How to end the refugee problem

Palestinian refugees in a Lebanese camp

Palestinian refugees in a Lebanese camp

Yesterday I suggested that (among other things) there needs to be a major change in world policy toward ‘Palestinian refugees’. Today I want to elaborate on this.

In 1948, somewhere around 600,000 Arabs (serious estimates range from 550,000 750,000) left their homes as a result of the war. It is a fundamental part of Palestinian mythology, abetted by the remarkable dishonesty of the so-called ‘new historians’ (see Efraim Karsh’s books on the subject, here and here) that these refugees were all forced out of their homes at gunpoint, but in fact most of them fled simply to avoid the expected war. Lack of leadership helped — wealthy Arabs left first, some to summer homes in Beirut — and in many cases they were encouraged to do so by the local leadership and by propaganda from the Arab nations.

The Palestinian narrative is based on the idea that Israel’s creation was a nakba, or catastrophe for the ‘Palestinian people,’ that it was a deliberate crime against them, and that Israel must make it right by accepting a ‘right of return’ for the refugees and all of their 4.5 million descendants, whereby they could “return to their original homes” inside Israel or receive compensation.

There are several inconvenient facts that this narrative ignores, in addition to the fact that there was no attempt to expel Arabs en masse. For one thing, the Palestinian Arabs initiated hostilities against the Jewish population in 1947 (I am ignoring the various ‘riots’ and pogroms that they perpetrated from about 1920), and their allies invaded the area with the exit of the British in 1948. If it is possible to assign responsibility for the war and the nakba, it is not the Jews that bear that responsibility.

It is also important, if we are discussing compensation, to recall that about 800,000 Jews were in one way or another forced out of Arab countries before, during and after the 1948 war, usually bringing only the clothes on their backs. Countries that had flourishing communities of hundreds of thousands of Jews lost almost all of them. For example, the Jewish population of Iraq went from 150,000 to 100 between 1948 and 2003.

It is also important to compare the way Palestinian refugees have been treated by international institutions with the way other refugee problems have been solved. Most refugee situations — like that of the millions, especially Jews that were made homeless by WWII as well as the Jewish refugees from Arab countries — were resolved in a few years, primarily by resettlement.

In the case of the Arab refugees, a special agency, UNRWA was created just for them. Refugee status — for the first and only time in the history of the UN — was made hereditary. Host nations refused to grant the refugees and their descendents citizenship, kept them in UN-funded camps, and in many cases denied them opportunities for education or employment that were available to non-Palestinians. The condition of the refugees in Lebanon has been compared to South African apartheid!

When Israel took control of the Gaza strip in 1967, Israelis were horrified by the conditions of the refugees in the formerly Egyptian-controlled camps. Israel actually built new housing for them, but the PLO and UN prevented the refugees from occupying it.

While the refugees and their descendents are not permitted to be absorbed by their host countries, UNRWA continues to support them on the international dole, providing aid to families on the basis of size — thus creating an incentive for ‘refugee’ families to have many children. UNRWA’s budget is in excess of $1.2 billion per year, much of which, naturally, is paid by the USA.

The Palestinian Authority has indicated that if they are granted statehood there will be no change in the status of refugees, even those that live in the area that they expect to become part of their state. They will not get Palestinian citizenship, and the UN will continue to support them. The only solution for them that is acceptable to the Palestinians and the Arab states is their ‘return’ to their ‘original homes’ in Israel.

Everyone, from Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon on down (or up) knows that a ‘return’ of up to 4.5 million hostile Arabs to Israel would simply be the end of Israel. And yet, although they know this, and although at the same time they purport to be committed to Israel’s security, they do not call for change in the pernicious Arab refugee system!

Everyone also agrees that a solution to the Isareli-Arab conflict will require a solution to the refugee problem.  So here is a restatement of my simple proposal to solve this problem for once and for all:

  1. Palestinian refugee status will be given only to those Arabs who actually left their homes during Israel’s War of Independence. It will no longer be hereditary.
  2. The remaining refugees will receive services from UNHCR, which serves all other kinds of refugees.
  3. UNRWA will be abolished.
  4. Former refugees will be given all the rights and privileges of citizens of their host countries. The system of ethnic apartheid which exists in Lebanon, Syria, the PA, the Gaza strip and (to a lesser extent) Jordan will be dismantled.
  5. The UN may give humanitarian aid to the host countries in order to aid in the absorption of the former refugees, but will not directly maintain them. Aid will be carefully targeted, monitored and strictly limited in duration.

This will be a large undertaking, but it is absolutely necessary for there to be peace in the Middle East. Just as world Jewry collected funds to help the European Jewish refugees after WWII and the Jews from Arab lands after 1948, we can expect that the Arab countries will invest some of their petrodollars into helping their Palestinian brothers.

After all, they do care about the Palestinians — don’t they?

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3 Responses to “How to end the refugee problem”

  1. Robby says:

    Passing “refugee” status down from generation to generation is cruel and inhumane, something the western world would never do. Can you imagine the outcry from the Arab world if we denied rights to a whole group of newborns based on “ethnic origin”? The accusations of apartheid would be deafening. It is hypercritical for us to support the UNRWA, we should discontinue funding immediately.

    I’ve often wondered if money spent by the UNRWA results in an economic plus for host countries such as Lebanon? Maybe they are kept intact for the dollars?

  2. Robman says:

    Excellent solution, Vic. Maybe one day it will happen. Maybe one day, ten or twenty years from now. For the time being, it seems far too infused with strange concepts like “reality”, and “objectivity” and “morality”.

    These are anathema to the Arab world of today. Just doesn’t “compute”.

    Do the Arabs care about the Palestinians?

    To me, the entire relationship between the rest of the Arabs and the Palestinians was summed up, on display in microcosm, early this past summer, when the Syrians forced thousands of Palestinians with a combination of monetary bribes and physical threats, to march to the Israeli frontier, unarmed, so they could be shot by Israelis. And so the Israelis could then be made out to look like big, bad, heartless bullies.

    To the rest of the Arabs, that is all the Palestinians are good for. Propaganda points. Pawns.

    Cannon fodder.

    Really, they ought to be called the “Cannonfodderstinians”.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is the most clear and sensible consideration of the problem I have ever read.
    Time and again pieces appear on ‘FresnoZionism’ that are more strongly and clearly written than pieces on the same subject in the Jewish and global media.
    Again I wish I knew some way to get Daily Alert, Tablet, the Forward, JTA, other Jewish sites to link to these pieces.