For some in the Palestinians’ international cheering squad, the March 30 “Land Day” demonstrations could be a long-hoped for turning point. If the massive protests planned for the Gaza border go off on Friday without violence, then the battle against Israel will, they hope, no longer be depicted as one primarily about terrorism.
Instead, it will be portrayed as a civil-rights struggle comparable to the one waged in the United States against segregation.
But there are a few problems with that formulation.
The first is that the organization planning this “nonviolent” demonstration is Hamas—an Islamist terror group, not the NAACP. Violence is part of Hamas’s raison d’être, so expecting any action associated with the group to be completely divorced from violence is a long shot. The purpose of any march on a heavily armed border where terror incidents are a regular occurrence will likely be to provoke the Israel Defense Forces into acting to prevent the security fence around Gaza from being beached. The goal will be to produce more “martyrs” among those the terror group already uses as human shields so as to further embitter the conflict, not to effect change.
The key question about these demonstrations is not whether efforts to cross into Israel will lead to bloodshed. The most significant thing about the “Land Day” rally is its theme: “the Great March of Return.” The Palestinian emphasis on the concept of “return” isn’t merely a marketing slogan; it’s a reminder that 70 years after Israel’s birth, the Palestinians are still clinging to the idea of eliminating the Jewish state.
Land Day protests date back to a violent dispute about the Israeli government’s expropriation of land in the Galilee in 1976. Arabs owned only about a third of the property used for security and settlement purposes that was seized in exchange for compensation. However, the demonstrations that led to bloodshed were a pivotal moment in the never-ending effort to resist Zionism. From that moment on, Land Day became part of the annual effort to mobilize both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to resist Israel.
But the notion of “return” is significant because it bases the Palestinians grievances against Israel not in the question of West Bank settlements or a desire for two states, after which they would gain independence. Instead, it places the argument about the Middle East conflict firmly on the question of whether Israel has a right to exist in the first place. Return isn’t merely a code word for eliminating the Jewish state. It is a pledge made by the leaders of both Hamas and the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority—that no peace with Israel will be made that doesn’t recognize the right of descendants of the 1948 refugees to go back to their original homes. In other words, no peace as long as there is an Israel.
As delusional as the entire concept of trying to undo the last seven decades of history may be, the reason why “return” remains part of the lexicon of the conflict is that it remains an inextricable part of not just Palestinian politics, but Palestinian national identity.
It is true that at times, both P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas and even Hamas have flirted with the notion of two states, in which Palestinian nationalism would focus on the West Bank and Gaza rather than on pre-1967 Israel. Abbas even acknowledged at one point that he isn’t going back to Tzfat, the city in the Galilee where his family comes from. Hamas has said it was willing to accept a peace deal whereby Palestinian statehood would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet both have also continued to talk of “return” as being more than lip service paid to the issue, in which a token number of Palestinians would be allowed to enter Israel as part of an agreement. Even if you believed—faced with all evidence to the contrary—that despite their repeated rejections of two-state offers from Israel the Palestinians want such a solution, they are keeping the refugees in their back pocket in order to justify resumption of the conflict even after a two-state pact was signed.
That’s a message that falls on the deaf ears of those who are determined to blame the lack of peace on the Israeli government.
As has been the case throughout the last 70 years, the debate about how to resolve the conflict in Western forums invariably focuses on Israel, while ignoring both Palestinian intentions and actions. Those who wish only to blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Jewish settlers turn a blind eye to the rejectionist ideology behind “return” or even the unwillingness of the P.A. to stop funding terror. Indeed, the passage this week of the Taylor Force Act by Congress, which linked U.S. aid to the Palestinians to ceasing that funding, resulted in the P.A. announcing that it would resume direct payments to terrorists rather than resorting to the subterfuge of indirect measures.
Deciding whether Abbas’s Fatah Party or even Hamas is prevented from accepting peace by the refugees, or whether the Palestinian groups’ ongoing efforts to keep the idea of return alive in the minds of their people, is a chicken-and-egg sort of question. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the despair of the refugees—generations of Arabs who have been deliberately kept in refugee camps as opposed to being resettled in order to keep the war on Zionism alive—is a greater stumbling block than the way Fatah and Hamas exploit them to avoid making peace.
This week’s “great march” isn’t about symbolism or nonviolence. It’s about a Palestinian refusal to admit defeat in a century-old war that they’ve already lost. The fact remains that as long as Palestinians are still talking about “return,” anything resembling peace just isn’t on the horizon.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.