Analysis: Two million human bargaining chips
The idea that it is a simple, and just, solution to expel Palestinians from Gaza is uninformed.
Egyptian volunteers shout anti-Israel slogans at the Rafah crossing point from Egypt into Gaza [File: Omar Aziz/AP Photo]By Zoran KusovacPublished On 23 Oct 202323 Oct 2023
Everyone has a strong opinion on Middle Eastern conflicts.
People who never visited the region even as tourists, never studied the complex Arab-Israeli developments and relationships over at least the past 100 years, and never read anything on the creation of modern states and nation-building in the Levant nevertheless hold strong opinions and assign blame freely.
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They naively suggest that if borders were opened, then civilians could depart, leaving the fighters aligned with Hamas and other armed Palestinian factions behind, so Israel could defeat them militarily, remove the threat and let the civilians back in.
That is just uninformed jumble and wishful thinking, without the remotest connection to reality.
Most ordinary Palestinians feel very strongly that despite all the horrors they are enduring these days, they should remain in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, neighbouring states feel that they could not afford to take in two million more refugees.
To inexperienced outsiders, it may seem illogical that people in extreme danger want to remain and suffer. At the same time, they may question the sincerity of Arab states that profess support to their brethren but do not offer them refuge.
Both sides’ positions are the result of collective memories and fears.
Generations of Palestinians have been forced out of their homes over the past 75 years and despite numerous United Nations resolutions confirming their right to return, they and generations of their descendants remain refugees to this day. Once a refugee, always a refugee.
Palestinians were uprooted from their ancestral lands over several significant fighting-induced population shifts. The first, most unexpected, caused the deepest collective pain and Palestinians to this day refer to it as the Nakba, the “catastrophe”.
Nearly a million people were expelled from their homes in 1948, more than 85 percent of the Palestinians living in what became Israel. Neighbouring Arab states united to destroy it militarily but failed. They took in their uprooted kinsmen, mostly in today’s Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The refugees endured the hardships and uncertainties of their predicament, hoping to go back home after a political solution was found.
That never happened. The international community talked; promised, but never delivered. Powerful states of the East and West paid lip service to “a just and lasting solution”, but failed to implement it. New wars erupted, producing new refugees. Palestinians held on to their dream of going back. Some still have the keys to their old homes.
The second war between Israel and the Arab world was fought over Egypt’s Suez Canal in 1956. It did not displace many Palestinians, but it drove generations-old Jewish and non-Arab communities from Arab states. Many were expelled; some left on their own.
The next catastrophe was the 1967 war, when Jordan lost control of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Syria lost the Golan Heights. In the aftermath, more than 300,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank, mainly into Jordan, and 100,000 evacuated from the Golan.
Just like the victims of the 1948 Nakba, the refugees of 1967 ended up living in barely acceptable conditions. In time, canvas tents were replaced by buildings. But the predicament of those uprooted by Israel remained harsh.
Integration of Palestinians in the lands of their refuge proved challenging. Even after two or three generations, they see their hosts as “foreigners” while they in turn are seen as “outsiders”. Arabs, but with huge differences.
How far these differences went was demonstrated in 1970-1971 with bloody internecine fighting in Jordan between Jordanian forces and Palestinian freedom fighters led by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman and Fatah party founder Yasser Arafat.
The fedayeen (freedom fighters) had moved to Jordan from the occupied West Bank and began launching attacks on Israel from there, drawing retaliatory attacks on Jordanian soil. At the time, refugees already made up half of Jordan’s population. Those who came in 1948 enjoyed full citizenship – unlike later arrivals who only had refugee status. Hashemite royal family fears that the PLO was growing too strong in Jordan, to the point where it could take over the country, led to a bloody Arab-Arab war with 4,000 killed in battle.
The PLO was allowed to move to Lebanon. From there the PLO fighters continued to attack Israel and eventually fighting between them and Lebanese forces precipitated the bloody civil war that was to last from 1975 to 1990.
Given their dreary past experiences, it is no wonder that Arab states in the region are wary of receiving new refugees, knowing they would almost certainly remain permanently. The non-Arab world is also not volunteering to take these wretched survivors of bombing, famine and disease. Many Arabs ask why big countries with abundant land do not offer to take in some Palestinians, usually mentioning the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia or Argentina.
Despite all promises and even the 1993 Oslo Accords that allegedly offered a solution to satisfy both sides, Israel made the return and resettlement of refugees virtually impossible. Practically no Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, Syria or Jordan ever went home. They feel the world has forgotten them, and even tried to reduce their numbers. Palestinian sources estimate that there are six million living refugees, from those expelled in 1948 to the current fourth generation.
Gazans fear that an Israeli offensive could push them into Egypt by force, despite their wish to remain. Having managed to eke out some modest existence over the years in the overcrowded, poor and harsh Gaza Strip, the last thing they want is to be displaced once again by geopolitical, pragmatic or cynical calculations that do not respect their desires.
The prospect of losing even that little they have terrifies them.
They have seen countless declarations confirming their right of return, but no results. Now Palestinians from the Gaza Strip fear that they could become human chips in a game of political poker and vow to resist that by all their modest means.