Now that the Jewish residents of Gaza have been forcibly expelled from their homes, a new plotline—promoted by the Palestinian Authority and the more unreflective observers—is taking shape in the mainstream media: It is said that there is now an opportunity for the region to become peaceful, democratic and thriving. Once the homes of the settlers are demolished, new housing will be constructed and the congested Palestinian population will be able to spread out. It will be an important beginning, foretelling harmony between Israelis and Palestinians in the future. So we are told.
There is a major flaw in this thinking, however, one that seems to have been totally disregarded in press reports. The Arab population of Gaza is 1.37 million. Of that number, 961,000—fully 70 percent of the population—are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). There are eight UNRWA refugee camps in the Gaza Strip: Jabalia, Rafah, Beach, Nuseirat, Bureij, Maghazi and Deir el-Balah, and Khan Younis.
So don’t refugees registered with UNRWA deserve the chance to get better housing and a better life as well? This writer would be the last to deny that they do. The issue is where and how they will live that “better life.”
The initial signs are not promising. In a recent interview discussing housing plans for Palestinian Arab refugees, Osama Alfarra, the mayor of the town of Khan Younis (which is adjacent to the camp of Khan Younis), took pains to point out that when housing expansion is undertaken, it will be done with the cooperation of UNRWA. The likely result is that, instead of giving rise to the lineaments of an independent Palestinian community, the expansion will simply be an extension of the refugee camp.
The problem with this should be apparent. Palestinian Arabs will be allowed to maintain the fiction that they are still dwelling in a refugee “camp,” and, as a result, do not have to forfeit their “right of return” to what is now Israel. Indeed, so concerned are some Palestinian refugees about losing that “right” that they are reluctant to move at all.
Focus on the “right of return,” then, will remain at the heart of future developments in all-Arab Gaza. According to that ostensible “right,” which in fact does not exist and which has been rejected by George W. Bush, all Arabs who fled Israel in 1948, and their descendants (now up to the fourth generation), have an inalienable right to return to the land and the homes from which they fled. This means that, for instance, places such as Ashkelon, which lies within the Green Line demarcating Israel’s borders since the 1967 war, will become the province of Palestinians.
To bolster their demand for repatriation to Israel, the refugees insist that they do not belong permanently in the areas in which they live now. This is not just the policy of the UNRWA, it is the policy of the Palestinian Authority. The PA, from its inception, has made clear that those registered with UNRWA as refugees are not part of its body politic and would not be considered citizens of Palestine should an independent state arise. The PA defines itself as a temporary host to the refugees and no more. There is a dark logic to the PA’s position: Incorporating the Palestinian refugees would seriously undermine, if not totally nullify, the “right to return” upon which the PA insists.
The refugees cling to their stateless status with similar desperation. Indeed, there are instances of refugees starting riots inside the camps at precisely the point at which the interests of the PA had been advanced and the refugees suspected that their cause was going to be sold out — so determined were they to prevent loosing the “right of return” during negotiations for a state. It is no accident that much of Palestinian terrorism—including the manufacture and firing of rockets—is centered in the UNRWA camps of Gaza. There reside the people who have been fighting not to “liberate” Gaza from Israeli control, but to force Israel into allowing them to return to homes within the Green Line.
There is no reason whatsoever to believe that these implacable irredentists will cooperate in developing a Palestinian state in Gaza, for they have no vested interest in doing so. Their interest is in intensifying their attacks in order to achieve their larger goal: the demographic destruction of the Jewish State. If anything, the refugees are hoping that now, with Israel gone from Gaza, they will have increased latitude to launch attacks into Israel. That Israel is currently seen as weak and likely to withdraw under attack only provides more motivation for attacks.
In sum, 70 percent of the current population of Palestinian-controlled Gaza has no interest in building a Palestinian state. Further, there is talk of bringing Palestinians—euphemistically referred to as “militants”—from Lebanon into Gaza. The only Palestinians in Lebanon are refugees, meaning that the percentage of the Arabs in Gaza vested in and working towards a “right of return” rather than the establishment of a democratic state, or indeed any state, would increase.
Thus is the pie-in-the-sky notion that the PA is on the verge of establishing a stable civic society in Gaza has been dashed against the hard rock of the reality. Until that reality is recognized, the optimistic plotline emerging after the Gaza withdrawal must be seen as more fiction than fact.