via American Freedom Party
Long before Syrian refugees found their way to Europe, the war-torn
country’s neighbours have been hosting a staggering number of displaced
persons – with one notable exception.
has five neighbors: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel (with the
latter occupying the Golan Heights since 1967). According to recent
figures, Turkey currently hosts 1.8 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon a
further 1.17 million, Jordan around 630,000, and Iraq some 250,000.
Israel, however, with a GDP per capita almost double that of
Turkey and five times as much as Jordan, has not accepted a single one.
This is unlikely to change any time soon. On 6 September, Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the idea of accepting any
Syrian refugees, stating: “Israel is a very small state. It has no
geographic depth or demographic depth.”
The day before, former finance minister and Yesh Atid chair
Yair Lapid expressed similar sentiments, arguing that Israel “cannot
afford to get into the matter of the refugee crisis” since to do so, he
added instructively, could “open a back door to discussing the right of
return for Palestinians”.
Senior Palestinian officials, meanwhile, are urging Israel to permit
Palestinian refugees from Syria to come to the Occupied West Bank and
An estimated 3,000 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since the
start of the uprising. Around 80,000 of the 560,000 UNRWA-registered
Palestinian refugees in Syria are no longer in the country. Yarmouk
camp, once home to some 200,000, now has 5-8,000 civilians remaining. In
the devastated camp, many still rely on food parcels, and
over-stretched doctors are treating cases of typhoid.
On Monday, the PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi reiterated a call made by Mahmoud
Abbas for “the international community, in particular the United
Nations, to support our efforts to bring the Palestinian refugees to
Netanyahu’s comments at Sunday’s cabinet meeting were sparked by an
intervention on Saturday by Zionist Camp head and Labor chair Isaac
Herzog. Speaking on Channel 10 television, Israel’s opposition leader
said it was “incumbent on Israel to take in refugees from the war”.
“Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are
searching for safe haven,” Herzog added. Except, of course, if they are
Herzog has been very direct about his desire to “keep a Jewish state
with a Jewish majority.” Speaking at a conference in June, he stated: “I
don’t want a Palestinian prime minister in Israel. I don’t want them to
change my flag and my national anthem.”
Tzipi Livni, his Zionist Camp partner, sings a similar tune,
defending the creation of a Palestinian “state” (read Bantustan) in
order to “preserve the Jewishness of Israel’s Jewish and democratic
state model” and “avoid the statistical demographic issue of
Palestinians outnumbering Israelis”.
Many were recently appalled by Hungarian PM Victor Orban’s
well-publicised remarks that the Syrian refugees “represent a radically
different culture” and, purely because they are mainly Muslims,
constitute a threat to “European Christianity”.
Few are aware, however, just how routine such rhetoric is in Israel,
amongst cabinet ministers, lawmakers, academics, commentators and
others. One Israeli journalist, explaining why “Israel can’t take in
refugees,” put it like this:
The demographic threat is real, and the need to preserve the Jewish
nation state’s character as a democracy doesn’t allow for large
minorities. The current numbers of Muslims pose a complicated challenge
even without additions.
For Israel’s Palestinian citizens, this discourse is par for the
course, from newspapers discussing a “demographic intifada” to political
leaders, like Netanyahu in 2010, declaring that a Negev “without a
Jewish majority” would pose “a palpable threat”.
Israel’s settler-colonial anxiety goes largely unquestioned in the
West. While The New York Times was scathing about Orban’s rhetoric, the
paper uncritically noted the perception of “most Israeli Jews” that the
Palestinian refugees’ return would be a “demographic death warrant”.
It is not just Palestinians. In 2012, after African refugees had
entered Israel via the country’s border with Egypt, Netanyahu warned
that “illegal infiltrators” could threaten the country’s existence “as a
Jewish and democratic state”. Tel Aviv saw anti-African mob violence.
Even if, as some acknowledged, the new arrivals meant no harm, their
continued migration had “the potential of destroying the State of
Israel.” Israel, it was frankly explained, is “a country living in
constant worry over its demographic balance, and determined to maintain
its Jewish character”.
A “steel and barbed-wire fence on the Egyptian border” has since
reduced the number of Africans entering Israel “from several thousand a
year … to almost zero”. Meanwhile the 50,000 refugees who remain, mostly
from Sudan and Eritrea, are targeted for removal.
Lapid’s comments point us in the right direction: Israel is unable to
accept (non-Jewish) refugees because it was only through turning the
majority of the indigenous Palestinian population into refugees that a
“Jewish state” was established – and it is maintained by their continued
Earlier this week, Netanyahu told European Council President Donald
Tusk that Israel is the region’s “only vanguard of liberty,” adding: “We
are the guardians of civilisation here in the heart of the Middle East
against this new barbarism.”
This colonial ideology of exceptionalism, exemplified by the
oft-repeated “only democracy in the Middle East” cliche, finds an
uncomfortable echo in Israel’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees, even
as its neighbours host them in their millions.
On Sunday, Netanyahu announced the start of construction of a
29-kilometre stretch of fence along Israel’s border with Jordan, just
the latest barrier for a state of external and internal borders,
segregated spaces and settlements.
Just as the Syrian refugees are the result of an international
political failure, so too the Palestinian refugees’ exclusion from their
homeland, an absence created and enforced by the barrel of a gun and a
bureaucracy of apartheid, is the result of the failure to confront