The return of old formulas

Submitted by AWL on 8 May, 2019 - 10:28 Author: Martin Thomas

More debate on the right of return here.

There are about 13 million Palestinians across the world. They do not have a state of their own. They are disadvantaged in all the countries where they are mainly concentrated, though in different ways from country to country.

About 2.9 million live in the West Bank, mostly in over 160 patches of land where the Palestinian Authority has limited autonomous powers of administration (mostly to hand out foreign aid money and jobs), but which are hemmed in and dominated by a surrounding Israeli military presence. About 2 million are in Gaza, which is nominally independent, but pauperised by being blockaded by and dependent for all basic supplies on Israel (and Egypt). About 3.2 million are in Jordan, and 1.9 million in Israel; in both those countries they are disadvantaged.[1]

The statistics indicate about 500,000 in Lebanon and about 500,000 in Syria. A large number of those from Syria will have fled from the civil war there to Lebanon or Jordan. Most of those in Lebanon and Syria are in official or unofficial refugee camps. In Lebanon they are denied access to public services and to many categories of jobs; in Syria they are denied citizenship. The other 2 million are scattered across many countries, with the largest groups in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; the USA; and Latin America, especially Chile.

For every oppressed nation, the first democratic remedy is national self-determination: the right to form an independent state. The compact core of the Palestinian population is in the West Bank and Gaza, where almost 90% of the population is Palestinian. An independent Palestinian state there would allow real self-rule and enable all the scattered Palestinians to have a citizenship to refer to and a "homeland" to return to if they wish. Its creation would be a lever to help the Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel win equal rights. It would also improve the economic prospects of the people.

A thorough transformation of those prospects requires a socialist federation of the region, capable of sharing the immense natural riches now confiscated by a few. To make a socialist federation requires a working class united across borders. And that requires both a common democratic policy of mutually-recognised rights, and a framework at least minimally able to allow industrial and working-class development.

Bit by bit from the 1970s - and decisively since the first mass mobilisation of the Palestinians, in the West Bank and Gaza in 1987-8 - the democratic programme of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel ("two nations, two states") was moved from being a way-out proposal of the Palestinian and Israeli left to being the subject of diplomatic negotiations. To being a "consensus" – in words. Not in facts. In the early 1990s a precarious path to "two states" looked open. An upsurge of right-wing chauvinist forces both in Israel and among the Palestinians, and the force of inertia, blocked it. Any development other than a worsening of the impasse will require big political shifts to make it happen.

"Two states" requires political shifts which are possible, and could then facilitate further shifts. If we have no confidence in the underlying (for now submerged) strength of the desire of the working people on all sides for peace, democracy, mutual respect, then the shifts look impossible. And old formulas revive.

The "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" agitation claims that it "does not advocate for a particular solution to the conflict"; but actually makes its main distinctive demand the "right to return" of "more than 7.25 million Palestinian refugees" to what is now Israel. Hamas has organised demonstrations in Gaza for more than a year now under the title "Great March of Return". The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which in the past has organised demonstrations round specific demands (e.g. against Israeli bombing of Gaza) or generic slogans like "Free Palestine", has called its next protest on 11 May on the slogan "Exist! Resist! Return!", and to chime in with Hamas's mobilisations in Gaza.

The demand to "return" to some better or supposedly better past condition cannot make good the bad turns of history. Not in the world, not in Israel-Palestine. The Holocaust, the closing of doors to Jewish refugees from the Nazis, and 1940s antisemitism in Europe, cannot be undone. The crimes and misdeeds of the Jewish forces in the wars of 1947-9 cannot be undone. Nor can the crimes and misdeeds of the Arab forces in those wars. Nor can the pushing-out of 600,000 or more Jews from other Middle Eastern countries after 1948. Progress is possible only by finding a basis to move forward in solidarity and mutual respect among living people, now, without each trying to find redress for the sufferings of their grandparents.

Back in the early 1950s, "right of return" meant the return to their actual homes and land of people who had recently fled or been driven out in the wars of 1947-9. Most of the Palestinians then were peasants. History would have gone better if there had been a peace deal between Israel and the Arab states then, including return of refugees. It didn't happen. Time has moved on. Seventy years. Now "return" means the movement of the refugees' grandchildren, ten times as numerous, highly urbanised, few of them peasants, into an Israel whose population is also ten times what it was in 1948, and where only 2.3% of GDP is agricultural. That couldn't possibly restore the conditions of pre-1947, even if that were desirable. It surely doesn't express a preference that this or that Palestinian might have to live in a majority-Jewish society rather than a majority-Arab one. It is a coded form of the demand to stop Israel existing as the mainly-Jewish society it is - to overrun it, in fact to displace most of its population, among whom those who trace their origins to Arab and other Asian and African countries from where their families were pushed out after 1948 are more numerous than those descended from the Jews active in the 1947-9 wars. It won't happen.

If, through some twist of world politics, it could - then only through a shattering war of conquest. Life among the war-shattered ruins would be no "return" to previous joys for the Palestinians. This demand does not express an unformed urge to find at least some "immediate" alleviation of misery. It is a highly "ideological" demand. It offers no prospect of improvements for the Palestinians. It serves only as a lever to substitute anti-Israel for pro-Palestinian activity.

As long as 26 years ago, in the "Declaration of Principles" agreed in 1993 as the start of the "Oslo process" (which was meant to lead to a Palestinian state but foundered), the PLO signed up to the idea that a peace settlement would include compensation, but no great collective "return". The two-states Geneva Accord of 2003 made by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators acting unofficially (then welcomed by PA leaders and denounced by the then Israeli government) includes provisions for refugees, but no principle of "return". Of course many Palestinians, seeing "two states" prospects fade, have gone back to old formulas.

Of course Israeli leftists can and should press for Israel to offer acknowledgements, apologies, conciliations. But focus on "right of return" as the principle blocks progress. The issue here is the agitation in Europe and the USA to boost "rejectionism" and depict it as no more than just anti-racism. As Norman Finkelstein, fiercely anti-Zionist himself, has said "they [the BDS people] think they are very clever because they know the result of implementing [their demands] is... There’s no Israel!... They’re not really talking about rights. They’re talking about they want to destroy Israel".

The "right of return" demand is the lever to call Israel "the apartheid state" (although Israel's very real misdeeds do not have the same pattern as South Africa's), to present "boycotting Israel" as a spuriously "commonsensical" response, and to convey the same message as the old "smash Israel" without actually saying it. Take the Lara Alqasem case.

In October 2018, Alqasem, a US student of Palestinian family background, was detained at the airport when arriving in Israel to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because she had taken part in pro-Palestinian campaigning in the USA, and admitted only after appeal to the Supreme Court. The BDS campaign was not bothered by the detention or relieved by the court decision. The bad thing, for them, was Alqasem's wish to study in Israel at all.

One of the founders of BDS, Omar Barghouti, himself moved from the USA to Israel for postgrad studies at Tel Aviv University. Israeli-Palestinians are 16% of the students at Israeli universities: it would be better if the percentage were higher, not if they "boycotted" those universities. Agitation like that against Alqasem is not helping Palestinians. Its only function is to brand Israeli Jews as outside human community.

That the "right of return" banner is an ideological construct is also shown by its focus on those Palestinians designated as "refugees" rather than Palestinians generally. UNRWA is the UN agency which was set up as a temporary device in 1949 to help the Palestinian refugees (and also, initially, Jewish refugees arriving in Israel). The political impasse leaves it still operating 70 years later. It logs people as Palestinian refugees if their father was logged as a refugee. Seventy years on, it has six million people logged as refugees, 2.3 million in Jordan, about 500,000 in each of Lebanon and Syria, 1,000,000 in the West Bank, and 1.4 million in Gaza. So the 1.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank, the 600,000 in Gaza, who are not logged as refugees - what about them? 70 years on, the fact that their grandparents didn't come from what is now Israel doesn't make them better off than the others. In Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza, to be registered as a refugee is, if anything, a ticket to slight alleviations, by way of the services provided by UNRWA.

In Amman, some 46% of households do not have piped water. UNRWA reported some years ago that only 5% of refugee-camp households in Jordan lacked piped water. In Syria (before the civil war), 19% of the whole urban population were in slums; in Lebanon, 53%. The UNRWA camps are slums with some minimal improvements funded by UNRWA. The worst-off refugees live there because they most value the meagre UNRWA provision. Only 17% of the registered refugees in Jordan live in camps, but 24% in the hemmed-in West Bank, 40% in blockaded Gaza, and 49% in Lebanon, where Palestinians are banned from a large range of jobs and from public services.

Outside the camps, refugee status is a ticket to the schools, health care, and occasional dole and loans, provided by UNRWA. Those are meagre. UNRWA schools are overcrowded and often have to operate in two "shifts" per day. Yet they get better results than the (also underfunded) government schools in Jordan and the West Bank. The scandal to be fixed is the plight of the whole Palestinian people, not just the registered refugees.

To make "right of return" the pivot of the Israel-Palestine question is to make the single "Arab land" the pivot, and not the two peoples now living (the BDS movement website, for example, reckons Islamist agitation in Jordan against all Israeli fruit imports to be good because the fruit was grown on "Arab land").

Leftists who campaign to make "return" central present their efforts as just the expression of general anti-racist principles. In recent articles (e.g. in response to Ashok Kumar, Solidarity 469), Sean Matgamna has jolted that presentation by arguing that "if 'racism' is involved here", it is in the argument of those who maintain that "'rights' in Israel come from genes" (hereditary right to land) rather than from living politics.

Daniel Randall (Solidarity 498) disputes that argument. Randall does not tell us about another argument than a "genetic" one for saying that all Palestine is "Arab land", whoever actually lives there. He doesn't tell us what other actual in-theworld "meanings" of the "right to return" there may be, as distinct from instructing us to avoid being sharp about what the slogan means with people who pick up "right of return" as a casual or token way of expressing sympathy with the Palestinians.

He ignores Matgamna's explanations that "all left-wing antisemites I know of sincerely hate racism and antisemitism. They just don't recognise the antisemitism they practise... They think their absolute anti-Zionism, and their advocacy of the conquest and destruction of Israel, is a form of 'anti-imperialism' or 'anti-racism'."

We should try to make our arguments as accessible as we can to those people. But accessible is not the same as diluted. It is not the same as retreating to suggestions that reactionary slogans are not so bad as long as you don't think them through.

Around 1973, Alan Adler, then a member of the International Marxist Group (later a left-wing translator) remonstrated with me that the "secular, democratic (single) state" line our group then held was "left antisemitism". I was shocked, puzzled, not yet convinced. It was a one-off conversation. It took another decade or more for the argument that Adler had presented to filter through my mind. But the fact that his words still stick in my mind, 46 years on, show that they had better effect than the more blurry words of others roughly on Adler's wavelength.

[1] The Palestinians in Israel are citizens with voting rights (except in annexed East Jerusalem: some 260,000 Palestinians there are ruled as part of Israel but are only "permanent residents"). But they are underrepresented in the government administration (only 11% of government jobs even after recent increases). Getting building permits, for example, is difficult for Palestinians, and demolitions of their "unapproved" shops and dwellings are commonplace. The police are almost exclusively Jewish, and infected in their dealings with Palestinians by the chauvinism widespread in a Jewish population long in conflict with its neighbours and intensified in recent years. Arabic-language schools and other public services in Palestinian majority areas are underfunded. The new Nation State Law is so far mostly symbolic, but threatens Arabic language rights. Already universities teach only in Hebrew and English. In general Palestinians are poorer, as minorities often are even in societies with formal equality; they have suffered more from the increased social inequality in Israel in the right-wing neoliberal Netanyahu years.

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