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The Palestinian refugees and the 'monologue of the century'

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24.06.2019

In 1948, about 450 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground by Israeli forces and about 770,000 people - including about 20,000 Jews expelled by Arab militias from Hebron, Jerusalem, Jenin, and Gaza - were evicted in a matter of few days and then forcibly denied the return. Some of them fled out of fear, often after witnessing the tragic fate of their relatives and friends.

A case in point is the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the towns of Lydda and Ramle in July 1948, which accounted for one-tenth of the overall Arab-Palestinian exodus. Most among the 50,000-70,000 Palestinians that were expelled from the two cities did so following an official expulsion order signed by the then commander of the Harel Brigade, Yitzhak Rabin: "The inhabitants of Lydda", Rabin clarified, "must be expelled quickly without attention to age". Several hundreds of them died during the exodus from exhaustion and dehydration.

Over 70 years later, it is becoming increasingly common to come across analogies between Palestinian refugees such as the ones from Lydda and Ramle, and the "simultaneous uprooting" of Jews living in Arab countries. Israel's Deputy Minister of Finance Yitzhak Cohen, for example, has said that: "The uprooted Jews' problem is equal to, if not greater than, the Palestinian refugees' problem."

The analogy, which aims primarily to remove the issue of the Palestinian refugees from any future peace negotiations, is usually presented in the following terms: Due to "the Arab rejection" of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, a conflict erupted and 770,000 Palestinians "fled" what is today Israel"; at the same time some 800,000 Jews living in Arab countries faced "mass displacement"; hence, there was a "population exchange" between "Arab and Jewish refugees". Palestinians should then accept this "reciprocity" and renounce to their demands for return and/or compensation.

But this attempted moral equivalence is a misleading one. Palestinians and Jews fled their homes in different contexts and the former cannot be blamed for the fate of the latter. The complex history of the Palestinian refugees should not be reduced to a simple analogy with no evidentiary basis.

A plethora of observers and scholars have linked the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem, and more generally the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict, to "the Arab rejection" of the 1947's UN partition for Palestine. While on the surface this claim may appear to make sense, the reality of who rejected what in the 1940s is more complicated than that.

Indeed, as the late Israeli journalist and activist Uri Avnery has noted, if Palestinians "had been asked, they would probably have rejected partition, since - in their view - it gave a large part of their historical homeland to foreigners". The more so, he noted, "since the Jews, who at the time constituted a third of the population, were allotted 55% of the territory - and even there the Arabs constituted 40% of the population".

But from the perspective of the Arab Palestinians, who at the turn of the century constituted about 90 percent of the population, 1947-48 did not mark the beginning of the struggle, but coincided instead with the final chapter of a war which started with Jewish settlers adopting policies and strategies of rejectionism in the early 20th century.

The beginning of the conflict can be traced back to 1907, when the Eighth Zionist Congress created a "Palestine Office" in Jaffa, under the direction of Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, whose main objective was - in his own words - "the creation of a Jewish milieu and of a closed Jewish economy, in which producers, consumers and middlemen shall all be Jewish". Indeed, "rejectionism" featured very prominently in Ruppin's mindset.

The goal of a "closed Jewish economy" was partially implemented from 1904 on by the leaders of the second and third........

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