There were two “partitions” of British territories in 1947: one of the British Raj (India) and one of British Palestine. Comparing these two partitions may be instructive as to why the Middle East continues to be the subject of catastrophic events.
The British Raj
The partition in 1947 of the British Raj carved that territory into two countries: India, with a predominantly Hindu population, and Pakistan, with a largely Muslim population. The partition of these two populations, Hindu and Muslim, was by no means clean. There was a substantial Muslim population in the Hindu-designated country of India and a substantial Hindu population in the Muslim-designated country of Pakistan. Each of these minority populations had centuries of history in their respective homelands and largely peaceful coexistence with the majority populations. Nevertheless, the act of partitioning greatly exacerbated underlying animus between the Hindu and Muslim populations, and massacres by the majority populations of the minority populations in each jurisdiction ensued. The result of this strife was the exodus of millions of Hindus from Pakistan and the exodus of millions of Muslims from India. In all, it is estimated that over 17 million people left their homes to join their co-religionists in their respective majority-controlled countries. Some 9.6 million Muslims left India and some 8.3 million Hindus left Pakistan.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) helped manage the massive population movements resulting from this partition. In a leaflet prepared for Muslim refugees who moved from India to Pakistan, the UNHCR advised the refugees that:
“UNHCR is mandated to find durable solutions for refugees. Globally, three types of durable solutions are available: (1) voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, (2) integration in the country of asylum (Pakistan in this context), (3) resettlement to a third country.”
This leaflet went on to say that option 3 is a highly remote option, leaving the first two options as the most viable. Insofar as India was not likely to accept repatriation of these Muslims, integration into Pakistan was the only perceived solution for these millions of refugees.
As it turns out, integration of the refugees in their respective countries of asylum was the blueprint for both India and Pakistan. While it was a difficult and tumultuous process, the respective governments moved their migrants from temporary refugee camps into permanent settlements, creating new cities and communities for them to live in. Within a space of the decade following this enormous population exchange, the refugees were resettled in their new countries, lost their refugee status and blended into their host countries. It is worth noting that, notwithstanding the many centuries of sojourning in their countries of exile, the exiles lost any interest in returning to their former homelands and settled in their new countries.
While the partition of the British Raj was a singularly British accomplishment, the partition of British Palestine was abdicated by Britain to the newly established United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition British Palestine into a Jewish State for the Jewish residents of British Palestine and a Palestinian State for its Arab residents. The local Arab population refused to recognize this arrangement, which they regarded as favorable to the Jews while being unfair to the Arab population that would remain in Jewish territory under the partition. On May 14, 1948, the Jewish State declared independence with the immediate effect of Arab states throughout the Middle East declaring war on the fledgling new Jewish homeland. These Arab states ran the full gamut of Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (and Saudi Arabia contributing troops under Egyptian command and Jordan (then known as Transjordan) fighting only in areas that had been designated as part of the Arab state under the United Nations Partition Plan and Jerusalem).The war between Israel and these Arab armies ended in February, 1949, with Israel securing greater territory from British Palestine than was awarded to it by the UN partition plan; limiting the Arab part of British Palestine to the West Bank [of the Jordan River] territory and the Gaza strip. Yet, while the Jews established a homeland in their new territories, the truncated Arab portion of lands derived from the UN partition plan were not used to create a Palestinian State, but rather were taken over by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza).
As was the case of the partition of the British Raj, there was a large-scale exchange of populations. Estimates between 650,000 to 1,000,000 Arabs left the Israeli territories while more than 850,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, and several other Arab countries in the 20 years that followed the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. It is worth noting that, today, there remain in Israel over two million Arab residents (who are citizens) – constituting approximately 21% of the population, while the number of Jews remaining in Arab lands is in the low thousands.
The tenure of the Arab population’s presence in the territory of the land that was to constitute the State of Israel is the subject of some debate, but nevertheless was for some extended period prior to the establishment of the Jewish State.
The Jewish population in the Arab states goes back centuries if not millennia. For example, the Jewish population in Syria trace their presence there to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 during the Inquisition, when the Ottoman Empire invited them to move there. The Jews of Yemen trace their roots there to the third century (if not earlier) and Jews started settling in Iraq as far back as 586 B.C.E. (when King Nebuchadnezzar exiled them to Babylonia).
The Arab refugees fled Israel for a variety of reasons. Some left to avoid the ongoing warfare. Others left at the encouragement of Arab politicians who promised them that they could return when the Arab armies were victorious. And others left because they either felt threatened by the Jews or were expelled by the Jews. This paper’s focus is not concerned about why they left (about which much has been written and remains the subject of debate), but rather simply that they did leave and became refugees. These Arab refugees from Israeli territories mostly settled in neighboring Arab countries and territories: the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Those who fled Israel are classified by the United Nations as refugees if they are “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” When the UNRWA (more on which below) began operations in 1950, it serviced about 750,000 refugees.
The Jewish refugees fled the Arab lands for a variety of reasons as well. Some wanted to join their co-religionists in Israel, while others were the subject of increasingly harsh conditions and pogroms with the start of the Arab-Israeli War of 1947/8. During the 1947 UN debates, Arab leaders threatened them. For example, Egypt’s delegate told the General Assembly: “The lives of one million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by partition.” The Jewish refugees were accepted by the Israeli government as citizens and settled in Israel.
While the Jewish refugees were assimilated by their country of asylum, the Arab refugees – at this point called Palestinian refugees – were not allowed to assimilate in their new host countries of their co-religionists. Rather, they were housed in refugee camps, not granted local citizenship and generally kept apart from the local populace.
The United Nations established a separate commission to deal with these Palestinian refugees called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). While world history since the founding of the United Nations abounds with refugee situations – and these refugees are served by the United Nations Refugee Agency known as UNHCR, only the Palestinian refugees have a UN organization formed to provide services for this particular cohort of refugees. Today, nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Comparing the Two Partitions of 1947
The partitioning of the British Raj and British Palestine both resulted in large exchanges of population amidst terrible conditions for the refugees and extremely bitter enmity between the partitioned populations. While the Hindu, Indian Muslim and Jewish refugees settled within their new homes as citizens, the Palestinian refugees were not permitted to do so in the countries to which they fled and, what is more, failed to obtain territory of their own due to the takeover by the Jordanians and Egyptians of the territory they were supposed to call their own. As well, the respective Hindu, Indian Muslim and Jewish refugees accepted their fates as transplants; being content to stay in their new homelands. Yet the Palestinian refugees (or, certainly, their leadership) insist on the “right to return” to their former homes in Israel proper and are effectively preserved as “refugees” by the unique creature of the UNWRA agency.
What, then, is the root cause of these vastly different results? It would appear to this author that the reason for these different results is what some call “oppositional nationalism”. The Arab states at the time of the founding of Israel rejected, and much Palestinian leadership today rejects, the idea that the Jews have any historical connection to the land of Israel (or, for that matter, Jerusalem) and oppose the idea of a right for the Jewish people to self-determination and governance of this territory. The preservation of the Palestinian refugee population has furthered this theory and has greatly contributed to the morass that is the Middle East today.
 The figures cited are from “The Big March: Migratory Flows after the Partition of India” by Prashant Bharadwaj, Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Atif Mian (Harvard Kennedy School, June 2008).