Wise leaders in Jerusalem and Washington were given a great deal of very useful information yesterday in Israel when a popular action led to hundreds of Palestinian refugees crossing the border into Israel, leading to the deaths of ten of them.
But it’s worthwhile for us to learn those lessons, and maybe with enough effort, we can get a message through.
1. This was a popular action
The Israeli government was quick to try to score political points from the Nakba Day tragedies by concocting a conspiracy theory involving Iran and Syria. Sadly, Barack Obama’s administration followed its recent trend of ceding all leadership to the Netanyahu government and almost immediately followed the Israeli lead.
The problem is this, more than most conspiracy theories, is demonstrably wrong.
Organizing for this action began months ago. I was seeing calls about it on Facebook and on e-mail lists well before the Arab Spring began. Syria, much less Iran, had nothing to do with it, nor was their involvement in any way needed.
On the contrary, while Syrian President Bashar Assad might have welcomed a chance for the world to put Israel once again in the position of being the one killing civilians, he is not anxious to see more popular organizing, least of all among the Palestinian refugees in Syria.
As Oklahoma University professor and Syria expert Joshua Landis told my colleague Ali Gharib at ThinkProgress. “They’ve all had the same response to people who have protested to demand justice and human dignity: They’re blaming it on foreign governments and infiltrators.”
2. Peace pays dividends for Israel
Both Jordan and Egypt went to great lengths (some would say too far) to protect Israel’s border and embassy, respectively. The same was true for Palestinian security on the West Bank. The Syrians looked the other way as refugees ran into the Golan Heights, Hamas had no interest in stopping them and the inability for Israel and Lebanon to communicate led to the killings along that border, whoever is to blame. Each of those governments have different relationships with Israel and have different issues to contend with regarding refugees. Understanding those diversities is key to dealing with the larger conflict. But the greater the relationship, the greater the potential for cooperation; that should be obvious. Israel cannot continue to count on Egypt especially but Jordan as well to anger their own people in its defense.
3. We all have to stop kidding ourselves about the refugee issue
The entire Oslo process was based on dealing with the fallout of the war of 1967. For the Palestinian masses, the conflict is based on the results of 1948.
I see no reason to think there will ever be a significant return of refugees to Israel proper. And I have also said that I disagree with the popular Palestinian interpretation of international law on this matter. I do not support the political movement based on the “right of return.”
But it is not only foolish but reckless to ignore the fact that the refugee issue is at the very heart of Palestinian nationalism.
Israel doesn’t want to deal with reality on this issue. That reality is that, whatever arguments people want to make about whether the Palestinians were driven out (a great many were) or simply fled (a great many did that too), they unquestionably left as a result of the war that started in 1947 and Israel completely barred their return thereafter.
Israel therefore bears an enormous moral burden here, and it needs to deal with that. It’s refusal to do so is what yesterday’s actions were about.
4. 1948 was not only the birth of Israel
“It is important to point out that these events are taking place on a day which marks the establishment of the State of Israel,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, making the case that these actions were all about “destroying Israel.” In fact, they were about a 63-year old refugee crisis.
Netanyahu and his all too vast cadre of apologists will point out that the refugees have been kept in camps, in part because they are determined to return and in part because many of the countries they have lived in for the past six decades do not want them to fully assimilate into their societies for a variety of reasons.
And those things are true, but they don’t change the essential reality of Palestinian dispossession, and they don’t relieve Israel of its responsibility for that dispossession. It was the direct result of Israel’s creation and Israel will never have a normal existence until it faces that reality and deals with it honestly. The “we are about to be destroyed” rhetoric that all Israeli political leaders since Ben-Gurion have fed on is meant to avoid that reality.
Once again, this was about the Palestinians’ experience, not about destroying Israel. It is in the minds of too many Israelis and their lock-step supporters abroad but only a minority of Palestinian extremists that those two have to be one and the same.
5. The Golan Heights is not recognized internationally as Israel
The demonstrators who flooded the Golan Heights were not threatening the “sovereignty” of Israel, as Netanyahu and others have droned repeatedly. The Golan was annexed by Israel illegally thirty years ago and no one, including the United States, recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the area. That’s where the activists from Syria came running into and that was as far as most of them went. That’s not Israel and if there ever is a comprehensive peace deal, as unlikely a prospect as that seems to be right now, it will not be Israel.
Ultimately, this entire, ugly episode for Israel could have been an object lesson about the issues it is really confronting. Instead, the Israeli and American governments continue to pander to extremists, peddle nonsensical stories to explain their difficult circumstances and deny their own roles in getting us to the sad state we are in today. Acknowledging those roles does not mean they are the only ones at fault, but they seem to see it that way.
Who needs Iran, Hamas, or those activists who believe that only Israel’s ending can bring about peace? Leaders like Netanyahu and “friends” like the US Congress are doing a far better job of cornering Israel, cutting off its options and limiting its future than Iran ever could.