Shattering Palestinian Refugee Myths

The Trump administration’s announcement that it was ending funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) set off the usual recriminations about how the Palestinians were going to now suffer because of the evil and heartless Americans. Like the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however, this was a wakeup call designed to disabuse the Palestinians of the fantasy that millions of refugees will be allowed to overrun Israel and replace it with a Palestinian state, and that they are entitled to perpetual financial support while undermining U.S. interests.

The demand for refugees to return to their homes is rooted in the myth that one million Arabs were forced out of Palestine by the Zionists in 1948. It is true that a relative handful of Palestinians were expelled from their homes. This was not part of any “ethnic cleansing” as Palestinians falsely assert; most were removed following the Arab invasion of Israel because they lived in strategically vital areas. The objectives were to prevent the threat of any rearguard action against the Israeli forces, and to ensure clear lines of communication.

What you rarely hear mentioned is that far more Palestinians left before the war even started. These were mostly wealthy Palestinians who fled to neighboring Arab states in anticipation of the war Arab leaders were threatening.

John Bagot Glubb, the commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, said, “Villages were frequently abandoned even before they were threatened by the progress of war.” Moreover, contemporary press reports of major battles in which large numbers of Arabs fled conspicuously omit any mention of their forcible expulsion by Jewish forces. The Arabs are usually described as “fleeing” or “evacuating” their homes.

For example, in early April 1948, before the war started, an estimated 25,000 Palestinians left the Haifa area following an offensive by irregular Arab forces and rumors that Arab air forces would soon bomb the Jewish areas around Mt. Carmel.

A leading Palestinian nationalist, Musa Alami, revealed the attitude of the fleeing Arabs:

The Arabs of Palestine left their homes, were scattered, and lost everything. But there remained one solid hope: [t]he Arab armies were on the eve of their entry into Palestine to save the country and return things to their normal course, punish the aggressor, and throw oppressive Zionism with its dreams and dangers into the sea. On May 14, 1948, crowds of Arabs stood by the roads leading to the frontiers of the former British Mandate of Palestine and enthusiastically welcomed the advancing armies. Days and weeks passed, but the Arab armies did not defeat the Israelis. Instead, they lost Acre, Sarafand, Lydda, Ramleh, Nazareth, most of the south and the rest of the north. Then hope fled.

As it became evident the Arab armies would fail to drive the Jews into the sea, more Palestinians fled. In fact, those from Faluja decided to ignore Israeli guarantees of protection and left after the war ended.

For years the Palestinians and their apologists tried to dismiss the evidence that Arab leaders called on the people to leave. Starting in December 1947, historian Benny Morris said, “Arab officers ordered the complete evacuation of specific villages in certain areas, lest their inhabitants ‘treacherously’ acquiesce in Israeli rule or hamper Arab military deployments.” He concluded, “There can be no exaggerating the importance of these early Arab-initiated evacuations in the demoralization, and eventual exodus, of the remaining rural and urban populations.”

There were many contemporaneous examples. The Economist reported on October 2, 1948, that Palestinians fled Haifa at the behest of their leaders who “clearly intimated that those who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades.”

After years of denying their leaders told them to leave, Palestinians began to admit the truth. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, said: “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.”

While the Palestinians claim that one million people were ethnically cleansed (begging the question of how almost the entire population survived an alleged genocide), the UN Mediator on Palestine found that by September 1948 the total number of refugees was 360,000. UNRWA maintains that number has grown to more than 5 million.

A State Department study, classified under the Obama administration, reportedly found that the actual number is closer to 20,000. Despite requests from Congress, and the requirement to release an unclassified version, the Department refuses to do so, suggesting the Arabist influence remains embedded and Palestinian apologists fear angering their clients with the truth.

We don’t need the report, however, to question the UN numbers. If you believe UNRWA, nearly one out of every two Palestinians in the world is a refugee, including the majority that currently live in historic Palestine. Because UNRWA counts descendants of the original refugees, the numbers increase every year.

Consider that a Palestinian infant in 1948 would be 70 years old today. Life expectancy is 67 years in the disputed territories. That means it was much lower years earlier, especially under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, so many of the Palestinians who were adults during the war are long gone.

According to CIA statistics, only 2.5% of Palestinians in Gaza are over 65 (approximately 45,000 people) and 3.5% of those in the West Bank (roughly 96,000). This would mean that if all those people became refugees at infancy there would be fewer than 141,000 refugees. Even if we add Palestinians in the “diaspora,” most of whom are not counted by UNRWA as refugees, the number would not increase significantly.

Moreover, if you take the UN figure for the actual number of refugees in 1948 – 360,000 – and treat them all as infants at the time, roughly 4% would still be alive or 14,400, close to the State Department’s reported estimate. Of course, they were not all children, so the real number would be much lower.

What is significant about these more accurate numbers is that even those on the high end of the estimates are close to the 100,000 refugees that Israel said it would accept on a humanitarian basis as early as the 1950s. By replacing the erroneous UN data with the real number, the seemingly implacable refugee problem becomes solvable.


About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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