An enduring refugee crisis, the conflict is unlike any similar episode from World War II and its aftermath.
And so again there is war between Israelis and Palestinians. Wikipedia lists 16 wars or war-like clashes since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948—almost one every five years.
Nearly everyone who has attempted to analyse the causes of this seemingly eternal conflict has sought explanations in the course of history. This has often led to a kind of historical debt accounting: who attacked whom, who displaced whom, who committed abuses and who massacred whom?
Unfortunately, this historical search for fundamental responsibility for the conflict has proved futile. Many Palestinians were expelled by the Israeli army during the war in 1948, but many chose to follow the calls of Arab leaders to leave and return after their armies had ‘thrown the Jews into the sea’. Or as the secretary general of the Arab League put it in 1947 (only two years after the full revelations of the Holocaust), ‘This war will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades.’ The abuse and active displacement of parts of the Palestinian population by the Israeli army is however also well-documented.
All in all, nothing of value for a resolution of the conflict has come out of this historical debt accounting, in which so many have been and remain engaged. Indeed, as the progressive Israeli social psychologist Arie Nadler has long argued, it is associated with an endless competitive struggle for the moral high ground of legitimate victimhood.
A more fruitful way to understand this conflict is to use the comparative method established in the social sciences. Since one cannot, as typically in the natural sciences, carry out real experiments, one can seek explanations by comparing similar cases. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians then looks different.
At the time of the Palestinian refugee disaster, many like episodes unfolded in Europe. In 1944 close to half a million Finns were forced to leave Karelia after this contested interposing region was attacked by the Soviet Union. One hundred thousand Romanians were expelled from Bulgaria in 1941. More than one million Poles were forced from areas annexed by the Soviets in 1945. More than 300,000 ethnic Italians were forced to leave Istria and Dalmatia (in contemporary Slovenia and Croatia) after 1943.
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At least 12 million Germans who had lived since ‘time immemorial’ in what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other eastern-European countries were displaced in 1945-46. Many had been active Nazis but certainly far from all. Not least the expulsion of the three million Germans from the Sudetenland in the Czech Republic was extremely brutal.
None of these refugee catastrophes has produced anything which even comes close to the massive violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The distinction is that the other refugee populations have not to any great extent demanded a right to return. It was this very issue that made it impossible, in the Camp David negotiations in 2000 in the United States, to reach agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization: the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, persisted with that demand.
Let us focus on the comparison with those expelled from Karelia in 1944. The Karelians are, in a way, Finns but with a clear ethnic identity and dialect; many were not Lutherans but belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. So, as between the Palestinians and the populations of the Arab countries to which they fled, there were some distinctions from the Finnish-speaking Finns of the time. That said, Karelia is to some extent the ‘original Finland’, from which the national epic Kalevala comes.
The crucial difference is however in how the refugee situation was resolved. Finland, which then had under four million inhabitants, was forced to receive a rapid wave of refugees corresponding to 12 per cent of its population. Palestinian refugees made up less than 2 per cent of the population of the Arab states which went to war with Israel in 1948. Nevertheless, while the Palestinians were put in camps by the states to which they fled and were generally denied integration and citizenship, Finland chose a different solution.
Its first, and perhaps most remarkable, decision was: no camps! Finland was severely damaged economically, after two wars with the Soviet Union, but it was believed that similar challenging situations in Europe showed refugee camps could become dangerously detached and be socially and psychologically degrading. Instead, remarkable efforts were made to integrate the Karelians.
Finns who had more than one room per person in their dwelling were required to house a Karelian refugee family. With the help of heavy additional taxes and large government loans, the mainly agricultural Karelians obtained new land to cultivate—land which large farmers and landowners were often obliged to relinquish. Contrast the reluctance of Jordan, Syria and Egypt to integrate the Palestinians urged to flee in 1948—a further difference with other refugee disasters is that only in the Palestinian case would one legally inherit refugee status.
Entitled to compensation
Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians claim that the conflict is about the right to their ‘holy land’. This is completely unreasonable: something bought and sold cannot have ‘sacred’ status. Symbolic buildings in Jerusalem perhaps—but not land as such, with its monetary value.
A joint ‘desacralisation’ of the conflict could have led to the following solution. Regardless of whether their parents or grandparents once fled of their own accord, in the hope of returning soon under the protection of victorious Arab armies, or were displaced by Israeli forces, an injustice has been committed against the Palestinian refugees. Something that was theirs has been taken from them and for this they are entitled to compensation.
The property they left has a contemporary market price and the income lost can be estimated. Israel would financially compensate the refugees (in reality their heirs) for what they lost and in this way acknowledge the injustice inflicted. In return, those to be compensated would renounce their right of return. The benefits would be settled through civil law by impartial courts and paid to individuals or families.
This bypasses the Palestinian authorities labelled as ‘terrorist’ (Hamas in Gaza) or severely affected by corruption (the Palestinian Authority in the west bank). It can also be expressed as a recognition that, since all attempts at a state-law solution have failed, a civil-law solution should be tried. The result would be a large group of fairly, or extremely, wealthy ex-Palestinian refugees, a civilised middle class who could invest for themselves and their children’s education.
This would of course be costly for Israel, but that cost must be weighed against fighting a war every five years. And it might seem unrealistic, considering how much blood has flowed, but it is far less unrealistic than the demand that five million Palestinians return to their old lands in the heart of present-day Israel.
In 2014, the European Union actually proposed such a solution and said it was willing to assist Israel with a justifiable portion of the cost—this, unfortunately, was rejected by Israel. Research by prominent political scientists also shows that a serious apology allied to financial compensation could resolve this conflict.
The Palestinians’ claim to the right of return no longer applies to those who fled but to their descendants, still emotionally close to the properties to which they seek to return. Here, too, it is interesting to compare the Karelian Finns.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Finland’s then president, Mauno Koivisto, was given the option by his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, to buy back Karelia. A delegation, which reportedly also included representatives of the Karelian Confederation, went to inspect their ‘out-of-Finland’. They saw that the Soviet-era infrastructure was so dilapidated it would cost Finland enormous amounts to put the country in a reasonable condition.
So Finland refused the offer. There was no strong movement among the Karelian refugees (or their children) to return and nor was there such a demand among the majority of the Finnish population, despite Karelia’s special place in Finnish history. The return of the region is practically a non-issue in Finnish politics.
The Palestinians’ demand to return is thus unique among the many simultaneous refugee disasters to hit Europe. Something has been taken from them and they have the right to be compensated. But the demand to return and Israel’s unwillingness to provide compensation in lieu sustain this tragic conflict.
A Swedish version of this article appeared in Fokus