Arab states created the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they now have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to end it. Over the last 70 years, Arab countries have, on three different historical occasions, sacrificed their Palestinian brethren at the altar of their anti-Israel animus. It is time for them to correct this historical injustice and bring peace to the Middle East.
In November 1947, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 181, calling for partitioning British-ruled Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Arab leaders rejected the Partition Plan. Instead, when the British withdrew in May 1948, forces from Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen invaded Palestine to conduct what they promised would be “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre” of the Jewish community. Against all odds, and despite heavy losses, Israel prevailed. The Arab community of Palestine suffered enormously from their leaders’ and the neighboring countries’ failed attempt to destroy Israel; they call it, with good reason, the “Nakba” or “disaster.” But it wouldn’t be the last time that Palestinian civilians paid the price for the Arab countries’ aggression and intransigence towards Israel.
All wars create refugees, as borders move and communities are displaced. Sometimes civilians are expelled by force; others simply flee from battle zones, and when the fighting ends cannot return home, or no longer have a home to which to return. World War II resulted in over 50 million homeless Germans, Poles, Armenians, Russians, Jews, and others. The 1947 India-Pakistan war—like Palestine, a post-British colonialism struggle for national self-determination between two indigenous ethnic-religious groups—left 15 million refugees. Today the world is facing the humanitarian crisis of millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflict areas. The Israeli-Arab war of 1948 was no exception; hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs lost their homes. Often forgotten are the thousands of Jewish refugees from Jerusalem and other areas that came under Jordanian or Egyptian control, and the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries in the aftermath of the war, who were resettled and integrated into Israel.
But unlike the European refugees after World War II, those displaced in the Indian Subcontinent, and the Jews who lost their homes during and after the 1948 war, the Arabs refugees from Palestine were never resettled. This was the second time the Arab countries betrayed the Palestinians, holding them hostage for the next round of hostilities against Israel. The refugees ended up in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where they were kept in refugee camps not for a year or two, not for a decade or two, but for four generations—to this very day.
Most of the original refugees have passed away in the ensuing 70 years, but their descendants — also referred to as “refugees,” in a unique definition of the term — now number in the millions. Unlike all other refugees from all other conflicts in the world, Palestinian refugees are not permitted to resettle. Their host countries — which share a language, culture, and religion with the Palestinians — explicitly reject any attempt to integrate them. To the contrary, in 1959 the Arab League passed Decree 1547, denying citizenship to Palestinian refugees (and their descendants). The Arab countries, having initiated the war that created the refugee problem in the first place, have perpetuated it for the subsequent 70 years — at the expense of the stateless Palestinians themselves.
Twenty years later, the Arab countries were ready for the next round of fighting. In May and June 1967, Arab states amassed troops on Israel’s borders, expelled UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, blockaded Israel’s only trade route to Asia (including cutting off its access to oil imports), and explicitly threatened to annihilate the Jewish state. Israel’s response was swift and decisive: it defeated and almost destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in only six days. Israel also captured territory from the losing states — the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the densely populated West Bank from Jordan. Rather than suing for peace, the defeated but still defiant Arab states issued the Khartoum Declaration on September 1, 1967. The Declaration is most famous for its three “No”s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it.” But equally important is the subsequent clause of the same sentence, an “insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.” In other words, the Palestinians, for the third time in twenty years, served as the Arab states’ fodder for their continued rejection of Israel.
Five more decades have passed since the Khartoum resolution. Millions of Palestinians are still considered refugees in Arab countries—and, incredibly, even in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-ruled Gaza! In an astonishing 2011 interview, the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon declared that Palestinian refugees will not even be citizens of a yet-to-be-established Palestinian state! The struggle for “liberating” all of Palestine—i.e., for destroying Israel—will continue, at the expense of the civil and political rights of the Palestinians themselves.
But history does not have to repeat itself; it is time to end the misery and abuse of Palestinian refugees. There is no “do-over” for a war that ended seventy years ago, and no chance of millions of “refugees” realizing their fantasy of “return” to a place that most of them have never seen. The only solution to their plight is to finally, belatedly, accept them as citizens and legitimate denizens of the countries in which they currently reside, or in other Arab countries in the region. The former leaders of Egypt (Anwar Sadat) and Jordan (King Hussein) have recognized Israel and signed peace treaties with it. By welcoming and settling the refugees, other Arab states can end the broader conflict—to the benefit of all involved.
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Nevet Basker is the founder and director of Broader View, an online resource center about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also is the executive director of The Kadima Fund, which supports pro-Israel campus and community activists in promoting a positive image for Israel and countering hateful anti-Israel propaganda and helps activists connect with and support each other.