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Some Thoughts on Palestinian Refugees

Since we are all inundated with mentions of “Palestinian refugees,” I thought it would be useful to reiterate some background.

On the Origin of the Palestinian Refugees:

From Ruth Wisse (a professor at Harvard), “Jews and Power” (2007):

“Although European anti-Semites blamed Jews for their existing social crises, such as poverty, unemployment, and loss of spiritual direction, Arab leaders created the crisis for which they blamed the Jews. In denying the partition of Palestine [in 1947-49], Arab governments also refused to allow the resettlement of the Palestinians, so that they could create perpetual evidence of Jewish iniquity … Israel could be charged for the suffering of Palestinians … as long as their suffering could be sustained…

“Palestinian Arabs are to be pitied along with the tens of millions of refugees of the twentieth century. But the Palestinians are doubly unfortunate because theirs is the only such displacement that is prolonged for political advantage. Originally, the … [Palestinian refugees from] 1948 were a relatively small and easily assimilable group, moving often no more than several miles among people who spoke their language and shared their religious and culture … The two massive conflicts that framed Israel’s War of Independence- India’s war over the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the Korean War of 1950-53- produced more than 20 million refugees between them, yet most of these refugees were absorbed within a generation. Only in the Arab case did a coalition of rulers, with millions of square miles and great wealth at their disposal, foster and cultivate the state of emergency as a means of sustaining a casus belli….

“In this unique instance, the UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees) defined as refugees the descendants of refugees. By this measure, Israel now has 3,000,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands [originally around 800,000], except that Israel did everything to absorb these citizens rather than exacerbate their misery. Among Arab states, only Jordan offered Palestinian Arabs a form of citizenship… while other Arab countries allowed them only temporary residence.”

Note that “refugee” is defined much more leniently in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict than in other conflicts. Anyone who was in Israel for a mere two years and had to leave in 1948 is defined as a refugee. Thus any one of the thousands of Arabs who came just a few years earlier because of the work opportunities provided by the Jews’ building their future state and who had to leave in 1948 is counted as a refugee (and his descendants too!). Surely this extremely generous definition of “refugee” significantly inflated the total. In other contexts, the UN agencies define refugee as one who had to leave a “permanent” or “habitual” home.

In 1958, a former director of UNRWA declared: “The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore … and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.”

On the label for the refugees, “Palestinian”:

In the years 1917-20, when the Balfour Declaration was issued and the plans for the eventual Jewish State were being made, there were no “Palestinians” with a separate “Palestinian” identity. There were “Arabs” in Palestine, around 700,000 of them. Palestine was a very underpopulated area, an area that could hold many millions. (Look at the population of Israel today: over 9 million.) The Arabs in Palestine typically viewed themselves as living in “Syria.” “Palestine” had not been a district in the Ottoman Empire.

Here is Ruth Wisse again:

“The theorist of Palestinian nationalism Rashid Khalidi compares Palestinians to Kurds and Armenians…But…Kurds are a people of Indo-European origin with their own language, traditions, and culture. Armenians communities, dating from long before the Christian era, likewise have their own alphabet and language and national customs … Palestinians, on the other hand, share the language, religions, customs, and territory of the Arab majority. They form a majority in Jordan…

The special ingredient of Palestinian nationalism that really does set it apart from say, Jordanian nationalism, or that of Syria or Egypt, is its basis in antagonism to Israel … The most important date in the Palestinian calendar is no Muslim, Arab, or native Palestinian commemoration or celebration, but May 14, 1948, the day of Israel’s founding…”

Wisse goes through the Palestinian yearly calendar and points out that every special day is merely something related to their dispute with Israel since 1948. They are,

“a people that fashioned its entire identity, its myths and holidays, its symbols and slogans, its domestic and foreign policy, around opposition to the Jews …[She means that they are not an ancient or separate nationality or culture in any typical and positive way.] With or without the disputed territories, the major part of [initial mandate] Palestine is already in Arab hands [= Jordan]. The national consciousness of Palestinian Arabs is so politically focused on what belongs to the Jews that they cannot concentrate on what is theirs to enjoy … The contiguous kingdom of Jordan, occupying more than three-quarters of the mandate Palestine actually boasts of plains and hills that closely resemble those of neighboring Israel…”

Here is the eloquent speech of Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1937, in front of the British Peel Commission, arguing the need for a Jewish State:

The economic position of the Palestinian Arabs … owing to the Jewish colonization has become the object of envy in all the surrounding Arab countries, so that the Arabs from those countries show a clear tendency to immigrate into Palestine…There is no question of ousting the Arabs. On the contrary, the idea is that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should hold the Arabs, their progeny and many millions of Jews … I do not deny … that in the process the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority in the country of Palestine. What I do deny is that that is a hardship. It is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many National States now and so many more National States in the future. One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else’s State. Well that is the case with all the mightiest nations of the world. I could hardly mention one of the big nations, having their States, mighty and powerful, who had not one branch living in someone else’s State. That is only normal and there is no “hardship” attached to that. So when we hear the Arab claim confronted with the Jewish claim, I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6; that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.

Foreign Secretary of England, Arthur Balfour, said in 1919: “Zionism … is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

In 1948 about 120,000 refugees entered the Gaza Strip area, adding to the Strip’s previous population of about 60,000. Egypt, with its population of 20 million at the time, could easily have absorbed these refugees. After all, the 1948 war was a gamble started by the Arab countries. Instead Egypt chose not to annex the area and to keep it separate. It does not allow the residents permanent entry into Egypt (only temporary visitation for various exceptions). It was only after Israel captured the area in 1967 that many residents of the Gaza Strip found work, at salaries higher than they could have made before. About two million people live in the Gaza Strip today. Egypt’s population is about 110 million.

P.S. There are numerous books that explain the true history of Israel and not the distorted history that one gets from the media. One such book is “The Case for Israel” by Alan Dershowitz (2003). Another important book, about UNWRA and its perpetuation of the conflict, is “The War of Return,” by A. Schwartz and E. Wilf (2020).


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

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