Now that the residents of the Katif district of Gaza have been forcibly expelled from their homes, a picture – promoted by the Palestinian Authority and its supporters – is being painted in the mainstream media of the opportunity for the region to become peaceful, democratic and thriving. Once the homes of the settlers are demolished, there will be construction of new housing in the area and the Palestinian population will be able to spread out and be less congested. It will be an important beginning, we are told. From this, good things will follow.
There is, however, a major flaw in this thinking, one that seems to have been totally disregarded in press reports. The Arab population of Gaza is 1.37 million. Of this, 961,000 are registered with UNRWA as refugees. That’s a full 70% of the population. There are actually eight UNRWA refugee camps in the Gaza Strip: Jabalia, Rafah, Beach, Nuseirat, Khan Yunis, Bureij, Maghazi and Deir el-Balah.
And so? you may ask. Don’t refugees registered with UNRWA deserve the chance to better housing and a better life as well?
This writer would be the last to deny that they do. The issue is where and how they will live that “better life.”
In a recent interview in which he discussed housing expansion, Osama Alfarra, the mayor of the town of Khan Younis (which is adjacent to the camp of Khan Younis), took pains to point out that when housing expansion is undertaken, the expansion for refugees will be done with the cooperation of UNRWA and will be considered simply an extension of the camp.
The fiction that they are still in a “camp” will be maintained because refugees are afraid that if they move out of the camps they will be forfeiting their “right of return.” Some refugees are actually so concerned about losing that right, that they are reluctant to move at all.
Focus on the “right of return,” then, remains at the heart of what will be going on in an all-Arab Gaza. According to that ostensible “right,” which in fact does not exist, all Arabs who fled Israel in 1948, and their descendants to the fourth generation now, have an inalienable right to return to the land and the homes from which they fled. This means to places such as Ashkelon, within the Green Line.
The flip side of this demand for repatriation to Israel is the insistence that the refugees do not belong permanently in the areas where they live now. This not just the policy of UNRWA, it is the policy of the Palestinian Authority. The PA, from its inception, has made clear that those registered with UNRWA as refugees are not part of its body politic and would not be considered citizens of Palestine should an independent state arise. The PA defines itself as a temporary host to the refugees and no more. As they see it, to incorporate them with permanency would be to seriously undermine if not totally nullify the right to return.
So seriously do the refugees themselves take this that there are instances of their having rioted inside the camps at precisely the point at which the interests of the PA had been advanced and the refugees suspected that their cause was going to be sold out (i.e., the refugees were afraid the “right of return” was going to be negotiated away for a state).
It is no accident that the terrorism – including the manufacture and shooting of rockets – is centered in the UNRWA camps of Gaza. There reside the people who have been fighting not to “liberate” Gaza from Israeli control, but to defeat Israel sufficiently so that they can return to homes within the Green Line. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that these people will now become pacific and cooperate in developing a Palestinian state in Gaza. They have no vested interest in doing so! Their vested interest is in intensifying their attacks in order to achieve their larger goals. If anything, they are hoping that now, with Israel gone, they will have increased latitude to launch attacks into Israel. What is more, Israel is currently seen as weak and likely to withdraw under attack. This provides yet more motivation for attacks.
In sum, within the population of Gaza as the PA must now contend with it, 70% of the people are not interested in building a Palestinian state. What is more, there is talk about bringing Palestinians – euphemistically referred to as “militants” – from Lebanon into Gaza as well. The only Palestinians in Lebanon are refugees. This means the percentage of the Arabs in Gaza invested in and working towards “return” rather than establishment of a democratic state, or any Palestinian state, would increase.
The pie-in-the-sky notion that the PA is about to establish a civic society that is stable in Gaza is dashed against the hard rock of the reality of the situation there. Until that reality is accepted and contended with, there cannot be even a remotely positive scenario established in the wake of the Israeli pullout.