Vol. 45 No. 22 · 16 November 2023

‘The Refugee Problem’

Leila Farsakh writes about the Palestinians’ struggle for recognition

2224 words

Almost​ a month has elapsed since Hamas fighters broke the siege that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip for more than sixteen years, murdering 1400 Israelis, 300 of them soldiers, and injuring 2600 others. The war that Israel has launched in retaliation has already killed 9000 Palestinians, more than a third of them children. More than 20,000 have been injured. A million Palestinians have been displaced within Gaza. A second Nakba is unfolding before our eyes. Those in Gaza face starvation and displacement; for Palestinians in the diaspora, the onslaught brings back memories of earlier wars, witnessed at first hand or related by their elders. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was conducted to eradicate Palestinian ‘terrorists’, as Israel then defined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Villages were looted and refugee camps destroyed. Beirut was strangled by Israel’s 88-day siege, which deprived its inhabitants of water and electricity. After the PLO was driven out of Lebanon, thousands of Palestinian refugees were massacred by Christian militias in the camps of Sabra and Shatila.

I can’t help looking for parallels in the many wars that have taken place since Israel was created in 1948. The 1973 Yom Kippur War is the obvious one, not only because the Hamas offensive took place on its fiftieth anniversary, but because Israeli officials invoked it, and Biden alluded to it when he pledged unequivocal support for Israel’s fight against ‘evil’. That war, launched against Israel by Egypt and Syria, was a watershed in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Less than a week after Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar Lev fortifications, Israel reclaimed the military initiative. After its soldiers encircled the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai Peninsula, reoccupied the Golan Heights in Syria and advanced towards Damascus, the war was over. Arab states tried to influence events by launching an oil embargo that would last into the next year, and on 22 October, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338, calling for a ceasefire. In total, 2656 Israeli soldiers were killed, as well as 18,000 Egyptian and Syrian soldiers, a ratio that is likely to be replicated this time round, though with civilians as the main casualties on both sides.

The 1973 war was the last formal military confrontation between state armies in the region; the conflicts that followed, during the so-called War of Attrition and beyond, pitted Israel against Palestinian and Arab militias. Most Arab people had hoped in 1973 for a war of liberation, but it soon became clear that Egypt and Syria’s intention was to challenge the status quo that had emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967. After the 1973 war, UN Security Council Resolution 242, which had been adopted in November 1967, finally came into effect. It set parameters for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and was based on three main principles. The first was that the conflict began in 1967, not 1948, and pertained to states, not to non-state actors such as the PLO. The second was the ‘acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state’, which meant recognising Israel’s right to exist in the region in exchange for ‘the withdrawal of Israel’s armed forces from territories occupied’ in 1967. The third principle affirmed diplomacy as the only viable means of resolving the conflict and protecting both Israeli and Arab state interests – even at the expense of popular wishes and rights.

The 1973 war confirmed that the state of Israel was here to stay and wasn’t going to be defeated militarily. Two months after it ended, the twin superpowers, the US and the USSR, brought the belligerents – Egypt, Jordan and Israel, though not Syria – to Geneva to begin multilateral negotiations based on Resolution 242. But the Geneva conference fell apart when Henry Kissinger took control of the diplomatic process in order to consolidate the role of the US as the sole peace-broker in the region. Washington was committed to fostering bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations between Israel and its neighbouring states, and between 1974 and 1976 agreements were signed between Israel, Syria and Egypt, culminating in the Camp David Accords signed by Israel and Egypt in 1978. Camp David would form the template for all subsequent negotiations, including the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

Since its inception, Israel had refused to acknowledge the existence of a Palestinian people. It wasn’t alone: Resolution 242 doesn’t mention the Palestinians by name or refer to their rights under international law. It simply calls for ‘a just settlement of the refugee problem’, implying that the Palestinian problem was humanitarian, not political. Israel tried to eliminate the PLO by military means with its war on Lebanon in 1982, and by diplomatic means when it argued that an Arab state – Jordan or, more recently, Egypt – should represent the Palestinians and assume responsibility for them. This approach failed after the PLO recognised Israel and renounced terrorism in 1988, resulting in the instigation of direct negotiations between the US and the Palestinians, and paving the way for the Oslo process. While the Oslo Accords of 1993 prioritised Israeli security over Palestinian lives, they also included the first official recognition by Israel of the Palestinian people and of the PLO as their representative. With recognition came the admission – this too was a first – that, in the words of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, Israelis and Palestinians ‘are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land’. Israel in effect was acknowledging that the Palestinians had a political claim that needed to be addressed.

These reciprocal recognitions turned out to be very costly for the Palestinians, however. Israel used the Oslo Accords to consolidate, rather than undo, its colonial hold on the Occupied Territories behind a façade of peace-making. With the situation becoming increasingly intractable, the Road Map for Peace, adopted by the US, EU and the Arab League in 2003, proposed that the creation of ‘a Palestinian state with provisional borders, and thus the two-state solution’, was ‘the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all’.

The Israel-Hamas war that started on 7 October comes after thirty years of a peace process that not only failed to implement the two-state solution, but transformed the partition paradigm on which it was premised into an apartheid system of ethnic separation and domination. The Palestinians were fragmented, occupying different geographical and legal spaces under varying degrees of Israeli control; the illegal settler population tripled to a total of 730,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza were trapped for sixteen years in what many have called the world’s largest open-air prison. Hamas’s surprise attack, like the Yom Kippur War, clearly aimed to disturb this status quo.

According to Mohammed Deif, the military commander of Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades, the attack was launched in retaliation against the ‘daily violations in the West Bank’, the assaults on ‘worshippers and the desecrated Al-Aqsa’ mosque, and Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas on ‘a humanitarian exchange’ of prisoners. Hamas’s goals, Deif suggested, were to ‘end the crimes of Israel’s occupation’ and its belief that it can ‘act without accountability’. The attack was a demonstration that Israel’s policy of fragmenting the Palestinians, dividing them politically and containing Hamas in Gaza is not only unsustainable, but very costly in terms of Israeli lives and of Israel’s capacity to protect them. Just as significant, it sought to restore to the Gaza Strip its political essence as an integral part of the Palestinian political struggle for liberation against a settler state that has used the Oslo peace process to dissolve, rather than resolve, the Palestinian cause. The fact that Hamas chose the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 war for its attack – and carried it out just as Saudi Arabia and Israel were about to sign a normalisation agreement, with US support – suggests that it was intended to remind Arab states of the impossibility, and the price, of ignoring Palestinian rights.

The question now is whether the Oslo framework, based on partition and an eventual two-state solution, is in ruins or being redefined to enable the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – possibly, as a leaked document from Israeli military intelligence suggests, by dumping them all in the Sinai Peninsula. The answer depends on the approach of global, regional and local actors both to the ending of the war and the preparations for the aftermath. In the US and Europe, the contrast between popular sentiment and official positions has been glaring. The size and frequency of demonstrations across the world in support of the Palestinians are unmatched since the protests against the war in Iraq in 2003. Washington and Brussels, however, are willing to let Israel set the terms of its military response and of the eventual political solution, and to overlook any breaches of international law it commits in the process. At the UN, the US’s alignment with Israel and its efforts to pre-empt any role for China or Russia, let alone the Global South, mean that a ceasefire resolution is out of reach. As it has since the heyday of Kissinger, the US is making clear its diplomatic primacy as the only peace-broker for the region. It remains officially committed to a two-state solution, while at the same time upholding Israel’s right, and power, to interpret this solution as it sees fit.

At regional level, the fragile balance of power between Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel is being put to the test. In 1973, Arab states used their leverage to help bring about a ceasefire. This time, Jordan and Bahrain – which signed a normalisation agreement with Israel in September 2020 – have recalled their ambassadors. They and other Arab states are clearly alarmed about the war’s possible repercussions, including wider conflict and refugee transfers. But the logic that essentially underlies the normalisation agreements – namely, that peace can be achieved in the region without a political settlement for Palestinians – has been shaken to its foundations. While the major brokers in the region will try to manoeuvre the Palestinian question to their advantage, just as they did in 1973, they can no longer ignore it or imagine that the way forward is military or ‘humanitarian’. They too officially subscribe to the two-state solution.

The brutality of Hamas’s attack shattered Israel’s definition of itself as a post-Holocaust sanctuary that guarantees protection for the Jewish people inside and outside its boundaries. Israel’s response isn’t simply vengeful; it’s existential. As the invasion of Gaza rolls forward, Israeli politicians have had no qualms about justifying mass expulsion, razing neighbourhoods through carpet bombing and killing Palestinian civilians on a scale unseen since 1982 in Lebanon. The governing coalition is preparing the public for the possibility that the war could drag on for years; it is happy to create a siege mentality that precludes dissent or a reasonable discussion of Israel’s options. Israel’s legal and diplomatic objectives have been to close down the space that the Palestinian narrative has managed to carve out internationally – in the US specifically – over the past thirty years. When Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel’s existence is on the line and that it is facing a ‘second war of independence’, he was essentially announcing that any form of partition will entail absolute separation from the Palestinians, who are to be kept fragmented in mini-Bantustans, while also implying that mass expulsions could be the order of the day, as they were in 1948.

Palestinians, for their part, find themselves in one of the most challenging situations they have faced since the Nakba. Not only the population of Gaza is affected. Israel is warning all Palestinians under its control, inside Israel, in East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank, to refrain from protest – or to leave for Egypt or Jordan. The West Bank has experienced a wave of settler violence, carried out with the complicity of the IDF, and is increasingly undergoing what some analysts call ‘Gazafication’. It sounds very much as though Israel wants to finish the job it didn’t complete in 1948. But the Palestinian people are no longer politically invisible, as they were then, even if their national movement is fractured. Hamas is a functioning political party, not only a militia, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has regional and international legitimacy, as the representative of a state that is recognised by 136 countries. The PA champions the two-state solution, a framework that even Hamas has de facto accepted.

Clearly, this war is not forcing us back to the position as it was in 1973 or in 1967, but rather back to 1947-48, when the foundations of a colonial structure were laid, one that gave Israeli Jews political rights and denied them to Palestinians. This structure now encompasses fourteen million people, half of them Jewish Israelis, the other half Palestinians who mostly live under military occupation or blockade, and face legal discrimination as well as daily assaults on their land, homes and bodies. They have made clear that they have nowhere to go; the seven million Israelis, too, are here to stay. One of the tragedies of this moment is that no political party is advocating for a political alternative to partition, for a democratic or binational state in which all the inhabitants are equal citizens. Once the war has ended, we can think about whether it is even possible for such an alternative to emerge from the ashes.

3 November

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