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Palestine: A Homeland Denied
Artist: Charles Davies (UK)
Dimensions: 20” x 30”

The dominant visual elements of this poster are a traditional Arab kaffiyeh (Arabic: headdress) and several strands of barbed wire sculpted into the shape of a human head.

The figure represents the Palestinian people who have been made invisible by their diaspora. The sharp barbs refer to the trials of refugeehood.

According to figures from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), there are now approximately 8 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. The several Arab-Israeli wars fought since 1948 generated these refugees. However, Israel says that it bears no moral or ethical responsibility for their plight. It deflects the world’s outrage at the squalor of the refugee camps by pointing the finger of blame at neighboring Arab states, where many of the camps are located.

From the Israeli point of view, the refugee problem is an artificial crisis stemming not from Israeli actions but rather, from the actions of the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab countries that cynically refuse to absorb the Palestinians as citizens the way Israel has absorbed Jewish people from all corners of the world.


They point to the example of Jordan, which has extended citizenship to all Palestinian refugees within its borders, as an example for the other Arab states to follow. (The reason for this exception is complex, having to do with Jordan’s claim of sovereignty over land from which the Palestinians fled.)

Israelis argue that plenty of land is available to resettle Palestinians in the Arab countries. Moreover, they say, permanent resettlement would be relatively simple and painless because Palestinians never had an emotional link to the contested land. They note that all Arabs speak Arabic and are therefore essentially all one family so could easily move in together. Finally, they claim that the Arab governments are artificially prolonging the refugee crisis in order to create an ongoing political crisis for Israel.

Assume for the sake of discussion that these arguments are valid. Three questions immediately present themselves:

1) Why should Arab countries be expected to welcome immigrants? Zionism is an evangelizing ideology — Israel actively seeks Jewish immigrants — but Israel’s Arab neighbors are long-established, traditional societies and do not generally promote immigration.

2) Why should Palestinians trust and agree to live, permanently, in any Arab state that has rejected them for more than fifty years?

3) Is there any other example in history of a government accepting within its borders hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees, when doing so would likely not only destabilize its own internal political dynamic, but also resolve a monumental dilemma for a political antagonist?

So vast is the problem of Palestinian refugees that the United Nations created an entirely new agency, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), to exclusively address their plight. The reason why this unique agency had to be created is explained as follows:

… in the main the UNHCR is mandated to offer refugees three options, namely local integration, resettlement in third countries or return to their home country – options which must be accepted voluntarily by refugees under UNHCR’s care. These are not feasible for Palestine refugees as the first two options are unacceptable to the refugees and their host countries and the third is rejected by Israel. Given this context, the international community, through the General Assembly of the United Nations, requires UNRWA to continue to provide humanitarian assistance pending a political solution.

Source: United Nation’s web page on the UNRWA

There is, of course, a direct connection between the refusal of Arab countries to integrate Palestinian refugees and the prolongation of the refugee crisis. A major political barrier to permanent resettlement in some of the Arab countries is the fact that by accepting Palestinian refugees permanently, the countries would, in effect, be recognizing and legitimating Israel and its various policies and practices. This they are loath to do. For these countries, the rage felt by many Palestinians is a tactical resource meant to keep the pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem by accepting them back into their original villages, towns, and cities. This is something that the Israelis say they will not do.

Considered historically, the response of the Arab countries is not unique. It is analogous to the one adopted during the American Civil War (1861-1865) by Union General Ulysses S. Grant regarding prisoner exchanges (parole). In April 1864, Grant decided to terminate prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy. His logic was that the burden of having to provide food, clothing, shelter, security, transportation and medical attention for tens of thousands of Union prisoners would represent an enormous drain on limited Confederate resources and serve, indirectly, his goal: to break the Confederacy.

Formal prisoner exchanges also had been problematic for the Union since the beginning of the war because they granted a degree of legitimacy to the government of Jefferson Davis; the termination of exchanges rescinded this implied recognition of the Confederacy as a nation separate from the United States.

Grant issued his order even though it meant thousands of American deaths and unspeakable misery for captured Union soldiers. He held to it even though he came under intense pressure from the families of Union prisoners who wanted him to reverse his decision.

In one Confederate prison camp alone, the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia, approximately 14,000 Union soldiers died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements – this in just the fourteen months in which Andersonville Prison operated. News of the atrocious conditions at Andersonville hardened Union resolve, greatly embarrassed the Confederacy, and made conditions that much worse for Confederate soldiers held captive in Union prisons.

This analogy does not imply a material equivalency between conditions in today's Palestinian refugee camps and the American Civil War’s Andersonville Prison, with its deliberate lethality (the modern term “deadline,” was coined there; it was the line beyond which any Union prisoner was shot without warning).

Rather, it demonstrates that prisoners of war and refugees are both phenomenally vulnerable populations. History is replete with examples of how their vulnerability is often exacerbated by political or military decisions taken by armies, governments, or political parties that are, ostensibly, operating on their behalf.

© 2003 Liberation Graphics. All Rights Reserved.


Questions for A New
Democratic Discussion

1) In this poster, whom do you visualize wearing the kaffiyeh? What expression is on the face?

2) What are some of the logistical, political, and historical reasons a country might have for refusing to accept refugees, regardless of how similar those refugees might be to them in terms of language, religion, or ethnicity?

3) What is the policy regarding the acceptance of Palestinian refugees into the United States?

4) In war, what laws and ethical considerations apply to using civilians as pawns?




Please send us your questions and comments (English only please!)