SIXTY-THREE years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria. He took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees. Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights. That child’s story, like that of so many other Palestinians, is mine.
So wrote Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, in a 2011 New York Times op-ed. That vignette may seem a strange way to motivate an article—the story of refugees from what’s now 65 years ago?—but for Palestinians and their allies, it remains a live issue. For them, any meaningful discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict must address the fate of refugees. Unless Palestinian refugees are granted their alleged “right of return,” they insist, there can be no peace.
In the intricate, sometimes convoluted history of the Arab-Israel conflict, the “right of return”/refugee issue is just one thread. But it is a particularly revealing one. Explore it, and you can learn a great deal about the nature of the broader conflict and some of the reasons it has come to seem irresolvable.
A terrific resource on the subject is Efraim Karsh’s most recent book, Palestine Betrayed. In the latest episode of the podcast, I interviewed Prof. Karsh about his book.
We cover a lot of historical ground, and listeners keen to understand the Arab-Israel conflict will learn a lot about the backstory of the refugee crisis, what gave rise to it, and how the refugees’ plight has figured in the continuing conflict. We move from that backstory to more recent developments such as the notorious Oslo “peace process,” rolled out in 1993 and memorialized in an iconic photo-op on the White House lawn. That incongruous tableau featured Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with arch terrorist Yasser Arafat, with President Clinton looking on with delight.
One point I found particularly arresting in the interview has to do with that famous handshake and the ennobling of Arafat as some sort of statesman. Many at the time wanted to believe that Arafat, a pioneer of international terrorism, had abandoned the violent goal of subverting Israel and become a peace-maker. To Western audiences—notably at that ceremony on the White House lawn—Arafat portrayed himself a lover of peace. But Prof. Karsh has documented that Arafat was playing a double game. One example: He had pre-recorded a speech, broadcast that same day on Jordanian radio for Palestinian listeners, in which he explains the peace accord as a new, incrementalist tactic serving the same long-held goal that terrorism had served: not to achieve peaceful co-existence, but to conquer and supplant Israel.
A sample of some other illuminating points that come out in the interview:
- The timeline of key developments from the British Mandate in Palestine to the UN partition plan of 1947, and the ensuing war
- The improved standard of living and economic development of Palestine following the arrival of Jewish settlers, especially benefiting Arab inhabitants of the area
- How the invasion by nearby Arab regimes of the nascent Israeli state in the 1947-8 war had little to do with aiding Palestinians—and a lot to do with the regimes’ self-aggrandizing lust for conquest.
- Why the “right of return”/refugee problem persists, how it is magnified by Arab regimes, and how the “right of return” is understood by some as a means of dissolving the state of Israel.
image: public domain