Opinion

Gaza’s Refugees Have Always Haunted Israel. Now They’re on the March

Israel has marched on Gaza twice: in 1956 and 1967. Now Gazans are marching on Israel, with a stark reminder that the narrow, impoverished and blockaded territory constitutes a refugee crisis - and a moral calamity for Israel

Image form Twitter publicizing the Palestinian 'Great Return March'
Twitter

The Marches of Return are already sending chills down Israel's spine.

The marches will commence on March 30, Land Day, through May 15, Nakba Day, as thousands of Palestinians will gather in Gaza and the West Bank, pitch refugee tents, and march along the Israeli border in peaceful demonstrations.

They embody what Israel has always feared since its creation seven decades ago: The marching of uprooted Palestinian refugees on Israel.

Nowhere was Israel's fear of "marching refugees" more deeply grounded than in the Gaza Strip. And for good reason.

In the mass expulsion that both preceded and followed Israel's founding, about 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and forced to flee their homes and become lifetime refugees. 250,000 of those uprooted flooded into Gaza. That was one third of the total Palestinian refugee population. As a result, the population of Gaza, which had numbered 80,000 before the war, tripled overnight.

With two-third of its population now refugees, Gaza became one huge refugee camp. The coastal strip resembled a tent city squashed between desert and sea. Submerged by waves of displaced people, it became a "Noah's Ark" for Arab Palestine that had vanished in 1948.

Most of the refugees who flooded to Gaza came from towns and villages in central and southern Palestine, and from northern parts as far as Galilee. Those who came from villages around Gaza had to endure the painful spectacle of being displaced within sight of their lost lands and houses.

These displaced groups sought refuge in the relative security provided by the Egyptian army in Gaza, which provided sanctuary from the advancing Zionist forces in other parts of the country. The paradoxical fate of Gaza was that, at a time when other Palestinian cities witnessed a mass exodus of refugees, Gaza was experiencing a great influx of them. Gaza's was a rare case of internally displaced people who became lifetime refugees.

Palestinian refugees after the June 1967 Six Day War
AP

Overnight, eight refugees camps were created in Gaza: three in 1948, and five in 1949. While the Gaza Strip comprised a hundredth of the area of Mandate Palestine (360 square kilometers), it now provided a home for a quarter of its Arab population.

The tragedy was further aggravated by the demarcation of the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Egypt, which rendered the Gaza Strip far narrower than the old Gaza district under the British Mandate.

The crisis was so profound that on December 1, 1948, the United Nations set up a special agency to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees: The United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees. (In 1996, UNRPR's successor, UNRWA, would move its headquarters from Vienna to Gaza, where a quarter of the Palestinian refugees were living.) Ten days later, on December 11, the UN General Assembly voted for Resolution 194, which called for reaching a final settlement to ensure the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

The  moral calamity was not lost on the Israeli leadership. In April 1956, military leader Moshe Dayan had a rare confession to make: "What we can say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers dwelled, into our home."

Yet international pleas fell on deaf Israeli ears, and the fate of Gaza refugees was sealed. In the seven decades that followed the 1948 war, the gates of Gaza were slammed shut on its displaced population. Its impoverished and overcrowding eight refugee camps would become permanent.

The tragedy, it would transpire, was not the flight of refugees to Gaza, but not allowing them to return to their homes, a policy which Israel ruthlessly pursued. Hence the return marches would become an emblem of Nakba Day annual commemorations.   

Israeli troops line up prisoners in the Gaza strip in readiness for questioning and identification on June 6, 1967, during the early stages of the Arab-Israel war
AP

Israel's founders, notably David Ben-Gurion, had seen this coming. Eyeing Gaza, they foresaw the risk in concentrating tens of thousands of refugees in a coastal strip straddled between the Negev and Sinai, where the natural obstacle presented by the desert prevented their dispersion. Fearing the spectacle of "waves of refugees marching on Israel from Gaza," the early Israeli leadership had set its mind on eliminating the refugee camps in Gaza.

In November 1956, during the Suez Crisis, it was Israel who marched on Gaza. Starting with military raids on refugee camps, Israel's first occupation of Gaza, which lasted for four months, culminated in two massacres at Khan Yunis and the Rafah camps.

The human cost was so alarmingly high it prompted E.L.M. Burns, the head of a special UN observer mission in Gaza at the time, to link the killings to Israel's intention to get rid of the refugee population in Gaza.

That year he told Israeli officials in Gaza: "You have captured in the Strip and its population, including the refugees. Very well, keep the Strip and its population, but you must also settle the refugees that you have taken with the Strip, and whom you drove from their homes eight years ago.”

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who visited Gaza in March 1967, was appalled by the sight of refugee camps there. That month he told an Israeli politician that, "the refugee camps I have seen will be a heavy burden on Israel's future." This was a foresighted observation on Sartre's part, though it was also a belated realization, for the refugee camps had already haunted Israel for two decades since 1948.

Later that year, the 1967 war broke out and Israel invaded Gaza for the second time. It was no easy feat: It took Israel six days to win the war, but four years to take control of Gaza. The fighting resulted in a second exodus, as tens of thousands of refugees, still haunted by the memory of the first occupation, fled Gaza to Jordan and Egypt, never to return.

A Palestinian protester gestures as smokes rises from a fire during clashes with Israeli troops near the Israeli border fence in the east of Gaza City October 10, 2015
REUTERS/Yasser Gdeeh

The refugee population of Gaza continued to haunt the Israeli leadership after 1967. Transfer plans abounded. During the subsequent prolonged Israeli occupation of Gaza – which, painfully, placed Gaza refugees under the control of the very forces that had uprooted them two decades ago – Israeli politicians, notably Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan, contemplated transferring Gaza refugees to the West Bank, or Sinai, or an Arab country in North Africa (the Libyan Operation.) They even hatched a secret plan, named the Moshe Dayan Plan, to transfer refugees to Latin America by air, but the plan was deemed costly and impractical.

Ironically, the ‘open door’ policy, promoted by Moshe Dayan in this period, prompted the departure of thousands of refugees from Gaza to Jordan and Egypt, without the possibility of return.

Like war, peace proved costly for the refugees of Gaza, thanks to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979. For one thing, the peace agreement reinforced the old international frontier of 1906, dividing families by barbed wires, causing further population displacements and house demolitions along the newly demarcated border, and depriving Gaza's fishermen of their traditional access to Egyptian territorial waters. For another, the destruction of Israeli settlements in Sinai was compensated for by an upsurge in settlement activity in Gaza.

In the next two decades, the dispossessed rebelled.

In 1987, the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, nicknamed 'Vietnam Camp.' The uprising was led by young Palestinians who grew up under Israeli occupation. The same year, Hamas was founded by a handicapped refugee in Gaza, nearly three decades after two other refugees from Gaza, along with Yasser Arafat, founded Fatah in Kuwait.

AP

In 2000, Gaza also became the symbolic battlefield of the second intifada, when, on September 30, at a crossroads near Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura was shot dead in his father's arms, becoming the iconic figure of the uprising.

In 2005, after nearly four decades of protracted occupation, Israel withdrew from Gaza, leaving behind some one million camped refugees, believing it had swept the refugee crisis under the rug of "disengagement."

In reality, Israel's unilateral withdrawal made the refugee population an easy target to its military incursions, where entire sections of the refugee camps were declared no-go areas for the Israeli patrols. At the same time, the Israeli withdrawal was widely branded as having fulfilled Israel's obligations towards Gaza and its refugees.

In the meantime, Israel continued to control Gaza's frontier posts, airspace and territorial waters, while declaring the Strip a "hostile territory" subject to continued military operations and collective punishment.

Over the past decade, Israel has maintained a total blockade on Gaza, while routinely bombarding and raiding its population, causing thousands of civilian deaths. Bombarded under siege, the refugees of Gaza, trapped in and deprived of the choice to flee, came to realize the depth of their tragedy: There is one thing worse than displacement, and that is not being able to leave. Besides, one of the lessons of the Nakba was that, for Gazans, leaving would amount to permanent exile and second displacement.

This rendered Gaza the largest open air prison in the world, with two million people, the majority of whom live in cramped refugee camps. In a bitter irony, the steadfastness of refugees coincided with UN reports describing Gaza under siege as "unlivable." 

The Gaza Strip as it stands today is an Israeli creation, whose tragic fate was sealed in the heat of war. Since then, the spectacle of "marching refugees" from Gaza has haunted the Israeli leadership.

Palestinians gather next to tents they erected near the Gaza-Israel border on the outskirts of Gaza City, for a six-week show of support for Palestinian refugees. March 27, 2018
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Indeed, Israel's unending obsession with the refugee population in Gaza  explains its aggressive policy toward Gaza over the past seven decades, which has included two occupations, endless military raids and offenses (the French historian Jean Pierre Filiu counted twelve Israeli wars on Gaza since 1948), and a ten-year blockade with no end in sight.

It should also explain why Israel continues to view impoverished and powerless Gaza as a security threat of ‘existential’ proportions that requires extraordinary and disproportionate measures. Yet rather than eliminating the refugee population, Israel's endless offensives, paradoxically, have only enhanced the solidarity between the urban population of the Gaza Strip and that of the refugee camps.

The Marches of Return are a stark reminder that the crisis in Gaza is first and foremost a refugee crisis, one that is alive and still awaits justice, perhaps now more than ever. They are also a living reminder that what Israel feared seven decades ago has come upon it: The refugees are marching on.

Seraj Assi is the author of the forthcoming book, The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimaging Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018).

This article forms the basis of a talk to be given at the United Nations Forum on the Question of Palestine: "70 Years after 1948 – Lessons to Achieve a Sustainable Peace," in New York, May 17-18, 2018