Don't mention the Nakba: Israel and Syria's refugees

Don't mention the Nakba: Israel and Syria's refugees
Comment: Talk of admitting refugees in crisis raises painful questions and memories in Israel, writes Tom Charles.
5 min read
10 Nov, 2015
Israel has built a reputation for creating refugees rather than housing them [AFP]

There is a saying made famous in the UK and beyond by a scene in the brilliant Fawlty Towers sitcom made by the BBC in the 1970s.

"Don't mention the war!" made fun of archetypal British awkwardness around Germans following the two world wars.

The same adage now applies to Israel and her allies in their denial of the Palestinian Nakba. But the current denial is no laughing matter - and it is the cause of great human loss and suffering, as the world faces up to a burgeoning Middle Eastern refugee crisis.

Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian right of return are preventing the Jewish state from meeting its responsibilities to refugees fleeing war, as it is obliged to do under the 1951 refugee convention.

The call by Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel's opposition Labor party, for his country to accept refugees fleeing Syria has not led to a change in approach from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government.

And the absence of international pressure on Israel to support displaced people on its doorstep betrays an unwillingness to hold Israel to account for the responsibilities it bears for the ongoing Nakba and the millions of Palestinian refugees.

Herzog proposed a humane approach to the refugee crisis: "I call on the government of Israel to act towards receiving refugees from the war in Syria, in addition to the humanitarian efforts it is already making."

     An Israeli alliance with those that carried out the 9/11 atrocities has generated no criticism from the US

But any suggestion that he was sincere crumbles under scrutiny.

Had there been the possibility of calls from Europe or the United States in support of this, Herzog is unlikely to have made the statement. His support for punitive measures taken against Africans in Israel and for the assault on occupied Gaza last summer, where most of the population are refugees, suggests that he was motivated purely by political opportunism.

This is borne out by the fact that Herzog would have found himself politically isolated in a country in which 80 percent are opposed to Israel playing a role in easing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, according to a Channel 10 poll.

The "humanitarian efforts" Herzog mentioned are also interesting, as, incredibly, they include the treatment of wounded Nusra Front fighters, al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria. The wounded fighters are treated in Israeli hospitals before being returned to Syria.

An Israeli alliance with those that carried out the 9/11 atrocities has generated no criticism from the US.

Netanyahu boasted: "We have already devotedly cared for approximately 1,000 wounded people from the fighting in Syria, and we have helped them to rehabilitate their lives."

But Israel's role in Syria is much broader than supporting an al-Qaeda franchise. Israel has been an active participant, carrying out airstrikes and continuing to illegally occupy the Golan Heights, a part of Syria it annexed in 1967.

With so much uncertainty on its borders, Netanyahu left absolutely no doubt as to his government's approach. As well as building a wall along the Jordanian border to keep them out, Netanyahu called the refugees a "wave of illegal migrants and terrorist activists".

His language echoed that of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who referred to the displaced as a "swarm". Little wonder Israel's approach to its fleeing neighbours has generated no criticism from European leaders.

     I will not open a back door to discussing the right of return for Palestinians
- Yair Lapid

Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, Israel's second-largest party and a Likud coalition partner, responded to Herzog by saying what many others dare not: "I will not open a back door to discussing the right of return for Palestinians."

Israel's establishment fears that acceptance of refugees from Syria would open a political space for a serious debate about the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.

Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Syria as a result of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine and denial of their right of return. Many of these refugees are now facing displacement for the second time, with the siege of Yarmouk camp by regime forces and then IS making the front pages in the West, but with no subsequent calls for justice or repatriation to Israel or Palestinian territories for the victims.

There are isolated voices within Israel. The renowned Israeli journalist Meron Rapoprt told me: "It is a shame that Israel does not offer a refuge to even a small number of the millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes. Israel has a moral obligation at least towards the Palestinians among these refugees, who fled their homes in what is now Israel and now have to flee again.

"The return of Palestinian refugees is generally conceived as a threat to Israel's very existence, but Israelis must understand that without serious and just implementation of the right of return, there will be no stable peace between Israel and its neighbours."

Without acceptance of this truth, Israeli policy will continue to be a manifestation of profound denial, no matter how horrific things become across the region.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.