Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands

Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands

by

Howard Adelman

The following article appeared in my email. For the few who already received it and my response, please forgive the repetition. The other recipients (96%) were blocked. My new method of avoiding blocks is to omit the article as an attachment. Also, excuse my further digression from the current and world economic order to delve once again into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The return of Palestinian refugees and international law

The first step to solving the Palestinian refugee problem is Israel’s own clear recognition of the historical facts.

Arutz Sheva recently held an enlightening conversation with history buff Itamar Tzur on the topic of the “return” of Palestinian “refugees.”

According to the UN, there originally were 710 thousand Arab refugees who left or were forced out of their homes as a result of the War of Independence. At about that time, right after World War II, there [WERE] about 50 million other refugees in the world. They all eventually found new homes. However, the Palestinian refugee problem, with help from the UN, has gotten worse, and there are now about 5 million Palestinians claiming refugee status.

A special UN organization, UNRWA, was established in 1949 to deal with the Palestinian refugees separately from the UNHCR, which deals with all other refugees around the world. UNRWA was established, said Tzur, because no other nation was willing to take them and because their continued status as stateless refugees allows them to cast blame on Israel.

It’s important to note, said Tzur, that the UN passed a resolution at the time, Resolution 174, urging that the Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” be allowed to do so. However, the Arabs themselves did not agree to this resolution because it included recognition of the Jewish state.

“The millions of refugees from the 40’s and 50’s were settled long ago, and none of them spoke about going back to their original homes. It’s only the Palestinians who are promised this kind of solution, while they are in the meantime receiving the highest funding of any refugee group in the world.”

According to Tzur, the solution will begin with the recognition by Israelis themselves of what actually happened historically “We must remember that the ‘Nakba’(disaster) that supposedly occurred to the Palestinian Arabs is overshadowed by the ‘Nakba’ that was perpetrated against the Jews from Arab countries at the same time.” This awareness must begin with us.

Tzur also noted that we need to be aware of the treatment of other expulsions from different nations. “We should be looking at the recent historical precedents. During the last century, there have been mass deportations all over the world. After World War II, 12 to 17 million Germans were expelled from Europe to East or West Germany. There were about 14.5 million expelled from India to Pakistan and vice versa. In the 1970’s nearly 200,000 Greeks were expelled from their homes in Cyprus. In the 80’s 300,000 Muslims were forced to leave Bulgaria and Turkey. Even in the 90’s there were mass deportations. Kuwait expelled some 200,000 Palestinians after the first Iraq war. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“During the 50’s and 60’s, the young State of Israel absorbed 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forced to leave with no compensation for their property or possessions. Meanwhile, the 700,000 Palestinian refugees from 1949 have mushroomed to 5,000,000 who are knocking on the doors of the State of Israel under the delusion of a right of return that is supposedly recognized by International Law.”

My response follows:

Shimon Cohen,
Arutz Sheva.

“The first step to solving the Palestinian refugee problem is Israel’s own clear recognition of the historical facts.” True!

Then when writing an article entitled, “The return of Palestinian refugees and international law,” it would be helpful if the facts cited were all correct and if relevant facts were not omitted. The flaws could have been because Itamar Tzur was not adequately reported or was misunderstood. Or they may have been the result of Tzur being a “history buff” and not a historian.

1. The original number of Palestine refugees in 1948 is reasonably accurate, though on the low end of the 711,000-726,000 range, the higher number drawn from the Final Report of the United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East and 711,000 figure according to the General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine.
2. That number referred to both Arab and Jewish Palestine refugees; the definition of a Palestine refugee was “a person “whose normal place of residence was Mandatory Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both [my italics] their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”
3. Note, a refugee in this definition did not have to cross an international border. Second, of the total, approximately 35,000 were Jewish.
4. In addition to the Jewish Palestine refugees who were resettled within Israel, many of those displaced still live in what was Mandatory Palestine, including:
a) Arab Palestinians who lost their homes and livelihood but continued to live within the Green line on territory administered by Israel;
b) The approximately 60,000 Arab Palestinians who were repatriated to Israel under a family reunification program over the years;
c) Approximately 16% of Arab residents of the West Bank are both Jordanian citizens and so-called Palestinian refugees, but would be called internally displaced persons in current parlance;
d) Almost 40% of Gazan residents are descendants of 1948 Palestinian refugees and all of them would be dubbed internally displaced persons in current parlance.
5. The number 50 million refugees after WWII refers to both refugees and internally displaced (did not cross an international border) after WWII.
6. Most, but absolutely not all, found new nations in which they could belong.
7. “The Palestinian refugee problem, with help from the UN, has gotten worse, and there are now about 5 million Palestinians claiming refugee status.”
a) It is questionable whether the UN should be blamed for what its members decide, including the U.S. and Israel.
b) When we were advising the Canadian-led Palestinian refugee talks and discussed transferring aid from UNRWA to the Palestinian authority directly in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) rather than through the UN, Israel objected, claiming that the funds coming into the area would decrease, resulting in an additional burden on Israel as the administrative authority for those areas;
c) Those 5 million refugees are NOT claiming refugee status. Making such an assertion indicates little knowledge of the operations of the international refugee regime. The Palestinian refugees, or the vast majority of them, are not seeking Convention refugee status. They are so-called “humanitarian” refugees, products of displacement from war and not Convention refugee claimants who want the status of a Convention refugee so they can claim admission to a signatory country to the Convention.
8. “A special UN organization, UNRWA, was established in 1949 to deal with the Palestinian refugees separately from the UNHCR.” This wording clearly implies UNHCR existed at the time. It did not. UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 and implemented in 1951 initially to deal with European refugees, but not as a welfare issue but as a mode of providing a route to permanent membership status for the refugees remaining after WWII. The practice before 1950 was to deal with each group of refugees on a regional basis and as a humanitarian issue only. Thus, for example, there was a parallel organization set up at the time to deal with Korean refugees. The humanitarian organization was viewed as having responsibility for the housing, food and health of the refugees until a more permanent solution could be found. No rights were inferred at the time in the use of the term “refugee.”
9. When UNRWA was established, there was no foreknowledge that it was introduced “because no other nation was willing to take them” and certainly not “because their continued status as stateless refugees allows them to cast blame on Israel.” There is no historical evidence for either claim that I know of. With respect to the first assertion, UNRWA was in fact established with the conviction that, with the assistance of redevelopment and rehabilitation aid, the refugees would be assisted to settle in the Arab countries where most were located or, especially in Iraq seen as very hospitable to development modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. That plan did not work out, not because countries wanted to “blame” Israel, but because the Arab countries in which the refugees were located, including Jordan, though Jordan least of all, were determined to eradicate Israel as a state. Do not forget that Jordan, unlike the other Arab states, did give the refugees, both those in Jordan proper as well as those in the West Bank that Jordan annexed, full Jordanian citizenship; 120,000 Palestinians in Jordan today who came from the Gaza Strip were not given citizenship.
10. UNRWA evolved over its first decade from being a temporary humanitarian agency into a UN educational and welfare agency for Palestinian refugees, propelled by the antipathy of the Arab states accepting Israel as a state.
11. “(T)he UN passed a resolution at the time, Resolution 174, urging that the Palestinian refugees ‘wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors’ be allowed to do so. However, the Arabs themselves did not agree to this resolution because it included recognition of the Jewish state.” The whole of resolution 174, or at least the relevant article 11, should be quoted. Resolution 174 article 11 reads as follows: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” Note the following:
a) There is no “urging”; the resolution is couched in the language of choice, both for the refugees themselves and Israel, and the resolution recommends that Israel make that choice of granting permission;
b) even that recommendation is qualified – the refugees have to be willing to live in peace;
c) if the refugees do not decide to return and if Israel does not permit them to do so, the tone of the resolution shifts to requiring those parties responsible, presumably the states that initiated or engaged in the war, to compensate the refugees. It does not say that Israel should provide that compensation, though an independent judge might determine that Israel was responsible financially at least for the refugees forced out of their homes who were not an evident military threat to Israel at the time.
12. To assert that the Arab states did not agree to the resolution because it would include recognition of the Israeli state is misleading. For it is possible not to recognize a state without being determined to eliminate it as a political entity. The latter was the goal for almost all Arab states, except Jordan and, to some degree Lebanon.
13. “The millions of refugees from the 40’s and 50’s were settled long ago, and none of them spoke about going back to their original homes.” Just not true. Most resettled refugees accepted their new homes as permanent, but most longed to return and spoke of return often. Further, many were militants who were determined to return through the use of coercion and displacement of the government ruling the home state. Cubans in the sixties and Tutsis in 1990 were prime examples.
14. The biggest error is to suggest that “Palestinians have been ‘promised’ return.” They never were. The right of return only gradually emerged as the central interpretation of Article 11, contrary to historical analysis, and gradually became the accepted meaning of Article 11 after 1967. Up until then, to assert that the refugees had a “right of return” was interpreted as accepting Israel as an irremovable entity.
15. Tzur evidently said that 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees “are knocking on the doors of the State of Israel under the delusion of a right of return that is supposedly recognized by International Law.” The delusion about international law is correct, but the depiction of 5 million demanding reentry into Israel is patently false based on surveys among Palestinian refugees. That is not because these Palestinian refugees have given up on “a right of return,” but because they distinguish between actual return and the recognition of the right even if they decide not to return.
16. Nevertheless, in spite of all these errors, it is right of Tzur to remind us all of the forced exodus of Jews from Arab lands, the even larger numbers involved, the fact that no compensation was ever offered to them [see the series on Arab Jews https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?hl=en&shva=1#inbox/158b762bf59f6b2c?compose=158b0d40f9eccc9c%5D, and, further, that the Palestinian refugee solution should be set within the context of resolutions and outcomes applied to other refugee populations around the world since the end of WWII. A “right of return” is not recognized under international law.

For a far more extensive understanding of the context and of the issue, see:

Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press.

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