Home inFocus The War of Independence 2.0 (Spring 2024) “Increasingly Doubting our Basic Assumptions”

“Increasingly Doubting our Basic Assumptions”

Book by: Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Spring 2024

There are two morals in this excellent book:

For the Arabs, both states and non-state actors: if you encourage, venerate, exalt, hallow, stoke, reinforce, arm, and pour accelerant on violence, when you actually go into battle, you’d better win. When you don’t, responsibility for the destruction is yours and only yours.

o Submoral for the West: When the Arabs tell you they are different; they don’t have to do what other people do; their refugees are different from other refugees; and Israel is responsible for everything, don’t believe them. Certainly, don’t subsidize them.

For the rest of the world: make sure the problem you are working to solve is the right one and can, in fact, be solved.

o Second submoral for the West: “peace” is a non-negotiable property. Peace is what emerges after the war – it can be a cold peace, a warm peace or the peace of the dead, but it can’t be achieved while the war goes on. 

The first applies to the perpetrators of October 7, but also to the Arabs who tried to destroy the Yishuv before 1948 and the Jewish state when it came into being.

For the second, Western governments – including Israel’s government at various points – have been determined to negotiate peace between Israelis and Arabs and solve “the Palestinian problem.” The latter, in their minds, is that Palestinians are “stateless.”  So, the “two-state solution” is appealing. If you give Palestinians a state, problem solved.

But what if that isn’t the actual problem? What if the submorals are the problem – the Arab states and organizations have made it perfectly clear that the war will continue no matter how many defeats they suffer, there is no negotiation possible to achieve “peace,” and so the refugees are an element of warfare against Israel, not a problem looking for a resolution.

This is where The War of Return by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf becomes a great guidebook.

The problem, they posit, is NOT the absence of a Palestinian State, or even the fact of inter-generational Palestinian refugees. It is the existence of the State of Israel. That is not the conclusion they wanted to draw – both are from Israel’s political left. Schwartz was a journalist for the very left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and Wilf was a Labor member of Parliament, allied with Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin. But this is where they find themselves.

They start with the proposition that population transfers are, historically, common and very brutal. Post-WWII, nearly 20 million Europeans, including 12 million Germans and 5 million Poles, moved between 1944-1951. “The idea was to make more ethnically homogeneous countries. Winston Churchill described the transfer as a ‘clean sweep’ after which there would ‘be no more mixture of populations to cause endless trouble.’”  The separation of Pakistan from India involved about 16 million people.

And there were post-Holocaust Jews.

Why are Palestinians different?

Waging War

Chapter One (zero refugees at this time) is a meticulous review of the Mandatory period and the establishment of the State of Israel. Regional Arabs were unified in their rejection of a Jewish state in even a tiny part of the Ottoman Empire. “Had the Jewish people been allocated their fair share of the lands… based on their population, the land allocated to them would have been more than seven times larger.”

The Arabs, however, considered even this small space “a blow to natural justice.” And they were determined to defeat it.

Even before Israel’s War of Independence, Arab attacks on Jewish civilians and communities were common, and the descriptions here sound disgustingly like the events of October 7.

In 1948, five Arab armies invaded the nascent state, but marauding attacks on civilians still characterized the fighting. Whether the Arab population fled because Arab leadership told them to (true) or because they feared for their lives if the Arabs lost (reasonable, because they were planning to kill as many Jews as possible, so thinking the Jews would do the same to them isn’t out of the question) – the fact is if there had been no war inflicted on Israel by the Arab states, there would have been no reason for Arab residents of Palestine/Israel to flee.

The Arabs failed in 1948. They failed in 1967. They failed in 1973. Changing tactics to rocket wars and terrorism, they continue to fail.

Demanding Return

Chapter Two (726,000 refugees at this time) starts with the determination of the Arabs not to concede defeat when, in fact, they were defeated.

A series of stories and citations of Arab leaders at the time as well as refugees who were determined to return to their homes only as a result of the destruction of Israel dominates the chapter.   

Nothing about the Arab attitude or Arab behavior suggests that peace was in the offing. The UN knew that, and, in the first of a series of Western missteps, created a “peace conference” in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1949. The Arabs were clear. Azzam Pasha told Abba Eban:

We have a secret weapon which we can use better than guns, and this is time. As long as we don’t make peace with the Zionists, the war is not over and as long as the war is not over, there is neither victor nor vanquished. As soon as we recognize the existence of Israel, we shall have admitted by this very act that we are vanquished.

Knowing that, it is unsurprising that this chapter goes into great detail about the propaganda element of the plan for ongoing war. How Arab leadership thought and spoke, how refugee children were raised and taught, how Arab intellectuals focused on the future as they saw it. “As THEY saw it” is key. Edward Said wrote, “The reason for the flight of the Palestinians is irrelevant. What matters is that they are entitled to return.”

No. Actually, there is no right for refugees to return to places they fled. Nor, in fact, can they be forced to return to those places – making an interesting counterpoint to Arab demands. What about Palestinians who don’t WANT to “return” to what is now Israel, in which they have never lived or even visited – what if they WANT to go to new destinations as a million Vietnamese boat people did in the 1970s and 1980s? Imprisoning them in camps across the region for generations is abusive. Before October 7, Gazans – primarily young men – were paying thousands of dollars to buy exit permits from Egypt to allow them to go to Europe.

The irridentists won that battle – the Arabs moved the conversation from the war they started to Israel’s responsibility for the result. Winning made Israel culpable.  At some point, the US and the West generally just stopped insisting on the truth, finding it easier to insist that, while Israel has a “right to exist,” it REALLY ought to do more to induce the Palestinians to cooperate.

In February, the Biden administration threatened to sanction Israel if it brought foreign workers in to fill jobs that had been filled by Palestinian workers both from Gaza and from Judea and Samaria until October 7. For them, it is Israel’s responsibility to employ people who openly threaten to kill them – and do kill them.

The Positive Side of UNRWA

Really. See Chapter Three (894,000 refugees) “Rejecting Integration.”

There is an important story to tell of UN and American officials who believed that resettling Palestinians around the region, the same way refugees from WWII and the Korean War were resettled, was a better idea than keeping them in camps “idle and destitute.” If you don’t know about UNKRA, buy the book.

Score a point for Musa Alami, the Palestinian patriot who tried to make life better for his people. He was rejected. Violently.

A point too for the forgotten American George McGhee, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.  And another for Gordon Clapp, sent to the region by President Harry Truman as head of an economic commission to examine how to rehabilitate Palestinian refugees in Arab countries by enhancing water resources around the region – a key to development.

As Clapp went to work, “The Arab states’ strategic decision was to accept the West’s humanitarian aid while politicizing it and exploiting it for their own political interests…The West was convinced that it had managed to maneuver the Arab countries into taking the path it had set for them, [but the Arabs] had no intention of arriving where the West had hoped to lead them.”

This is where UNRWA is born – created to resettle the Palestinians across the Arab world. The story is important first because UNRWA is today a cause of misery, mayhem, and death for both Arabs and Israelis, but also because the Arabs manipulated it into something it was not intended to be.  You might jump here to Chapter Five, “Moving Forward” for a look at how to get rid of the terror-supporting, hate-promoting pit.

In 1958, after a decade in which millions were spent with no appreciable resettlement having taken place, the US proposed closing UNRWA. Ultimately, Washington agreed to continue funding because the Eisenhower administration thought the loss of Arab world support for the US would be more than it wanted to bear. (It wasn’t Eisenhower’s first or last misunderstanding; see Ike’s Gamble by Michael Doran, reviewed by inFOCUS Quarterly, Winter 2017.) UNRWA became an “education and training” institute, run entirely by Palestinians.

Israel’s war in Gaza proves the folly of the UN and the West in acquiescing to these demands.


Chapter Four (1,120,889 registered refugees in 1960) is about the turn from state warfare to terror training. There were still two large wars to come (1967 and 1973) but the Arab states needed something closer to the ground – which was also a way to divert Palestinian attention from the political failures of Arab diplomacy and warfare to an intergenerational command to die.

The description of the Munich Massacre is important – as is the fact that most of the perpetrators were children of original refugees. The chapter covers the indoctrination and warping of generations of children and the morphing of UNRWA in the 1960s from an aid agency to an Arab/Palestinian-run dictatorial government. No deviation from the plan.

In 1970, a cover story in Life Magazine was about the terror summer camps the PLO was running for children in Gaza. There was no excuse for not knowing and not reacting. But neither Israel nor the West reacted.

The gruesome rhetoric became louder, right up to the present:

Ahmad Bahr, former Deputy Speaker, Hamas Parliament: “Kill them all without leaving a single one.” (2012)

Fathi Hamad, Senior Hamas official: “You have Jews everywhere and we must attack every Jew on the globe by way of slaughter and killing.” (2019)

Sheikh Hamad al-Regeb: “Bring annihilation upon the Jews. Paralyze them, destroy their entity.” (2023) and,

Yaya Sinwar, at this writing crawling through sewers in Gaza, announcing that Hamas is winning the war: “We’ll take down the border and tear their hearts from their bodies.” (2018)

Moving Forward

Chapter Five (5,442,947 registered refugees) is the best chapter. Written in 2020, Schwartz and Wilf could/should stand before any and every international body claiming to want peace, justice, and prosperity and make these points:

The war must end; peace is not negotiable.

There is no “right of return.” This is a great review of what international law actually says about refugees, return, and resettlement.

Abandon UNRWA’s system of refugee registration.

Dismantle UNRWA: Why? This has been answered.

Dismantle UNRWA: How?

Some of these points have been overtaken by events; some have not. But if the Gaza war makes anything clear, it is that Schwartz and Wilf have presented a history and a blueprint for progress not only for Israel, but for the Palestinian people.

Soshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.