University of Oslo research explains why Palestinians remain refugees

An announcement of a dissertation defense at the University of Oslo promises novel conclusions about the reasons for the Palestinian refugee problem. These would be extraordinary claims; is there extraordinary evidence to back them up?

For an indication of academic standards for all matters related to Israel, look to an announcement of the defense of a doctoral dissertation at the University of Oslo entitled Twenty years of Crocodile Tears: The International Treatment of the Palestinian Refugee Issue, 1948-1968.

(The dissertation itself – which I think is written in English – will be put on file at the library of the University of Oslo for those who want to visit there; and it is possible that the doctoral candidate will publish it in the form of a monograph. Without getting into the merits of the dissertation itself, it is, however, instructive to analyze the announcement, which is the scope of this entry. I would urge the candidate to link to the actual dissertation in the comment section, and I will happily publicize the link)

Inaccuracies in basic premises

Published on the pages of the Department of History at the University of Oslo, it is maddeningly sloppy in its treatment of, well, history:

For example: The prelude is a description of the deplorable situation in Yarmouk, where we are told “the oldest Palestinian refugees sought safe haven in 1948.”

Except Yarmouk wasn’t founded until 1957.

Also, how Yarmouk today is relevant to the study of the Palestinian refugee problem between 1948 and 1968 is never made clear, but a clue might be that the announcement simply notes that the camp has been subject to a siege perpetrated by unmentioned parties. (It was, of course, the Syrian army, though some might believe it was the IDF).

It’s about the “world’s largest and longest-lasting refugee problem,” also a dubious assertion on both counts: any size comparison with other refugee groups involves comparing apples and oranges, given that UNRWA employs a definition of “refugee” far more expansive than, for example, the UNHCR. Duration is also a matter of dispute: neither the Armenian nor the Assyrian exoduses following Ottoman persecution and genocide have been resolved. More than 2 million Jews fled Russia alone in the late 19th/early 20th century. In the years immediately following World War II, there were massive displacements of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, Muslims from India, Hindus from Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in Western Europe were unable to return to Eastern Europe for fear of reprisals. The ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab countries also started in 1948. All these are resolved only in the sense that the refugees were resettled and able to build new lives for themselves and their descendants outside of the countries they fled. This point is crucial when we examine the analysis offered.

The announcement goes further to say that “in the beginning there was broad international consensus that a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem was the key to a durable peace in the region. Today, nearly 70 years later, the question is far down on the international agenda.”

It is a novel interpretation of the political history of 1948 to 1968 that there was such consensus, but the more curious assertion is that the Palestinian refugee question is far down on the international agenda. I have to wonder: compared to what? Any other refugee problem? Any other conflict? Political issue? By any objective measure I can think of, Palestinian grievances has to be the most covered issue in the news in several decades.

An extraordinary thesis

But if all these are annoyances, the explanation for the intractability of the Palestinian refugee problem is the true highlight, namely “… four central factors that can explain why there has been no success in finding a solution to the refugee problem: Israel’s tactical attributes in international diplomacy; domestic issues’ dominance over foreign policy strategies in development of US policy, the problem with timing in international politics, and the seemingly low cost of allowing the problem to remain unresolved.”

Factors that have been eliminated as having significance worth noting (keeping in mind that the scope of this work is 1948 – 1968) appear to be: The unwillingness of Arab regimes to integrate Palestinian refugees in societies that shared the same language, historical heritage, religions, etc.; Jordan and Egypt’s decisions to not support the formation of Palestinian political self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza between 1949 and 1967; the shift in US Middle East policy after the Six-Day War; political and military power blocks in the Middle East during the Cold War; and of course the ongoing military conflict between Israel and all its neighbors during this period. To name a few.

History and problem-solving

According to the announcement, this is a dissertation that tries to explain why something in history didn’t happen, and that this was due to inaction: the problem was “allowed” to remain unsolved. The underlying premise appears to be – though I can’t be sure – that the Palestinian refugee problem persists because of negligent inaction, primarily Israel and the United States.

This raises all kinds of interesting questions about methods: how do you eliminate causal factors for things that didn’t happen? How do you compare the strength of these forces? How do you account for the way they interact with other and change over time? How do you measure the effect of shifting context among multiple parties? How can you say anything definitive about events when you only have access to records of a few of the parties? And most importantly: what scenario would have solved the refugee problem?

About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.