The #RefugeeCrisis: What’s Palestine got to do with it?

Palestinians sit outside a tent near the ruins of their houses which witnesses said were destroyed by Israel shelling during a 50-day conflict last summer, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
With the refugee crisis gaining attention, and given the plateauing Israel-Palestine conflict and its disappeared ‘peace process’, now might be the time to adopt new language that can pressure Israel, even on the Palestinian refugee crisis.

It is as if a grenade has gone off in the Middle East and North Africa, and the regions are now hemorrhaging people. The result: shocking images of little boys washed up on beaches. I recently followed the European migration trail from Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary and met some of those “fleeing death from war and hunger,” as the Pope puts it.

Almost all I met were refugees – not migrants. The vast majority of them were displaced from Syria, and among them were some Palestinians who had been displaced multiple times. The Palestinians were rendered refugees from Israel’s creation; they found themselves displaced into Syria, and most recently, displaced again into Lebanon, before embarking on epic journeys seeking safe futures in richer Europe.

Witnessing the never-ending stream of desperate people, I was as astounded at the magnitude of the manmade crisis, as I was when I witnessed first-hand the bloody violence in Gaza during the 2012 and 2014 Israel-Hamas conflicts. The experiences all sharply highlighted the tragic dislocation between: rhetoric and policy, and human suffering and need.

On Wednesday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron will host Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu in London. On the refugee crisis, the two leaders apparently adopt as callous policies as they can both get away with politically. Cameron recently spoke provocatively of a ‘swarm’ of UK-bound migrants amassing at Calais in France. His infamous Israeli counterpart announced his country’s response to the refugee crisis: the erection of new fencing to “control [Israel’s] borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”

A photo posted by Harry Fear (@harryfear) on

Netanyahu justified the Israeli response to the crisis: “Israel is a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” His justification is stunning given the nation’s open-door policy on Jewish migration. It is all the more astonishing given Israel’s continuous expansion in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with new settlements.

But callous indifference and selective dehumanization are widespread in Israel. Just think: an hour’s drive from thriving Tel Aviv, 1.9 million Arab refugees are locked in the world’s largest open air prison in a strip of land set to soon become “uninhabitable”. Indeed, crossing out of the Gaza ghetto into Southern Israel, as I have done on assignment for RT, is like crossing from Mogadishu into Los Angeles.

David Cameron’s apparent unwillingness to show clemency on the refugees backfired. Activated by Cameron’s coldness, a historic number of more than 400,000 Brits signed an online petition calling for the UK to accept more asylum seekers. The people power from such petitions effectively forced Cameron to do a U-turn and he has now promised the UK will absorb up to 20,000 refugees within the next 5 years—it is better than nothing.

Another UK petition, setup in advance of Netanyahu’s sensitive visit, calls for the Israeli PM to be arrested for war crimes. It has also been signed by a remarkable number – over 100,000 Brits. But the British government is pulling out all the stops to lay on a major (and no doubt expensive) security operation to ensure the reception goes ahead undisturbed. The government dismissed the petition, with a former minister calling it “completely absurd”. The petition and high turnout of protesters expected outside Downing Street on Wednesday will no doubt embarrass Netanyahu and his host.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. © Menahem Kahana

We do not know precisely what Cameron and Netanyahu will discuss. Perhaps the UK will order some Israeli security fencing to secure the Channel Tunnel from “swarming” migrants? After all, Israel’s ‘anti-infiltration’ fencing (as it is called there) is world-class and field tested, and has recently won Hungary’s commercial interest.

But the hospitality should not be a surprise. Let us not forget Cameron’s shameful messaging after last summer’s Gaza tragedy. He said “it’s important to speak out about” the “unfair equivalence” of Israel “trying to defend itself” versus “indiscriminate attacks” by Hamas. Willfully ignored by Cameron was the now well-documented truth that Israel itself was deploying indiscriminate force in Gaza (against the Shuja'iyya neighborhood, for example) — a point that should have been bleedingly obvious to anyone with an internet connection during the conflict.

The fact that world public opinion stands against Israel, its Prime Minister, and its regular ‘operations’ against Gaza, is of no relevance to Cameron. Also, apparently, irrelevant for Cameron is the remarkable manifestation of outrage last summer when more than 150,000 took to London’s streets to oppose Israel’s force and call for an end to arms trade with Israel.

So why the dislocation between, on the one hand, public opinion and widespread outrage, and on the other hand, public policy and diplomacy? Why is there no follow-through from impressive gains by activists in mobilizing world opinion, into a change in European nations’ policy towards Israel? Why do the elites refuse to yield to the moral voice of civil societies and their agendas,” providing no pressure on Israel for facts to change on the ground?

A refreshing and brilliant new book, On Palestine, offers a succinct answer to these questions. It is penned by two thought-leaders and (incidentally) two Jewish academics, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé. In an enclosed essay, Pappé, a self-envisioned 'Palestinian-Israeli' academic, argues that a prevalent but stale “discourse based on [an] old dictionary” has become a major obstacle to realizing change.

The time is now, he says, to move away from the invalid “orthodox” thinking on the conflict—the discourse that calls for a peace process “as if Israel and Palestine were once two independent states and Israel invaded part of Palestine, from which it has to withdraw for the sake of peace.”

Pappé argues that the adoption of a new, truer lexicon can help reframe the conflict to reinforce the actual balance of power: Palestinians as the victim of “settler-colonialism” and Israel as the offender of “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid”. Readers feeling uncomfortable with the application of those terms should brace themselves.

Taking his argument further, Pappé says the term “regime change” should be adopted by activists. Civil societies should call for a change of the “apartheid” Israeli regime that effectively governs the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan Valley.

Pappé is right. The ‘conflict’ has plateaued; the peace process is worthless; Israel’s ‘Gaza experiment’ in human suffering continues (while reconstruction aid is nowhere to be seen); and too many humanistic activists speak “inside of an old frame” that reinforces the pro-Israel tragic trajectory of the conflict. His call will no doubt be heeded and we will witness a sea change in the language of pro-Palestinian campaigning in the coming years.

However, importantly, Pappé also underscores the need “to consider the fate of the [Palestinian] refugees in the light of the new refugee problem in Syria (which includes large numbers of Palestinian refugees).”

Nakba survivor

Posted by Harry Fear on Monday, 26 November 2012

Israel’s refusal to allow the repatriation of [Palestinian] refugees” is conveniently buried by the international community that is obsessed with the ever-unviable paradigm of a two-state solution. Pappé says the “new dictionary” that would adopt the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘settler-colonialism’ in relation to Palestine would inevitably draw to the fore the Palestinian refugee ‘question’.

For decades Palestinian refugees have been living the kind of uncertain existences that so many now sympathize with when they turn on their TV screens. Given the explosion in awareness for the plight of refugees, and given the expanding compassion in civil societies, now is the right time for activists to shout loudly about the Palestinian refugee issue, and to do so, increasingly, with the fresh dictionary that Pappé prescribes.

David Cameron has urged for the debate on the refugee crisis to focus more on the “root causes” of the flow of people. Despite his general poor performance on the crisis, civil society should in fact heed this call. One of the many root causes of the pluming crisis remains the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict and the suffering of millions of Palestinian refugees, who constitute the world’s ‘oldest’ refugee population.

Harry Fear, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.