The issue of Palestinian refugees is a sticking point in Middle East peace negotiations. How did this problem begin, and who is responsible?
In the 1948 war, approximately 600,000 Jewish refugees were persecuted and expelled from Arab lands including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco -- leaving behind an estimated $30 billion in assets. These Jewish refugees were welcomed by Israel, and with their descendants, now comprise a majority population of the State of Israel.
In the same war, according to the UN, approximately 720,000 Palestinians refugees fled to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. The UN estimates that they and their descendents now number about 3.7 million.
The Arab League forbade any Arab country from accepting these refugees or settling them in normal housing, preferring to leave them in squalid camps. Former UNRWA Director Ralph Galloway stated in 1958: "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die."
Again, it was Arabs who resisted efforts by Israel to settle the refugees in normal housing from 1967-95, when Israel administered the lands.
And again in the late-1990s, when 97 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lived under full jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, the refugees continued to be confined to camps -- despite the millions of UNWRA and international relief dollars which poured into PA coffers specifically for this purpose.
It is important to note, as Joan Peters documents in her seminal work, "From Time Immemorial," that the vast majority of these refugees did not live for generations on the land, but rather came from Egypt, Syria and Iraq as economic opportunities increased during the first half of the 20th century, the formative years of Jewish aliyah.
The United Nations' standard definition of a "refugee" is one who was forced to leave a "permanent" or "habitual" home. In the case of Arab refugees however, the UN broadened the definition of refugee to include anyone who lived in "Palestine" for only two years prior to Israel's statehood in 1948.
The number of 3.7 million refugees is further inflated, given that the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not include descendents in its definition of refugees, nor does it apply to a person who "has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality." Under this definition, the number of Palestinians qualifying for refugee status would be well below half a million. Yet the UN has created a new set of rules for Palestinian refugees.
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A key question is the issue of responsibility: Since five Arab armies launched the 1948 war, logic dictates that they are responsible for the outcome. Yet it is still instructive to know: Did Israel forcibly evict these Arabs in 1948, or did they leave voluntarily?
Though historical sources vary, many statements from Arab leaders and the media support the contention that Arabs created the refugee problem:
The Beirut Daily Telegraph (September 6, 1948) quoted Emil Ghory, secretary of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee:
The fact that there are those refugees is the direct consequence of the action of the Arab states in opposing partition and the Jewish state. The Arab states agreed upon this policy unanimously...
The London Economist (October 2, 1948) reported an eyewitness account of the flight of Haifa's Arabs:
There is little doubt that the most potent of the factors [in the flight] were the announcements made over the air by the Arab Higher Executive urging all Arabs in Haifa to quit... And it was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades.
Habib Issa, secretary-general of the Arab League, wrote in the New York Lebanese daily "al-Hoda" (June 8, 1951):
[Azzam Pasha, Arab League secretary,] assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and of Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade... Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes and property, and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states.
Former Prime Minister of Syria, Khaled al-Azem, wrote in his memoirs, published in 1973 in Beirut:
We brought destruction upon a million Arab refugees by calling on them and pleading with them to leave their land.
The PA's current prime minister, Mahmud Abbas ("Abu Mazen") wrote in the PLO journal "Palestine a-Thaura" (March 1976):
The Arab armies, who invaded the country in '48, forced the Palestinians to emigrate and leave their homeland and forced a political and ideological siege on them.
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There is a common misconception regarding UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948. The resolution does not recognize any "right" of return for refugees, but recommends that they "should" be "permitted" to return, subject to two conditions: that the refugee wishes to return, and that he wishes to live at peace with his neighbors.
Even though the Arab states originally rejected Resolution 194, they now misquote it to back the demand of an unlimited right of return to within the borders of the State of Israel. In Yasser Arafat's January 1, 2001, letter to President Clinton, he declared:
"Recognizing the Right of Return and allowing the refugees' freedom of choice are a prerequisite for ending the conflict."
In the summer of 2000, Palestinian negotiators submitted an official document at Camp David, demanding that the refugees automatically be granted Israeli citizenship, and that the right of return should have no time limit. Additionally, the PA demanded that Israel provide compensation amounting to $500 billion dollars. Abu Mazen said that compensation payments should be made by Israel alone, and not from any international funds.
Israel maintains that settling refugees in Israel is a crude political move to destroy the Jewish state through demographics. If the whole point of a Palestinian state is to provide an independent home for their people, why do they insist on going to Israel?
While the political outcome remains uncertain, one thing is tragically clear: Thousands of Palestinians remain in squalid camps, used as political pawns in the ongoing war against Israel.
As Jordan's King Hussein stated in 1960:
Since 1948, Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible manner. They have used the Palestine people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and I could say even criminal
(Sources: MEMRI, Ha'Aretz, Joan Peters, Moshe Kohn, Prof. Shlomo Slonim, Prof. Ruth Lapidoth) .