No right to return


Tragedy of the Middle East, or more precisely the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, continues through yet another escalation of deadly violence, with hundreds of lives lost and more hatred added to the already impressive stores throughout the region and beyond. The only reasonable and practicable solution are two sovereign states, which recognise each other’s right to exist unmolested, with the Palestinian one to be composed of Gaza, West Bank and some territorial compensation by Israel for the Jewish settlements within West Bank.

The first obstacle to this two-state solution remains the refusal of many on the Palestinian side, including Hamas (which advocates “liberation of all of Palestine”) to countenance the Jewish state as the permanent reality in the region.

The second obstacle, even for the more “moderate” Fatah movement in charge of West Bank, which has been more open to acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, is the so called “Palestinian right to return” – the political claim that Arabs who used to live within the 1948 newly created borders of Israel – and who either left or were expelled during the Jewish-Arab war of the same year – as well as their descendants are entitled to return and reclaim their property. As only a few Palestinians are still alive who were children or young in 1948, we are talking largely about 1-2 million of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (there are several million other Palestinians with origin in Gaza and West Bank who do not currently reside in these areas).

This is an unrealistic proposition, first and foremost because no state can be expected to accept a large influx of new residents and citizens who by and large despise the state in question and majority of its inhabitants. Such mass migration would double the Arab population of Israel, affecting the ethnic and political balance in Jewish disfavour not only in the short term but also increasingly into the future, bearing in mind a significantly higher birth rate among Palestinian Arabs than among Israeli Jews. If not a national suicide, the Palestinian right to return would creative massive additional problems and social, economic, religious and political tensions in Israel.

It might be a regrettable fact of geopolitics but ethnic cleansing works for longer term peace and stability. Between 1944 and 1946 close to 20 million people across Europe were forced to leave areas where their ancestors had lived for centuries and seek new homes in nation states controlled by their respective ethnic groups. The great majority of that number were Germans escaping or expelled from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe, followed by millions of Poles forcibly relocated from Lithuania, western Belarus and western Ukraine, and lesser numbers of other nationalities, including Ukrainians expelled from Poland, Hungarians from Slovakia, and others. The region, which for centuries had been a multi-ethnic tapestry of ethnicities and religious creeds, as a result of this greatest movement of peoples in history has become a checkboard of mon-ethnically nation states. As tragic as the circumstances leading to that point were, this enforced homogeneity has been one of the major factors that guaranteed the internal stability and lack of interstate conflict not just during the Cold War, when the Soviet boot on everyone’s throat kept peace throughout the region, but more importantly in the three decades after (where that homogeneity did not exist, such as in the former Yugoslavia, it again was achieved by force and bloodshed, except fifty years later). The largely prosperous, peaceful and successful history of the Central Europe post-1989 would have been less so had the region’s countries had to deal with large and restive ethnic minorities.

Needless to say, none of the European countries recognise a right of return for their former minorities – not Poland for the East Prussian, Silesian or Pomeranian Germans, not Ukraine for the Polesie, Wolyn (Volhynnia) and Lwow (Lviv) Poles, not for that matter the Czech Republic for the Sudetenland Germans or Russia for the Volga ones. As it happens, neither my family nor the tens of thousands of others of similar background are clamouring to permanently regain our place in the lands of our forefathers (the area, which in my case, extends through three different, now sovereign states to the east and north-east of Poland). But had that been the case, the answer would be a resounding “nope”, just as it had been in the past to the once-vocal pressure group of German expellees. What’s done is done; it had been neither nice (being infinitely bloodier than anything in the Israeli-Palestinian history) nor fair, but we have all moved on and made new lives elsewhere.

The failure of the Palestinian “refugees” to do likewise over the past eight decades has been one of the biggest unresolved problems and obstacles to achieving peace in the region. Instead of offering their Arab brothers and sisters new homes and a new start, Israel’s Arab neighbours had kept the refugee issue alive as an ongoing thorn in Israel’s side, being committed, as the cynical saying went, to fight the Zionist Entity to the last Palestinian. In the last two or three decades, with the prospects of some sort of an accord increasing (albeit from a very low starting point), the continuing existence of “Palestinian refugee camps” has become an anachronism and an embarrassment, more pointed for now being pointless. None of the Arab countries will use Palestinians any more in their geo-political games against the Jewish state, but none will try to solve the issue they partly helped to create (through their numerous, unsuccessful, wars against Israel, which generated all this sad and desperate human flotsam and jetsam) and in whole perpetuated ever after. Putting aside the Palestinian refugees from the Israel proper, residing now for decades in West Bank and Gaza, virtually all other Palestinians in the Middle East, and there are close to five million of them, are still stateless.

It’s time enough for peace in the Middle East, but if and when it comes it will be accompanied by a trickle, not a flood of humanity washing across borders. The adults across the region understand this and should be able to say it aloud. The Palestinian people, who have suffered much over the years (even if partly self-inflicted), deserve to be told straight where they stand, what’s possible and what’s not. Those who kept them stateless can’t keep them clueless any longer; the least they owe the Palestinians is a dose of reality. The peace will come only when old fantasies too many still cling to finally die.

Photo by Ahmed Abu Hameeda on Unsplash