#21: The Refugees
(May 22, 2003)
The road map, like Resolution 242, calls for a just solution to the refugee issue. This does not apply only to the Palestinians. Two refugee problems were products of the conflict – one Arab and the other Jewish.
Although much is heard about the plight of the Palestinian refugees, little is said about the Jews who fled from Arab states. In 1947, nearly 900,000 Jews lived in communities throughout the Arab world, some of which were more than 2,500 years old. After the Palestinians rejected the UN decision to create a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine, however, the Jews, who had long lived peacefully with their neighbors, became targets of their governments’ Anti-Zionist fervor.
During the 1947 UN debate on Palestine, Egypt’s delegate told the General Assembly: “The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by partition.” This dire warning soon came true.
In Syria, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in Aleppo in 1947, stimulating 7,000 of the town’s 10,000 Jews to flee in terror. The government then froze Jewish bank accounts and confiscated their property. In Iraq, Zionism became a capital crime. More than 70 Jews were killed by bombs in the Jewish Quarter of Cairo between June and November 1948. After the French left Algeria, the authorities issued a variety of anti-Jewish decrees prompting nearly all of the 160,000 Jews to flee the country. After the partition vote, Muslim rioters engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden, Yemen, which killed 82 Jews. Soon the situation grew so perilous, virtually the entire 50,000-person Yemenite Jewish community immigrated to Israel.
More than 100 UN resolutions relate to the Palestinian refugees, but not one addresses Jewish refugees.
Palestinians complain that they lost their homes and property when they left Israel in 1948, but a similar number of Jews were forced out of Arab countries. The Jews also left their homes and property behind, but, unlike the case of the Palestinians, no international effort was made to compensate them.
Little is heard about the Jewish refugees because they did not remain refugees for long. Of the 820,000 Jewish refugees between 1948 and 1972, 586,000 were resettled in Israel at great expense, and without any offer of compensation from the Arab governments who confiscated their possessions.
The contrast between the treatment of Jewish and Palestinian refugees is even starker when one considers the difference in cultural and geographic dislocation experienced by the two groups. Most Jewish refugees traveled hundreds — and some traveled thousands — of miles to a tiny country whose inhabitants spoke a different language. Most Arab refugees never left Palestine at all; they traveled a few miles to the other side of the truce line, remaining inside the vast Arab nation that they were part of linguistically, culturally and ethnically.
Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians and grant them citizenship. Arab governments have frequently offered jobs, housing, land and other benefits to Arabs and non-Arabs, excluding Palestinians. One exception was Kuwait, which employed large numbers of Palestinians (but denied them citizenship). After the 1991 Gulf War, more than 300,000 Palestinians were expelled. “If people pose a security threat, as a sovereign country we have the right to exclude anyone we don't want,” explained Kuwait’s Ambassador to the United States, Saud Nasir.
Should Israel be punished for its compassion and efficiency in taking in evicted and homeless Jews? Should the Arab states be rewarded for discriminating against and even expelling Jews, confiscating their possessions and cynically using their Arab brethren as a political tool rather than taking them in?
Any agreement to compensate the Palestinian refugees must also include Arab compensation for Jewish refugees. While Israel paid compensation to thousands of Palestinians, the Arab states have refused to pay any compensation to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to abandon their property before fleeing those countries.
When plans for setting up a state were made in early 1948, Jewish leaders in Palestine expected the new nation to include a significant Arab population. The Palestinian Arabs were given an opportunity to stay in their homes and be a part of the new state. Approximately 160,000 Arabs chose to do so and became full citizens of Israel.
Today, the UN says that 3.9 million Palestinians are refugees. The current population of Israel is approximately 6 million, 5 million of whom are Jews. If the refugees were allowed into Israel, the population would be nearly 10 million and the proportion of Jews and Palestinian Arabs would be nearly 50-50. Given the higher Arab birth rate, Israel would soon cease to be a Jewish state and would de facto become a second Palestinian state (along with the one expected to be created on the West Bank and Gaza Strip). This suicidal formula has been rejected by Israel since the end of the 1948 war and is totally unacceptable to all Israelis today.
A parallel can be drawn to the time of the American Revolution, during which many colonists who were loyal to England fled to Canada. The British wanted he newly formed republic to allow the loyalists to return to claim their property. Benjamin Franklin rejected this suggestion in 1782, “Your ministers require that we should receive again into our bosom those who have been our bitterest enemies and restore their properties who have destroyed ours: and this while the wounds they have given us are still bleeding!”
Even respected Palestinian leaders acknowledge that it is a mistake to insist that Israel accept millions of Palestinian refugees. Sari Nusseibeh, a widely respected Palestinian moderate said, for example, the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state, “not in a way that would undermine the existence of the State of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state. Otherwise, what does a two-state solution mean?”
Ironically, Palestinians never talk about the refugees becoming citizens of a Palestinian state; they only demand that they be allowed to go to a different state, namely Israel. If and when a Palestinian state is created, the refugees should be allowed to move there, but the Palestinian leadership has expressed no interest in absorbing their fellow Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority now controls nearly half the Palestinian refugee camps and more than half of the refugees (the rest are in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). After receiving more than $5 billion in international aid, why hasn’t the PA dismantled the camps and moved the refugees into permanent housing? Has the PA built even one house for a refugee in the last 10 years? Journalist Netty Gross visited Gaza and asked an official why the camps there hadn't been dismantled. She was told the Palestinian Authority had made a “political decision” not to do anything.
In the context of a peace settlement, Israel could be expected to accept some refugees, as David Ben-Gurion said he would do more than 50 years ago. In fact, since Oslo, Israel has allowed more than 100,000 refugees to come to Israel on humanitarian grounds. Compensation for the rest may be part of a broader settlement of the conflict, but must also include comparable reparations for Jews whose homes and property were seized by Arab governments.
We cannot turn back the clock; we must look toward a future where the Palestinian refugees live peacefully in a state of their own beside Israel.