The Palestinian Refugee Fallacy

Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 the Palestinian refugee issue has been used as a pawn to castigate Israel for its “occupation” and denying the Palestinians the “Right of Return”.

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Today it is reasonable to ask, why do the Palestinian refugees still require the exclusive attention of a United Nations agency dedicated to its cause? What is the purpose of this exceptionalism and how have their numbers grown from 750,000 to 5.6 million today without any further major mass Palestinian displacement taking place since 1948?

I will show that the current refugee number of 5.6 million is a fallacy and is used to perpetuate the conflict with Israel and delegitimize the Jewish state with the United Nations playing the role as enabler.

Two agencies were created  by the United Nations to deal with refugees, one is called the  United Nations Relief and Works Agency (“UNRWA”) founded in 1949  and the other is called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) founded in 1950. While UNRWA ‘s scope of work is limited to the Palestinian refugees as a result of the Arab Israeli conflict in 1948 (Israel’s “War of Independence”) UNHCR’s addresses refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people caused by all other regional conflicts after its scope was expanded beyond the refugees caused by the Second World War.  The Palestinian refugees are not entitled to the services of UNHCR unless they meet special conditions outside of UNRWA’s areas of operation which are Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank.

The difference in the definition of refugees between the two refugee agencies offers proof that UNRWA is politicized and, unlike UNHCR, is not dedicated to resettling the refugees but to perpetuating their status with the specter of the “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel which would destroy the Jewish state if millions were to return. In this context one discovers that while the number of refugees under the mandate of UNHCR (currently 20.4 million) rises and falls the number of Palestinian refugees continues to grow exponentially from 725,000 in 1948, near the time when UNRWA was founded, to 5.6 million registered refugees today! How can this happen!?

The answer is quite straight forward. Under UNRWA the refugees maintain their refugee status, regardless of their personal situation, until there is a political settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict while the refugees under UNHCR are no longer considered refugees once they are resettled or have the same rights and obligations of the citizens of their host country. Additionally, refugee status under UNRWA is automatically granted to the next generations through patrilineal decent while UNHCR provides no such guarantee. In other words, UNRWA registrants have permanent refugee status until a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is found which includes addressing the Right of Return.

Ben Bourgel, the Minister Counselor for the Mission of Israel to the United Nations made this statement on November 3 , 2020 to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations that has UNRWA under its purview.

“UNRWA defines who is a so-called “Palestine refugee” in
complete disregard of accepted international norms. Unlike the
refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, whose eligibility is checked
on a case-by-case basis, UNRWA automatically registers as a
refugee every descendant of Palestinian refugees, as well as those
who are citizens of other countries.

By doing so, UNRWA turns itself into a politicized organization and
reinforces the Palestinians’ unrealistic demand that millions of Palestinians
settle in Israel. This would result in the destruction of the Jewish State.
UNRWA also uses PA’s textbooks which include references of incitement
to violence and antisemitism. By continuing down this path, UNRWA has
made it clear that it is part of the problem and not the solution and as such
should cease to exist.”

So how did we reach this intractable situation?

Let’s start with some general background of the Arab Israeli conflict to add context to the Palestinian refugee issue. To my mind one could comfortably say that, apart from King Abdullah of  Jordan who was assassinated in 1951, the Arab side was resolutely against any Jewish majority in any part of Palestine from Day 1. Nevertheless, Israel became a recognized state while the Arab side chose to go to war against it in 1948 instead of accepting a partition plan of Mandatory Palestine proposed and approved by the United Nations Assembly which, unfortunately for the Arabs, they lost. This loss is commemorated as the “Nakba Day” (“Day of Catastrophe”) by Palestinians up to the present time. At this stage of the conflict there were no Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Gaza but the Arab mantra was that Israel should be wiped off the map and the Palestinian refugees should return to their homes from which they left. In other words the Arabs demanded that the result of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 should be reversed with or without another war.

Obviously, Israel was not going to give up what it had gained in territory and sacrificed in lives to a hostile and implacable enemy but it did agree to an armistice agreement in 1949. This was followed by a war of attrition when Israel did not occupy the West Bank or Gaza which were controlled by Jordan and Egypt respectively.  The hostilities eventually led to the “Six Day War” in 1967 which Israel again won and resulted in their capture of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israel’s subsequent overtures to the Arabs for trading land for peace Israel were met with the resounding “Three No’s” 1) No Negotiations  2) No Recognition and 3) No Peace that were proclaimed at the 1967 Arab League summit. Objectively, one could easily add a fourth “No”; “No Compromise”.

It wasn’t until after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the third war of survival in which Israel prevailed, that Israel managed to seal peace treaties with two of their close neighbors and adversaries, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.  Israel traded Sinai for a treaty with Egypt but no land for peace was necessary for the treaty with Jordan since Jordan had renounced it’s claim to the West Bank (except for the non-Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem) back in 1988 when it handed over its administrative and financial responsibility to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Although Israel now had peace agreements with two major Arab neighbors the conflict with the Palestinians continued and festers to this day.  The mantra now is “End the Occupation” and “Right of Return”; at least by Israel’s more moderate enemies instead of “Death to Israel” by the more extreme.

As a result of the war in 1948 the United Nations estimated that over 725,000 Palestinian refugees  fled or were forced from their homes. Over 160,000 Arabs either remained in Israel or returned to their homes in Israel in 1949. The percentage distribution of the Palestinian refugees from Israel to their respective destination areas were as follows (source for all refugee stats-Martin Gilbert “Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”):

Numbers rounded.
The West Bank  38% (280,000), Gaza 26% (190,000), Lebanon 14% (100,000) Syria 10% (75,000) Jordan 10% (70,000) remaining 2% (11,000) to Egypt and Iraq.

Also, as a result of the creation of the State of Israel, the Jews in Arab lands became persona non-grata and during the period from May 1948 to May 1972 approximately 840,000  Jews were driven out from these lands where many of their communities had dated back 2,500 years. Of this number approximately 550,000 were absorbed by Israel and the remainder by Europe. The percentage distribution of Jewish refugees who fled to Israel from their lands of origin were as follows (numbers rounded):

Morocco 45% (260,000), Iraq 23% (129,000), Libya 6% (36,000), Egypt 5% (30,000), Tunisia 9% (56,000), Yemen and Aden 8% (51,000), Algeria 2% (14,000), Lebanon 1% (6,000), Syria 0.7% (4,000).

Today there are fewer than 7,000 Jews left residing in Arab countries (World Jewish Congress). Contrast this with the fact that 20% of Israel’s citizen population is Arab Israeli in spite of all the hostilities Israel has been forced to endure from the Arab side including Palestinians.

Now let’s assess the above facts. Firstly, there would not have been any Palestinian refugees had their been no war and the Arabs accepted a partition plan.  Secondly, there was an equivalent number of refugees from both sides of the conflict and all went to countries with similar ethnic cultures. Unfortunately, while all the Jewish refugees from Arab countries were resettled and rehabilitated either in Europe or Israel, the Palestinian refugees largely remained (initially) in refugee camps in the areas to which they fled. These camps are administered to this day by host governments and serviced by UNRWA. Furthermore, although many had fled to areas with similar cultures or areas meant to be part of a Palestinians State (i.e. West Bank and Gaza) they were still deemed to be refugees rather than “displaced persons” with the notion that they would “return” to their homes in Israel.

In other words, unlike how refugees from other conflicts are encouraged to resettle or integrate in the local community in areas to which they fled, the idea that Palestinian refugees should be resettled or fully integrated is anathema to the enemies of Israel since that would undermine their goal of having them return to to their original homes in Israel and upend the Jewish majority.

How is it we hear so little about the Jewish refugees but are told today there are 5.6 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA that has grown from the original 750,000?  This can be explained by the fact that while the Jewish refugees were resettled in Israel or Europe the Palestinian refugees and their descendants retained their registered refugee status by UNRWA whether resettled or not!

It is astonishing to discover that regardless of where the registered Palestinian refugees live or resettle (only about one third presently reside in the 58 official UNWRA refugee camps) they always maintain their status as refugees. For example, there are approximately 2 million Palestinian “refugees” who are citizens of Jordan; why should they be refugees? in fact, why should any of the registered Palestinians be deemed refugees when they settle in areas or countries with similar cultures?

Below I suggest a number reasons why the Arab bloc in the United Nations sustains the Palestinian refugee issue as a key factor in the conflict with Israel:

a) Scapegoat Israel for any instability or hardship in their country or region

b) Opportunity to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state by installing an Arab majority through exercising the Right of Return

c) Secures Iranian support against Israel through their proxies Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon where there are a significant number of “refugees”.

d) Maintains sympathy and millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian cause through UNRWA and directly to the Palestinian Authority enriching its corrupt leaders.

e) Unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in any part of the region.

f) Dropping the demand for the “Right of Return” would be admittance of defeat.

Sadly the Palestinian leadership, for the above reasons, would prefer to perpetuate the conflict with the help of UNRWA than seek normalization allowing for economic prosperity and peaceful coexistence with Israel. The Palestinian leadership is much more comfortable with accepting aid and calling Israel an apartheid and colonialist state than acknowledging Israel’s enviable achievements and significant contributions to the world’s well being.

There is no doubt that UNRWA eases the economic plight of Palestinians in need but wouldn’t it be better that Palestinians were allowed to prosper in normalized circumstances not only within their host countries but also in peaceful coexistence with Israel? Plenty of aid could still go to the Palestinians but in furtherance of normalization and economic prosperity not perpetuation of a conflict with unrealistic demands under the umbrella of “refugee” status. This means that while their status as refugees may end sympathy for their plight continues.

Israel has successfully defended itself through three wars of survival and is still defending itself against implacable foes in the form of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and other radical Islamists. Muslims in other countries still heavily support the Palestinian cause but the mood among Israel’s Arab Sunni neighbors like Saudi Arabia is beginning to change which may in turn help to undermine the credibility of BDS and other movements hostile to Israel. Additionally, the recent Abraham Accords signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020 is another significant sign that the tide is turning against the Palestinian narrative of victimhood.

Cracking the travesty of Palestinian refugees will expedite the path to peace and prosperity. The 2 million Palestinian citizens in Jordan should not be categorized as refugees and the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza should be considered “displaced persons” resettled in a region that was part of mandatory Palestine. The refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon should also be closed or converted to towns and villages with the inhabitants given citizenship or allowed to migrate to Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank. Nobody should be considered a refugee who is a citizen of another country, Palestinian or not. Best of all, terminate UNRWA, have everything fall under UNHCR and end patrilineal decent. Health and economic aid for education and other purposes can continue to the Palestinians but whatever the choice of solution the mission of the refugee agency should be to end refugee status not looking for every means at their disposal to perpetuate it in order to fuel a conflict that never ends.

Until the Arab side decides that the conflict with Israel is futile and no longer in the best interests of the Palestinians or its Arab neighbors the diabolical exploitation of the Palestinian refugee fallacy will continue.

About the Author
Emigrated to the United States from England in 1979. Graduated from New York University in 1981 with a BS in Business Administration and qualified as a Certified Public Accountant in 1984. Had a Letter to the Editor published in Commentary Magazine, New York Times and The Jewish Week. Former Treasurer and President of Hillels of Westchester. Assisted Jewish students composing articles in college newspapers defending Israel. Actively involved in interfaith work. Currently employed as a Director of Supply Chain for a major consumer products company.