Hard line Zionists have long maintained that the land known as Palestine never belonged to the Arab population that were living there before 1947. One line of pedantic sophistry has been to argue that the ownership of the land bypassed the Arab population altogether and that none of those potential owners wanted the land returned to them.
- As a strictly legal matter, the Jews didn’t take Palestine from the Arabs; they took it from the British, who exercised sovereign authority in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate for thirty years prior to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. And the British don’t want it back.
- If you consider the British illegitimate usurpers, fine. In that case, this territory is not Arab land but Turkish land, a province of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years until the British wrested it from them during the Great War in 1917. And the Turks don’t want it back.
- If you look back earlier in history than the Ottoman Turks, who took over Palestine over in 1517, you find it under the sovereignty of the yet another empire not indigenous to Palestine: the Mamluks, who were Turkish and Circassian slave-soldiers headquartered in Egypt. And the Mamluks don’t even exist any more, so they can’t want it back.
So, going back 800 years, there’s no particularly clear chain of title that makes Israel’s title to the land inferior to that of any of the previous owners.
There is no denying however, that the indigenous population continued to live there throughout this 800 year period, and longer:
For Palestinians, theirs is not the land of conquest, but the land of their roots going back to time immemorial. Such a lineage does not rely on a biblical promise like the Jewish claim that God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants, and is therefore, the historical site of the Jewish kingdom of Israel. It belongs to the people of Palestine by the simple fact of their continuous residence repeated through birth and possession going back to the earliest Canaanites and even those people living there before recorded history.
Regardless of which side of this debate you accept, there is no disputing what was laid out by the UN Partition Plan:
…the UN Partition Plan of 1947 recommended that 56% of the land be set aside for a Jewish State, 42% for an Arab state and 2% for an internationalised Jerusalem and its surrounds
That is obviously not where Israel is today.
…the territory assigned to the Jews suddenly became 77% resulting in more than 750,000 Palestinians being forcibly expelled and dispossessed of their homes, personal property and their homeland.
The matter of the 1948 ethnic cleansing is no longer in dispute. Historian Ilan Pappe argues that the ethnic cleansing was pre-planned and that the 1948 war provided a convenient pretext, while Benny Morris insists that it was a by-product of the 1948 war. Pursuing responsibility for this event no longer serves any purpose. What matters today is what is done about it. Israel’s refusal to accept right of return of the refugees that ensued from this conflict, is a blatant violation of international law.
Former Israeli foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami makes a shrewd observation when he recognises that the key moment in the Israel-Palestine conflict came not when the Palestinians were expelled, but when Israel refused to allow the Palestinians to return. If the ethnic cleansing, was as Morris suggests, an accident of war, then why has Ehud Olmert, along with his predecessors, maintained the policy of denying the right of return for the refugees?
More than four million UN-registered Palestinian refugees claim the right to return to homes and land taken over by Israel in 1948.
Israel fiercely opposes the refugees’ claim because it would spell the end of the Jewish majority in the Jewish state.
This week, Olmert was forced to acknowledge that the recent peace initiatives by Arab states had been remarkable, but his policy position means that this significant opportunity for peace may be squandered.
He told Yediot Ahronot there was “a real chance that within five years Israel will be able to reach a comprehensive peace deal with its enemies”.
It’s encouraging to hear this optimism, but it’s clear he cannot bring himself to mention a Palestinian state.
UPDATE: Olmert is full of surprises. Today, he proposed a conference between Israel and local Arab leaders:
“I am announcing to the heads of the Arab states on this occasion that if the Saudi king initiates a meeting of moderate Arab states and invites me and the head of the Palestinian Authority in order to present us the Saudi ideas, we will come to hear them and we will be glad to voice ours,” Mr Olmert said.