What happened to the Arab refugees from Israel?
In the wake of the War of Independence in 1948, when Israel was invaded by the armies of five of its Arab neighboring countries, 860,000 Jewish refugees fled from Arab countries to Israel, and, at about the same time, about 70% of the Arab population of Mandatory Palestine fled to Arab states from the portion of Palestine that is now Israel. The Arab exodus was almost entirely because of the actions of Arab leaders and not because of anything the Israeli Jews did. Estimates of the total number who left range from 540,000 to 720,000. Not all of those who fled their homes departed Mandatory Palestine itself. By some estimates, 45% of them simply crossed into the eastern sector of the country occupied by Jordan’s Arab Legion. Around 5% crossed the Jordan River and entered the Hashemite Kingdom itself. About 30%, who originally had encamped in the south, fled toward the Gaza area. Nearly 15% sought refuge in Lebanon, another 5% in Syria, with smaller groups traveling on to Iraq and Egypt — and later to the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.
This population exchange mirrored far larger population movements following the end of World War II, which involved millions of Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, as well as Poles, Germans and many other nationalities in Central and East Europe. These population exchanges were resolved through the integration of all refugees into the host states. While Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees, the Arab states refused to allow such resettlement and integration of their Palestinian brethren, preferring instead to exploit the Palestinian refugees to serve their own political agendas. Since there has been no integration of the refugees with the populations of the countries to which they fled, the current “refugees” are the children and mostly grandchildren of those who left Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
In 1949, Israel offered to admit 100,000 Arab refugees, with the understanding that their repatriation would be linked to meaningful peace negotiations. Although 35,000 Arabs eventually returned under a family reunification plan, further implementation of the offer was suspended in the 1950’s, after it became clear that the Arab states steadfastly refused to consider Israel’s peace overtures, preferring instead to maintain a state of war with and economic boycott against Israel. In contrast, as a gesture of goodwill, Israel unilaterally released the frozen bank accounts and safe deposits of Arab refugees.
In 1973, Khaled al-‘Azm, who served as Prime Minister of Syria in 1948 and 1949, published his memoirs in Beirut. He includes the following:
- We have brought destruction upon a million Arab refugees, by calling upon them and pleading with them to leave their lands, their homes, their work and their business, and we have caused them to be barren and unemployed though each one of them had been working and qualified in a trade from which he could make a living. In addition, we accustomed them to begging for hand-outs and to suffice with what little the UN organisation would allocate them.
Following the war, the Arab countries consistently refused to take steps necessary to improve the lives of the Palestinian refugees. In early 1950, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, with a budget of $54 million. UNRWA was charged with the task of employing the Palestinians on projects in the Arab states in which they resided. It was an explicit expectation of the program that within 18 months most of these refugees would be as self-supporting as their Arab neighbors, and relief handouts could be ended. However, when UNRWA officials initiated talks with the Arab governments, they encountered an uncompromising refusal to cooperate with any plan designed for economic integration.
Arab leaders argued that Paragraph Eleven of General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948 guaranteed the refugees the right to return to their homes, and that they could not participate in any scheme that might compromise such a right. In fact, the Arab states themselves had voted unanimously against the resolution, since it envisaged peace negotiations with Israel. The refugee issue accordingly served as a useful obstacle to future discussions and as an effective lien on the world’s conscience. By the end of 1950, as a result, no more than 10,000 of the refugees were employed.
Throughout the 1950’s, UNRWA put forward additional plans to resettle and rehabilitate the Palestinian refugees. Like the earlier plan, these too were rejected by the Arab countries, individually and through the Arab League. By 1959, UNRWA was obliged to report that its rehabilitation fund, created in 1950 to provide homes and jobs for Palestinian refugees outside the camps, had been boycotted by the Arabs. The fund had set a goal of $250 million, but after three years only $7 million had been spent, and a further $28 million lay unused in the fund. Thereafter, a small part of the money was used on agricultural development; the rest of the money was used to augment UNRWA’s general reserves.
Some of the Palestinians were formulating their own solution by then. In 1952, UNRWA observed that a good number of the Arab refugees had recently found homes and livelihoods in neighboring countries, in Iraq and the Persian Gulf states. At least 280,000 refugees had established themselves in Jordan and, by their own efforts, had become an integral part of that country’s economy. For others, however, the situation was different.
In January 1951, the “Committee of Palestine Refugees” in Lebanon wrote the Arab League political committee, observing that a return to their homes was less than imminent for most of the Palestinians. Until a political solution could be found they could hardly be left to rot in Arab countries without decent food, shelter or means of providing a livelihood. The letter suggested that the Arab states should at least provide those refugees willing to settle outside Palestine with the opportunity to do so. Yet the single affirmative response to this appeal was King Abdullah’s decision to confer Jordanian citizenship on the 200,000-odd refugees of the West Bank. Of these, 100,000 found employment; the rest continued to live in camps on UNRWA’s dole.
By contrast, the refugees in Gaza were confined as virtual prisoners within the Strip. With the exception of perhaps 20,000 who managed to secure jobs in Iraq and the Persian Gulf area by 1951, they were denied employment or citizenship in Egypt itself.
As a result of this situation, UNRWA relief aid became a fixture in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The “advantages” of refugee status were not unsubstantial. The refugees had access to health services. The incidence of sickness and death accordingly was lower among them than among the surrounding Arab populations. Some 45% of their children of school age received free education. While their rations were meager, they did not suffer from malnutrition. By the end of 1956, only 39% of registered refugees actually lived in UNRWA camps; yet nearly all of them drew UN rations. Israel, therefore, cannot be held solely responsible for the socio-economic problems of the Gaza refugees, which were created by deliberate Arab neglect before 1967.
In 1959, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold personally investigated the possibility of a comprehensive resettlement scheme in the Middle East. Such a scheme would, like the earlier recommendations of the UN Palestine Conciliation Commission, have been based on the general principle of resettling Arab refugees in Arab countries; as a result, it encountered Arab opposition and was dropped.
Since UNRWA’s inception, Arab countries have made totally inadequate contributions to its funding. UNRWA’s annual budget, and deficit
s, have been covered almost entirely by Western countries; Arab states have made only token contributions, amounting to about 5% of the total budget. As a major contributor to international relief funds and the United Nations, the UnitedStates has made up for a large share of Arab neglect of their own people.
Over the years, Arab governments have placed a higher priority on the destruction of Israel than on the welfare of the Palestinian refugees. They perceived it as their interest to keep the bitterness and anger of the Palestinian refugees alive. For decades, in fact, Arab leaders used the Palestinians’ misfortune to promote their efforts to undermine Israel, linking a return of refugees to Israel’s destruction. In an interview to the Cairo journal “Al-Masri” on 11 October 1949, Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad Salah A-Din said:
- In demanding the return of the Palestinian refugees, the Arabs mean their return as masters, not slaves; or, to put it quite clearly — the intention is the termination of Israel.
This motif was repeated in later years, with President Nasser of Egypt saying, in a 1965 speech, that:
- Our aim is to restore the national rights of the Palestinian people, namely to destroy Israel.
The refugee issue remains unsolved. Arab governments have made no attempt to assist their own people to resettle or integrate with their host countries, in marked contrast to the outcome for the Jewish refugees in Israel or, indeed, refugees in every other world trouble spot. Only the Palestinians remain refugees because only the Palestinians have been enslaved to the Arab political agenda against Israel. This exploitation of the PalestinianArab refugees by huge and wealthy Arab countries happened in the same time period as tiny Israel absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in Arab countries and from Nazi or Soviet Europe.
By 2002, many of the refugee camps were still in operation and the inhabitants were still being politically manipulated by radical Palestinian Arabs. During Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield the camps were entered by the Israeli military and were found to be centers of terrorist activity with bomb factories, illegal arms caches, and schools for terrorist fighters.