Adi Schwartz

End this Gazan war of ‘return’ and focus on building a future Palestinian state

True peace only becomes possible if Palestinians stop dreaming of their neighbour's destruction

July 26, 2018 17:49

“No-one washes a rental car”, quipped Professor Larry Summers. This pithy phrase captures the deep truth that people are far more likely to devote resources and efforts to places and things over which they have a sense of ownership and consider relatively permanent.

This is the story of Gaza, too. The vast majority of the 1.8 million people who inhabit the territory do not see it as their home; they consider their residence temporary. The permanent home they have in mind is the envisioned Arab Palestine “from the River [Jordan] to the [Mediterranean] Sea”, where Israel currently also exists.

This attitude towards a place of residence as merely temporary, even after 70 years, is sustained by the international community, including Britain. Of the 1.8 million in the Gaza strip, 1.3 million are registered as refugees with UNRWA — the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Yet the vast majority were born in Gaza and have lived there all their lives. Almost none has been displaced into Gaza as a result of war.

Moreover, the territory is broadly recognised as Palestinian; Israel makes no territorial claim. Gaza’s residents are also registered as Palestinian Authority citizens, meaning over 70 per cent of residents, despite having never been displaced and despite living in Palestine, receive a UN recognised status as being refugees from Palestine.

The reason for this anomaly is that the Palestinians, alone among the world’s refugee populations, have been allowed to maintain the status of refugees from a war that ended in 1949. UNRWA was established to provide immediate assistance to both Jews and Arabs displaced by the fighting. The displaced Jews became citizens of Israel and hence ended their temporary status. The displaced Arabs, however, did not accept the war’s outcome and continued believing that Israel would be temporary until the day it would be destroyed.

That belief gave birth to a demand, sustained for the next 70 years by UNRWA and funded to the tune of tens of billions of dollars by the West (including hundreds of millions from the UK), that the Arabs displaced by the war and their descendants in perpetuity have a “right to return” to Israel, even as they continue to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty in any part of the land.

Both the Palestinian demand for return and the refusal at all costs to rehabilitate the refugees were intended to ensure that, even after its establishment, Israel would not know a single day of quiet and would live under the dark cloud of its assumed temporary existence.

The Palestinians have not been fighting for a state of their own, which they could have achieved on at least three occasions in 1947, 2000 or 2008. Neither have they been fighting for an end of the occupation of the West Bank; nor for an end to the maritime blockade in Gaza, which could happen tomorrow if Hamas were to accept the basic conditions of recognition of Israel, acceptance of previously signed agreements, and disarmament.

This war has always been about Israel’s very existence: for the Palestinian Arabs, the Jewish State is an abnormal entity in an Arab and Muslim space and its days are numbered.

This is the war that needs to come to an end if Gaza is to be successfully developed and peace achieved. The willingness of Palestinians to invest a real effort in building a political and economic future will only come when it is absolutely clear that Israel is here to stay, that there will be no resettlement of Arabs into Israel within the Green Line, and that no Arab Palestine will supersede Israel.

He who believes that Gaza is not his home will fully justify the use of cement to build not permanent housing, but tunnels to violently seize his “real” home. He who believes Gaza is a temporary residence until Israel is undone will be inspired to violently storm the border in the name of the “March for Return”.

This 70-year war is likely to end sooner rather than later if the Palestinians understand that they are isolated in their demand to “return”. Dismantling UNRWA as a political organisation devoted to a “return” while transferring its educational and welfare functions to other platforms not wedded to this demand, is a necessary step in this process.

It is then, when Palestinians begin to turn their energies into building a future of their own instead of dreaming of the destruction of a neighbouring state, that the money flowing to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip will bring about real, sustainable and positive change. True peace will then become possible.

Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf’s book “The War for Return” was recently published in Hebrew by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan

July 26, 2018 17:49

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