This is an opportune moment to solve the Palestinian refugee problem

Hossam Shaker

It seems that this is the opportune moment to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. The timely moment has arrived, despite the smoke rising in the region. It sounds illogical, but everyone is talking about the Gaza Strip, which has captured the world’s attention, so much so that this tiny piece of land has diverted people from the brutal war in Ukraine, the competition between the US and China, and the situation in the Sahel and Sahara countries.

Most of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the population of which is 2.3 million, are refugees whose families were displaced from their land and homes in 1948 by the nascent occupation state of Israel. Children and their mothers make up two-thirds of the population.

It is obvious from recent events that the Israeli leadership has a strong desire to clear the Gaza Strip completely and displace the population in its lust for revenge. The most fitting description of this, whether the Israeli army succeeds in doing so or not, is ethnic cleansing; any other term is both inaccurate and unjust. We have already seen Israeli officials and others close to the Netanyahu government announce moves to forcibly displace residents from northern and central Gaza to the south, in preparation for pushing them across the Egyptian border to get lost in the Sinai desert.

Egypt responded to these Israeli efforts with a firm rejection, and was supported by Arab countries, including Jordan, which understood that the displacement of the Palestinians from the occupied West Bank would be the next step if the displacement to the Sinai was allowed. We know that Israeli officials, including fascist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, developed an ethnic cleansing plan for the West Bank years ago.

Although Arab governments oppose the expulsion of Palestinians to Sinai, on 18 October Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, in the presence of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, proposed an alternative if the Israeli leadership insists on emptying Gaza of its people. Move them to the Negev Desert, which is controlled by Israel, said Al-Sisi. He presented Western leaders with a strong argument in support of Cairo’s position, pointing out that the displacement of Palestinian refugees to Sinai will also move the Palestinian resistance there and new attacks will be launched towards Israeli targets across a wider area. That, in turn, will push the Israeli army to respond inside Egyptian territory, effectively ending the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

So, what can be done for the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip? There are five possible options in this regard; if they are all rejected, their fate will inevitably be terrifying.

Displacement to Sinai is clearly the first option, and that has already been rejected by Egypt and the Arab governments. Israeli targets will still be threatened across the extended Egyptian border and the move will create a comfort zone for Palestinian resistance, with or without Hamas. Sinai’s geostrategic advantages will provide ample mobility capabilities, open coastlines, and unprecedented opportunities for anyone who wants to damage Israeli interests and undermine peace with Egypt.

Failing this, the second option is Al-Sisi’s proposal: the Negev. Israel is ignoring this already, so it is probably a non-starter.

Another option is for Europe to “think outside the box” and enable the Israeli leadership to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip by opening its doors to Palestinian refugees and grant them European passports. There would be no need for the refugees to make the dangerous crossing to Europe in flimsy boats, and it would in any case be immoral and illogical to then gather them in concentration camps on the fringe of the EU. Moreover, according to European calculations, it would not be easy to achieve a “fair distribution” of Palestinian refugees among the union’s 27 member states.

Given that a European crime — the Nazi Holocaust — has been used to justify the theft of Palestine for the state of Israel, land in Europe is fair compensation for the Palestinian refugees

Serious thought will have to be given within EU decision-making circles about how to absorb 2.3 million Palestinians from Gaza, with approximately the same number joining them from the Palestinian refugee communities who live in extremely miserable conditions in the various refugee camps elsewhere. This would mean having to allocate part of Europe for the accommodation of up to five million Palestinian refugees with full citizenship rights and decent conditions. There are already around 667,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Europe, some of whom may choose to move to the “European Palestinian territory”. This would require the evacuation of the equivalent of ten European cities to accommodate such a number and deal with the consequences of Israel’s ethnic cleansing mission in the Gaza Strip, which is openly supported by the US and EU. It is logical, therefore, that the European leaders most keen in their support of Israel would volunteer to help it get rid of what one Israeli minister shamelessly called “human animals” by allocating a territory as large as Czechia, Hungary or three German states exclusively for the refugees. Given that a European crime — the Nazi Holocaust — has been used to justify the theft of Palestine for the state of Israel, this seems only fair compensation for the Palestinians.

A variation of that third option could be the allocation of an archipelago of Greek islands for this purpose, with the islanders having the right to hold a popular referendum on independence afterwards in order to raise their flag over the “Second People’s Democratic Republic of Palestine” as they are very stubborn and do not want an alternative to their original homeland. From this Palestinian reality, an army will be formed from the densely populated islands, and within a few years it will be a potential qualitative addition to NATO, so that Russian overtures to join its axis can be rebuffed. However, the Palestinians in this “second republic of Palestine” will not hesitate to intervene militarily to force the Israeli authorities to end the occupation of the first homeland and abolish the apartheid regime imposed on the rest of their people; and they may lure NATO with unexpected grace into a military confrontation with the occupation state.

It must be pointed out that all of the above options are against international law and humanitarian conventions, and would ignore the voice of the Palestinian refugees themselves, which is not being heard in the ongoing deliberations regarding their fate post-ethnic cleansing. Everyone seems to want to decide the fate of the Palestinian people without listening to their what they want, and to impose a specific “solution” by threatening them with bombing, and using water, food, medicine, fuel and the basic necessities of life as bargaining chips.

The Palestinian refugees in Gaza have two realistic options. They can refuse to be displaced yet again and commit themselves to staying in the Gaza Strip no matter how difficult it is, and at what cost. However, this option requires an immediate end to the ethnic cleansing campaign and serious efforts to make what remains of Gaza’s cities, towns and villages liveable. Israel must put a stop to its bombing which has turned residential areas into piles of rubble within days.

It is important to remember that the UN announced in 2012 that the Gaza Strip would be “unliveable” by 2020. This gives us an idea of the catastrophe that the people are facing with yet another round of war and destruction being wreaked on already terrible conditions. The opportunity for this option to remain possible is eroding daily, given the scale of the Israeli army’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure. Those who wish to keep this option open must act urgently to put an end to this war.

The most realistic and sustainable option, and an ideal solution compared with the other options, complies with international law and UN General Assembly Resolution 194 dated 11 December, 1948, which requires the return of Palestinian refugees to their land and homes from which they were displaced by the creation of the state of Israel. This resolution is still on the books; it just hasn’t been implemented. The Israeli leadership must be convinced of the feasibility of complying with the resolution, and now is an opportune moment to do so. It may require a slick US public relations company to convince the Israeli public of the advantages of this option and how it opens up a window of hope at an exhausting and distressing time for everyone. Those Israelis who cannot bear the thought of having Palestinians living alongside them always have the option of moving back to their own place of origin or other Israel-friendly countries.

The right to return to their homes and land is enshrined in law for all refugees, not just the Palestinians. If we ask the children traumatised by the brutal bombing in the Gaza Strip today where they are from, most will know the name of their family’s original city, town or village. It is in their DNA, and they will insist on returning there. It is not an unrealistic option as far as they are concerned. If Israel is able to accommodate an apparently endless number of Jewish immigrants, why can’t it accommodate Palestinians born and raised in the land and their descendants?

The legitimate right of return for all Palestinian refugees is an individual right, and cannot be negotiated away by governments or authorities; nor is it subject to a statute of limitations. It is untouchable for the Palestinian people, and their insistence on fulfilling that right has increased generation after generation, to the point that refugees in Gaza organised major peaceful marches in 2018 for several months, demanding to cross through the Israeli barriers separating them from their land and homes in what is now the occupation state. The Israeli army killed hundreds of unarmed demonstrators and inflicted life-changing injuries on many others.

Distinguished cartographer Dr Salman Abu Sitta has produced a well-known book on this matter, along with a map listing the accurate locations, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, of the depopulated towns and villages. The map is popular among Israeli experts. Of course, the return of Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip and elsewhere requires the annulment of discriminatory legislation so that they do not become a persecuted community in the country of their ancestors.

This option, of course, will not appeal to the reckless current Israeli leadership, but its only realistic alternative is to stop the war immediately — today rather than tomorrow — and end the systematic destruction of the Gaza Strip. One of Israel’s Western “friends” must whisper in Netanyahu’s ear that the displacement of the Palestinians in the Sinai desert will lead to the appearance of a Palestinian David who will fire his sling across the border, at which point the events of 7 October will be a relatively minor incident compared with what will happen.

If all of these options are rejected, then the annihilation of 2.3 million people in Gaza will follow, two-thirds of whom are women and children.

Today, they are thirsty, hungry and sick, crammed into a miserable detention centre that smells of corpses crushed under the rubble. They face collective punishment of the worst kind, with high explosives raining down on them under the pretext that they are “human shields”. The world will reflect on the injustice of what is happening too late to save the Palestinians in Gaza, and then build monuments to remember the victims of the horrific genocide; weep at the memory of the horrifying number of victims on Gaza Genocide Memorial Day every year; and ask forgiveness from the remnants of the Palestinian nation who have been failed by the world, while teaching future generations about this tragic lesson in the hope that “never again” will actually mean something for once.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

(Source: MEMO)