A Palestinian Return to Nowhere

By Cole, Leonard A. | Midstream, September-October 2001 | Go to article overview

A Palestinian Return to Nowhere


Cole, Leonard A., Midstream


The drumbeat of publicity that began last year about a "right of return" by Palestinian refugees to Israel recalls an experience of a friend whose father fled Nazi Germany. On a summer afternoon in 1982, Marie Abrams stood with her father outside his childhood home in Merchingen, a dot of a village in southwest Germany. He had not seen the house since the 1930s when his family managed to escape Hitler. Now, more than four decades later, his American-born daughter and grandchildren returned with him to see where he grew up. Could they go inside? he asked the woman of the house who had just listened to his explanation. "Nein," she responded curtly. Disappointed, Marie and her family repaired to the Jewish cemetery at the edge of town. There they found the gravestones of Marie's great grandparents and others who had dwelt in Merchingen back to the 18th century.

It never occurred to Marie or her father that they were entitled to enter, let alone to reclaim, the house. And that is because, despite the harsh reasons for the departure, no such right existed. The passing years had created new realities, new owners. Yet this "right" is precisely what Palestinian refugees and their descendants are claiming. A half-century ago, most of the 750,000 refugees moved to camps outside Israel where many of their descendants, estimated at some 3 million, still reside. Now they want to reoccupy locations in Israel that were abandoned during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

Israel, with a population of five million Jews and one million Arabs, will never permit an influx of Palestinians, for that would threaten its existence as a Jewish state. Yet last year, during negotiations toward a peace agreement with Israel, Palestinian leaders began insisting on just that right. Given the wave of violence begun by the Palestinians in September, an agreement seems distant in any case. But even if the shooting stopped, Palestinian insistence on an option to "return" will sink chances for an agreement altogether. In fact, neither history, law, nor common sense support the Palestinian demand.

Historical Precedence

Israel was born in the wake of the 1947 United Nations General Assembly decision to partition the British-governed mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The two-state solution was intended to end the running conflict between the resident Jewish and Arab populations.The Jews accepted the partition plan, but the Palestinian Arabs rejected it and began violent assaults against Jewish quarters in Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities. After Israel declared independence in May 1948, the armies of five Arab countries attacked. But they were unable to destroy the Jewish state, and, in 1949, the surrounding countries agreed to an armistice. Arabs who had remained in Israel became Israeli citizens, and those who left ended up in camps beyond Israel's border. Had the Arabs not initiated the fighting, there would have been no war and no Arab refugees.

Some of the refugees fled just to escape the shooting, as people do everywhere during violent conflicts. Some departed because of pressure from Israeli forces. But vast numbers fled in response to the urging of Arab leaders. According to the London Economist of 2 October 1948: "There is little doubt that the most potent of the factors [in the flight] were the announcements made over the air by the Arab Higher Executive urging all Arabs in Haifa to quit.... And it was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades." From the Jordanian newspaper, Felastin, 19 February 1949: "The Arab states ... encouraged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies." British historian Efraim Karsh more recently has cited evidence that desertion by Arab elites prompted a "stampede effect on the middle classes and the peasantry." (Commentary, May 2001, p. …

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