refugees as at least semi-willing players. Attempts to find resolutions to their statelessness have been met with outrage. When Canada’s foreign minister suggested some Palestinian refugees might find a permanent home in Canada, he was burned in effigy in Nablus.
UNRWA, which was presumably begun with the best of intentions, has been consumed by politics and corruption and usurped into what the authors contend is effectively a globally funded branch of the Palestinian liberation movement. Agency-funded textbooks used in Palestinian schools have been shown for decades to inculcate Jew-hatred, venerate terrorists and incite violence. Nevertheless, Palestinians receive through UNRWA among the most per capita humanitarian aid in the world and live a life of which most refugees – and the poor in most Arab countries – can only dream.
From the start, UNRWA’s first annual report, in 1951, noted that many or most refugees were enjoying a better way of life than they had before 1948, receiving universal free education and quality healthcare. The UNRWA schools, now with more than three generations of alumni, have created a uniquely well-educated population of refugees, but, along with reading, writing and arithmetic, the curriculum has created “an embittered, angry and frustrated generation, raised on myths about ethnic cleansing by the Jews, the perfidy of Arab leaders, a sense of victimhood and a refusal to take responsibility for the results of the Palestinians actions in the years and months before Israel’s birth and thereafter,” Wilf and Schwartz write.
The book does not paint an optimistic picture. Western diplomats, peacemakers and politicians refuse to recognize the Palestinian demand of return seriously and continue to believe it can be negotiated away.
“If return were truly just a bargaining chip,” write the authors, “it could have and would have been bargained long ago for a Palestinian state. Rather, it is a Palestinian state that is repeatedly bargained away in order to keep fighting for return.”
There are plenty of issues to discuss – if there were negotiations occurring – but, they argue, the entire Palestinian case rests on the thing Israel must reject.
“The one article that Israel could absolutely not agree to, as it entailed its very suicide, was the one without which the conflict would never end,” write Schwartz and Wilf.