Last week, Israel announced with massive fanfare that it was dispatching a rescue crew to Nepal to assist with earthquake relief efforts. Israeli media touted the news that the Israeli military had deployed some 250 medical personnel, one of the largest teams sent by any country, rescuing as many as 2,000 of their own citizens and setting up a field hospital to treat locals. But foreign media reports soon began questioning the fact that the Israeli personnel had immediately begun organizing an airlift of surrogate babies birthed for Israeli couples, their non-Jewish local mothers left behind. The episode raised serious questions about the priorities guiding the relief effort, undermining its value as a potential public relations strategy.
Israel has been known to seek publicity for its good works abroad in order to deflect attention from the abuses of the occupation at home. And despite the botched messaging, this episode appeared no different. While Israel was busy promoting its efforts to help refugees fleeing a natural disaster in Nepal, it is the original source of the misery of refugees mired in manmade disasters in the West Bank, Gaza and Syria.
Just seventy kilometers south of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, from where its rescue crews took off for Nepal, the Gaza Strip still lies in ruins, the product of the seven-week military assault that destroyed around 10,000 civilian homes and left at least 100,000 homeless. This week, Breaking the Silence, an organization of dissident Israeli soldiers, released testimony from troops involved in that operation describing orders they say created a permissive climate for killing civilians in Gaza. Since the conflict, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), not a single home has been rebuilt. Residents of Gaza languish in rubble largely as a result of the refusal of the Israeli and Egyptian governments to allow rebuilding materials to enter the Hamas-controlled area.
Human Rights Watch executive director, Ken Roth, drew attention to the incongruity of Israel’s assistance to Nepal in light of Gaza’s misery. In a comment on Twitter, he wrote: “Easier to address a far-away humanitarian disaster than the nearby one of Israel’s making in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, to Israel’s north, in Syria, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp has been under siege as fighters from ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra have taken on the Hamas-oriented Bayt Al-Makhdis, while Assad’s forces periodically bombed the camp. Yarmouk was once the largest refugee camp in Syria, a bustling Damascus enclave that was home to as many as 150,000 Palestinians whose families were forced out of Israel in 1948. Today it is the site of an unfathomable human catastrophe. Cut off from water, food, and the most basic resources, it has become, in the words of UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl, “an apocalyptic cityscape, where women have died in childbirth for lack of medicines and children have reportedly starved.”
In 2009, back when Syria was still a functioning state and the Gaza Strip’s civilian infrastructure was somewhat intact (despite being seriously hobbled by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead), President Barack Obama spoke eloquently of the plight of the stateless people of Palestine. “Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead,” he told his audience at Cairo University, describing their six decades of statelessness as “intolerable.” He vowed that America would “not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
The Cairo speech was a rare and remarkable acknowledgment by a US president of what the Palestinians call “Al Nakba”—the Catastrophe—in which some 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee or were expelled from their homeland in 1948 and scattered to every corner of the world in a seemingly endless exodus. The so-called “lucky ones” were the 150,000 who remained and whose descendants are now citizens of Israel, albeit third-class citizens of a segregated and deeply unequal country. In fact, the Israeli government seems to have criminalized the mourning of the Nakba, even as, just 130 miles away in Syria, the descendants of those expelled in 1948 are being slaughtered by the bombing of the Assad regime and the fighters of the Islamic State.
In Yarmouk, as in Syria’s eleven other Palestinian camps, trauma recurs daily, the refugees of 1948 made refugees all over again. Many have fled, joining the masses of Syria’s internally displaced, while those who remain trapped have been barrel-bombed by Assad’s forces, then beheaded and gunned down by ISIS. The Syrian regime has used starvation as a weapon against the Palestinians living there, forcing them to eat dogs and cats, just as Palestinians did during the siege of Beirut in 1982, when an Israeli invasion resulted in the slaughter of as many as 19,000 people.
Arab rulers may ritually denounce Israel, but they mimic its policies of hatred and exclusion towards the Palestinians. At best, Palestinians are treated as an unwanted burden, a symbol of Arab humiliation worthy of charity, but never of dignity.
Throughout history, Jewish people were displaced, abused, and murdered en masse, over and over again. The tragic irony is that, today, it is the Palestinians being persecuted, as were the Jews, not for what they have done but for who they are. In a recent televised election campaign debate, Israel’s former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said to Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and leader of the Joint List: “Why did you come to this studio, why not to Gaza, or Ramallah? Why are you even here? You are not wanted here; you are a Palestinian citizen.” Lieberman, a Soviet-born Jew who arrived in Israel in the 1970s, is telling an indigenous Palestinian that he has no right to live in his own homeland.
In my homeland, tribalism trumps democracy, and ethnicity trumps citizenship, following a trend sadly sweeping the Middle East. In a country defined by historical suffering, the grievances of the minorities are delegitimized, even considered an existential threat to the majority’s monopoly over the narrative of victimhood.
Israel’s national leaders call on Jews across the world to immigrate to Israel, backed by a discriminatory law granting automatic citizenship to Jews who choose to live there, but denying it to Palestinians expelled in 1948—as well as to those who have lived under Israeli occupation and effective political control for a half century. A Jew born anywhere in the world is welcomed by the State of Israel, while a Christian or Muslim born in Safed or Al-Majdal and forced into exile in 1948 is denied the right to return to his or her birthplace. And this despite the fact that a majority of the world’s Jews has chosen, freely, to decline the option of settling in Israel, even as Israel’s leaders insist it is the only place they can be safe.
The desire to return home is a central tenet of the Palestinian national narrative. Our homeland is in our bloodstream and in our memories, transferred from generation to generation. Millions of Palestinians have never seen Palestine, but many wear the keys to their family homes in Haifa, Akka, or Jaffa around their necks. Palestine is vivid in their dreams and in their cultural narrative. History defines their identity just as much as it colors their future, and a true peace will require that all of the country’s residents, past and present, be reconciled as equals.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite winning re-election by appealing to the worst instincts of his base, has an historic opportunity—which he will no doubt fail to seize—to begin that reconciliation. He could make good on that opportunity by replicating the offer he made to France’s Jews after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and invite those former residents of what is today Israel to return home, saving them from the slaughter in Yarmouk. While the people of Tel Aviv enjoy the beach, their cafes, nightclubs, and unfettered freedom, another diaspora, over the border in Syria, is facing a human catastrophe. Meanwhile, the 71 percent of the population of Gaza who are refugees lose hope and grow desperate as they remain trapped behind the Iron Wall of Zionism.
The right of return for Palestinian refugees remains one of the great stumbling blocks to any lasting peace agreement—it is not even contemplated as part of the two-state solution that Netanyahu recently said he didn’t believe in any more, before he said he did again. Israel should extend the right of return to all Palestinian refugees. This would not only be a humanitarian gesture, but also an act of justice—one which is necessary for a sustainable peace in which both peoples can achieve security and equality for themselves and their children. In the meantime, and at the very least, Israel could and should offer asylum to those Palestinian refugees who today face mortal danger a short distance away.