The Truth About the Palestinian Refugees - Part 3
Though the Arabs sometimes claim as many as a million Palestinians became refugees in 1947-49, the actual number was probably closer to half that. In fact, the UN Mediator on Palestine concluded the figure was 472,000.
The United Nations took up the refugee issue and adopted Resolution 194 on December 11, 1948. The relevant paragraph resolves:
that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which under principles of international law or in equity should be made good by Governments or authorities responsible. Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation... (emphasis added).
The emphasized words demonstrate that the UN recognized that Israel could not be expected to repatriate a hostile population that might endanger its security. The solution to the problem, like all previous refugee problems, would require at least some Palestinians to be resettled in Arab lands.
At the time the Israelis did not expect the refugees to be a major issue; they thought the Arab states would resettle the majority and some compromise on the remainder could be worked out in the context of an overall settlement. The Arabs were no more willing to compromise in 1949, however, than they had been in 1947. In fact, they unanimously rejected the UN resolution.
The UN subsequently created an agency — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — to provide relief to the Palestinian refugees. By the mid-1950s, it was evident neither the refugees nor the Arab states were prepared to cooperate on the large-scale development projects originally foreseen by the Agency as a means of alleviating the Palestinians' situation. The Arab governments and the refugees themselves were unwilling to contribute to any plan that could be interpreted as fostering resettlement.
Israel's Attitude Toward Refugees
When plans for setting up a state were made in early 1948, Jewish leaders in Palestine expected the population to include a significant Arab population. From the Israeli perspective, the refugees had been given an opportunity to stay in their homes and be a part of the new state. Approximately 160,000 Arabs had chosen to do so. To repatriate those who had fled would be, in the words of Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, "suicidal folly."
The implied danger of repatriation did not prevent Israel from allowing some refugees to return and offering to take back a substantial number as a condition for signing a peace treaty. In 1949, Israel offered to allow families that had been separated during the war to return, agreed to release refugee accounts frozen in Israeli banks, offered to pay compensation for abandoned lands, and agreed to repatriate 100,000 refugees.
The Arabs rejected all the Israeli compromises. They were unwilling to take any action that might be construed as recognition of Israel. They made repatriation a precondition for negotiations, something Israel rejected. The result was the confinement of the refugees in camps.
Arab Attitudes Toward the Refugees
The UN discussions on refugees had begun in the summer of 1948, before Israel had completed its military victory; consequently, the Arabs still believed they could win the war and allow the refugees to return triumphant. The Arab position was expressed by Emile Ghoury, the Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee:
It is inconceivable that the refugees should be sent back to their homes while they are occupied by the Jews, as the latter would hold them as hostages and maltreat them....It will serve as a first step towards Arab recognition of the State of Israel and partition.
The Arabs demanded that the United Nations assert the "right" of the Palestinians to return to their homes, and were unwilling to accept anything less until after their defeat had become obvious. The Arabs then reinterpreted Resolution 194 as granting the refugees the absolute right of repatriation and have demanded that Israel accept this interpretation ever since.
One reason for maintaining this position was the conviction that the refugees could ultimately bring about Israel's destruction, a sentiment expressed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad Salah al-Din:
It is well-known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the Homeland and not as slaves. With a greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel (Al-Misri, October 11, 1949).
After the 1948 war, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and its more than 200,000 inhabitants, but refused to allow the Palestinians into Egypt or permit them to move elsewhere.
Although ample room for settlement existed in Arab countries, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon refused to resettle the Palestinians. Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians and grant them citizenship (to this day Jordan is the only Arab country where Palestinians as a group can become citizens). King Abdullah considered the Palestinian Arabs and Jordanians one people. By 1950, he annexed the West Bank and forbade the use of the term Palestine in official documents.
The treatment of the refugees in the decade following their displacement was best summed up by a former director of UNRWA, Ralph Garroway, in August 1958: "The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die."
Little has changed in succeeding years. Today, the UNRWA lists 3.7 million Palestinian refugees, five or six times the number that left Palestine in 1948. Though the popular image is of refugees in squalid camps, less than one-third of the Palestinians are in the 59 UNRWA-run camps.
During the years that Israel controlled the Gaza Strip, a consistent effort was made to get the Palestinians into permanent housing. The Palestinians opposed the idea because the frustrated and bitter inhabitants of the camps provided the various terrorist factions with their manpower. Moreover, the Arab states routinely pushed for the adoption of UN resolutions demanding that Israel desist from the removal of Palestinian refugees from camps in Gaza and the West Bank. They preferred to keep the Palestinians as symbols of Israeli "oppression."
Now many camps are in the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but little is being done to improve the lot of the Palestinians living in them. Netty Gross of the Jerusalem Report (July 6, 1998) 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 for the more than 400,000 Palestinians living in the camps until the final-status talks with Israel took place.