Israel/Palestine: One or Two States VI. Palestinian Refugees

One of the foremost authorities on the exodus of the Palestinians, Benny Morris, tackled the One-State Two-State Conundrum in a 2009 book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict. In it, he analyzed Beinart’s case for a bi-national, democratic “state of all its citizens” encompassing Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip long before Beinart shifted to that option. For Morris, this call for a utopian post-Zionist future was, in fact, a shout for the elimination of Israel. Benny opted for a two-state solution of Israel with the remnant of the West Bank handed back to Jordan. However, he did not knit together his classic study of the Palestinian refugees with such a conclusion, though he argued why peace had become impossible.

We now know that the presence of 300,000 Jewish refugees stuck in refugee camps in Europe in 1947 after WWII was an important factor in swinging world – especially European – support for an independent Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. What was the effect of 720,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to flee Palestine during the Zionist War of Independence?

Further, there is the question of why the issue of the Jewish refugees was so critical to the Zionist enterprise. That is easy to answer; the core of the Zionist enterprise was the ingathering of exiles from the diaspora. The more Jews killed in Europe, the more important it became to bring, not only the remnant to Israel, but Jews from the rest of the world. Jewish refugees were thus a resource as well as part of a propaganda campaign.

Those refugees played a third role. They injected a secular drive and ambition into the ancient group of Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. As migrants, they were both more dynamic, more motivated and brought with them a network of skills and contacts invaluable to Israel becoming an enterprising state. Fourth, they provided an image of how a defeated, dispersed people, how Oliver Twist’s Fagin, “a very old shrivelled Jew whose villainous looking and repulsive face,”  could be transformed into a sabra – a healthy, good looking, proud but modest new Jew who would contrast with the widely spread Shylock caricature.

In the case of the Palestinian refugees, how did the numbers of refugees affect world opinion? After all, they made up two-and-a-half times the number of Jewish refugees. And it was just a year after the Jewish refugees plucked the heartstrings of the world.  Further, what relationship did the Palestinian refugees have to the core of the Palestine enterprise – creating a self-governing sovereign state in all of mandatory Palestine? In addition to the role they played in Palestinian ideology, what contrasting iconography emerged from the Palestinian refugee representation?

The surviving Jews of Europe moving to the new Zionist state were a necessity to fulfill Zionist goals. Palestinian refugee return would follow rather than be a condition of self-determination; the defeat of the Jews was a prerequisite. Thus, all the Arab countries supported Palestinian self-determination and retaining Palestinian refugees as a reserve army for that return and conquest. With the exception of Transjordan (secretly), those countries would not accept the creation of a Jewish state of whatever size in Palestine. Nor would they permit Jewish immigration into the territory if they won control. These were two key causes of the outbreak of the war between the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine and included in the core ideological position – an unwillingness to accept a Jewish national presence in Arab land. The Arabs rejected the vote of the General Assembly to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and invaded Israel.

The Zionist appeal relied on the fact that the Jewish refugees had nowhere else to go. Countries would not admit these aliens. However, the world was turned off when Arab states, with the exception of Jordan, refused to accept and integrate their cousins. If Zionist ideology at its core was based on the ingathering of exiles, Palestinian ideology was founded on the expulsion of the Jews, the same Jews to whom the world had given its sympathies, those Jews who arrived in Palestine in the twentieth century under the Zionist banner.  

While the Jews brought to Palestine offered energy, new ideas and ambition to the enterprise of building a Jewish state, the Palestinian refugees were rejected as a valuable human resource to build the strength of other Arab nations. While the iconography of the Zionists transformed Jewish shleppers into sabras, the iconography of the Palestinians transformed hard working yeomen into welfare dependents. Such a posture alienated a good part of the world. When the Arabs lost the war and the Palestinians became refugees themselves, many in the rest of the world, underneath their breath of course, thought of this as hubris.

No wonder the war for Israelis was called the War of Independence (Milkhemet Ha’Atzma’ut) – they won their war against both the British and the Arabs. As the British were leaving, five Arab countries invaded on 16 May 1948. In the process of fighting, the Jews considerably increased the amount of land they controlled after the war from that allocated in the UN Partition Resolution. In Arabic, the war is called the Nakba, the Catastrophe, primarily because of the refugees that resulted as well as the territory lost to the Jews. An estimated 400 Arab towns and villages were depopulated and part of the Arab population in the large cities, such as in Haifa, Acre and Jaffa, fled or were forced to flee.

Left out of many if not most encyclopedia accounts are Armenians and Greek Orthodox resident in the Mandate who were displaced. More significantly for public relations purposes, there were the 37,500 Jewish Palestine refugees from the parts of Mandatory Palestine occupied by Transjordan. While 120,000 Palestinians remained in Jewish territory, every single Jew was ethnically cleansed from Hebron, Gush Etzion and the old City of Jerusalem. Further, they were absorbed and reestablished in Israel. With the exception of Transjordan’s actions, this did not happen to the Palestinian refugees.

Furthermore, most of the Palestinian refugees were in literal terms “displaced persons” and not technically refugees, just as the 37,500 Palestine Jews were, for they fled or were forced to flee from one part of Mandatory Palestine to another part. A large number fled to Transjordan. A much smaller number fled to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. 120,000, almost 15% of the pre-war Palestinian population, remained in what became Israel. Many of them were internally displaced. That means that the 1,400,000 Palestinian residents of Mandatory Palestine were now scattered as follows:

Remaining in Israel                                                                  120,000

Fled or forced to flee                                                                 720,000   840,000

Transjordan                                                                                             660,000

                                                                                                               1,400,00

The timing of the departure of the 720,000 varied[1]:

5% elites left before war broke out (most to Egypt)            36,000

          Others who left before war broke out                              260,000

          Forced to flee                                                                  336,000

          Left out of fear or encouraged to leave                               88,000

Total                                                                                        720,000

Thus, almost half the refugees were forced out of or intimidated to leave their homes. Where did all the refugees go? That is hard to tell with any exactitude since, by the time the United Nations Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was organized, the number registered as refugees by UNRWA was 914,000, a number inflated by duplicate registrations and failing to record deaths. Inflated numbers are a constant in refugee movements as additional ration cards provide a major source of currency needed for survival and also benefit members of the destitute local population who move into refugee camps to benefit from the housing and sustenance provided.

Israel estimated those numbers as 560,000 to 600,000 at the end of the war, but then an additional 40,000 fled as Arab villages were depopulated. Even that number was too low.[2] The best study of numbers among many was by the anthropologist, Janet Abu Lughod, whose calculations became a widespread reference, namely 775,000 Palestine refugees.[3] These numbers include Jews, reducing the total to 737,500 Palestinians. When we did our work for the Multilateral Working Group on Refugees in the early 1990s, we revised the figure to 720,000 Palestinian refugees.

One year before UNRWA was established and just after Count Folk Bernadotte, the UN mediator, was assassinated by Lehi, Shamir’s extremist group, Resolution 194 was passed by the United Nations General Assembly on 11 December 1948. “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.” Were the invading armies not primarily responsible? Or was it the Israeli armed forces which forced so many to flee? Transjordan, which had annexed the West Bank and Jerusalem, did not permit the Jewish refugees to return nor were they compensated for their losses.

Israel offered to permit up to 100,000 refugees to return in a joint Arab-Israel statement at the Lausanne Peace Conference on 12 May 1949, but that number included the 40,000 who had already infiltrated back to their homes. The remainder of Palestinian refugee were to be allowed admission on humanitarian grounds. Israel expected the rest to be resettled in various Arab countries. After all, the Jewish Palestine refugees from Arab captured territories, approximately 700,000, were resettled and integrated into Israel.

Note the wording of the resolution and the interpretations at the time confirmed by the debate. The resolution was not mandatory for two reasons. The General Assembly could not pass resolutions which member states were obligated to implement. Second, the resolution was moral as it read “should” not “must”. Further, there was a conditional clause – it applied only to: a) refugees wishing to return (and, therefore, live under Israeli governmental authority), and b) provided they were willing to live at peace “with their neighbours.” For many in the international diplomatic world, this meant, “provided the Arab states were willing to live at peace.” Or was the reference just to the individual families and their physical neighbours next door? [This is a clear example of diplomatic equivocation.]

The Arab states were not willing to live in peace with Israel; the conflict continued through guerilla raids. Finally, the bulk of Article 11 of the resolution referred to the alternative – that if the refugees did not wish to return or were not permitted to do so, they should be paid compensation.

That resolution has been successively been endorsed year after since. In the 1960s, two changes took place. The Resolution was interpreted to include children born in the camps and then later all the descendants of refugees. Second, as the vision of an immediate reconquest faded, the resolution began to be interpreted as the refugees enjoying a right of return. This has remained the case until the present as a main point of disputation in the refugee talks, even though no other refugees enjoy such a right and, even if they did, no refugees have returned as a matter of right. They have returned at the sufferance of the state (e.g. Vietnam for a small number of refugees) or, alternatively, they have returned with a victorious army. (The Tutsi refugees returned to Rwanda in 1994 after the genocidaires were defeated.)[4]

UNRWA differed from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) created in 1952; the latter was a protection agency. UNRWA was established on the old model of refugee movements to provide food, shelter and health services to the refugees that were housed in camps. Therefore, it was never used to provide aid to the Jewish Palestine refugees, only Palestinians. Further, the mandate included “refugees who were just displaced persons,” that is “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Unlike UNHCR refugees, they did not have to cross a border to be a refugee.

UNRWA was initially envisioned as a development and settlement agency that would undertake large infrastructure programs – for example a hydro-electric plant in Iraq modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that would make deserts bloom, reclaim land and provide housing and employment for refugees. In the very first few years, it became evident that Arab governments would not cooperate with UNRWA to accomplish such a task. They insisted on return only. Stymied, by the end of the fifties. UNRWA initiated a new direction and developed as an educational organization. Currently, there are now 30,000 employees, the vast majority of whom are teachers. That is why it is unfair to compare UNRWA to UNHCR established in 1952 that even currently has only 20,000 employees serving 80 million refugees.

It is only when the ideology of UNRWA turned to a “rights” platform that it gained resilience, even though the right was not about a government not torturing its citizens. Convention refugees, with whom UNHCR dealt, had a right to flee and claim the protection of another state. Palestinians demanded a right to return with the intention of creating their own state.

By 1952, King Hussein had annexed the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem. Refugees that had settled in urban areas as well as the majority in refugee camps both within Jordan and in the West Bank were given citizenship. That means that if the UNHCR definition had been used, these refugees would no longer be listed as such. That means, the bulk of the remaining refugees in Gaza were displaced persons. Only the smaller numbers of refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and those elites from the early exodus living primarily in Egypt could possibly qualify as Convention refugees.

Israel insisted that it would allow at most 100,000 refugees to return under the auspices of family reunification. It would never accept a right of return. The Palestinians insisted on a right of return for all refugees unless they agreed to compensation. Israel insisted that compensation for Palestinian refugees was negotiable provided that parallel talks and actions took place with respect to the 750,000 Jewish refugees forced to flee from Arab lands.   

The two positions were never reconciled. The right of return became a sacred mantra of the Palestinian movement. Resurrecting it for the Israelis was a clear red line not to be crossed even as discussions on how compensation could be handled proceeded amicably. This division between the two positions grew into a chasm.


[1] Benny Morris (1988) The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. In 2004, Benny subsequently published a revised edition (Revisited) that included more detailed depictions of the destruction of the Arab urban populations in Haifa and Jaffa.

[2] At the time of the Lebanon War in 1982, Oxford International (Great Britain) issued a figure of 600,000 made homeless by the Palestinian invasion. Israel issued a figure of approximately 22,000 from Southern Lebanon. The Israeli report had made an addition error of 10,000 and missed counting 8,000 refugees who lost their homes. Israeli government estimates have tended to err on the lower side.

[3] “The Demographic Transformation of Palestine, Transformation of Palestine (1971) 139-163. A figure of 757,500 Palestine refugees (as distinct from Palestinian refugees) includes 37,500 Jews displaced from Gaza, the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.

[4] Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.

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