Israel-Palestine is the third rail of online commentary. It brings out all the crazies. Nevertheless, it is worth noting an overlooked structural feature that explains so much.
That structural feature is quite simple: Western and Muslim states pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year not to make peace with Israel.
They do this through UNRWA: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, founded in 1949. UNRWA has an annual budget of about US$800m. Most of this money goes as payments to 5.6million registered Palestinian refugees. Vanishingly few of these people ever lived within the 1948 borders of Israel. How could they? A person would have to be at least 71 to have been a refugee from the 1947–9 war that created the pre-1967 borders of Israel.
Why are there at least 5.6million registered Palestinian refugees? Because Palestinians are the world’s only multi-generational hereditary refugees. If you are the patrilineal descendent, or the adopted child, of someone who lived within the 1948 borders of Israel for two years or more and left as a result of the 1947–9 War, then you are a Palestinian refugee.
Why two years? Because decades of Jewish influx to Palestine, dating back to the late Ottoman era, had stimulated economic activity within Palestine. That commercial energy drew people in from the rest of Middle East.
The creation, the ethnogenesis, of Palestinian national identity is Jew-centric in multiple ways. It is an identity that would not exist without the Jews and the influx of Jews. Not only has the Palestinian identity been formed in opposition to Zionism, many Palestinians are descended from people whose association with Palestine is a result of the Jewish influx.
More generally, Jew-centrism pervades discussion of Israel-Palestine, from various forms of Jew-hatred, antipathy to any form of Eurocentric nationalism and post-colonialist critique. The Palestinians are cast in the role of foils to these Jew-centric, Israel-centric, patterns of analysis, that have come to dominate Western media and academic commentary on Israel-Palestine. This encourages not considering the patterns of Palestinian politics, or the incentive structures they face, outside of the actions and policies of Israel. The concern of this piece being precisely those other incentives, to avoid the normal Jew-centrism, the normal Israel-centrism.
For instance, it is very hard for a Palestinian to become a citizen of most Arab countries. It is much easier for them to become citizens of a Western country. Why? Because the Arab countries prefer to keep Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with.
In the course of the C20th, there were lots of mass movement of people across boundaries. (For instance, the 1944–50 expulsions of Germans and the 1923 Greek-Turkish population swaps.) Palestinians are the only ones who their ethnic and civilisational confreres systematically refused to take in as citizens. It was much more important to keep then as stateless sticks to beat the Zionist entity (Israel) with. A state that, for decades, no Arab state was willing to recognise.
The Christian-led state of Lebanon was acceptable to the Arab world in a way that the Jewish state of Israel was not because Christians were an acceptable power-people and Jews were not. Obviously, the endurance and success of Israel has undermined that relegation. Moreover, Christian-led Lebanon was inside the ambit of Arab nationalism; an ideology that many Christian intellectuals had helped develop, as it provided an identity which included them, when Muslim identities did not. As is normal with nationalism, Jews were not included within Arab nationalism, no matter how long they had lived in the region.
This was particularly intensely so for Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian nationhood has developed as an identity based around the existence of Israel as a crime against them. An identity based around the nakba, the disaster. Such a disaster-narrative is not remotely a positive or productive basis for an identity. (Especially given that no Arab state has ever fought to establish a Palestinian state.)
Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously said that the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. More and more, this seems to be a specifically Palestinian pattern. Unfortunately, rejectionism always seems to win out within Palestinian politics. It won out in the 1930s, when Mufti Husseini’s rejectionism ended up undermining more conciliatory voices. It won out again with the post First Intifada return of Yassir Arafat, who dismantled the civil society networks that had developed the First Intifada, the only successful Palestinian campaign, in favour of the patronage structures that his power was based on. Arafat then went on to block any peace treaty with Israel. Nowadays, Hamas seems to have more popular support among Palestinians than Fatah and its allies.
Not that the Palestinians are politically unified. Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have agreed on blockading Gaza since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Palestinian media and popular attitudes tend to particularly intensely display the Jew-hatred which has become intense across the Arab and Islamic world since the 1930s. This shift, which extended to pogroms and did much to create the post 1948 mass exodus of Jews from Muslim countries, largely replaced the dismissive sense of superiority that had been the more common Muslim outlook, based on the legal and social dominance of Muslims.
Those 850,000 or so Jewish refugees from Muslim countries became citizens of Israel, or of the Western countries they fled to. They have largely disappeared from narratives about the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, as neither those fleeing Jews, nor their descendants, were frozen in status as refugees. Similarly, the mass emigration of Christians from the Middle East is also often overlooked, as they have also been accepted as citizens in the countries they legally entered.
If the conventional definition of a refugee was applied, then the number of Palestinian refugees would be a diminishing pool, and the Arab countries blocking of them, and their descendants, from becoming citizens would become blatant. By creating this special definition of a refugee, being a Palestinian born in an Arab country was excised from being a citizen of that country.
Hence, the world’s only multi-generational hereditary refugees.
Lebanon is particularly hostile to Israel diplomatically because it has a large Palestinian refugee population that the competing Lebanese elites do not want to incorporate into Lebanon as citizens. A danger that would be a natural consequence of peace with Israel, as the Palestinians would then stop being refugees.
The Palestinian refugee population has been a destabilising factor in Lebanon, having been a major trigger for the Lebanese Civil War. A conflict which killed rather more people than has the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. As did the Algerian Civil War. The Iran-Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War both killed far more people than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Middle East is a war torn region for reasons that have very little to do with the existence of Israel. It is part of the Jew-centrism, the Israel-centrism, of so much commentary that the term “Middle East Peace” so often applies only to the Arab-Israeli conflicts.
In contrast with Lebanon’s travails, the Jordanian monarchy had the power to do what the Lebanese state did not, and defeated and expelled Palestinian military forces in 1970–1. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt, in 1979, was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but it never had a proportionately significant Palestinian refugee population. More recently, Arab countries signing peace/diplomatic recognition treaties with Israel has become a bit of a trend: the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan — all countries without significant Palestinian refugee populations.
So, if Palestinians stop being hereditary refugees, those hundreds of millions of UNRAW US$ stop flowing. And the failure of various Arab countries to incorporate them as citizens would become blatant.
What keeps Palestinians status as refugees? (1) not making peace with Israel. (2) the right of return.
The Palestinian leadership has made it clear that there will be no renunciation of the right of return. How can there by? If the right of return is renounced, then the those 5.6m Palestinians stop being refugees and stop being eligible for payments from UNRWA. Yet, without renunciation of the right of return, no peace with Israel is possible.
Any peace with Israel would, of course, also involve those 5.6m Palestinian refugees stopping being refugees and stop being eligible for payments from UNRWA. Insisting on the right of return is a effective way of blocking that.
Abbas’ 2014 proposal is the sole official Palestinian peace plan or proposal ever made. Yet Abbas has repeatedly refused to give up the right of return, which rather vitiates the force of his proposal. There have been Israeli peace plans and proposals going back decades, but no other official Palestinian ones. The only contribution of the Palestinian leadership to the various peace plans, apart from accepting any benefit that does not commit them to actual peace, has been to veto said proposals.
While hundreds of millions of US$ of UNRWA payments are at stake, why would there be any Palestinian peace plans that did not insist on the right of return and why would their response to other peace plans be other than to veto them?
This direct pecuniary interest of the Palestinians in there not being peace with Israel gets systematically overlooked for various reasons. One is the Jew-centrism, the Israel-centrism, previously noted.
There are more direct reasons for this overlooking. The Palestinians are not going to draw attention to the income flow problem. Neither are the Arab states; they do not want those Palestinians as citizens. Anything Israel might say gets massively discounted. The US State Department has previously found the US’s role as the only Power that talks to both sides far too convenient. The media is too busy selling the well-worn, Israel-centric narratives it is comfortable with. Besides, dissing payment to refugees, what moral monster would do that?
Even the Trump Administration ending US financial support for UNRWA in 2018 has not shifted convenient narratives much.
We can also see that the Trump Administration recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights were not barriers to peace.
Qatar, owner of Al-Jazeera, has been attempting to avoid any commitment in the three-way struggle across the Middle East between the Sunni establishment, Sunni insurgents (the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadi derivatives thereof) and the Iran-led Shia bloc.
Qatar has become a major financial supporter of the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, as part of this middle-way policy. Hamas can use rocket attacks on Israel as a lever for such funding. (Though that can play both ways.)
Follow the money. So often a good place to start.
An agreed peace is not possible if the dominant move for one side is to block any peace. So, if there is to be peace between Israel and Palestinians, the UNRWA payment conduit has to be stopped. Otherwise, evolving versions of the same destructive gambits will continue to be played out. And Palestinian identity will continue to be based on bewailing a defeat that is slipping out of historical memory, yet still structures their legal status and often their income.
So, on and on it goes. A UN bureaucracy hands out hundred of millions of dollar each year in a way that more or less ensures that the Palestinians will not make peace with Israel, and few call them on it.