Refugee Narratives

09.23.13

Between Two Catastrophes: Look at Syria, and Question Everyone's Stories about 1948

Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn't news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.

That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren't living in vast tent cities; they're in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I'm told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.

There are also lessons about 1948 to be learned—very carefully—from today's crisis. Not that history repeats itself. The Syrian catastrophe can't resolve arguments about what happened 65 years ago. It can, however, raise necessary questions about the narratives that both Israelis and Palestinians tell about 1948.

A core tenet of the Palestinian narrative is that the Nakba happened because Zionist leaders intended from the start to expel the Palestinians. This is a more serious charge than saying that Israel bears responsibility for the refugee problem, or that there were expulsions in particular places, or that the Israeli government decision in the summer of 1948 not to let refugees return made them homeless to this day. The charge is of prior intent. That makes it typical of communal narratives. As political scientist Marc Ross has written, a consistent feature of such accounts "is the attribution of motives"—confidently explaining the intentions of the community's enemies. And please don't mention any evidence that Zionist leaders planned, before the war, on Palestine's Arabs staying put.

Let's look at all that in light of the present: The Syrian civil war has become a communal conflict, Alawites against Sunnis. The words "ethnic cleansing" or "sectarian cleansing" appear fairly regularly in news reports from Syria. But read carefully: The reports usually refer to fears or allegations by one side about the other's intent: Christians in Aleppo, aligned with the Alawite regime, fear expulsion; Sunnis charge that the regime is expelling Sunnis from Latakia to carve out an Alawite state. There's plenty of evidence of atrocities and horrific fighting, of flight and steady separation of sectarian communities. But as a Beirut-based expert told me, when the regime bombs a rebel-held Sunni neighborhood or rebels conquer an Alawite enclave, it's not proof of a policy of expulsion, even if people flee. Perhaps later, evidence will emerge. Even then, it will be important not to read documents and testimony with a preconception of "obvious" intent. The same is true when studying evidence from 1948.

A core tenet of the Israeli narrative of 1948 and after is also a claim to know the intent of the other side: In this history, Arab countries refused to absorb Palestinian refugees into their societies as a deliberate strategy to stoke their hatred, encourage their hope of return, and use them as pawns against Israel. Why else, goes the reasoning, would Arab countries refuse to integrate Arabs, just as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees?

Again, let's look at today, especially at Lebanon. Letting a million homeless Syrians settle down permanently and become Lebanese citizens isn't in the cards. Most, it's assumed, are Sunnis. Absorbing them in Lebanon would shatter the always-fragile political balance between Lebanon's own religious communities. International agencies assume the solution for nearly all refugees is repatriation once the fighting stops. That's also the logical expectation for the Syrians, as people who fled an immediate danger. The problem is that no one knows when or how the fighting will end, or whether there's any chance of people returning to formerly mixed areas, living next to the neighbors who became their enemies.

In 1948, the refugees weren't just Arabs, they were also Palestinians. It's normal, if harsh, for countries to put their own interests before those of refugees. In Lebanon, for instance, absorbing up to 130,000 Sunni Palestinians would have threatened the communal balance nearly as much as naturalizing Syrians today. The refugees in Gaza were in an Egyptian-occupied strip of Palestine, not Egypt proper. The Egyptian government did not let 200,000 homeless foreigners cross into its own territory—a cruel but not unusual policy. Looked at closely, the supposedly unified Arab strategy may dissolve into separate improvised responses to a seemingly temporary crisis. The default assumption is that refugees go home when a conflict ends, and Arab governments could assume that the conflict in Palestine wasn't over. The fighting had stopped with nothing more solid than an armistice.

None of this is intended as a definitive statement about 1948. It is meant to encourage taking a breath, and then looking at evidence from that time with greater skepticism about the claims of calculated intent. The comparison of two tragedies might also raise a question about international policy toward the Syrian refugees today. Assuming that they need relief now but will be repatriated later, that the solution can await the end of the conflict, may doom 2 million more temporary refugees to permanent homelessness.