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The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem


By Nur Masalha

Pluto Press, 304 pp., October 2003, 978-0745321202


Review by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, 16 January 2007


Mainstream discourse on the question of Palestine confines itself largely to the land occupied by Israel in ‘67 and the fate of the people living therein. In the various peace processes convened under American aegis, the refugees of ’48 and their right of return, enshrined in UNGAR 194, received scant attention. This trend, curiously, has been replicated on the left by some of its luminaries. Some have arrogated themselves the right to decide whether the fate of more than four million Palestinians living in the squalor of refugee camps is a “realistic” consideration to burden Israel with in a prospective settlement. In The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Nur Masalha lays to rest the notion that sustainable peace in the region is possible without addressing the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Masalha also exposes concerns that inform Israel’s persistent denial of its responsibility in creating the refugee problem and its history of foiling attempts at repatriation and restitution.

Masalha’s scrupulously researched analysis of the the Palestinian refugee question begins with the early twentieth century arrival of Jewish settlers, accompanied by an ideology that aims to, and to a large degree succeeds in, ridding the land of its native population. Zionism seeks self determination for its people on a land inhabited by another; hence it must not only expel the native population, but also deny the reality of their dispossession. Thus are laid the foundations of the Palestinian tragedy.

Beginning with Ahad Ha’am’s description of the abuse of Palestinian peasants by the early Zionist settlers, Masalha reconstructs the story of the colonization of Palestine, culminating in al Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of 1948. In discussing the contributions of Israel’s “New Historians” towards the understanding of the events of ’48, Masalha exposes the egregious shortcomings in the work of the most famous among them: Benny Morris. Contrary to Morris’s claims, Masalha reveals that the expulsion of Palestinians was born not of war, but of designs going back all the way to Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Referred to euphemistically as “transfer” the idea of ethnic cleansing remained central to the Zionist project.

With painstaking attention to detail, and copious documentation Masalha deconstructs the myths surrounding the expulsion of Palestinians in ’48 and the subsequent expropriation of their lands. He describes the massacres, intimidation, armed eviction and destruction of villages that precipitated the Palestinian flight. There were fifty major and a hundred minor massacres committed by the Zionist forces. Operation Dalet, which preceded the creation of the state of Israel, was responsible for the widespread panic which was exploited by the Zionist military to drive out the Palestinians. Operation Hiram took care of those left behind.

The most important part of this study deals with the mechanisms employed by the Jewish state to expropriate Palestinian lands. The Jewish National Fund – an organization that still retains tax-deductible charitable status in Britain, Canada, US and Australia – worked in conjunction with the Transfer Committees to pave the way for the ultimate ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Operating as a quasi government, the JNF and Jewish Agency had already established the structure of a government before the formation of the State. On partition, the Zionists therefore had an advantage over the Palestinians whose organizations and institutions had been destroyed by the British colonial authorities during earlier uprisings.

Once Palestinians were driven out, Israel sold Palestinian lands to the JNF to stave off anticipated international pressure to repatriate the refugees. Israel could then claim that the land was now owned by a private organization over which it had no authority, except that JNF is a quasi governmental organization, and more importantly, its charter prevents the land it owns from ever being sold or leased to someone who is not a Jew. Although the JNF itself owns only 13% of Israeli land, it appoints half the board members on Israel Land Authority which controls most of the rest of Israel’s lands. Through this mechanism, the Jewish state conceals its Apartheid policies.

There were also 220,000 of those who were internally displaced, i.e. they were driven from their homes but they remained within the borders of Israel. Absurd legal designations like “Present-Absentees” were invented to keep them from their lands. Many were expelled in the following years.

The emergency regulations enacted have remained in place since and military expropriation of their lands continues to date. Restitution and repatriation was strictly prevented for the fear that it might set a precedent.

Having denied dispossessed Palestinians the right to return to their homes after the end of hostilities, Masalha documents the various proposals that were floated to resettle the refugees – in neighboring Arab countries, Libya, even South America. Attempts were also made to link the Palestinian refugee issue with the issue of the Jews who immigrated to Israel from other Arab countries. What is generally overlooked in these cases of course is the role of Mossad-B in precipitating their flight through acts of sabotage and intimidation to encourage them to immigrate to Israel.

Come ’67 another 250,000 Palestinians found themselves homeless as a result of Israel’s latest offensive which inter alia destroyed many ancient sites in Jerusalem. Destroyed Palestinian villages of Imwas, Yalu and Bayt Nuba were helpfully concealed under the Canada Park, developed through funds donated to the JNF by Canadian Jews to “make the desert bloom” (elsewhere, the British Park conceals evidence of a similar atrocity). Denial of the Palestinian reality was necessary to the Zionist project, and the ruins bore witness to the ugly crimes sustaining it.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, another 200,000 were expelled from the West Bank. By now the idea of “transfer” had entered the mainstream and even espoused by liberal Zionist authors, poets and intellectuals. Various plans were mooted to take care of Israel’s “demographic problem”, the alternatives being “transfer” (ethnic cleansing) or Apartheid (isolated Bantustans). The Oslo peace process conformed to the latter with Israel refusing to accept any responsibility for creating the refugee problem.

In Madrid, and subsequently in Oslo, the Palestinian negotiator’s failure to link the refugee question to UNGAR 194 made it easy for Israelis to relegate it to a secondary status. At Camp David, Masalha reveals there was “no progress on the issue, in fact no real negotiations on the subject”. For this, and its numerous other shortcomings, the process was doomed to failure. However the death of the “peace process” has once again revived the question of the Right of Return and Israeli responsibility in creating the refugee problem. As Masalha rightly concludes, there is no possibility o f a just and lasting peace, or for that matter negotiation towards that end, unless Israel acknowledges its responsibility in creating this the refugee problem.



Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a researcher at Spinwatch. His regular commentaries appear on The Fanonite



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