Numbers: From the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station

Yesterday was a numbers day. When I first went out, I went to the bank with an installer to whom I had given a cheque that bounced. I had deposited a money order – that alone shows that I belong to an older obsolete age – from another account in another bank to cover the amount of the cheque to the service company. I did not know that banks could or would hold off certifying a deposited money order because I thought that a bank money order was the equivalent of cash. I learned that I should have just taken cash out of one account in one bank and deposited it in the other; after all, the banks were directly across the street from one another. For I was wrong. Banks can hold back crediting money orders to your account. Instead of cash, I could also have obtained a cashier’s cheque or implemented a direct electronic transfer.

That chore resolved, I then went to the dentist to have a crown put on one tooth. Talk about numbers and dollars!

I had a time gap where it did not pay to go home because I was going on to hear the keynote speaker for the Walter Gordon Symposium that I planned to attend the next day (today) on: “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The subject of the keynote address was, “The Ethics of Counting.” The presenter was Professor Deborah Stone. In the interval between the dentist appointment and the lecture, I was reading the 26 March 2018 issue of The New Yorker and, as I sat in the auditorium waiting for the lecture to begin, totally coincidentally, I was nearing the end of the magazine and was reading the section on “The Critics.” It was an essay called, “The Shorebird: Rachel Carson and the rising of the seas.” The writer was Jill Lepore whom I had gone to hear deliver the three Priestley lectures the week before on, respectively, “Facts,” “Numbers,” and “Data” and about whom I have already written extensively.

As we all know, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), first published as a three-part series in The New Yorker, alone is credited with launching the environmental movement. Jill Lepore took a different tack. Though mentioning the revolution in science and policy of correlating data on the use of DDT and the disappearance of birds, the focus of Lepore’s essay began with Carson’s personal biography and her lyrical writing about birds, fish, shad and the sea. Why? Because Sandra Steingraber, editor of a collection of essays called, Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, had omitted any reference to that lyrical oeuvre because, though sometimes alluding to environmental threats, those essays failed to call for any specific social action. Lepore was determined to balance the books in her review essay for, as she claimed, Carson could not have written Silent Spring unless she had clambered down rocks and waded in tidal pools and written about what she saw and studied. For her earlier books were not just about molluscs or turtles or, a major concern, shad, or about kingfishers and redstarts, but about placing those creatures within an environmental context. Those earlier books, The Sea Around Us and Under the Sea-Wind became national best-sellers.

Those studies and writings led Rachel Carson to question government policy and the practice of eliminating “career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.” There seemed to be some correlation, not only between DDT and aerial spraying and the death of species, but between the emerging practice of dealing with social problems through the lens of power politics rather than the microscopic analyses of the skilled work of the products of The Sanctuary of Method. The mistreatment of the natural environment and of the research environment had similar roots, a concern with exploitation rather than exploration and understanding as we find ourselves located “in an instant of time that is mine…determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.” Very soon after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of cancer before she could write a new envisioned book on the rising and warming of the oceans.

Deborah Stone’s most famous book is her classic study, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Her lecture on counting was intended to introduce those attending to the question of how to build policy in a data-driven, more than simply a numbers-driven, world, a world of proprietary and indecipherable algorithms and not just numerical correlations. For an earlier stage in the stream of intellectual time, a key issue, which Stone played a significant part in unpacking, was the hidden assumptions and built-in norms behind the statistical evidence and correlations used to produce policy. In a previous blog, I had offered a simple narrative example of the time I got on the university pension committee to question the use of the gender category to doll out different pensions to women than men. Based on such false categorization, Blacks and handicapped professors should get higher pensions.

Other works have driven home similar points: Michael Wheeler’s (1976) Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in the United States. The clever phrasing allegedly went back to Mark Twain who viewed statistics as the greatest source of lies for he had lived in the nineteenth century rather than at the end of the twentieth when data-driven analyses prevailed and superseded statistics in that accusation. In history, however, the reference was initially made in the context of allocating pensions in 1891 in Britain. A more recent work, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016), carries the argument forward into a data rather than simply statistical-driven age. Mathematical algorithms can be tweaked and formulated to serve interests and power as she illustrated the effects on the financial crisis of 2007-08.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read an article on how polling itself – who is ahead and who is behind – influences voting patterns. Reporting that Hillary Clinton was highly favoured to win, rather than data of the percentage of the vote she would likely get, tended to decrease the incentive for supporters to go out and vote. However, Deborah Stone was dealing with an earlier version of such distortions, with numbers and statistics rather than data and algorithms, for the latter are ethically charged models built into the sophisticated mathematics.

Deborah Stone focused on a more fundamental problem characteristic of the transition from the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station in which symbol and numbers were tied to causes and interests depending on the categories used. The latter led to interpretations and decisions dependent often on the negative or positive connotation of the category. Stone in her lecture went back to basics. We can learn to count by focusing only on identicals or by focusing on differences united by a single category, such as counting different kinds of cookies and not just identical glasses of milk. Counting is, thus, not just about identicals, but about categorizing what is different as an identical. In the case of the pension issue that I discussed, instead of treating all professors as equals, they were divided by gender to allocate pensions. In the name of distributive justice, namely that women retirees needed the same money each year as male retirees, such a principle of distribution was unethical.

Deborah offered a ream of illustrations of such a misuse of statistics that led to and supported unjust policies. In collecting numbers on violence against women, the collection depended upon what was classified as violence, who did the counting and for what purpose. For example, did relegating a second wife and child to a small room in the back of the house, expulsion from the house as a form of punishment, rebukes for giving birth to female babies, count as violence as Bangladeshi women contended? Or were European and North American models of violence predominant in the counting. Think before counting was one mantra. Take into consideration the language and concern of those counted was another. Always take into consideration what people wanted to accomplish by collecting such statistics. For numbers carry clout.

Interestingly, Stone referred, but in greater detail, to the same illustration that Lepore used in her lecture, the three-fifths rule for counting slaves built into the American constitution by James Madison in an early attempt to reconcile the paradox that slaves were, on the one hand, property that could be bought and sold, and were, on the other hand, sentient human beings who were held accountable and punishable for their actions. Tax policies and the distribution of votes depended on how slaves were counted.

Numbers count, whether referring to the numbers attending President Trump’s inauguration or to back whether you should take Lipitor to deal with your cholesterol level. Do we ask questions whether you believe immigrants take your jobs in undertaking a survey, or do you ask whether they contribute to create jobs by starting businesses?

Let me take up both issues of the application of statistics and their creation. On the recommendation of my heart specialist, I use Lipitor, the brand name of Pfizer Pharmaceutical that has earned the company $130 billion in sales since the drug was approved for human use in 1996, to lower my cholesterol level and, therefore, to introduce a preventive measure against blood clots. (I once developed a 2.5 inch-long blood clot in a leg vein that went just above my knee.) This in turn would reduce the risk of a heart attack and stroke by lowering plaque build-up in my veins. I have never investigated the categories or methods used in the research behind the drug. I take the drug based on the authority of my physician.

However, when you disaggregate the issue of cholesterol, you find there are different types, some “good” cholesterol and some “bad” – low density lipoproteins (LDL). Further, based on research paid for by the drug companies, what counts as a high cholesterol level has been gradually lowered over the years to the great benefit of the bottom line of Pfizer. Given associated risks – to kidneys and liver, to diabetes and muscle diseases, as Lipitor, a statin, reduces the amount of cholesterol made by and stored in the liver – the lecture implied that research funded by Pfizer based on its economic interests should be questioned.

It was clear that Deborah Stone did not favour collecting stats based on supply and demand and she was sceptical about stats collected by economic interests or those interested in perpetuating their political power. Good stats should be based on building a community and social well-being, on fostering empathy and minimizing exploitation. As the lecture progressed on the ethics of numbers, it became clear that Stone was not just interested in issues, where injustice was perpetuated by the use of statistics, but was positively selling an alternative ethic as the basis for statistical analysis. She was a bleeding heart rather than a possessive individualist. She wanted statistics that fostered empathy and undermined the use and abuse of some people by others. Categories used in statistics can and are used to change hearts and minds – though other stats that she collected indicated that prior prejudices meant that information did not work in changing hearts and minds since biases are almost immune to change by numbers. This was readily apparent in a CBC radio show yesterday on the introduction of a cap-and-trade tax on carbon to combat environmental degradation; a Progressive party defender of the tax dealt with calls, mostly by conservatives, who opposed the tax. Statistics were central to the argument but seemed useless in getting anyone to change their mind.

What Stone did not do was disaggregate areas in which numbers were collected ostensibly to foster care and concern for the displaced resulting in a very different origin of distortion. I had an occasion to audit statistics on those made homeless by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Originally, I went to undertake an actual count, but upon arrival in Lebanon during the war, I had found that there had been twelve different counts of those made homeless, so I simply performed an audit rather than a count. The whole project was stimulated by competing numbers. The Israeli government had issued a report that 27,000 Palestinians had been made homeless by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had published full page ads that 600,000 had been made homeless. The discrepancy was too huge to ignore for a research unit determined to establish objective and accurate figures in dealing with refugees.

As it turned out, the original figure of 600,000 was produced by the International Red Cross, but it was not of those made homeless, but of “those affected” by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had switched the stat to refer to a very different category. Further, of the twelve counts on the ground, all were carried out very objectively with an intention of producing accurate figures. The Israeli figures were too low (40,000 Palestinians had been made homeless in southern Lebanon.) The corrected figure of 40,000 rather than the original Israeli figure of 27,000 was more accurate because the Israeli figure was a product of an arithmetical error combined with missing some enclaves where the displaced had taken shelter.

The most thorough count was undertaken by the Palestinian school teachers who wrote down every name of every person who had lost their homes in typical elementary school ledgers. The figure arrived at was considered too high by about 10% because Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed had been counted even when they had not lived in those homes for years and instead rented them out to others, mostly Bangladeshi itinerant workers. None of the other counts had considered that these Bangladeshis had been made homeless by the war, a bias not only of both sides, but of the humanitarian international community.

Using measures to arrive at a common definition, the city engineers’ counts and all the others could all be reconciled to result in a common figure. The interesting irony was that the tool based on the “worst” systematic method, that of the International Red Cross, which arrived at its figure by counting kitchenware packages that had been distributed and multiplying by three, turned out to be the most accurate even though the IRC was clearly ashamed of using such a rough tool to determine the result.

I want to illustrate two points by this story. First, not only can private economic interests or political power interests produce distorted statistics, but so can the collection of statistics motivated by empathy and bleeding hearts. Second, statistics can and do provide objective information based on agreed categories and even different methods of collection and analyses. When the ethics of counting closely correlated with the Sanctuary of Method as a fundamental methodological tool is distorted for social purposes, either for profit, for power or even for humanitarian purposes, that is, for solving a specific set of social problems, the determination of the problem and the bias of a belief in correcting the problem can produce distortions by the use and abuse of categories and the resultant numbers.

I do not have the time and space to illustrate other more serious cases – the count of the alleged numbers killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 based on a distortion of the base reference figure that fed a narrative of a second genocide, this time against Hutu rather than Tutsi from Rwanda. For years, until corrected by scholars from both sides, the original figure of the numbers of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948 varied from 520,000 (the standard Israeli figure) and 940,000, the UNRWA figure. Later systematic analysis resulted in a figure of 720,000-740,000 which became an objective reference number for both sides. Objective stats can be collected even in war zones when conflict provided agendas are bracketed and systematic means are used to critique categories and correct for errors.

Stats in themselves are not corrupting, but when we begin to suggest that they be collected to solve a social problem in one direction, say for profit or power, rather than another – enhance aid for refugees or enhance compassion for them – then subjectivity begins to displace objectivity as the critical category and the Sanctuary of Method is undermined as an institutional norm in favour of the Social Service Station. Should the latter be used to enhance wealth accumulation in society or for fostering social justice? For stats are not just correlated with power, as Lepore contended, or with economic interests and power, as Stone contended, but to enhance humanitarian causes. The presumption of subjective bias is partly responsible for the expansion of the idea of post-truth.

To be continued

Counting Palestinian Refugees Part III

Counting Palestinian Refugees Part III


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, I included in my blog Richard Mather’s “Op-Ed: How many Arab refugees were there in 1948? Maybe 300,000 – or less,” (20 January). That meant denying the accuracy of the usual figures used of 650,000 to 711,000. I promised to offer a critical analysis of Mather’s piece. An accurate and responsible figure should range between 650,000 at a minimum and 725,000 as a maximum with, I believe, 711,000 as the most accurate estimate of ethnic Palestinian refugees resulting from the Arab-Israeli War.

There have been efforts to diminish the numbers of Palestinian Arabs living in Mandatory Palestine as well as to decrease the number of Palestinian refugees for political purposes to minimize the claims to the land and for compensation or return for the refugees. The most infamous works along these lines was Joan Peters From Time Immemorial which even a right-wing Zionist like Daniel Pipes agreed used statistics sloppily, ignored any data that might contradict her argument and even distorted quotations. At the same time, there have been efforts to minimize the number of Jews in Mandatory Palestine by excluding so-called “illegal” Jewish immigrants and otherwise playing with figures and statistics. Given the ambiguity of and uncertainties about some of the data, it is even more important that partisan perspectives be bracketed while analyzing data.

Accurate counting should begin by obeying the following guidelines:

  1. Examine all reputable claims in light of the best evidence available;
  2. Demographic counts should be done indifferent to the political and moral claims of contending positions;
  3. The analysis should also be carried out disregarding whether Zionism is a legitimate ideology or whether the Palestinian arguments about colonialism and a nahba have any merit.
  4. The analysis should follow standard demographic norms of determining population figures even when it may be impossible to get a precise figure because of variations in original counts that were not subjected to rigorous verification.
  5. A common definition should be used for who is to be included – in this case, “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.”
  6. When there are differences among authoritative data, then an effort should be made to reconcile differences and explain discrepancies.

It is clear that Mather followed none of the procedural norms. Below, I include his claims in quotation marks.

  1. “The conventional figure of Palestinian refugees who fled is 650,000.” [Later he cited the figure as 600,500 but I assume this was a typo.]


  1. The current conventional figure of the total number of refugees in 1948 is 750,000.
  2. The current accepted number of ethnic Palestinian refugees living in camps in 1949 is said to be 711,000. (Many Palestinian scholars and institutions use a figure of 726,000 or more.) The discrepancy between the two figures results from:
  1. The original figure was based not on ethnic Palestinians, but on definition of refugees from Palestine that included about 30,000 Jews who lost their homes in what became known as the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City; “Palestine refugee” were defined as both Arabs and Jews whose normal place of residence was in Mandatory Palestine who had lost homes and their livelihoods as a result of the 1948 war;
  2. Just over 1%, that is, up to 9,000 individuals who lost their homes and livelihoods were neither ethnic Palestinians nor Jews.
  1. The figure used in 1950 was 914,000, not 650,000. Mather begins with the discounted figure that was 78% of the original figure and then he discounts again. The main reason for the original overcount was because local residents registered as refugees to obtain access to ration cards. Double counting and not delisting deaths tended to become significant later. By starting with a figure of 650,000, already a bit low, and then discounting that figure again for the very same reasons the original figure of 914,000 was discounted, results in an immediate major problem. Hence the inapplicability of the claim that, “UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), either through incompetence or deliberate manipulation, handed out multiple identity cards to the same persons, some of whom were not refugees at all but permanent residents who took advantage of the aid offered by UNRWA. This is attested by UNRWA officials.” The depiction is accurate, but it applies to the figure of 914,000, and then initially only to the problem of local residents registering as refugees.
  2. “There were fewer than 660,000 Arabs living in the part of Palestine that eventually became Israel.” This was a result of his claim that, “The Statistical Abstract of Palestine in 1944-45 set the figure for the total Arab population living in what would become the Jewish-settled territories at 570,800. Another set of figures based on a census taken in 1944 suggests there were 696,000 Arabs living in what would become Israeli-controlled territory.” This figure is contradicted by the following sources:
  1. Itamar Rabinovitch and Jehuda Reinharz (eds,) (2008) Israel and the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present report that there were 543,000 Jews and 1,267,037 non-Jews in Mandatory Palestine. In 1948, there were 716,700 Jews in Israel and only 156,000 non-Jews. Ignoring that the figure of non-Jews included Circassians, Armenian and other Christians who were not Arab, but whose numbers were small, as well as Bedouins who were both difficult to count and often not counted because they were nomadic, if the number Palestinian refugees is considered to be 711,000, then the number of Palestinians in what became the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem totaled just over 400,000 in 1948 before the influx of refugees from the area that became Israel. (1,267,037 – 711,000 – 156,000 = approx. 400,000.) [Note that Itamar Rabinovitch is a very highly regarded Israeli scholar who also served as the negotiator with the Syrians between 1993-1996, was Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and President of Tel Aviv University.]
  2. To obtain the pre-1948 Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza, there is a table included in the Supplement to a Survey of Palestine (pp. 12-13) that excluded nomadic Bedouins providing the population by town and district in 1946 prepared for the United Nations and UNSCOP in 1947. As I will show, an initial analysis might appear to support Richard Mather The key districts of concern which in 1946 were virtually 100% Arab were:

East Jerusalem and Arab parts of the Old City                152,000

Gaza                                                                                  150,540

Hebron                                                                              93,120

Baysan                                                                              24,950

Jenin                                                                                  62,210

Nablus                                                                               98,600

Ramallah                                                                           49,930


Total                                                                                  631,350

This is 231,350 more than the resident non-Jewish populations should have been according to the above calculations. So if the 231,350 are subtracted from the 711,000 claimed refugees, then there should have been about 475,000 ethnic Palestinian refugees (more precisely 474,650). This is about half way between Mather’s figure of less than 300,000 and the figure of 650,000 which he claimed to be the generally accepted figure. However, there is a problem. The 231,000 are estimated to be about the number of local residents who registered as refugees to obtain rations. The totals were as follows:



711,000 actual refugees

30,000 Jewish refugees

231,000 local residents who registered as refugees

972,000 was the total, about 60,000 more than the original figure of 914,000. Double counting and non-recording of deaths would come later. This supports a figure of about 650,000 Palestinian refugees.

  • The Israeli Statistical Abstract from 1941 reported 1,111,398 Arab Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine. Allowing for an increase of 25% by 1947, that would yield 1,389,350 Arab Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine (versus Mather’s figure of 1.2 million). Deduct from that the 631,350 living in the West Bank and Gaza, that would mean the Arab Palestinian population in what became Israel before the war was 758,900. If 156,000 were left after the war, then the refugee population must have been 612,900. This would be a minimum figure because there is a general consensus that the figures inherited from the British Statistical Abstract undercounted both Jews and Arabs. The figures provided are:


1941 474,102 1,111,398 1,585,500 29.902%
                   1950 1,203,000 1,172,100 2,375,100 50.650%
  1. The Report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry of 1946, which provides the foundation for most estimates, used the British 1945 survey based on both the 1922 and 1931 census data extrapolated by rates of natural increase for the population, without considering that both census figures were most likely undercounts. At the same time, there is a discrepancy between the number of ethnic Palestinian refugees yielded by this calculation (650,000) and the numbers scholars have considered authoritative (711,000). The reason for the difference is attributed to three factors:
  1. undercounting in the 1922 and 1931 census data;
  2. excluding in-migration from Syria and Transjordan resulting from the relative economic boom in Mandatory Palestine, the agricultural revolution underway in Mandatory Palestine both in the Jewish and Arab sectors (new technologies, use of fertilizers and pesticides, drainage of swamps), urbanization and the fact that Arabs in Palestine enjoyed a standard of living double that in Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan;
  3. underreporting of both births and infant deaths;
  4. Adding the Bedouin population that became refugees to the 650,000 figure.


In any case, the count of ethnic Palestinian refugees ranged between 650,000 and 711,000.







  1. The British 1945 Survey
Year Source Total Moslems Jews Christians Others
(No.) (%) (No.) (%) (No.) (%) (No.) (%)
1922 Census 752,048 589,177 78.34 83,790 11.14 71,464 9.50 7,617 1.01
1931 Census 1,033,314 759,700 73.52 174,606 16.90 88,907 8.60 10,101 0.98
1937 Estimate 1,383,320 875,947 63.32 386,084 27.91 109,769 7.94 11,520 0.83
1945 Survey2 1,845,560 1,076,780 58.35 608,230 32.96 145,060 7.86 15,490 0.84
19471 Projection 1,955,260 1,135,269 58.06 650,000 33.24 153,621 7.86 16370 0.84


    1. Justin McCarthy (1990), The Population of Palestine, Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate. New York Columbia University Press. (see also his article in Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, Philip Mattar, ed.) who concluded, based on his demographic studies, that of 873,00 ethnic Palestinians residing in what became Israel after the 1948 war with only 155,000 remaining, there were 718,000 Palestinian refugees and fatalities as a result of the war.
    2. Both Walid Khalidi (ed.) (1992) All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies and Nur Masalha (1992) Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882–1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, insist that the basic figure (they use 726,000 or more) should be increased by Palestinians who were outside Palestine when the 1948 war broke out but were prevented from returning to their homes, as well as those who did not register with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
  • Janet L. Abu Lughod (1971) “The Demographic Transformation of Palestine”, in Ibrahim Abu Lughod (ed.) The Transformation of Palestine: Essays on the Origin and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Northwestern University Press, 139-163, concludes there were 720,000 ethnic Palestinian refugees.
  • Mather cites Dr. Walter Pinner’s 1966 claim that the totals of refugees included both 109,000 who had been resettled in 1948 and 225,000 who subsequently settled elsewhere and became self-supporting to bolster his argument for a 1948 Palestinian refugee population under 300,000. However, the UNRWA definition is based on refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods and, therefore, includes refugees resettled elsewhere and those who became self-supporting; using the UNRWA definition, this would bring the totals back up to over 600,000. Further, given the definition that included those who lost their homes and livelihoods, it should also be noted that the Arab Palestinians (as well as Jewish refugees in Palestine) only had to have lived in Mandatory Palestine for two years. They did not have to be registered permanent residents. There was no requirement that those who settled outside the countries of first asylum ceased being refugees in accordance with the UNRWA definition, a definition which preceded the creation of UNRWA.



Further, there is a tendency (Mather is an example) of asserting that the inflated figures (originally 916,000) were matters of fraud. This is far too simplistic. In fact, in almost all surveys of refugee camps, the figures are estimated to be inflated by 10%, an inflation that increases to 25% when “military” units control the camps.

Finally, poor scholarship does not help, whatever side one is on, but rather undermines it, in this case, the position of Israel in dealing with the refugees, just as original inflated figures used by UNRWA lost UNRWA credibility in the international sphere in its first decades. In the above I have not cited studies in which I myself was involved, such as the study undertaken by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in the nineties of the number of Palestinian refugees. Nor have I cited the work of the Canadian government that gaveled the refugee multilateral talks. Though my figures were initially a bit lower than the 711,000, I subsequently concluded that the 711,000 was more accurate.

Whatever our differences, we should at least learn to count accurately, or as accurately as possible.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Counting Palestinian Refugees – Part II

Counting Palestinian Refugees – Part II


Howard Adelman

The following op-ed appeared in the internet version of the Israel National News by Richard Mather on 20 January 2016.

Op-Ed: How many Arab refugees were there in 1948? Maybe 300,000 – or less

The inflated numbers of third generation refugees claimed by Arabs and the UN started with an inflated number in 1948.

Most serious students of the history of Palestine would accept that the number of Arab refugees from Israel during and after 1948 claimed by Arab and UN sources—some 600,000 to 750,000—was exaggerated. It is very easy to refute that estimate and many have already done it. – Yehoshua Porath

It is a common misconception that around 650,000 Palestinian refugees were created because of fighting that took place in 1948. But a closer look at both the population data and statements made by UN officials at the time suggest that the true figure is much lower, possibly as low as 270,000.

The conventional figure of 650,000 cannot be true for more than one reason. Firstly, there were fewer than 660,000 Arabs living in the part of Palestine that eventually became Israel; and secondly, UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), either through incompetence or deliberate manipulation, handed out multiple identity cards to the same persons, some of whom were not refugees at all but permanent residents who took advantage of the aid offered by UNRWA. This is attested by UNRWA officials.

Before taking a look at UNRWA’s role in the invention of the Palestinian refugee problem, it is worthwhile examining the population data of Eretz Israel/Palestine prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

The Statistical Abstract of Palestine in 1944-45 set the figure for the total Arab population living in what would become the Jewish-settled territories at 570,800. Another set of figures based on a census taken in 1944 suggests there were 696,000 Arabs living in what would become Israeli-controlled territory. Tsvi Misinai, an Israeli researcher and historian, believes the figure to even lower. He believes that prior to the 1948 war, there were 390,000 Arabs living in areas that would fall into Israeli hands. (None of these figures include the number of Arab Palestinians residing in east Jerusalem, Gaza and Judea-Samaria. Figures vary, but the number of Arabs in those areas was probably 600,000, which brings the total number of Arabs residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to 1.2 million).

According to Misinai, there were in excess of 120,000 Arabs inside Israel’s borders by the end of the war, although most commentators believe the figure to be 160,000 or 170,000. (The discrepancy becomes less glaring when Israel’s repatriation of 20,000 Palestinian Arab refugees from Jordan is taken into account). This means that the number of Palestinian Arabs displaced from areas that came under Israeli control cannot be higher than 270,000.

Of the 270,000, most had ended up in neighbouring Arab countries, with the rest having fled to Judea-Samaria and Gaza. Around 4,000 had voluntarily moved from west Jerusalem into houses abandoned in east Jerusalem. During the course of the war, 77,000 Arabs (mostly Bedouin) returned to their homes in what would become Israeli territory. As the war went on, another 81,000 Palestinians fled, 24,000 of which had already fled and returned, only to flee again. By the war’s end, there were 270,000 Palestinian Arabs who had lost their homes and/or their land.

At first glance, this seems a rather low figure. A report submitted by the UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte suggested that the number of Palestinian refugees totalled 330,000. Other contemporary reports put the number at around 424,000. Either way, it is statistically impossible for there to have been more than 430,000 genuine Palestinian Arab refugees from the 1948 war. This is the view of Dr Walter Pinner, who bases his figures on reliable census data carried out in the mid-1940s.

So we have a situation where no less than 270,000 and no more than 430,000 Palestinian refugees were created by the 1948 war. Misinai’s suggestion of 270,000 can be attributed to his rather low starting figure of 390,000 Arabs who resided in pre-state Israel. Perhaps if one takes into account the Arab migrants and citrus farm workers who had gone back to their country of origin, there may be a case for a final figure of 270,000. Plus, a reliable study undertaken in the mid-1960s suggests the figure of 270,000 may be close to the mark (more on this later).

Many books and websites quote a figure of 650,000 when discussing the number of Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 conflict. How did the figure of 650,000 arise?

One explanation is the attested fact that in the aftermath of the conflict, refugees were counted more than once. In order to receive extra funding, many refugees identified themselves twice before UNRWA officials. As a result, they received more than one identity card. One of the camp workers in Lebanon stated, “We try to count them, but they are coming and going all the time; or we count them in Western clothes, then they return in aba and keffiyeh and we count the same ones again.”

This was not the only fraud committed by the refugees. Another was the concealment of natural deaths so that families could continue to collect the deceased person’s food. Births, however, were always registered. In 1951, UNRWA reported that “it is still not possible to give an absolute figure of the true number of refugees as understood by the working definition of the word.” A reason given by UNRWA for the erratic data was that the refugees “eagerly report births and … reluctantly report deaths.” According to the July 23 1955 edition of the Cairo-based Mideast Mirror, “There are refugees who hold as many as 500 ration cards, 499 of them belonging to refugees long dead…. There are dealers in UNRWA food and clothing and ration cards to the highest bidder.”

Fraudulent claims were made regarding the number of dependents. It was alleged that refugees would “hire” children from other families at census time. In 1950, UNRWA director Howard Kennedy said that “fictitious names on the ration lists pertain to refugees in this area […] it is alleged that it is a common practice for refugees to hire children from other families at census time.”

The situation in Jordan was especially difficult because western Jordan was already populated by Arab Palestinians, so distinguishing a refugee from a non-refugee was particularly arduous. An UNRWA official noted that the Jordan ration lists alone “are believed to include 150,000 ineligibles and many persons who have died.” A similar situation arose in Lebanon. In a 1950 report to the UN General Assembly, the director of UNRWA noted that “many Lebanese nationals along the Palestinian frontier habitually worked most of the year on the farms or in the citrus groves of Palestine. With the advent of war they came back across the border and claimed status as refugees.” UNRWA conceded that up to 129,000 Lebanese workers may have falsely claimed Palestinian refugee status.

In fact, this developed into a widespread trend. Because the UNRWA refugee camps were better than standard housing, some non-refugee residents of Judea-Samaria and Gaza declared themselves refugees in order to gain access to food, as well as medical and educational benefits. Many permanent residents of Judea-Samaria and Gaza came to carry both an UNRWA refugee card that had the address of a refugee camp and a regular ID card with their actual identity and address.

Another problem was the unrecorded movement of peoples, especially the Bedouin tribes who moved between Gaza, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, thereby increasing multiple registrations. Even the UN acknowledged that 15,000 Bedouins were actually non-existent, that they were fictitious persons or people already registered. In the words of UNRWA, the movement of people introduced “a double source of error into any estimates of the number of persons who could have become refugees.”

By 1950, the UN disclosed that it was “not possible to give an absolute figure of the true number of refugees as understood by the working definition.” According to a report, the percentage of error in the UN statistics was “possibly as much as 50 per cent and represents a serious operational difficulty.”

Nonetheless, the UN kept revising its figures upwards because it pursued a maximalist position on who was a refugee, which ranged from a “needy person” who “has lost his home and means of livelihood” to “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948.” Even refugees who still had a house but had lost some or all of their land were considered refugees. In addition, Arabs who had settled in Palestine illegally prior to 1948 were also given refugee status. No wonder the figures were artificially high.

In 1966, Dr. Walter Pinner identified a huge number of fraudulent refugee claims. Basing his findings on  UNRWA’s own reports, he discovered that 484,000 refugees were Arabs from western Jordan and Gaza Strip; another 117,000 were unrecorded deaths; 109,000 were people who had been resettled in 1948 and were no longer refugees; and a further 225,000 had subsequently settled elsewhere and become self-supporting. After subtracting the inauthentic claims, he concluded that there were 115,000 “old and sick” refugees, and 252,000 “other unsettled genuine refugees,” totalling 367,000 legitimate refugees as of 1966.

Once the natural rate of increase between 1948 and 1966 has been subtracted, the number of genuine Palestinian refugees from 1948 cannot be much higher than 300,000. In which case, Tsvi Misinai’s figure of 270,000 may not be far off the mark.

Significantly, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold did not refute Dr Pinner’s findings, nor did he issue any corrections to Dr Pinner’s figures. He did, however, acknowledge receipt of Dr Pinner’s work, so it cannot be claimed that the UN wasn’t aware of his analysis. It is probable that the UN, at least in private, agreed with Dr Pinner’s findings but did not want to admit that UNRWA had been defrauded of millions of dollars.

All told, the conventional figure of 600,500 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 conflict comes from the double counting of refugees, the non-recording of deaths, the vague and expansive use of the term ‘refugee,’ the counting of people who were not refugees, the counting of former refugees who had resettled elsewhere, and the untracked movement of peoples between Jordan, Gaza, Lebanon and Judea-Samaria.

The implication is that many of today’s Palestinian refugees actually derive from people who did not reside in Palestine at the time of the war or had lived there for only two years, which means more than half – possibly even two-thirds – of those who claim to be Palestinian refugees in 2016 are not descended from Palestinian refugees at all. (What is also galling is that the living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps are much better than the conditions of their non-refugee Arab neighbours who do not receive international aid. Indeed, many of the Palestinian refugee camps are not camps at all, but are fully-functioning neighbourhoods.)

The Arab states themselves have been major players in the refugee fraud. Greed was one motivating factor because UNRWA money was, in effect, free money. In 1961 UNRWA director John H. David admitted that Arab countries overstated their refugee figures in the 1950s to get more funds. But the refugee crisis was useful for another reason: It was a way of exerting international pressure on the State of Israel to repatriate the so-called refugees, thereby demographically destroying the Jewish state. This explains why the Arabs didn’t permanently rehouse the refugees in Judea-Samaria and Gaza, which were under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively between 1948 and 1967.

The sordid history of the Palestinian refugee situation means the Israeli government must be extremely wary about compensating or repatriating Palestinians who claim to be refugees. Many of them are frauds or the descendants of frauds. If the Israeli government does decide to compensate or repatriate some of the refugees as part of a peace deal, then a detailed investigation needs to be conducted to ensure that only genuine claimants are assisted. In return, a wider compensation package is needed in which the descendants of Jews who lost their homes, savings and livelihoods in Nazi Europe (not just Germany) are compensated, and the Jews forced from Arab lands in the 1940s and 1950s are likewise recompensed. In addition, there needs to be some recognition that many Jews were killed and displaced in the 1948 war – a war instigated by an alliance of several Arabs nations to destroy the Jewish homeland.

Tomorrow: My response and analysis