Archive for the ‘1948’ Category

Ilan Pappe on BBC Hardtalk

Posted: July 2, 2014 by Rex Brynen in 1948

Israeli “new historian” Ilan Pappe discusses the forced displacement of Palestinian refugees and other issues on the BBC’s HARDtalk (first broadcast 30 June 2014).

Chatham House has published a summary of their recent workshop on the normative dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue.

This is a summary of discussions that took place during a one-and-a-half day workshop on The Palestinian Refugee Issue: Normative Dimensions, held on 13 and 14 February 2014 in Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire. The participants in the exercise were regional and international experts on the Palestinian refugee issue, acting in a personal capacity.

The ‘normative dimensions’ of the refugee issue refer to the intangible needs of both parties and the moral acknowledgment of these needs, including the acknowledgment of ‘the human dignity and moral worth of victims’. Moral acknowledgment includes statements of apology, as well as recognition of rights and suffering. Participants were divided into working groups and asked to produce ‘formulations’, or multiple versions of language that would meet these needs, with the aim of encouraging new and innovative ideas. In constructing formulations, participants took note of the relevant language from previous negotiations and Track II exercises, including the ‘Beilin-Abu Mazin Talks’, Core Group Track II Exercise, Israeli Camp David Position, Clinton Parameters, Taba Talks, Arab Peace Initiative and the Geneva Accord, among others. The draft formulations ranged from complete paragraphs to one sentence or phrase, and the list can be found in the appendix.

Although this summary presents the needs and perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians in separate sections, throughout the discussions there were internal debates among both perspectives, as well as nuances in individual positions and contributions from international experts with a comparative perspective.

The workshop formed part of Chatham House’s on-going work on the regional dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue, known as the ‘Minster Lovell Process’2, which aims at an informal and comprehensive discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue, including the role of host countries and international actors. The workshop was hosted by the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme and was kindly funded by a grant from the UK Conflict Pool.


Some of the main findings of the workshop include:

  • Normative dimensions are central to resolving the refugee issue, although opinions vary on when these dimensions should be addressed. While some argue that negotiations must address intangible needs now to signal acknowledgement of the each party’s deepest needs and thereby facilitate agreement in other areas, others stress that the normative dimensions of the refugee issue should be deferred until after significant progress has been made on other elements of an agreement, such as territorial issues regarding borders and Jerusalem.
  • Two of the most pressing intangible needs around the refugee issue are the right of return and recognition of the Jewish character of Israel. On these two questions, mutual Israeli and Palestinian unwillingness to recognize the other’s need becomes a threat to the other’s feeling of legitimacy and security. Palestinians view the right of return as an internationally acknowledged moral and legal right that requires recognition, even if the actual number of refugees returning might be limited or even largely symbolic. Israelis view recognition of Israel’s Jewish character as a signal of regional acceptance of Israel’s founding and continuing legitimacy as a country for the Jewish people, as well as acknowledgment and respect for Jewish identity and Zionism.
  • Demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state could become an immediate and permanent obstacle to peace. However, recognition of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people could provide the necessary flexibility to meet the needs of both parties.
  • Other key normative dimensions of the refugee issue include acknowledgment and/or apology for 1948, recognition of Palestinian rights and dignity, an end of claims and the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

You’ll find my own take on the workshop here.


Last week I participated in (and helped organize) a Chatham House workshop on the rather technical issue of Palestinian refugee compensation and associated implementation mechanisms. It was held, like most other Chatham House meetings on the issue, in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell. Over two days, some two dozen Palestinian, Israeli, and international experts were formed into teams, and given the challenge of designing an appropriate reparations mechanism for the refugee issue. Each of these were then “stress tested” by the group against likely political and operational challenges, as well as different funding scenarios. Participants were in top form, and the discussions were of extremely high quality.

The Chatham House team will be pulling together a full workshop report in the new year. For now, however, I thought I would offer a few of my own take-aways from the meeting, with the obvious caveat that other participants may have somewhat different impressions.

First, I was impressed with how much discussion of the issue has matured in the last decade or so. When IDRC and Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet held a workshop on compensation in 1999, it was fraught with political sensitivities. Some Palestinians feared that a focus on compensation was somehow an effort to erode other refugee rights. Now, however, it is broadly recognized that reparations are a right in and of themselves. Moreover, the quality of the discussion has improved dramatically over the years. Much of this is due to growing amount of policy-relevant research on the topic, including that by the International Organization of Migration (supported by IDRC), the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO, and others.

Second, the workshop underscored how extremely complicated compensation is. The format of the workshop pushed participants to delve into technical details, ranging from eligibility to valuation, inheritance laws, payment, structures and procedures of an international mechanism and fund, and other aspects beside. These are not minor details too—if you get some of them wrong, the process is likely to run into serious practical and political problems. Claims-based systems of compensation are likely to be especially complicated, given the need to trace back properties, ownerships, and values over 65 years and three generations.

Third, an absolutely central theme running through the meeting was that doing compensation right fundamentally hinges on addressing normative issues of responsibility, moral acknowledgement, and recognition. Without these, the amounts of money that are likely to be available will be inadequate to provide any sort of  closure to the issue. On the contrary, throwing  just money and a mechanism at the issue of property seizures and forced displacement would only aggravate refugee grievances.

This is really, really important. Up until now, most policymakers have assumed that a compensation regime would be something of a positive element that could help sell other parts of a broader deal. I am now of the view that—at best—its effects are neutral. More likely, it may could prove to be a significant liability.

The problem is exacerbated by resource limitations. None of the mechanisms we discussed looked likely to work with less than $30 billion in financing. By contrast, the US had thought that up to $20 billion in funding might be available for  compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees at the Camp David negotiations in 2000, and  Israel seemed willing to consider a fixed sum contribution of around $3-5 billion during the Taba refugee negotiations in 2001. At the most recent workshop, as with every other meeting I have ever attended on the subject, those with the most experience in the donor community warned that the international community’s contribution to a compensation fund would be limited. Instead, donors would be more willing to provide support for repatriation and development costs.

It could be argued, of course, that compensation funds are meant to be a symbolic recognition of the suffering suffered by refugees, rather than fully repairing the damages done by the Nakba. However, one can’t imbue an act with symbolic value in the eyes of victims merely by assertion—refugees themselves have to view it in that way too. However, the sorts of amounts often discussed for “refugeehood” payments to Palestinian refugees may be seen as insulting rather than  providing moral and emotional closure. (They add up quickly, too—at $1,000 per refugee you’re already running up a total of $5-8 billion or so.)

Given this, I’m now tending to the view that we may need to rethink the entire paradigm of individualized compensation. Or, perhaps, the decision ought to be left to refugees themselves. One could envisage an agreement in which an international fund (based largely on israeli contributions) is established, but its ultimate use is made subject to broad consultations within the refugee community, even a referendum of sorts.

I’m not at all optimistic that the current peace process will lead to any sorts of breakthroughs, much less an agreement to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue. However, the refugee issue is also not going away—and, if it is ever to be resolved in the future, thinking through these sorts of complex technical issues in advance could be very valuable.

AJE: Documentary series on al-Nakba

Posted: May 22, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1948

al-Jazeera English has been broadcasting a special four-part series on al-Nakba (first broadcast on the Arabic-language network in 2008). The episodes are below.

[Episode 4: To post]

The documentary can also be found with French, German, Italian, and Portuguese subtitles on Youtube, as can the Arabic original.

Ben-Gurion and (re)writing the history of the Nakba

Posted: May 17, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1948


Haaretz today has a long piece today by doctoral student Shay Hazkani (New York University) on early Israeli government efforts to obfuscate the forced displacement of Palestinians in 1948.

The Israeli censor’s observant eye had missed file number GL-18/17028 in the State Archives. Most files relating to the 1948 Palestinian exodus remain sealed in the Israeli archives, despite the fact that their period as classified files − according to Israeli law − expired long ago. Even files that were previously declassified are no longer available to researchers. In the past two decades, following the powerful reverberations triggered by the publication of books written by those dubbed the “New Historians,” the Israeli archives revoked access to much of the explosive material. Archived Israeli documents that reported the expulsion of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment, were reclassified as “top secret.” Researchers who sought to track down the files cited in books by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim or Tom Segev often hit a dead end. Hence the surprise that file GL-18/17028, titled “The Flight in 1948” is still available today.

The documents in the file, which date from 1960 to 1964, describe the evolution of the Israeli version of the Palestinian Nakba ‏(“The Catastrophe”‏) of 1948. Under the leadership of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, top Middle East scholars in the Civil Service were assigned the task of providing evidence supporting Israel’s position − which was that, rather than being expelled in 1948, the Palestinians had fled of their own volition.

Ben-Gurion probably never heard the word “Nakba,” but early on, at the end of the 1950s, Israel’s first prime minister grasped the importance of the historical narrative. Just as Zionism had forged a new narrative for the Jewish people within a few decades, he understood that the other nation that had resided in the country before the advent of Zionism would also strive to formulate a narrative of its own. For the Palestinians, the national narrative grew to revolve around the Nakba, the calamity that befell them following Israel’s establishment in 1948, when about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.

By the end of the 1950s, Ben-Gurion had reached the conclusion that the events of 1948 would be at the forefront of Israel’s diplomatic struggle, in particular the struggle against the Palestinian national movement. If the Palestinians had been expelled from their land, as they had maintained already in 1948, the international community would view their claim to return to their homeland as justified. However, Ben-Gurion believed, if it turned out that they had left “by choice,” having been persuaded by their leaders that it was best to depart temporarily and return after the Arab victory, the world community would be less supportive of their claim.

Most historians today − Zionists, post-Zionists and non-Zionists − agree that in at least 120 of 530 villages, the Palestinian inhabitants were expelled by Jewish military forces, and that in half the villages the inhabitants fled because of the battles and were not allowed to return. Only in a handful of cases did villagers leave at the instructions of their leaders or mukhtars ‏(headmen‏).

Ben-Gurion appeared to have known the facts well. Even though much material about the Palestinian refugees in Israeli archives is still classified, what has been uncovered provides enough information to establish that in many cases senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces ordered Palestinians to be expelled and their homes blown up. The Israeli military not only updated Ben-Gurion about these events but also apparently received his prior authorization, in written or oral form, notably in Lod and Ramle, and in several villages in the north. Documents available for perusal on the Israeli side do not provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether an orderly plan to expel Palestinians existed. In fact, fierce debate on the issue continues to this day. For example, in an interview with Haaretz the historian Benny Morris argued that Ben-Gurion delineated a plan to transfer the Palestinians forcibly out of Israel, though there is no documentation that proves this incontrovertibly.

Even before the war of 1948 ended, Israeli public diplomacy sought to hide the cases in which Palestinians were expelled from their villages…

Despite the title of the article, the piece doesn’t really provide clear evidence of what Ben-Gurion knew or believed when, and what the balance was between outright falsification and “spinning” a narrative that Israeli leaders themselves found comfortable to accept as truth. Still, it is an interesting piece of research based on archival sources, and well worth reading.

Knowing when to be outraged by a map of the Middle East can always be confusing, as Ann Dismorr (Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon) recently discovered when she attended the official launch of two German-funded projects focused on water supply network improvement and shelter rehabilitation in Rashidieh Camp in southern Lebanon. During her visit, she was presented with an embroidered map by camp residents. Shortly thereafter, Palestinian Media Watch angrily condemned her:

At the official launch of two German-funded UNRWA projects in southern Lebanon, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon, Ann Dismorr, posed with a map that erases the State of Israel and presents all of it as “Palestine.”

The map includes both the Palestinian Authority areas as well as all of Israel. Above the map is the Palestinian flag and the inscription “Arab Palestine.” The text at the bottom of the map also says “Palestine.” The neighboring countries Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are all named on the map as is the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is not mentioned or designated anywhere. Several places and cities, both in Israel and from the Palestinian Authority, are included on the map of “Palestine”: The Negev desert, Be’er Sheva, Rafah (Gaza), Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias and the Dead Sea.

The Times of Israel soon jumped on the bandwagon, a headline declaring “UNRWA erases Israel from the map.” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, even sent a letter of complaint to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


It wasn’t, of course, UNRWA that embroidered the map (although UNRWA senior officials do have many remarkable household skills). Moreover, as an UNRWA press release subsequently pointed out, the map showed pre-1948 Palestine—that is before the establishment of the modern state of Israel:

Statement attributable to UNRWA Spokesperson, Chris Gunness

14 May 2013
East Jerusalem

UNRWA categorically rejects accusations in the media that the Agency is “erasing Israel from the map” because its officials and stakeholders stood next to a map which does not show Israel. The map in question is an embroidery depicting a pre-1948 map and therefore ante-dates the creation of the state of Israel. The allegations are therefore completely false.

The organization that originated the accusation has made similar allegations in the past about UNRWA’s neutrality and was forced to retract after the agency showed them to be false.

I again request that any media organization making similar accusations check with us first before they go public with reports that have consistently been shown to be false.

This isn’t the first time that a UN agency has run into map problems—as previously reported on the PRRN blog, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was criticized last year by some Palestinians for correctly labelling Israel as Israel on a map of the region. In 2011, UNRWA was accused of using Israel-denying globes in its refugee schools in Egypt (the fact that UNRWA has no schools in Egypt being, apparently, beside the point.)

MapOfIsrael1Meanwhile, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism website continues to include tourist maps that erase most of UN observer state Palestine from the map altogether. As you can see from the map at right, there’s no hint of a Green Line around the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).


UPDATE (28/5/2013):

Wait, there’s more! Prosor’s letter to the UN Secretary-General leaks to the Jerusalem Post, and UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responds.


h/t Scott Brynen for the West Wing video

The Well (al-Bier)

Posted: January 26, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1948

A short film from Palestinian film-maker Ahmad Habash.

During the 1948 war in Palestine, an old man encounters a father and his son running for their lives. The three share the common interest of fleeing to a safer place. Unknown what lies ahead, their journey is sidetracked by the enemy who show up this beautiful spring day. and while taking shelter in an abandoned well; fairy-tailed to possess magical powers, they encounter a traumatic incident so complex their outlook on life is changed forever.

There is more on the film and the film-maker at Electronic Intifada.

AJE: The Great Book Robbery

Posted: January 22, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1948

From al-Jazeera’s Witness documentary programme “Witness” (first broadcast May 2012):

When the Arab-Israeli war raged in 1948, librarians from Israel’s National Library followed soldiers as they entered Palestinian homes in towns and villages. Their mission was to collect as many valuable books and manuscripts as possible. They are said to have gathered over 30,000 books from Jerusalem and another 30,000 from Haifa and Jaffa.

Officially it was a ‘cultural rescue operation’ but for Palestinians it was ‘cultural theft’.

It was only in 2008 when an Israeli PhD student stumbled across documents in the national archive that the full extent of the ‘collection’ policy was revealed.

Using eyewitness accounts, this film tries to understand why thousands of books appropriated from Palestinian homes still languish in the Israeli National Library vaults and why they have not been returned to their rightful owners. Was it cultural preservation or robbery?

Abbas, refugees, and return

Posted: November 3, 2012 by Rex Brynen in 1948, Israel, right of return

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent television interview with Israel’s Channel 2 is receiving considerable attention, in large part because of statements apparently downplaying the right of return to 1948 territories and suggesting that refugees should focus instead on a future state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem :

I visited Safad before once. But I want to see Safad. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine now for me is ‘67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever…this is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel.

Not surprisingly, the statement was quickly attacked by Hamas, and by many Palestinian activists (for typical example, see here at Electronic Intifada). It was also praised by Israeli President Shimon Peres, but generally dismissed by those in the Netanyahu government—after all, it runs rather counter to their preferred image of the PA/PLO as inflexible maximalists secretly bent on the destruction of Israel. Meanwhile, officials in Abbas’ office tried to spin the statement and reiterate his commitment to addressing the right of return in negotiations so as to mitigate political backlash.

Clever gambit to influence Israeli public opinion? Accidental frankness? Poor choice of English words? Typical confused Palestinian messaging? Lesson in the political difficulty of reconciling the hard reality that refugees are unlikely to ever enjoy a meaningful “right of return” to 1948 areas with deep-seated popular attachment to the normative principle? All of the above?

Take your pick.

IPS: Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora now online

Posted: October 18, 2012 by Rex Brynen in 1948

The Institute for Palestine Studies has announced that Walid Khalidi’s 1984 book Before Their Diaspora is now available online:

The Institute for Palestine Studies is proud to announce that Walid Khalidi’s classic work Before Their Diaspora is now an interactive website, database, and digital book. To view the digital edition of the book and browse its content, click here:

Before Their Diaspora is a visual journey into Palestine before 1948. Every aspect of Palestinian society comes to life in the nearly 500 photographs, carefully selected from thousands available in private and public collections throughout the world. Descriptive, analytical texts introduce each of the five historical periods into which the book is divided. Carefully researched, captions identify the time, place, personalities and context of each photograph.