Aspects of Peacemaking
Dec 20, 2013
Update from AIJAC
Dec. 20, 2013
Number 12/13 #04
This Update contains insightful new articles dealing with three different important issues that will have to be resolved in any Israeli-Palestinian final peace agreement – or even a “framework agreement” of the sort that US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to broker by April. Specifically, it deals with the subjects of recognition of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, borders and settlements in the West Bank, and Palestinian refugees.
First up is noted Israeli academic strategic expert and recent AIJAC visitor to Australia Prof. Efraim Inbar. He argues that the recent Palestinian statement to Kerry stating recognition of Israel as a Jewish homeland is a “red-line” they can never cross is not a minor matter but actually expresses the essence of the Arab-Israel conflict. He goes on to note that Palestinian public discourse, and what Palestinians learn in school and on television, utterly denies that Jews are anything other than foreign invaders while Israel recognised Palestinian national rights in 1978, and says it is this asymmetry which is at the heart of the ongoing impasse. For this important look at why the recognition issue matters so much, CLICK HERE.
Next up is an examination of an effort by a series of Israeli legal scholars to challenge the oft-heard claim that the West Bank is “occupied territory” and therefore all Israeli settlements on it are illegal. The article, by Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai, discusses two new organisations which are seeking to go on the offensive and make the argument that as a factual matter of law, Israel is not “occupying” the West Bank in terms of international law. It includes interviews with two of the key International law experts involved – Alan Baker and Daniel Reisner – about what they hope their effort can achieve, including in relation to the Israeli Palestinian peace process. For the article in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American scholar Avi Jorisch reflects on the strange and unique plight of the Palestinian refugees. He puts the Palestinian refugees of 1948 into the context of other much larger refugee flows in the late 1940s in the Indian subcontinent and Europe, but notes the strange way that Palestinians have been kept in refugee limbo ever since, unlike all the other cases he cites. He makes the argument that, while of course the trauma suffered by Palestinian refugees must be acknowledged, the focus on the uniqueness of Palestinian suffering has only led to even greater pain and trauma for them and needs to be overcome to give them, and everyone concerned, a better future. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE. More information on what some recent studies reveal about the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem from Yoram Ettinger, plus former Israeli MK Einat Wilf argues that it is time for Israel and others who want peace to stop referring to the descendants of the refugees using the term “refugees.” Also, Israeli researcher Adi Schwartz discusses the barriers to peace being created by the special UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Readers may also be interested in:
- More informative comment on another issue often raised in the context of the peace process comes from Uri Sadot of the venerable Council on Foreign Relations, who argues that the oft-discussed “demographic timebomb” Israel allegedly faces if it does not rapidly reach a peace deal with the Palestinians is not actually supported by the most recent demographic numbers.
- Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich takes on a related argument – that Israeli control of the West Bank denies Palestinians their “democratic rights.”
- David Goldman makes a provocative argument that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace, but in fact accepting them should be a litmus test for peace. He also uses demographic data to make an argument for long-term peace process optimism.
- Barry Rubin argues that John Kerry’s proposal that American troops patrol a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal is a recipe for ongoing violence and conflict. Some similar arguments come from Jonathan Tobin.
- Khaled Abu Toameh on what the Palestinian rejectionist groups are saying about Kerry’s proposed framework deal.
- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounces general boycotts of Israel in South Africa.
- With optimism waning in Washington over the prospects for success of the Geneva interim nuclear deal with Iran reached last month, Olli Heinonen and Orde Kittrie outline the various ways Iran seems to be taking advantage of the new deal to advance its nuclear program, as well as the economic benefits it is already getting even though the deal is not yet in effect. More on the anticipated effects of the sanctions relief included in the deal comes from Jonathan Schanzer speaking in a video interview.
- While Iran and P5+1 powers have resumed talks on implementing Geneva after an Iranian walkout, Iran expert Amir Taheri argues that the deal may already be collapsing in the face of deception and hardline opposition from Iran. David Ignatius of the Washington Post also documents signs of hardline opposition in Iran.
- An article on the undiscussed prevalence of pornography in the Middle East.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Or Avi-Guy discusses how the focus on a nuclear deal with Iran has distracted from Iran’s abysmal human rights record – which does not appear to be improving under the supposedly “moderate” Rouhani.
- Ahron Shapiro blogs about an ABC story on a horrific terrorist attack which occurred in Israel in 1979 – which unfortunately referred to the perpetrators as “soldiers.”
- Ahron also summarised and debunked some revealing “dam lies” coming out of the recent flooding in Gaza.
- A video of visiting counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt discussing Hezbollah – including its presence in Australia and our wider region – at an AIJAC function in Melbourne. (In addition, Levitt’s speech at the Kokoda Foundation in Sydney on 9 December will be broadcast on Sky News A-PAC, Australia’s Public Affairs Channel – Channel 648 on Foxtel and their website http://www.a-pac.tv/ – on Sunday 22 December at 8am, 2pm and 8pm.)
Palestinian Red Line
by Efraim Inbar
Israel Hayom, December 16, 2013
The media reported that Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), rejected the peace proposals submitted by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The Palestinians leaked that Abbas sent a letter to Kerry reiterating his complete opposition to the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This was declared a “red line” that the Palestinians will not cross.
This “red line” is not just about semantics, but rather the essence of the conflict. The Palestinian position amounts to denying the Jews the right to establish their state in their homeland. It also indicates without any doubt that the Palestinians, despite the conventional wisdom, are not ready to reach a historic compromise with Zionism, the Jewish national revival movement. Therefore, a stable peace based on mutual recognition and ending all demands is not in the cards. The weak PA seems to accept partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states – perhaps in accordance with the PLO’s stages approach – but it still refrains from accepting the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise.
This is in stark contrast to Israel, which recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinians” in the September 1978 Camp David Accords, and is ready for generous territorial concessions in order to implement a partition of the Land of Israel/Palestine. The bitter truth is that the asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not changed for over a century. In essence, this ethno-religious conflict is not about territory – although it obviously has a territorial dimension – but about securing the recognition of the other side to national rights in a given territory.
Despite the image of untrustworthiness in keeping written agreements, Palestinians actually give great importance to the language used in the documents they are asked to sign. Yasser Arafat, generally viewed by most Israelis as an accomplished liar, refused in 2000 to sign an agreement that included a clause about an end to all demands. For him the conflict could end only with Israel’s eventual demise. Similarly, Abbas cannot bring himself to put his signature to a document which says that the Jews have returned to their homeland. We know that the perception of Jews being foreign invaders of Palestine is a fundamental widespread Palestinian attitude, which is instilled in the younger generations in the PA-run schools.
The entrenchment of such attitudes is clear also by the lack of a debate among the Palestinians whether to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Discussing Jewish rights to the Land of Israel is not conceivable in the current intra-Palestinian deliberations. Not even the so-called Palestinian moderates are calling for a debate among the Palestinians on whether to recognize the right of self-determination of the Jews in their historic homeland. Palestinian polls do not ask whether Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state. Normative language mentioning rights and international norms in Palestinian discourse is reserved for Palestinian demands only, and is never applied to understand what Israelis want.
The efforts of the Palestinian media to negate the Jewish past and historic links to the Temple Mount, and even the Western Wall, indicate an ideological commitment to rewriting history. Palestinian archeology is similarly used to erase all traces of Jewish presence from the land. Even Koranic sources mentioning the links of the Jews to the Land of Israel are ignored. Such Palestinian behavior serves only to prolong the conflict because it does not teach the Palestinians that Jews are part of the history of this land. All these acts are intolerable and must stop before Israel considers signing a comprehensive peace agreement.
It was a mistake not to insist on recognition of Israel being a Jewish state in the negotiations with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu understands very well the need for such recognition by the Palestinians to ensure a historic peace deal, and his insistence on getting it in the framework of a comprehensive settlement is right on the mark.
Moreover, Palestinians are different than the Egyptians or Jordanians, who were not required to accept Israel as a Jewish state. They have no claims to Palestine, while it is the Palestinians and the Israelis that fight for the same piece of land.
The Israelis recognized Palestinian legitimate rights 35 years ago. It is high time for the Palestinians to learn about the “other” they are in conflict with, and reciprocate if they are serious about making peace.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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The legal case for Judea and Samaria
For years, the world has regarded Judea and Samaria as Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel • But now a group of hundreds of jurists from Israel and abroad is fighting back in the battle for the historical and legal truth.
If international legitimacy for the settlement enterprise were a horse, one could say that it’s been long out of the barn. Those roaming the halls of power worldwide — from the White House in the era of Barack Obama and John Kerry to the United Nations — have for years regarded the territories of Judea and Samaria as Palestinian territory that is currently under occupation.
The hostile attitude toward the settlement enterprise is a natural, direct derivative of this premise. If we were to make a gross generalization, the world has adopted the Palestinian narrative as it relates to the legal status of the territories. Even those who negotiate on behalf of the State of Israel, men and women who officially adhere to the party line that Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish civilization and peoplehood, is not occupied territory, have long ceased to make this statement publicly, just as they haven’t even bothered to make use of a long list of legal and historical arguments that support this position.
While it may seem that this train has long left the station, we were surprised to suddenly learn that for months now a counterattack has been waged over “the historical, legal truth.” This is a campaign that is being waged by hundreds of jurists from Israel and abroad who aren’t making do with the usual “rights of our forefathers” or “Zionism” rejoinders which are now devoid of currency in the international arena and the High Court of Justice.
Last summer, right-wing organizations and settlers managed to bring together a number of highly regarded legal minds — including those who are not traditionally aligned with right-wing politics. These individuals set out on a mission to change the terminology and the legal discourse that the left, including groups like Peace Now, has assumed control of for quite some time.
The battle over the narrative
The so-called “new” jurists are really just dusting off old arguments that were first made and eventually accepted in the initial years following the Six-Day War. This new line of discourse categorically rejects the premise of “occupied territories.” The State of Israel did indeed conquer Judea and Samaria in 1967 as the result of a war of self-defense, but from a legal standpoint these territories are not occupied since the foreign power that held these territories between 1948 and 1967 — Jordan — did so illegally.
These jurists note that with the exception of Britain and Pakistan, the international community refused to recognize the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank. Therefore, the legal status of these territories is in dispute. From the standpoint of international law, there is an enormous difference between occupied territories and disputed territories.
Those who bolster this argument — and some jurists do indeed do this — with what is referred to as “the historic right of the Jewish people to sovereignty over the Land of Israel” add another legal statement in support of their case: “Demanding the right to this sovereignty, which supersedes any counter-demand by the Palestinians.”
Jurists like Professor Talia Einhorn or Professor Eliav Shochetman, who are two of the more active legal experts in the group, note that this right was recognized by the international community from the time of the British Mandate for Palestine. This legal document granted national rights solely to the Jewish people, which were in turn reaffirmed in Article 80 of the United Nations Charter.
“As such, when the U.N. secretary-general states that ‘the settlements are illegal and are an obstacle to peace,’ or when [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas demands that Israel ‘dismantle the settlements built on Palestinian land since 1967, since their very establishment is illegal,’ and when even the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, refers to the settlements as ‘illegitimate’ — all of them are basing their statements on errant legal assumptions from a factual standpoint,” said Dr. Hagai Winitzki of Sha’arei Mishpat College.
A legal case
The renaissance that the “new jurists” are trying to infuse into the discourse to make an Israeli case for Judea and Samaria has for years been proudly trumpeted by the Foreign Ministry on its web site. It has even been articulated into a codified doctrine by the former president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar. This case rested on a number of international resolutions and historical facts that were almost wiped clean from the public record but in recent years have been resurrected by a number of organizations.
Two of these groups, which began work just recently, are drawing the most attention. First, there’s the Regavim Institute’s Center for Zionism, Justice, and Society. For years, Regavim has provided assistance in court cases which hear petitions brought on by left-wing groups against settlements in Judea and Samaria. It even shocked the judicial system when it brought its own petition against “Palestinian outposts” in an attempt to defend Jewish settlement in these areas.
The other organization is the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which was originally founded as a group dedicated to pursuing legal means to defeat the disengagement plan.
The inaugural convention held by the Center for Zionism took place a few weeks ago at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim event hall in Jerusalem. The occasion also featured the unveiling of an impressive new book that delves into property laws and international law in Judea and Samaria. The book is 560 pages long, and it includes a number of articles by renowned legal scholars like Prof. Haim Sandberg and Prof. Einhorn.
One of the most noteworthy articles that appeared in the book was written by Col. (res.) Daniel Reisner, an expert in international law and the former head of the international law department in the Military Advocate General’s Corps. Today, Reisner is a partner in the Herzog Fox Neeman law firm.
Reisner’s position is interesting not just because of his professional background, but also because he is a jurist who is not aligned with the political right and who recognizes that the Palestinians also have claims to Judea and Samaria.
In his article, Reisner expresses understanding for Israel’s formal position “because since the territories of Judea and Samaria were never a legitimate part of any Arab state, including the Kingdom of Jordan, it is impossible to determine that Israel is an occupier in Judea and Samaria in the accepted legal definition. What’s more is that the Jewish people have a historic, legal, and physical link to Judea and Samaria.”
Reisner is a senior jurist who took part in all of the major diplomatic negotiations since the Oslo Accords. Today he serves as an advisor to Israel’s peace negotiators. He believes that the position taken by most experts who are well-versed in international law against Israel’s claims does not stem from the weakness of Israel’s legal arguments, but rather is the result of the fact that most of the countries of the world have adopted the Palestinian narrative which holds that the territories of Judea and Samaria belong to the Palestinian people.
“Even if it seems that the battle is lost, that doesn’t mean it’s a reason to give up on a real, genuine legal argument,” he said. “Israel didn’t conquer these territories from any state because Jordanian control of the West Bank was illegal. If Israeli control over Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem in 1967 was illegal because of the illegality of taking over a territory by force, then the Jordanian occupation of that same complex in 1948 suffers from exactly the same problem.”
“Conversely, if one claims that the Jordanian occupation of 1948 was legitimate because before that the territory wasn’t under the sovereignty of another state, then that just strengthens a similar Israeli argument,” he said.
From Jerusalem to Al-Khader
Reisner recommends that we do not take the simplistic approach of treating Judea and Samaria as a single, solitary entity.
“There is no uniform law that applies equally to Ramallah — where there was never a Jewish presence — and Hebron — where a constant Jewish presence spanning hundreds of years was cut short by a horrific massacre,” he said. “There is no uniform law that applies equally to Al-Khader, which was and remains an exclusively Arab village, and the settlements of nearby Gush Etzion, which like Rachel’s Tomb was in sole Jewish control before the War of Independence. And of course there is no uniform law that applies equally to the Old City of Jerusalem, the historic site of two Jewish temples, and the neighborhood of Abu Dis nearby.”
In addition, Reisner finds legal backing for distinguishing between territories and specific sites in Judea and Samaria. Such language can be found in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. The wording of the resolution calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories conquered” in the Six-Day War. It doesn’t call for withdrawal from “the” territories.
“This shows that there really isn’t an insistence on all of the territories that were captured during the war,” Reisner said. “In any event, despite what the world thinks about us, it is impossible to peg us as foreign occupiers that are without any rights to these regions, and whoever ignores this part of the story is simply deviating from the truth.”
Is this argument, as factually correct as it may be, even relevant now, with the world and even the State of Israel talking in a different language? Isn’t it too late?
Reisner: “The conflict has a political dimension and a legal one. Nonetheless, the solution to the conflict won’t necessarily be found in either of these two dimensions, but in my opinion it will rather be based on something totally different — a fair compromise that will create a stable reality over time. The odds of one party to the conflict managing to convince the other to accept competing legal and political positions are nil.”
Still, Reisner is convinced that “Israel needs to make its case cogently from a legal, political, and historic standpoint simply because it has its own truth that is backed up by facts.”
“Will the solution be based on this truth? Is this truth relevant to the results of the negotiations? I’m not entirely certain.”
If there is a legal case to be made, why don’t the state’s negotiators use it in the talks?
“Because inside the negotiating room it’s almost irrelevant. International law has a relatively marginal role to play in Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The bottom line is the one that both sides need to live with. Legal arguments help you. They give you an internal anchor, but in negotiations it is almost never a winning argument. In any event, a legal claim is never weakened or nullified because it is up to people to either make the claim or not make the claim. If you have a truth and you believe in it, speak up!”
Do the political opinions of jurists who are participating in the negotiations or the opinions of prosecutors have an effect on their legal positions?
Reisner: “I don’t know.”
Alan Baker, an attorney and a member of the Levy Committee which was formed in 2012 to investigate the legal status of the outposts and the settlements and which came to the conclusion that Judea and Samaria are not occupied territories, echoes much of what Reisner has to say.
Baker, a former legal advisor in the Foreign Ministry who also served as ambassador to Canada, heads a newly formed group of experts in international law which has already written to Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in protest of their “mistaken and misleading” positions.
Two weeks ago, Baker was in Paris, where he met with dozens of other senior jurists from across Europe who share similar views. The group includes Yaakov Neeman, the former Israeli justice minister; Baroness Ruth Deech, a member of the British House of Lords and a professor of law at Oxford; and Meir Rosenne, the former Israeli ambassador to France and the U.S.
“The Israeli government for years has refrained from waging a hasbara campaign based on advancing our rights,” Baker said. “Instead, it has waged a hasbara campaign based on apologies. The right thing to do was to operate out of a sense of advancing our rights, the rights of the Jewish people as an indigenous nation in its land. The Jews are the oldest nation here, but the State of Israel rarely mentioned this. It has rarely mentioned the fact that these are territories where we have had rights from time immemorial. It has rarely mentioned international documents like the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Declaration, the U.N. Charter, and the British Mandate as approved by the League of Nations, all of which are very relevant as they relate to our rights here.”
“Most importantly, it has refrained from emphasizing that what we are dealing with is not occupation,” he said.
You’re “talking history.” Who even takes that into account these days?
Baker: “If we refer to it, others will refer to it. It’s a process that takes time.”
Even the State Attorney’s Office is completely disconnected from this approach whenever it argues the state’s position to the High Court of Justice.
Baker: “There’s a problem with the State Attorney’s Office. There is a group of people there that have a very one-dimensional approach when it comes to the status of the territories and settlers.”
But they are supposed to be the mouthpiece of the state.
Baker: “Not exactly. The mouthpiece of the state is the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. Those people implement the law. That’s their job. They’re not charged with waging hasbara campaigns or making policy. We agreed with the Palestinians that the fate of the territories will be determined in negotiations between us, so in the context of a permanent status deal with the Palestinians, we will have to compromise. But on the way to the compromise, for it to be better for us and for us to know that we did all we could, there is something called ‘rights,’ and we need to speak up about it.”
“It is inconceivable that the entire world will repeat the mantra about Judea and Samaria being occupied territory when from a factual standpoint there is no legal basis for this,” he said. “When Kerry claims, even before the negotiations ended, that we have no rights in territories over which negotiations are being held and where settlements are illegitimate, he is in essence adopting the Palestinian position and harming the negotiations. If the negotiations are intended to determine the fate of the settlements, then by all means. Even if you are the secretary of state, don’t prejudice the negotiations by stating beforehand that they are illegitimate.”
Bezalel Smotritz, a senior figure at Regavim, said that while his organization adopted the “offense-is-the-best-defense” approach in its arguments before the High Court of Justice, he and his friends realized that they were busy “putting out fires.”
“The settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria exists today within the bounds of an untenable legal situation which is the byproduct of the judicial delegitimization that has been waged for years by the left against Judea and Samaria and the settlements there,” he said. “These bounds toe the line between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘war crime.’ One should add that the law that is applied today to the settlement enterprise is outdated and unsuitable for normalized living in Judea and Samaria. We are talking about the remnants of Ottoman law, British Mandatory law, Jordanian law, and Israeli defense edicts. All of this requires that we change the ongoing dialogue.”
“If we seriously want to deal with the justice system as it relates to the settlements, there is no alternative but to equip ourselves with a legal bulldozer and break through,” he said. “We need to establish an entirely different legal foundation which will enable the settlement enterprise to breathe and combat the legal delegitimization, and to convince the public that settlements are legitimate.”
“The new book that our center published, which is already making waves throughout the halls of power, is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There will be more books, conferences, academic courses, scholarships, and more. One can say, ‘It’s too late,’ and throw up his hands in despair and go home, like [what we’ve done] in the Negev. I’m not ready to give up, not on the Negev and not on Judea and Samaria. For years, a certain legal school has been in charge, and many academics and jurists were afraid to speak up. Now they are not alone.”
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The Unique Tragedy of the Palestinian Refugees
by Avi Jorisch
Al-Arabiya, December 19, 2013
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees. The films, pictures, slides and prints the organization has collected on the refugees’ plight will now be displayed in Jerusalem’s Old City in an exhibit entitled “The Long Journey,” which will then tour Europe and North America. The images, available online, are heartbreakingly powerful and emotive.
Like all refugee stories, Palestinian stories of displacement and loss needs to be told. The question is what lessons one takes out of it. For Israel, as many prominent Israeli intellectuals, historians and politicians have argued for decades, the Palestinian plight is one that must be confronted and acknowledged with honesty.
What about the rest of the world, and particularly Muslims, Arabs and the Palestinians themselves?
The Palestinian refugees have an emotional hold in the Muslim world unlike any other refugee group. No other Muslim refugee problem, including those of conflicts in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, generates such indignation. Why is that? What makes the Palestinians unique?
Remarkably, Palestinians refugees in the Levant are the only refugee group to have a special UN agency dedicated to them. All others across the world are handled by one agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UN, the special treatment of the Palestinians is justified by “the scale and uniqueness of the Palestinian refugee problem.”
Yet by any measure, the scale of the Palestinian refugee problem is dwarfed by numerous refugee events of the 20th Century. In 1948, credible estimates recorded approximately 700,000 refugees, and in 1967 approximately 300,000.
To put these numbers in perspective, the displacement of the Palestinians occurred within the context of the largest population transfers in history, in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, around the same time that the British mandate of Palestine was being portioned into one state for Jews and one for Arabs, India was partitioned to create a state for Muslims – Pakistan. This resulted in the largest movement of refugees in history, with over 14 million people displaced and the death of over 1 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
Meanwhile, at least 12 million ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe (where they had lived for centuries) from 1944–1950, in the largest population transfer in modern European history.
In 1923, Greece and Turkey engaged in a forcible population exchange that turned 2 million people into refugees. And since the 1950s, numerous African nations have fought civil wars that led to massive refugee flight. The UNHCR estimates that in 1992, there were over 6.5 million refugees across Africa, with that number remaining high in 2004 at over 2.7 million.
How many people have studied these events or were even aware of them? Most were forgotten because after one generation, or two at most, the refugees were integrated into other countries.
And that points to one aspect of the Palestinian problem that is in fact unique: unlike most others, it has lasted for generations. The original estimated 700,000-1 million refugees now number approximately 6.5 million. That is not just a problem, it is a tragedy. Imagine if the Palestinians had been allowed to integrate into neighboring Arab countries – often less than 20 miles away from their original homes? Germany took in ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern and Central Europe, though they had not lived in Germany for centuries. India accepted Hindu refugees from the newly created state of Pakistan. Israel absorbed an estimated 800,000–1 million Jewish refugees who were expelled or fled from Arab countries between 1948 and the early 1970s.
The Arab League has instructed Arab states to deny citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” The result is that six decades later, Palestinians languish in camps throughout Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – instead of becoming productive citizens, as they have in other countries where they have emigrated. While the Arab world urges Israel to face its responsibility, it should not be an excuse to ignore its own.
Painting the Palestinian problem as the most serious issue facing Muslims today minimizes the plight of refugees everywhere. Even through the narrower lens of the Muslim world, the Palestinian experience is not exceptional. Pakistan is far from the only case. In Darfur, an estimated 2.5 million people have become refugees since 2003 because of the Janjaweed militia, backed by the Sudanese army. In Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, 6 million refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran (5 million of whom have been repatriated since). Today an estimated 2 million Syrians have left their country to escape the civil war that began in 2011. Other refugees in the Muslim world include 1.6 million Iraqis fleeing civil war in the past decade and several hundred thousand Feyli Kurds forcibly expelled by Saddam Hussein starting in the 1970s.
Displacement as a result of war is not distinctive. History is replete with refugee suffering, and it would be difficult to argue that Palestinians have suffered infinitely more than others in recent times.
It is hard to see what good can come from this false sense of uniqueness. Arguable, it causes even greater pain and trauma. It also makes it harder for Palestinians to envisage peacemaking rather than revenge, and strengthens extremists who feed on hatred and oppose any prospect for peace.
Is it possible to have a more nuanced understanding of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict that does not absolve Israel of all wrongdoing, but doesn’t demonize it either? Similarly, is it feasible to recognize the pain individual Palestinians underwent but concedes that this tragedy is similar to that experienced by millions of others? Answers to both questions may ultimately help bring an end to this sad Middle Eastern chapter.