Since NATO bombs began raining down upon Yugoslavia, Palestinian refugees have stared incredulously at CNN correspondents drumming up sympathy on the half-hour for the ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who have been driven from their homes. While clearly empathetic for the Albanian refugees' plight, where has the West's compassion been for the last 50 years, they exclaim, since the founders of the State of Israel oversaw the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of over 500 of their towns and villages?
To add insult to injury, Israel has now transported, with great fanfare, 117 ethnic Albanians to shelter in an Israeli kibbutz-one built upon the ruins of a destroyed Palestinian village.
Kabara was a scenic village on the Mediterranean coast located 30 kilometers south of Haifa. According to Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi's book 'All That Remains,' 572 Palestinians lived in Kabara in 1931. Following the purchase of hundreds of acres of village lands by Jewish settlers, a 1944 census counted only 120 Palestinians.
While the details of Kabara's destruction are unclear, Khalidi writes that "[Kabara] was probably occupied during the second campaign [by Zionist troops] to 'clear' the northern coastal plain of all Arab communities." This campaign ran from April until the first half of May-that is, before the outbreak of the war between the newly declared State of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israelis shoved rubble from the destroyed village onto a nearby hill and in 1949 built Kibbutz Ma'agan Mikha'el, which this week took in the refugees from Kosovo.
To Palestinians, there is little difference between the Serbian campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo and the policy that Israel has pursued regarding Palestinians. Before 1948 Palestinians owned most of the land and were the majority population in what became Israel. Today Palestinians constitute less than one-fifth of Israel's population and are relegated to the status of second class citizens, forbidden from owning land on over 90% of Israeli territory.
Israel's policy concerning expelled Palestinian refugees and their descendants - who today number around five million - has been to completely block them from returning to their homes. Israel has likewise ignored numerous United Nations resolutions upholding the Palestinians right to return. Neither Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians nor its refusal to allow their return, however, has ever provoked sanctions by the West, let alone the threat of bombing.
Israel has sought to justify its prevention of Palestinians' return in part by claims that there is simply no room left in the country. This argument is belied by Israel's absorption this decade of a million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and now again by its readiness to accept ethnic Albanians.
It is not just many Palestinians who see Israel's reception of the Albanian refugees as little more than a public relations stunt. According to the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz, the Albanians' arrival in Israel was part of "an ostentatious mission jointly planned by the government and the Jewish Agency to coincide with the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day." The same article records that the Jewish Agency went to great lengths to find volunteers among Albanian refugees in Macedonia willing to fly to Israel. An agency representative walked from tent to tent in a refugee camp calling with a megaphone on people to sign up for refuge in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the refugees at the airport and, presenting each with an "absorption basket" of $7,500, promised that those who wished to remain in Israel could do so.
Israeli public relations stunts of this kind are directed not only at international public opinion, but are necessary to calm fear and confusion in Israel itself. The western rhetoric used to justify the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, such as the denouncement of ethnic cleansing and the legitimacy of international law, has struck deeply into the Israeli psyche. Israelis commonly live in calm denial of the fact that the Jewish state derives its existence from the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population and the ongoing refusal of Palestinian refugee return. "Are we the Kosovo Albanians or the Serbs in this game?"; "Will NATO strike us next?". Questions of this kind, taboo in Zionist Israel, have become the subject of public discussion. The invitation to host Albanian refugees in the lands of Palestinian refugees is an irony aimed at re-sealing the Pandora's box in Israel.