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The Palestinians’ Real Enemies

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For most of the twentieth century, inter-Arab politics were dominated by the doctrine of pan-Arabism, postulating the existence of “a single nation bound by the common ties of language, religion and history.

… behind the facade of a multiplicity of sovereign states”;[1] and no single issue dominated this doctrine more than the “Palestine question” with anti-Zionism forming the main common denominator of pan-Arab solidarity and its most effective rallying cry. But the actual policies of the Arab states have shown far less concern for pan-Arab ideals, let alone for the well-being of the Palestinians, than for their own self-serving interests. Indeed, nothing has done more to expose the hollowness of pan-Arabism than its most celebrated cause.

Denying Palestinian Nationalism

Consider, for instance, Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca, the celebrated hero of the “Great Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire and the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement. Together with his father and his older brother Abdullah, Faisal placed Palestine on the pan-Arab agenda by (falsely) claiming that they had been promised the country in return for their anti-Ottoman rising. In January 1919, he signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann, head of the Zionists, supporting the November 1917 Balfour Declaration on the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine and the adoption of “all necessary measures … to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.”[2] Yet when the opportunity for self-aggrandizement arose, in March 1920, he had himself crowned king of Syria “within its natural boundaries, including Palestine.” Had either option been realized, Palestine would have disappeared from the international scene at that time.

Nor did Faisal abandon his grand ambitions after his expulsion from Damascus by the French in July 1920. Quite the reverse, using his subsequent position as Iraq’s founding monarch, he toiled ceaselessly to bring about the unification of the Fertile Crescent under his rule. This policy was sustained after his untimely death in September 1933 by successive Iraqi leaders, notably by Nuri Said, Faisal’s comrade-in-arms and a long-time prime minister. In the summer of 1936, Said sought to convince Palestine’s Arab and Jewish communities, as well as the British government, to agree to the country’s incorporation into a pan-Arab federation, and six years later, he published a detailed plan for pan-Arab unification (known as the Blue Book) that envisaged that “Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan shall be reunited into one state.”[3]

The scheme was vigorously opposed by Abdullah, who strove to transform the emirate of Transjordan (latterly Jordan), which he had ruled since 1921, into a springboard for the creation of a “Greater Syrian” empire comprising Syria, Palestine, and possibly, Iraq and Saudi Arabia; and it was the Arab states’ determination to block this ambition and to avail themselves of whatever parts of Palestine they could that underlay the concerted attempt to destroy the state of Israel at birth. This, on the face of it, was a shining demonstration of pan-Arab solidarity; in reality, it was a scramble for Palestinian territory in the classic imperialist tradition. As Arab League secretary-general Abdel Rahman Azzam admitted to a British reporter, Abdullah “was to swallow up the central hill regions of Palestine with access to the Mediterranean at Gaza. The Egyptians would get the Negev. [The] Galilee would go to Syria, except that the coastal part as far as Acre would be added to Lebanon if its inhabitants opted for it by a referendum [i.e., the inhabitants of the said coastal strip].”[4]

Had Israel lost the war, its territory would have been divided among the invading Arab forces. The name Palestine would have vanished into the dustbin of history. By surviving the pan-Arab assault, Israel has paradoxically saved the Palestinian national movement from complete oblivion.

Manipulating the Palestinian Cause

Having helped drive the Palestinians to national ruin, the Arab states continued to manipulate the Palestinian national cause to their own ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they occupied during the 1948 war. Upon occupying the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, Abdullah moved to erase all traces of corporate Palestinian Arab identity. On April 4, 1950, the territory was formally annexed to Jordan to be subsequently known as the “West Bank” of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Its residents became Jordanian citizens, and they were increasingly integrated into the kingdom’s economic, political, and social structures. And while Egypt showed no desire to annex the occupied Gaza Strip, this did not imply support of Palestinian nationalism or of any sort of collective political awareness among the Palestinians. The refugees were kept under oppressive military rule, were denied Egyptian citizenship, and were subjected to severe restrictions on travel. “The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are,” President Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to an enquiring Western reporter. “We will always see that they do not become too powerful. Can you imagine yet another nation on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean!”[5] Had these territories not come under Israel’s control during the June 1967 war, their populations would have lost whatever vestiges of Palestinian identity they retained since 1948. For the second time in two decades, Israel unwittingly salvaged the Palestinian national cause.

Nor was Syria more sympathetic to the idea of Palestinian statehood. During his brief presidency (April-August 1949), Husni Zaim proposed the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Syria in return for financial and political gain while Hafez Assad (1970-2000), who as late as September 1974 described Palestine as “a basic part of southern Syria,”[6] was a persistent obstacle to Palestinian self-determination. He pledged allegiance to any solution amenable to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—appointed by the Arab League in October 1974 as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”—so long as it did not deviate from the Syrian line advocating Israel’s destruction. Yet when in November 1988, the PLO pretended to accept the November 1947 partition resolution (and by implication to recognize Israel’s existence) so as to end its ostracism by the United States,[7] Syria immediately opposed the move. The PLO then took this pretense a step further by signing the September 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-government Arrangements (DOP) with Israel. This provided for Palestinian self-rule in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip for a transitional period of up to five years, during which Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent peace settlement. But the Syrian regime strongly condemned the declaration while the Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist, Ahmad Jibril, threatened PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with death.

A no less instrumental approach was exhibited by Saddam Hussein, another self-styled pan-Arab champion whose professed allegiance to the Palestinian cause was matched by a long history of treating that cause with indifference, if not outright hostility. Saddam stood firmly against Iraqi intervention to aid the Palestinians in Jordan during the “Black September” of 1970 and subsequently sought to exclude Palestinians from coming to work in Iraq’s booming, oil-rich economy. Though a vociferous critic of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat for reaching a separate peace with Israel in 1979, Saddam quickly reconsidered when he needed Egyptian military aid in his war against Iran (1980-88), toiling tirelessly for Cairo’s readmission into the Arab fold. Nor was Saddam deterred from collaborating with Israel against Syrian interests in Lebanon (to punish Assad for his support of Tehran in its war against Baghdad), or from seeking sophisticated Israeli military equipment.[8] In 1984, at a time of pressure due to the war with Iran, he went so far as to voice public support for peace negotiations with the Jewish state, emphasizing that “no Arab leader looks forward to the destruction of Israel” and that any solution to the conflict would require “the existence of a secure state for the Israelis.”[9]

This support, to be sure, did not prevent Saddam from attempting to link his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait to the Palestine problem. During the months of negotiations with the Kuwaitis before the invasion, Saddam made no mention of Palestine. Once confronted with a firm international response, he immediately opted to “Zionize” the crisis by portraying his predatory move as the first step toward “the liberation of Jerusalem.” But this pretense made no impression whatsoever on most Arab states, which dismissed the spurious link as the ploy it obviously was and fought alongside the West to liberate Kuwait.

Nor did the anti-Iraq coalition collapse when Saddam, in a desperate bid to widen the conflict, fired thirty-nine Scud missiles at Israel—a move cheered by the Palestinians and by demonstrators in marginal states such as Yemen but otherwise greeted with conspicuous calm by the proverbially restive “Arab street.” Not a single Arab regime was swept from power following its participation in the war, with the war even producing an ad hoc tacit alliance between Israel and the Arab members of the anti-Saddam coalition: Israel kept the lowest possible profile, eschewing retaliation for Iraq’s missile attacks while the latter highlighted the hollowness of Saddam’s pan-Arab pretenses by sustaining the war operations against Baghdad.[10]

If anything, it was the Palestinians who paid a heavy price for their entanglement in the conflict as the PLO’s endorsement of the Iraqi occupation led to its ostracism by the Arab world and the postwar expulsion of most of the 400,000 Palestinians who had been living and working in Kuwait.[11] So much for pan-Arab solidarity with “the sole representative of the Palestinian people.”

Unwanted Guests

The political manipulation of the Palestinian cause was mirrored by the dismal treatment of the Palestinian refugees based in Arab states since the 1948 war. Far from being welcomed, the new arrivals were seen as an unpatriotic and cowardly lot who had shamefully abdicated their national duty while expecting others to fight on their behalf, and this attitude was entrenched and institutionalized over time. Yet with their desire to offload their Palestinian guests matched by the lingering dream of Israel’s destruction, the Arab states as well as the Palestinian leadership rejected U.N. General Assembly resolution 194 of December 11, 1948, which conditioned repatriation on the attainment of comprehensive peace and partial refugee resettlement in the host Arab states.[12] The resolution’s subsequent transformation into the cornerstone of an utterly spurious claim to a “right of return” has only served to perpetuate the refugee problem as the Arab states used this “right” as a pretext to prevent Palestinian assimilation into their societies in anticipation of their eventual return to their homeland.

Nowhere has this state of affairs been more starkly illustrated than in Lebanon, the most liberal Arab state up until the mid-1970s. Fearful lest the burgeoning and increasingly radicalized Palestinian population (which grew from 100,000 in 1948 to about 500,000 in 2012)[13] undermine the country’s fragile confessional edifice, the authorities barred its incorporation into Lebanon’s social, political, and economic structures. As a result, the vast majority of Palestinians have remained stateless refugees with more than half living in abject poverty in twelve squalid and overcrowded camps (another five camps were destroyed during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90), administered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), created in 1949 for the exclusive relief of Palestinian Arab refugees.[14]

Camp residents or not, Lebanese Palestinians have been excluded from numerous walks of life and spheres of activity due to their alien status; and unlike other foreign residents who can evade this discrimination by virtue of their countries’ reciprocity treaties with Lebanon, the stateless Palestinians can claim no such rights and have consequently been singled out for distinct mistreatment including severe restrictions on travel, property ownership, and ability to work. For decades, they were barred by government decree from more than seventy professions, from doorkeepers, to mechanics, to file clerks, to schoolteachers, to personnel managers; and while the ministry of labor lifted the ban on fifty professions in June 2005, the actual application of this measure has been haphazard at best. Likewise, only 2 percent of Palestinians took advantage of the August 2010 legislation aimed at improving their access to the official labor market and the social security benefit system with Lebanese law still barring Palestinians from at least twenty-five professions requiring syndicated membership (such as law, medicine, and engineering) and discriminating against their work and social conditions (e.g., Palestinians are underpaid in comparison to Lebanese workers for performing the same jobs and overpay for their pensions). Palestinian refugees are still prevented from registering property in accordance with a discriminatory 2001 law.[15]

While Lebanon may offer the starkest example of abuse, nowhere in the Arab world have the Palestinians been treated like “brothers.” In accordance with Arab League resolutions, all Arab states reject naturalization and/or resettlement as solutions to the refugee problem and refuse as a matter of principle to contribute to UNRWA’s budget or to assume responsibility for any of its functions; and all restrict the freedom of movement of their Palestinian residents as well as their property rights and access to such government services as health, education, and social benefits.[16] When in 2004 Saudi Arabia revised its naturalization law allowing foreigners who had resided in its territory for ten years to apply for citizenship, the estimated 500,000 Palestinians living and working in the kingdom were conspicuously excluded. The pretext: the Arab League’s stipulation that Palestinians living in Arab countries be denied citizenship to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their “right to return” to their homeland.[17]

Even in Jordan, where most Palestinians have been naturalized and incorporated into the country’s fabric, they remain largely marginalized and discriminated against. Between 1949 and 1967, when Jordan was in control of the West Bank, some 250,000-500,000 Palestinians moved across to the East Bank or migrated abroad in search of a better life. But even East Bank Palestinians have been subjected to systematic discrimination. They pay much heavier taxes than their Bedouin compatriots; they receive close to zero state benefits; they are almost completely shut out of government jobs, and they have very little, if any, political representation: Not one of Jordan’s twelve governorships is headed by a Palestinian, and the number of Palestinian parliamentarians is disproportionately low.[18]

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that more than two million Palestinians, most of whom have full Jordanian citizenship, are registered as UNRWA refugees with some 370,000 living in ten recognized camps throughout the country.[19] This has in turn resulted in the perception of the kingdom’s entire Palestinian population as refugees who would eventually depart to implement their “right of return.”[20]

This outlook can be traced to the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, which quickly challenged Jordan as the focus of Palestinian national identity. The situation came to a head in the autumn of 1970 with the organization’s attempt to overthrow the Hashemite dynasty. This forced King Hussein to drive the PLO out of the country, gaining traction in July 1988 when hundreds of thousands of West Bankers lost their Jordanian citizenship as a result of the king’s severance of “administrative and legal ties” with the territory. After the signing of the DOP and the July 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, the process shifted to the East Bank where thousands of Palestinians were stripped of their Jordanian citizenship.[21] “For East Bankers, the right of return is often held up as the panacea which will recreate Jordan’s Bedouin or Hashemite identity,” read a 2008 confidential memo by the U.S. ambassador to Amman:

At their most benign, our East Banker contacts tend to count on the right of return as a solution to Jordan’s social, political, and economic woes. But underlying many conversations with East Bankers is the theory that once the Palestinians leave, “real” Jordanians can have their country back … In fact, many of our East Banker contacts do seem more excited about the return [read: departure] of Palestinian refugees than the Palestinians themselves.[22]

Brotherly Massacres

Not only have the host Arab states marginalized and abused their Palestinian guests, but they have not shrunk from massacring them on a grand scale whenever this suited their needs. When in 1970 his throne was endangered by the Palestinian guerilla organizations, the affable and thoroughly Westernized King Hussein slaughtered thousands of Palestinians during a single month, now known as “Black September.” Fearing certain death, scores of Palestinian fighters fled their Jordanian “brothers” to surrender themselves to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Civilian casualties were exorbitant with estimates ranging from three thousand to fifteen thousand dead—higher than the Palestinian death toll in the 1948 war.[23]

In the summer of 1976, Lebanese Christian militias, backed by the Syrian army, massacred some 3,500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel Zaatar. Six years later, these very militias slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, this time under the IDF’s watchful eye. None of the Arab states came to the Palestinians’ rescue.

When in 1983 the PLO tried to reestablish its military presence in Lebanon, having been driven out the previous year by Israel, it was unceremoniously expelled by the Syrian government, which went on to instigate an internecine war among the Palestinian factions in Lebanon that raged for years and cost an untold number of lives. So much so that Salah Khalaf (aka Abu Iyad), the number two man in the PLO, accused Damascus of committing worse crimes against the Palestinian people than “those of the Israeli enemy.”[24]

In the summer of 2007, the Lebanese army killed hundreds of Palestinians, including many civilians, in the north Lebanese refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, inflicting widespread environmental damage and driving some 30,000 persons to seek refuge in a nearby camp.[25]

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing Syrian civil war, and tens of thousands have fled the country with refugee camps subjected to military attacks and prolonged sieges that reduced their inhabitants to destitution and starvation. The large Yarmuk camp south of Damascus, once home to some 250,000 Palestinians, including 150,000 officially registered refugees, is now “nothing but ruins, and houses only around 18,000 residents who couldn’t escape to Lebanon, Jordan, or elsewhere.”[26]

Brotherly Nakba

Much has been made of the Palestinian exodus of 1948, but during their decades of dispersal, the Palestinians have been subjected to similarly traumatic ordeals at the hands of their Arab brothers. As early as the 1950s, the Arab gulf states expelled striking Palestinian workers while the Black September events led to the expulsion of some 20,000 Palestinians from Jordan and the demolition of their camps.[27] And this tragedy pales in comparison with the eviction of most of Kuwait’s 400,000 Palestinians after the 1991 Kuwait war. “What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories,” Arafat lamented, as if it were not the PLO’s endorsement of Iraq’s brutal occupation (August 1990-February 1991) that triggered this deadly retribution.[28]

It mattered not that this community had nothing to do with the PLO’s reckless move. Within months of the country’s liberation, only 50,000-80,000 Palestinians remained in the emirate, and by the end of the year, the number had dwindled to some 30,000. Most of these were holders of Egyptian travel documents, originally from Gaza; they were unable to obtain visas to anywhere in the world, including Egypt, the governing power in their homeland at the time when they left for the gulf. By contrast, as noted in The Palestine Yearbook of International Law, “Israel generally placed no obstacles on the post-war return to the territories of Palestinian families from the West Bank,” repatriating some 30,000 West Bankers and 7,000 Gazans with valid Israeli identity cards who had been living and working in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.[29]

No sooner had the dust settled on the Kuwait exodus than the Palestinians experienced yet another expulsion, this time from Libya. In a speech on September 1, 1995, as Israel was about to surrender control of the Palestinian populated areas in the West Bank to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (control of the Gaza population had been surrendered the previous year), Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi announced his intention to expel all Palestinians living and working in the country, urging the Arab states to follow his lead so as to expose the hollowness of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. He argued,

Since the Palestinian leaders claim they have now got a homeland and a passport, let the 30,000 Palestinians in Libya go back to their homeland, and let’s see if the Israelis would permit them to return. That’s how the world will find out that the peace it’s been advocating is no more than treachery and a conspiracy.[30]

While no Arab state took up Qaddafi’s advice and some implored him to rescind his decision, none opened their doors to the deportees. Lebanon denied entry to several thousand arrivals without Lebanese travel documents and banned maritime transport from Libya to preempt the possible flow of deportees while Egypt allowed Palestinians with Israeli permits for entry to Gaza or the West Bank to cross its territory—under escort—to the Palestinian-ruled areas, leaving thousands of hapless refugees stranded in the Egyptian desert for months. Holders of residence permits elsewhere were gradually able to move out; the rest were eventually allowed to remain in Libya when Qaddafi rescinded his decision in early 1997.[31]

Last but not least, the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 unleashed a tidal wave of violence and terror against Iraq’s 34,000-strong Palestinian community, driving some 21,000 people to flee the country in fear for their lives. Yet far from protecting their long time “guests,” the internationally-propped Iraqi government was implicated in the arbitrary detention, torture, killing, and disappearance of Palestinians while none of the neighboring Arab states (with rare, temporary exceptions) opened their doors to fleeing Iraqi Palestinians. “It’s hard to understand why Syria has provided refuge to nearly a million Iraqi refugees but is shutting the door on hundreds of Palestinians also fleeing Iraq,” commented a leading human rights watchdog. “The Syrian government’s mistreatment of these Palestinian refugees contrasts sharply with its declarations of solidarity with the Palestinian people.”[32] A few years later the same watchdog was voicing the same grievance vis-à-vis the Lebanese government for preventing Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war from entering its territory.[33]

No Love Lost

In fairness to the Arab states, their animosity and distrust were more than reciprocated by the Palestinians. As early as the 1948 war, the pan-Arab volunteer force that entered Palestine to fight the Jews found itself at loggerheads with the community it was supposed to defend. Denunciations and violent clashes were common with the local population often refusing to provide the Arab Liberation Army, as this force was ambitiously named, with the basic necessities for daily upkeep and military operations; for their part, Arab army personnel abused their Palestinian hosts of whom they were openly contemptuous.

This mutual animosity was greatly exacerbated in subsequent decades by the recklessness of the Palestinian leadership, headed from the mid-1960s to November 2004 by Arafat, which turned on Arab host societies whenever given the opportunity. As noted above, it was the PLO’s subversive activities against the Jordanian regime that set in train the chain of events culminating in the Black September massacres. Likewise, the PLO’s abuse of its growing power base in Lebanon, where it established itself after its expulsion from Jordan, and its meddling in that country’s internal politics, helped trigger the Lebanese civil war that raged for nearly two decades and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

“I remember literally screaming at him in my own house,” the Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi, then based in Beirut, said, recalling his desperate attempt to dissuade Arafat from taking sides in the nascent civil war. “I was really very angry because it just didn’t make sense for him to say that. I told him that we as Palestinians had no business calling for the ostracism of the Phalangists, and that it would drive them all the way into the hands of the Israelis.”[34] This point was not lost on ordinary Palestinians, who often blamed Arafat for their Lebanese misfortunes. When in summer 1976 the PLO chairman visited survivors of the Tel Zaatar massacre, he was treated to a barrage of rotten vegetables and chants of “traitor” by the embittered refugees who accused him of provoking the camp’s blood-drenched fall.[35]

This political meddling was accompanied by wanton violence wreaked by the PLO on its host society. In a repeat of their Jordanian lawlessness, Palestinian guerrillas turned the vibrant and thriving Lebanese state, whose capital of Beirut was acclaimed as the “Paris of the Middle East,” into a hotbed of violence and anarchy. Several districts of Beirut and the refugee camps came under exclusive Palestinian control, so much so that they became generally known as the Fakhani Republic, after the Beirut district in which Arafat had set up his headquarters. Substantial parts of southern Lebanon or “Fatahland” also were under Palestinian control. In flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty, the PLO set up roadblocks, took over buildings and drove out local residents, operated extortion rackets, protected criminals fleeing from Lebanese justice, and committed countless atrocities against Lebanese civilians, notably the January 1976 massacre of hundreds of residents of the Christian town of Damour, south of Beirut, and the expulsion of the remaining population.[36]

Conclusion

Self-serving interventionism under the pretence of pan-Arab solidarity has transformed the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli dispute into a multilateral Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby stirring unrealistic hopes and expectations in Palestinian political circles and, at key junctures, inciting widespread and horrifically destructive violence. The consequence has been to increase the intensity of the conflict and make its resolution far more complex and tortuous, leaving the Palestinians stateless for over six-and-a-half decades.

The sooner the Palestinians reject this spurious link and recognize that their cause is theirs alone, the sooner are they likely to make their own peace with the existence of the Jewish state—as stipulated by the 1947 partition resolution—and win their own state at long last despite their Arab “brothers.”

EMiddle East Quarterly

[1] Walid Khalidi, “Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State,” Foreign Affairs, July 1978, pp. 695-6; Hisham Sharabi, Nationalism and Revolution in the Arab World (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1966), p. 3.
[2] Walter Laqueur, ed., The Israel-Arab Reader (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 37.
[3] Gen. Nuri Said, Arab Independence and Unity: A Note on the Arab Cause with Particular Reference to Palestine, and Suggestions for a Permanent Settlement to which Are Attached Texts of All the Relevant Documents (Baghdad: Government Press, 1943), p. 11.
[4] “Interview [by] Clare Hollingowith with Azzam Pasha, Mar. 23, 1948, S25/9020”; see, also, “Fortnightly Intelligence Newsletter No. 57,” issued by HQ British Troops in Palestine for the period 6 Dec.-18 Dec. 1947, WO 275/64, p. 2; Cunningham to Creech Jones, Feb. 24, 1948, “Cunningham Papers,” VI/1/80; Kirkbride to Bevin, Dec. 23, 1947, FO 371/61583; Musa Alami, “The Lesson of Palestine,” Middle East Journal, Oct. 1949, p. 385.
[5] John Laffin, The PLO Connections (London: Corgi Books, 1983), p. 127.
[6] Damascus Radio, Mar. 8, 1974.
[7] Palestinians leaders went out of their way to reassure their constituents that this was merely a tactical ploy aimed at enhancing the PLO’s international standing and, as a result, its ability to achieve the ultimate goal of Israel’s destruction: “We vowed to liberate Palestine before 1967,” stated Abu Iyad, Yasser Arafat’s second in command. “We will restore Palestine step by step and not in one fell swoop, just as the Jews had done.” He reiterated this pledge a few days later: “The establishment of a Palestinian state on any part of Palestine is but a step toward the [liberation of the] whole of Palestine.” Al-Anba (Kuwait), Dec. 5, 13, 1988.
[8] Davar (Tel Aviv), Nov. 12, 1987; Hadashot (Tel Aviv), Nov. 13, 15, 1987.
[9] International Herald Tribune (Paris), Nov. 27, Dec. 5, 1984.
[10] For further discussion of this issue, see Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (New York: Grove, 2003; rev. and updated ed.); Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
[11] The New York Times, Mar. 16, 1991; “A New Beginning,” US News & World Report, Sept. 13, 1993.
[12]194 (III). Palestine – Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator,” U.N. General Assembly, New York, Dec. 11, 1948, art. 11; “393 (v) – Assistance to Palestine Refugees,” idem, Dec. 2, 1950, art. 4; “Special report of the Director and Advisory Commission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,” idem, Nov. 29, 1951, A/1905/Add. 1, p. 4. For Arab rejection of res. 194, see “Arab Broadcasts: Daily Summary,” Israeli Foreign Office, Middle Eastern Dept., no. 36, Sept. 12-13, 1948; Hagana Archive (Tel Aviv), HA 105/88, p. 153; “Arabs Firm on Refugees,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 1948; British Middle East Office (Cairo) to Foreign Office, Sept. 11, 1948, FO 371/68341; Davar, Aug. 8, 1948; al-Masri (Cairo), Oct. 11, 1948, quoted in “Refugee Repatriation—A Danger to Israel’s security,” Israeli Foreign Ministry, Research Dept., Sept. 4, 1951, FM 2564/1.
[13]Where We Work – Lebanon,” UNRWA, New York, accessed Dec. 8, 2013; “Exiled and Suffering: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” Amnesty International, London, Oct. 2007, pp. 2, 10; Julie Peteet, “From Refugees to Minority: Palestinians in Post-War Lebanon,” Middle East Report, July-Sept. 1996, p. 29.
[14] Lena El-Malak, “Betrayed and Forgotten: Palestinians Refugees in Lebanon,” Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, vol. 9, 2002-03, pp. 136-7; Souheil al-Natour, “The Legal Status of Palestinians in Lebanon,” Journal of Refugee Studies, no. 3, 1997, pp. 360-77.
[15]Palestinians in Lebanon working under precarious conditions,” International Labor Organization, Geneva, Nov. 20, 2012; World Report 2010: Lebanon, World Report 2011: Lebanon, World Report 2013: Lebanon, Human Rights Watch, New York; “Exiled and Suffering,” Amnesty International, London, pp. 18-22.
[16] See, for example, “Recommendations by the Committee of Arab Experts in Reply to the Proposals by the U.N. Secretary-General Regarding the Continuation of U.N. Assistance to the Palestine Refugee” (Sofar, Leb.), Aug. 17, 1959, in Muhammad Khalil, The Arab States and the Arab League: A Documentary Record (Beirut: Khayat, 1962), vol. 2, pp. 654-5; Abbas Shiblak, “Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1996, pp. 36-45.
[17] P.K. Abdul Gharfour, “A Million Expatriates to Benefit from New Citizenship Law,Arab News (Riyadh), Oct. 21, 2004.
[18] Moshe Efrat, “Haplitim Hapalestinaim 1949-74: Mehkar Kalkali Vehevrati” (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Horowitz Center for the Study of Developing Countries, Sept. 1976), pp. 22-3; Don Peretz, Palestinian Refugees and the Middle East Peace Process (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993), pp. 49-50; Mudar Zahran, “Jordan Is Palestinian,Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012, pp. 3-12.
[19]Where We Work: Jordan,” UNRWA. Figures as of Jan. 1, 2012.
[20]World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Jordan: Palestinians, 2008,” Minority Rights Group International, London, accessed Feb. 3, 2014.
[21] Laurie A. Brand, “Palestinians and Jordanians: A Crisis of Identity,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1995, pp. 46-61; “Stateless Again: Palestinian-Origin Jordanians Deprived of Their Nationality,” Human Rights Watch, New York, Feb. 1, 2010; “Jordan: Stop Withdrawing Nationality from Palestinian-Origin Citizens,” Human Rights Watch, Feb. 1, 2010.
[22] U.S. Ambassador to Jordan David Hale, “Confidential Memo on the Debate in Jordan Concerning the Palestinian Right of Return, Amman, Feb. 5, 2008,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 2012, pp. 220, 222.
[23] Said Aburish, Arafat: From Defender to Dictator (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 114.
[24] Al-Majallah (London), Nov. 26, 1983.
[25] “Exiled and suffering,” Amnesty International, London, pp. 5-6.
[26] Ramzy Baroud, “Starving to Death in Syria,al-Ahram (Cairo), Jan. 9-15, 2014; The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 19, 2013; Haaretz (Tel Aviv), Jan. 2, 2014; The Guardian (London), Dec. 12, 2012.
[27] “From Badil Refugee Survey 2008-2009: Secondary Forced Displacement in Host Countries – An Overview,” BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Bethlehem, Summer-Autumn 2010.
[28] Al-Musawwar (Cairo), Nov. 15, 1991.
[29] “Nowhere to Go: The Tragedy of the Remaining Palestinian Families in Kuwait,” Human Rights Watch, Middle East Watch, Oct. 23, 1991, reprinted in The Palestine Yearbook of International Law, vol. 6, 1990-91, pp. 99-102; Steven J. Rosen, “Kuwait Expels Thousands of Palestinians,Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2012, pp. 75-83; Ann M. Lesch, “Palestinians in Kuwait,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1991, pp. 47-53.
[30] The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 14, 1995; The New York Times, Oct. 5, 1995.
[31] Abbas Shiblak, “A Time of Hardship and Agony: Palestinian Refugees in Libya,Palestine-Israel Journal, no. 4, 1995; “The Palestinian Crisis in Libya, 1994-1996 (Interview with Professor Bassem Sirhan),” Forced Secondary Displacement: Palestinian Refugees in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Bethlehem, Winter 2010.
[32]Syria: Give Refuge to Palestinians Fleeing Threats in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, Feb. 2, 2007.
[33]Nowhere to Flee: The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, New York, Sept. 2006; “Syria: Give Refuge to Palestinians Fleeing Threats in Iraq,” idem, Feb. 2, 2007; “Lebanon: Palestinians Fleeing Syria Denied Entry,” idem, Aug. 8, 2013.
[34] Andrew Gowers and Tony Walker, Arafat: The Biography (London: Virgin, 1994), pp. 186, 200.
[35] Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 86, 102.
[36] Aburish, Arafat, p. 151.

Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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