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The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem

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02/05/2013 09:57 AM
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The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem
The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem

(selections from “Epilogue” - Pluto Press, 2003
(pages 259 – 269)

By Nur Masalha

With the 1948 war the Zionists succeeded in many of their objectives; above all, they created a vastly enlarged Jewish state on 77 per cent of historic Palestine. From the territory occupied by the Israelis in 1948, about 90 per cent of the Palestinians were driven out – many by psychological warfare and/or military pressure and a very large number at gunpoint.

The 1948 war simply provided an opportunity and the necessary background for the creation of a Jewish state largely free of Arabs; it concentrated Zionist-Jewish minds, and provided the security, military and strategic explanations and justifications for purging the Jewish state and dispossessing the Palestinians. The Israeli State Archives in Jerusalem contain a large number of official files with extensive information pertaining to Israel’s policies towards the Arab minority, including what usually is describes in Israel as ‘population transfer.’

By the end of the 1948 war hundreds of Palestinian villages had been completely depopulated, and their houses blown up or bulldozed, the main objective being to prevent the return of refugees to their homes and villages. The overwhelming evidence shows that the refugee exodus was to a large extent the deliberate creation of Jewish leaders, especially David Ben-Gurion, and military commanders.

Once Palestinians had been driven out of their homes, villages and towns, Israel took steps to prevent their return. Palestinian farms and villages were razed and refugee property seized.

Jews, many of them new immigrants, were settled in homes and neighborhoods belonging to Palestinian refugees. Subsequent policies adopted by the Israeli state were aimed at consolidating the power and domination of the newly created Jewish majority. An essential element in effort was the prevention of the return of Palestinian refugees. This objective has served until today as a guiding premise underlying Israeli policy concerning refugees.

The outcome of the 1948 left Israel in control of over 5 million acres of Palestinian land. After the war, the Israeli state took over the land of the 750,000 refugees, who were barred from returning, while the remaining Palestinian minority was subjected to laws and regulations that effectively deprived it of most of its land. These actions were legalized through the enactment of a range of laws reflecting the prevailing Zionist view that Palestinians refugees were not welcome and enshrining their prejudiced position as a matter of state policy. The massive drive to take over Palestinian refugee land was conducted entirely according to strict legality.

Between 1948 and the early 1990s Israel enacted some 30 statues that transferred land from private Arab to state (Jewish) ownership. In the early 1950s Israel did consider some form of restitution of refugee property in lieu of repatriation, although all attempts to work out policy on compensation were tied to a settlement of abandoned Jewish property in Arab states.

The Israeli position toward the refugees has always emphasized their resettlement and rehabilitation in the Arab states, rather than repatriation and/or compensation. This resettlement was designed to prevent refugees return, to ‘dissolve’ the refugee situation and break up the collective identity of the refugees and their perceived militancy, to reduce both international humanitarian, UN and Western diplomatic pressure on Israel and remove a critical problem form the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While the desire among Israeli leaders to resettle the refugees in the Arab states or elsewhere, or, stated baldly, to be rid of the ‘Palestinian refugee problem,’ has remained a constant until the present day, the envisaged modalities of resettlement changed over the years according to circumstances.

Realistic assessments during the 1950s and in the aftermath of the June 1967 conquests necessitated strategies and practical planning that produced a series of specific resettlement plans, generally involving Arab states – such as pre-Qaddafi Libya, Jordan, El ‘Arish in Sinai (Egypt) – as well as the Jordan Valley in West Bank and various Latin American countries.

Although the Israeli resettlement schemes of the 1950s, late 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s ended in failure, they are significant in the sense of showing how successive Israeli government wanted to remove the Palestinian refugee problem from the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict and eliminate the possibility of refugee return in the future.

In theory the decade between October 1991 and January 2001, from the Madrid peace conference to the Israeli-Palestinian permanent status talks at Taba, Egypt, offered an opportunity to negotiate the Palestinian refugee issue with intensity not witnessed for four decades. In the post-Madrid period the refugee question was discussed in five major fora: (a) the Refugee Working Group of the Multilateral Track; (b) the Continuing or Quadripartite Committee; (c) the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles of September 1993; (d) the Palestinian-Israeli permanent status negotiations, especially the Camp David Summit of July 2000 and the Taba negotiations of January 2001.

In reality, however, Israeli refugee policy throughout this decade remained tied to its established position vis-à-vis the repatriation of the refugees. The classical Israeli refugee policies have remained unchanged throughout the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including the refusal to entertain any recognition of culpability of the Palestinian refugee problem or of moral and legal responsibility for the refugees. Indeed the politics of denial remained a main feature of the Oslo peace process – a process which important figures of labor Zionism interpreted as putting an end to refugee claims.

After the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, Israel reluctantly agreed to discuss the refugee question provided that the ‘right of return’ was not raised. Shortly after the Declaration of Principles was issues in September 1993, Israel agreed to discuss certain categories of the 1967refugees who might be allowed to return to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip within the restricted framework of family reunion. Subsequently, Israeli also reluctantly announced its willingness to process 2,000 applicants for family reunion annually.

However, the number of those awaiting family reunions – wives and children unable to live with their husbands and fathers – is estimated at 120,000. There are another estimated 100,000 persons who have been denied re-entry into the West Bank and Gaza on grounds of having stayed abroad for periods longer than the Israeli authorities permitted.

1. In practice, however, even within the perspective of family reunion little progress was made in recent peace talks on the 1967 refugees. There is also the question of the 300,000 people displaces by the 1967 war or expelled shortly after and their descendents.

Although consideration of their case for return is allowed in Article 12 of the Declaration of Principles, no progress has been made on this issue. In reality the Israeli refugee policy throughout the last decade remained strictly tied to its established position vis-à-vis the repatriation of the refugees. The classic Israeli refugee policies remained unchanged throughout the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including the refusal to entertain any recognition of culpability for the Palestinian refugee problem and to accept moral and legal responsibility for the refugees.

In contrast, during the same period Israel has shown a willingness, and huge capability, to absorb into its territory hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews.

The Palestinian ‘right of return’ is viewed by Israel’s current governing majority (led by General Ariel Sharon) as a strategic, existential problem that retains the capacity to change the nature of the state of Israel. The meaning of the Palestinian right of return, Sharon had noted during the Taba talks of January 2001, is the end of the state of Israel. He pointed out that as a child his parents had already taught him to distinguish between the rights over the Land of Israel, which belong exclusively to the Jewish people hazchuyot ;al Eretz Yisrael shehem bel adiyot le am hayehudi and between certain rights in the country which could be given to those residing here, including Arabs.

2. Sharon’s view on the right of return was endorsed by an evaluation of Israel’s military Intelligence that Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat ‘remains committed to the right of return and sees it as a key to turning the Jews into a religious minority’.

3. At the instigation of a Likud member, the Knesset [Israel’s Parliament], on 1 January 2001, enacted legislation echoing the November 1961 Knesset resolution, which categorically rejected the right of return.

4. The current debate in the Knesset, which rejected the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to their villages and towns, attests to its popularity across Israel’s political spectrum.

The Likud view of a solution to the refugee problem rests upon the rejection of three of its basic elements:

• no to a right of return;
• no to an assumption of Israeli responsibility for the problem;
• and no the repatriation of the 1948 refugees.

The previous Likud government (1996 - 1999) of Binyamin Netanyahu, in which Sharon served as Foreign Minister, did attempt to formulate a position on the refugee issue. The Netanyahu government’s views offer instructive guidance on the parameters of policy under Sharon’s direction, should the political environment require it. In March 1997 Netanyahu requested the preparation of what one participant in the effort describe as an ‘inventory of the final status issues’ including the issue of Palestinian refugees. The confidential ‘study’ addressed the nature of the problem, suggested guiding principles, offered a range of solutions, and articulated the three ‘red lines’ mentioned above.

Reiterating firmly established positions across the right wing of Israel’s political spectrum, Netanyahu’s associates raised the idea that Jordan (which many Likud leaders view as a ‘Palestinian state’) and Egypt should each bear responsibility for resettling Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. in October 1998, before the talks at Wye Plantation that centered on further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank, then Foreign Minister Sharon had developed an alternative diplomatic approach – based up an extended interim agreement – to negotiations with the Palestinians that included the establishment of a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza. In that context Sharon noted that Israel will consider the return of the 1967 refugees to the West Bank’.

5. In February 2001, shortly after his election as Prime Minister, Sharon told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Anzar that ‘Israel does not bear historical responsibility for the refugee problem and will not under any circumstances agree to their return to Israel’.

6. Sharon’s refusal to entertain any recognition of culpability for the Palestinian refugee problem runs deep among Israelis of all political persuasions.

A comprehensive, just and durable settlement will depend on bringing an end to the politics of denial and on addressing the refugee problem seriously. For decades the Palestinian right of return has been central to the Palestinians’’ struggle against dispossession and expulsion from their ancestral homeland and for national reconstitution.

Only by understanding the centrality of the nakba and expulsion that the Palestinian people suffered in 1948 is it possible to understand the Palestinians sense of the right of return. A durable peace in the Middle East is not possible against the desire and right of refugees to return home. The refugees and their descendents are currently demanding to be given a free choice between repatriation and/or compensation, in line with the international consensus enshrined in UN Resolution 194. The trauma of the 1948 catastrophe has remained central to the Palestinian society today (in the same way that the Holocaust has been central to Israeli and Jewish society). Today, the aspirations and hopes of millions of Palestinian refugees are linked to the 1948 catastrophe.

While a catastrophe of these dimensions can never be truly rectified, simple considerations of justice and reconciliation require that the refugees be given the right to return home. Any genuine reconciliation between the two peoples – peace between peoples as opposed to a political settlement achieved by leaders – could only begin by Israel and Israelis taking responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the displacement and dispossession of the refugees. Holocaust denial is abhorrent; in some European countries it is a crime. In the same way, acknowledging the Palestinian nakba and an official apology by Israel would be very helpful.

However, the wrong done to the Palestinians can only be righted, and the disasters ended, though a return to their homeland and restitution of property.

Israel's obligation to compensate Palestinian refugees for land and property formerly owned by them was codified in paragraph 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III) of 1949.

Resolution 194 affirms two types of compensation: for non-returnees and for damage to property.

7. The question of compensation for Palestinian refugee property in Israel did figure in the final status talks at Camp David and Taba. At Taba, Labor’s Yossi Beilin, in his private ‘Non-Paper,’ suggested: ‘Restitution he [the refugee] will not get, compensation he will’.

8. Beilin, while rejecting repatriation and ‘restitution’ of property, suggested a fund for compensating refugees should be established to which both the international community and Israel would be required to contribute. Palestinian spokespersons, on the other hand, have rejected the debate over compensation versus return as a false dichotomy and have been careful not to imply that compensation must be in lieu of implementation of the ‘right of return’ according to Resolution 194.

9. Rather, they view compensation as one of the options delineated by Resolution 194. Palestinians have emphasized compensation, reparations and indemnification: (a) compensation: moneys paid for lost refugee property in Israel; (b) reparations and indemnification: moneys paid in recognition of the historical injustice which created the refugee problem. Resolution 194 singled out compensation, proposing that ‘compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and or loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.

At least part of the strong Palestinian opposition to proposals put forward by Israeli officials during the final status negotiations in favor of dissolving UNRWA [the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees – the UN body overseeing humanitarian affairs for Palestinian refugees] and transferring its assets and responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority had to do with the Palestinian perception that UNRWA’s existence and registration system is the main international legal pillar supporting the claims of individual Palestinian refugees to return and to reclaim their properties in Israel. Although Palestinians have been reluctant to place a price tag on their historical injustice, Palestinian and Arab estimates of potential compensation/reparations have varied, although they are typically in the tens of billions of dollars.The sums of reparations are very large, according to the most authoritative recent estimate of property losses alone.

Depending on the criteria used, they range from $92 billion to $147 billion at 1984 prices, when the Hadawi-Kubursi study was done.

10. The Hadawi-Kubursi study defined refugee compensation in terms of repatriation, restitution of property and indemnification. Valuing Palestinian losses in today’s dollars by the inclusion of compensation for psychological damage and pain (following the Federal Republic of Germany’s compensation schemes to Jews), according to an updated recent study by Kubursi, would double the Hadawi-Kubursi 1984 figures.

11. Will the Palestinians refuges gain restitution? Will Israel ever atone for the nakba? Unlike other indigenous people, the Palestinian refugees received neither apology nor acknowledgement of responsibility for displacement, ethnic cleansing, massacres, home demolition and dispossession. Moreover the marginalization of international law and the corresponding ascendancy of the Israeli role, promoted and protected by the US’s global domination and virtual diplomatic monopoly, have combined to create a situation in which culpability for the Palestinian catastrophe is reassigned to the victim.

12. To expect Israel now (under Ariel Sharon) to acknowledge its wrongdoing in 1948 is a remote prospect. Yet such an acknowledgement remains a precondition for genuine renegotiations and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis and the achievement of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Under principles of international law and UN resolutions the refugee issue is resolvable. Israel must acknowledge its active role in creating the nakba and recognize the refugees’ ‘individual’ right to return to both their ‘homes’ and ‘homeland.’ For Israel, taking responsibility for the creation of the plight of the refugees also means acknowledging the justice of their claims for monetary compensation, restitution of property and repatriation.

With acknowledgement and international support, the refugee issue can be resolved on the basis of an historic compromise between Palestinians and Israelis. The Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of German of September 1952, which was designed to compensate victims of the Holocaust, could still serve as a model to compensate victims of the nakba.

Nur Masalha is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Holy Land Research Project at St.Mary's College, University of Surrey, UK. He is Editor of Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal.


1. McDowall, The Palestinians, pp. 148, 192, note no.3.
2. Cited by Nadav Shragai in Haaretz, 17 January 2002, 1b. Meron Benvinisti, ‘Zionist or Terrorist’, Haaretz.
3. January 2002, 1b.
4. The Knesset resolution of November 1961 states: ‘The Knesset resolves that the Arab refugees should not be returned to Israeli territory, and that the only solution to the problem is their resettlement in the Arab countries.’ See Simha Flapan, ‘The Knesset Votes on the Refugee Problem’, New Outlook 4, no.9 (December 1961), p.8.
5. ‘Akiva Eldar, ‘Tochnit Sharon-Ramon’, Haaretz, 13 March 2000, p.1b.
6. Aluf Ben and Netzan Hurowitz, in Haaretz, 13 March 2000, p.1b.
7. Terry Rempel, ‘The Ottowa Process: Workshop on Compensation and Palestinian Refugees’, Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no.1 (Autumn 1991), p.38.
8. ‘Akiva Eldar, ‘The Refugee Problem at Taba (interview with Yossi Beilin and Nabil Sha’ath’, Palestine-Israel Journal 9, no.2 (2002), p.16.
9. Tamari, Palestinian Refugee Negotiations, p.38.
10. Sami Hadawi and Atef Kubursi, Palestinian Rights and Losses in 1948: A Comprehensive Study (London: Saqi Books, 1988), p.183.
11. Atef Kubursi, ‘Valuing Palestinian Losses in Today’s Dollars’, in Naseer Aruri (ed.), Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return (London: Pluto Press, 2001), pp.217-51.
12. Naseer Aruri, ‘Will Israel Ever Atone? Will the Palestinians Gain Restitutions?’at: [link to www.tari.org] (accessed on 28 December 2002).
13. Ronald W. Zweig, ‘Restitution of Property and Refugee Rahabilitation: Two Case Studies’, Journal of Refugee Studies 6, no.1 (1993), p.61.

[link to www.methuselahproject.net]