Book Review: The War of Return

The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace

By Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf

(All Points Books, 2020)

The War of Return is a well-researched and reasoned investigation into two important matters: The havoc that the Palestinian “right of return” claim has wrought on the Middle East peace process, and the damage done to the United Nations’ credibility as a force for peace in the region through the creation and continuing work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Schwartz, an Israeli researcher of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Wilf, a political scientist and former member of the Knesset, propose that the right of return has been, and continues to be, a principal stumbling block to making peace because it was interpreted by the Arabs as an individual right, so that all Palestinian negotiators could do was demand Israel’s acknowledgement of that right.

The second is that the UN took two major steps unheard of in the international handling of refugees. One was making the status of Palestinian refugees inheritable by all their descendants, thus turning 726,000 refugees into over 5 million today.

The other was abandoning its original purpose of stabilizing the refugees, getting them looked after, and then integrating them into their surroundings or absorbed by other countries.

Instead, the UN has chosen to support them in their desire to continue being refugees in order to ultimately exercise what they believed to be their legal, inalienable right of return to their homes and properties in Israel, based on UN Resolution 194, passed in 1948 as part of a number of recommendations towards a full peace agreement.

To their credit, Schwartz and Wilf make their claims clearly and concisely, based on prodigious research, to which the footnotes and bibliography attest.

The book captures all the main themes in six chapters. They deal briefly with civilians in wars and ethnic hostilities who became refugees (or pawns) in population exchanges, none of whom had a right to return to their country of origin without its consent. Some mention is made of the salient points related to the 1948 War of Independence and its aftermath (the “Naqbah,” or “catastrophe” for the Palestinians).

The authors highlight that the Palestinians never gave up the notion of taking back Israel as their own land and eliminating the Jewish state, originally by military means, and when that became unlikely, by linking the right of return with the right of self-determination, thus using demographics to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, or a state at all.

The book also deals with the double-speak of the West Bank Palestinian leadership in its 1988 Declaration of Independence, convincing, on the one hand, its Western audience of its peaceable intentions towards Israel, while on the other, saying something entirely different to its Arab followers. That leadership’s subsequent actions, including two intifadas and encouraging continuing terrorist attacks, exhibited its real intentions.

As well, the book details how the Israeli leadership and media were fooled into thinking that the Palestinian right of return was a side issue easily negotiated once the “land for peace” matter was settled. It does not deal in detail with the actual, non-existent legal position of the claims to a right to return, but footnotes and an authoritative article by a law professor of Fordham University convincingly supports that assertion.

The book also examines the role UNRWA has played in feeding Palestinian refugees’ sense of grievance and bitterness towards Israel for denying them their supposed legal rights and loss of their ancestors’ lands; how refugee camps have become breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment; how UNRWA lost control of the camps (which became towns) to the Palestinians themselves; and lost track of who qualified as refugees and where they were.

The book ends with a number of suggestions to resolve the issue of UNRWA’s complicity in keeping the right of return issue alive and bringing reality to bear, including disbanding UNRWA and turning over its functions to the Palestinians themselves.

This is a disquieting read for those who have taken the right of return as legally legitimate or really a side issue for peace, and those who think of UNRWA as a positive force performing the laudable function of helping struggling refugees to a just solution. The authors have made a valuable contribution to understanding these issues, which have had a significant impact on this intractable ethnic conflict between two peoples, biblically of the same origin, over one small spot on earth.

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