70 years of shooting refugees

Despite Israel’s brutality, Palestinians have insisted for seven decades that the right of refugees to return home be upheld (Ashraf Amra - APA images)

Jake Batinga

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 8, 2019

Since March 2018, weekly protests – known as the Great March of Return – have been held in Gaza.

The demonstrators are insisting that people uprooted by Zionist forces during the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine – be allowed to go home. This right of return has been recognized by United Nations General Assembly resolution 194, passed in December 1948.

Israel has responded brutally to demands that this basic right be upheld. More than 210 Palestinians have been killed during the Great March of Return and more than 9,000 have been injured by live fire.

As well as insisting that the right to return be respected, Palestinian refugees have occasionally attempted to exercise that right over the past seven decades. In doing so, they have been treated with extreme violence.

In the years following the adoption of UN resolution 194, large numbers of people living in Gaza tried to cross the boundary with Israel, a newly established state. In an Orwellian turn of phrase, the Israeli authorities designated these returning refugees as “infiltrators.”

In his book Israel’s Border Wars, the historian Benny Morris writes that the so-called infiltration was “a direct consequence of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”

Refugees sought to reunite with family, tend crops, recover lost possessions and, of course, see their old homes.

Firing “at anything that moved”

Israel’s Border Wars was published in 1997 – seven years before Morris argued that Zionist forces should have expelled all Palestinians in the 1940s. Despite his attempts to defend ethnic cleansing, Morris has never repudiated the important facts he had previously unearthed.

And we can continue to learn a considerable amount from his work about crimes committed in the name of Israel and its state ideology Zionism.

He recounts, for example, how Israel operated a “free fire” policy on refugees seeking to return home. According to Morris, Israeli forces “fired at anything that moved” and often executed injured refugees “on the spot.”

Between 2,700 and 5,000 refugees were killed under the free fire policy, the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians, from 1949 to 1956. Furthermore, “no Israeli soldier, policeman, or civilian was ever tried for shooting and killing an unarmed Arab infiltrator,” Morris writes.

While Palestinian refugees were slaughtered for attempting to exercise their right of return, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the cynically titled “Law of Return” in 1950. It granted Jews from around the world the right to gain Israeli citizenship and live in Israel.

Immigrants to Israel, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, often settled in the vacant homes of Palestinian refugees.

Another policy implemented against Palestinian refugees seeking to go home was known as “retaliation.”

Israel “retaliated” by raiding villages in Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. These raids were meant to punish communities that had allegedly helped returning refugees.

In his book The Iron Wall, the historian Avi Shlaim writes that the reprisals were effectively “a form of collective punishment against whole villages.”

One notable case of “retaliation” occurred during October 1953 in the Jordanian village of Qibya.

According to Shlaim’s book, Israeli commandos raided Qibya, forced the residents to stay in their homes, then blew up the houses with everyone still inside. At least 69 people were killed, most of them women and children.

The leader of this raid was a young commander named Ariel Sharon, who would later be dubbed the “butcher of Beirut” for his role in the 1982 mass slaughter at Sabra and Shatila, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Shifting the blame

Israel has consistently sought to shift the blame for its own violence.

In the 1950s, the Israeli government blamed Arab governments and Palestinian refugees themselves. According to Shlaim, Israel claimed that the killing of civilians was a “legitimate form of self-defense.”

Identical – or almost identical – words are used by Israel’s political leaders today.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has invoked “self-defense” to try and justify the killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza. After one Israeli massacre in Gaza last year, Netanyahu claimed the state was acting “to protect its sovereignty and the security of its citizens.”

When a video was broadcast which showed Israeli troops gleefully cheering and laughing as a sniper shoots a protester, Israeli politicians rushed to defend the troops.

Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel’s defense minister, stated that the sniper in the video “deserves a commendation.” Naftali Bennett, also a government minister at the time, said that “judging soldiers because they are not expressing themselves elegantly while they are defending our borders is not serious.”

Today, the Israeli government smears Gaza protesters as “terrorists.” Benny Morris has noted how “infiltrator” – the term applied to Palestinian refugees seeking to go home – quickly became synonymous with “terrorist.”

And just as the Israeli authorities tried to evade responsibility for its attacks on Arab neighbours in the 1950s, today’s politicians try to blame Hamas for the deaths of protesters in Gaza.

Lieberman has alleged that “no innocent civilians” have taken part in Gaza’s protests, which he has nicknamed the “march of terror.” All the protesters, according to Lieberman, have been Hamas members.

Another pattern can be discerned. Palestinians fought for their rights in the years immediately following the Nakba, as they are doing in the 21st century.

Israeli brutality continues – and so does the struggle against it.

Jake Batinga is a California-based writer and activist. He lived in the occupied West Bank city of Al-Khalil (Hebron), while working with the International Solidarity Movement, documenting human rights abuses by the Israeli army and settlers.