Many Jews have, understandably, seen parallels between the tragic events in Kosovo and their experiences of the Holocaust. But in fact, it is not a good parallel. Milosevic, brutal though he is, does not have a genocidal strategy for eradicating Albanians as a race, as was the case with Nazism and the Jews. He merely desires them, as non-Serbs, to be gone, by whatever means, from territory he claims. For me as a Palestinian, his imperative to create an ethnically pure state brings the events of 1948 painfully to mind.
In April of that year, my family was forced to leave our home in Jerusalem under imminent threat of attack from Jewish forces trying to take over our part of the city. Houses were blown up all around us, Jewish snipers took potshots at everything that moved in our street, I saw a man killed right in front of our house, and gunmen were everywhere. Terrified for our lives, we left with nothing but our clothes and joined a long queue of other Palestinians also fleeing. We arrived in Damascus dazed and traumatized, but our extended family had a worse ordeal. That April was exceptionally wet and cold in Palestine, and they, with thousands of others who fled or were driven from their homes, had to walk for many miles under heavy rain, through mud and water, arriving exhausted and ill. Distraught mothers lost their children, and scores of people died in the first few weeks of displacement. The huge exodus of Palestinian refugees devastated the ill-prepared surrounding Arab countries, just as today the Kosovars are streaming into neighboring states that cannot cope.
Between 1947 and 1949, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. When Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel immediately after its establishment in 1948, the country was virtually emptied of its Arabs, a large majority of the population. For decades afterward Israel was able to claim that the Arabs had fled due to the exigencies of war. Similarly, the Kosovars are alleged to be fleeing because of NATO bombing or fear of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Western countries have declared that the Kosovo refugees must be repatriated. This is a laudable aim, but the Palestinian experience may be instructive here, too. Those of us displaced in 1948 waited for years to return, but in vain. Despite UN resolutions and international exhortations, the Israelis allowed no Palestinians back, and the “temporary” refugee camps erected in Arab countries, like those now being erected in the Balkans, became permanent. Though many refugees found work and a new life, as my family did in England, the rest stayed in the camps. They are still there today, their 3.5 million inhabitants a shameful testimony to the world’s inability to resolve the conflict that caused their displacement.
As the Kosovars leave, all evidence of their presence is being eradicated to make it impossible for them to prove they ever had a link to Kosovo. In 1948, 440 Palestinian villages were demolished, and all habitable Palestinian homes were labeled “abandoned” and occupied by Jews, while other buildings and land were taken over by the state as “absentee property,” never to be relinquished. My family’s papers, photographs and personal mementos were likewise destroyed, and if I were now to reclaim my old house, I would have no record that I had ever lived there.
There are, however, some differences between then and now. In 1948 we Palestinians would have longed for TV cameras to show our plight. We would have welcomed the intervention of a NATO to champion our cause and insist on our return. The countries that took us in would have had their burden eased by Western aid. Most of all, we would have wanted the world’s conscience stirred. Instead, the Palestinian exodus was something that happened out of sight and “over there.” And because the perpetrators were Jews, whom Europe had persecuted, the Palestinian tragedy became invisible.
And yet, if good is to come out of evil, the proper lessons must be drawn. The ethnic cleansing now so shockingly exposed in Kosovo should help expose the tragic reality of the earlier events in Palestine. And by doing so, it may help Israelis confront their own history. Though Israeli historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe have provided compelling archival evidence of what really happened, most Israelis and Jews refuse to believe it.
There is an opportunity now to change that and revisit the past more honestly and openly. If that happens, then perhaps Israelis can form a new, more human relationship with their former victims based on truth. And this may pave the way for a genuine reconciliation and ultimately the stable peace that has so far proved elusive.