I have written before about the issue of the so-called “Palestinian refugees” – whose status, both as “Palestinians” and as “refugees” is highly questionable – but as the Israel-bashers return to this point again and again, it is worth re-examining.
One of the key issues in any possible future peace treaty between Israel and the “Palestinians” is the question of the refugee problem. By this, the “Palestinians” – as well as the Europeans, Americans, and just about everyone else – mean Arab refugees only. Is this justified? Let’s take a look and see.
In the aftermath of World War Two, there were millions of refugees and displaced persons throughout Europe. On the other hand, the number of “Palestinian” refugees in the aftermath of the Israeli War of Independence was estimated by the UN as between 711,000 and 726,000. UNRWA itself puts the figure at some 750,000. At the same time, over 800,000 Jews fled Arab lands, most of them settling in the fledgeling State of Israel, which absorbed them with not one dollar of aid from the United Nations. Compare this to the Arab states which kept their “Palestinian” refugee population in refugee camps. Moreover, while Jordan did, at least, grant the “Palestinians” in her territory Jordanian citizenship (in fact, “Palestinians” make up the majority of the Jordanian population, especially when you consider that Jordan was created from that part of the Mandated Territory of Palestine east of the River Jordan), the Egyptians kept them bottled up in the Gaza Strip.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees was established in December 1949, in the wake of the Israeli War of Independence, to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. Despite the considerably larger number of European refugees, it was not for another year (December 1950) that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was founded. An interesting fact, which is not generally known, is that UNGA Resolution 302 (IV) of 8th December 1949 - the instrument which set up UNRWA – did not, in fact, refer specifically to Arab refugees. Resolution 302 (IV) recalls two earlier resolutions, UNGA Resolution 212 (III) of 19th November 1948 and UNGA Resolution 194 (III) of 11th December 1948 and its terms of reference are the same as those of the two earlier resolutions, encompassing ”the relief of Palestine refugees of all communities” (my italics – ed.).
Since Article 11 of Resolution 194 (III) “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” and since the preamble to Resolution 212 (III) makes it clear that “refugees” refers to refugees “of all the communities”, there is no logical or legal reason for assuming that this applies only to Arab refugees. There were Palestinian Jews who also lost their homes; for example, the Jews of Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) and other kibbutzim and moshavim in Judaea and Samaria, who, under the terms of Resolution 194, are to be permitted to return to their homes “at the earliest practicable date”. Since these areas were illegally occupied by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967, “the earliest practicable date” was not until those lands were liberated by the Israel Defence Forces during the Six Day War. Why, then, does the UN persist in calling the renewed Jewish settlement in those areas illegal?
At all events, the Jewish refugees were resettled within Israel by the Israeli government. Not so the Arab refugees, as stated above. With the exception of Jordan, most of the 22 existing Arab states refused to grant citizenship to their “Palestinian” brothers, preferring to keep them as pawns in their never-ending mission to destroy Israel. Take, for example, the refugees living in the Gaza Strip, an area of 147 square miles and a population density of 9,713 per square mile. Into this area, the UN, the EU, the United States and other countries have poured billions of dollars in aid – money which has been squandered by the “Palestinian” leadership on weapons to use against Israel – including Israeli civilians – and to build tunnels in order to smuggle those weapons into the Gaza Strip. Imagine what could have been done with that money, had the “Palestinian” leadership put it to better use. There is no reason why the Gaza Strip could not have become the Singapore of the Middle East. For the sake of comparison, Singapore, with a land area of 241 square miles but with a population density of 18,645 per square mile (almost double that of the Gaza Strip) has a thriving economy which is envied the world over – and no-one is complaining about the “inhuman, overcrowded conditions” there. And if we are to talk of “overcrowding”, and living standards – what about Monaco, with a land area of 0.8 square miles and a population density of 42,143 per square mile?
UNHCR’s definition of “refugee” is, according to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are “people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict”. Not only that – UNRWA’s definition encompasses also the descendants of the original refugees, as we can see from UNRWA’s own website. There does not appear to be any basis for such a sweeping definition in the UN resolution which established UNWRA and it would appear that this definition was a later development. Once again, when it comes to the Israel-Arab conflict, the goalposts have been moved and just like the concepts of “genocide”, “ethnic cleansing”, “apartheid” and “democracy”, so too the word “refugee” has been re-defined. “Palestinians” are the only group of refugees able to “bequeath” their refugee status to their descendants. Furthermore, “Palestinians” are the only group of refugees in the world to have a United Nations agency dedicated specifically and uniquely to helping them.
UNRWA has a staff of over 25,000 to deal with some 5 million “Palestine refugees”. Of these, 99% are locally recruited “Palestinian” Arabs. No wonder it has become politicised! In contrast, UNHCR deals with all the other refugees in the world (about 33.9 million persons in 125 countries) with a staff of less than 8000! It seems clear that UNWRA has become a self-serving organisation, which has helped to perpetuate the “Palestinian refugee” problem rather than to solve it.