Syrian Crisis Highlights Palestinian Priorities

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

Last month, the Palestinian Authority (PA) took the rare step of publicly voicing concern over the fate of Palestinians living in Syria. About 300 (out of a population of over 500,000) have already been killed, PA officials said, and with some Palestinians supporting the Assad government while others supported the opposition, they feared the community would increasingly be targeted by both sides.

Those 300 slain Palestinians pale beside a total Syrian death toll of over 19,000. Yet the PA’s concern is clearly justified, because Palestinians find it harder than other Syrians to gain asylum in neighboring states. Some Palestinians have reportedly been turned back at the Jordanian border. Jordan denies this, but doesn’t deny that unlike other Syrians, those Palestinians who Jordan has admitted are strictly confined to the camps where they are housed. Palestinians have also been denied entry to Lebanon, and those that succeed in entering say they live in hiding for fear of being sent back.

Nor is such treatment unusual. After Saddam Hussein fell, Palestinians were targeted as Saddam collaborators by both the Iraqi government and various militias, yet were denied entry to both Jordan and Syria when they sought to flee. In 1995, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi perpetrated a mass expulsion of Palestinians, but Palestinians were then targeted as Gadhafi collaborators during last year’s Libyan uprising – and denied entry to Egypt when they sought sanctuary. Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinians in 1991, due to Palestinian support for Saddam’s invasion of that country.

Clearly, all these Palestinian refugees would have benefited had a Palestinian state existed to open its gates to them. Yet that’s precisely what makes the PA’s behavior over the last 20 years so astounding – especially when contrasted with the Jews’ behavior half a century earlier.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Jews, too, faced a severe refugee crisis – and for them, too, it was just the latest in a long list. Before World War II, Jews sought desperately to flee Hitler’s Germany, yet no other country would take them. After the war, hundreds of thousands of survivors were stuck in DP camps with nowhere to go.

But the leaders of pre-state Israel knew exactly what the solution was: They needed a state – any state, however short of their dreams it fell – so they could open its gates to the refugees. Consequently, they said, “yes” to every proposal they were offered.

In 1937, for instance, the Peel Commission offered the Jews a mere five percent of the territory originally designated for a Jewish state under the British Mandate, or about 25 percent of what remained following Jordan’s creation in 1922. The proposed state consisted of two noncontiguous cantons, and excluded Jerusalem, the Jews’ holy city. Yet recognizing the desperate need for a state to absorb the refugees, the Jewish leadership assented. The plan was shelved because the Arabs rejected it.

This scenario recurred 10 years later, when the UN proposed its partition plan. It offered the Jews about 56 percent of the post-1922 territory (roughly 10 percent of the original mandate), in three separate cantons connected by extraterritorial roads, and still without Jerusalem. But once again, desperate for a state to absorb their refugees, the Jews said yes; it was, again, the Arabs who rejected it.

By contrast, the PA has rejected an offered Palestinian state three times in the last two decades, even though all these offers came much closer to meeting their territorial demands than the Peel Commission and the UN Partition Plan did to meeting Jewish demands. In 2000, Israel offered a state on 88 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, including parts of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In 2001, it offered 94 to 96 percent of the territory, and in 2008, it offered the equivalent of 100 percent (after land swaps). Yet each time, the PA refused. “The gaps were wide,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas famously said of the 2008 offer.

Now, too, despite his stated concern over the Palestinians in Syria, Abbas refuses even to negotiate with Israel in a bid to get a state that could succor them. Instead, he plans to seek UN recognition as a nonmember observer state – which not only won’t help a single Palestinian refugee enter the West Bank (since Israel will still control it), but could trigger American and Israeli sanctions that would reduce his ability even to send them aid.

This behavior raises an obvious question: Does the Palestinian leadership really want a state, and if so, what for? Because if its goal were to help its distressed countrymen, its best move would clearly be to accept an Israeli offer, however imperfect, so it could start absorbing its refugees.

Its serial refusals thus indicate that helping fellow Palestinians isn’t its main goal. Instead, it has prioritized undermining Israel.

At the 2001 Taba talks, for instance, Israel conditioned its offer of the Temple Mount on a Palestinian pledge not to excavate there, “because the site is sacred to the Jews.” The Palestinians were willing not to excavate, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Haaretz. But they weren’t willing to accept any wording that acknowledged the historic Jewish connection to the Mount.

Similarly, they have consistently demanded that Israel acknowledge a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees – not to a Palestinian state, but to Israel. This is a recipe for Israel’s destruction. Absorbing all five million would make Israel a Palestinian-majority state. Yet even if an agreement formally set numerical limits, Israel would be on shaky legal ground denying entry to the rest once having acknowledged their right to it.

The UN bid, too, is aimed primarily at Israel. As Abbas explained last year, he wants UN recognition not because it would remove a single Israeli soldier, but because it would enable the PA to lodge “claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

Successive American governments have tried hard to midwife a Palestinian state. But based on the record to date, such efforts will just be wasted time and money until a Palestinian leader arises who cares more about helping his people than about undermining Israel.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.