Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands

Palestinian Refugees and Jews from Arab Lands


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, 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.


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