Can history be undone? The correct answer is: of course not. Surely what happened happened, notwithstanding any subsequent discomfort with the result. Not so fast.
For example: Who are the rightful inheritors of Palestine? Indeed, where is “Palestine”? These questions, embedded in discussions (and inevitable disagreements) for the past century, have been thrust to the forefront with announcements by President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the planned extension of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in Biblical Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Jordan Valley.
Prompted by the centennial anniversary of the San Remo accords a long dormant set of flawed assumptions has surfaced. Those 1920 accords, ratified by the League of Nations and never rescinded, affirmed the promise three years earlier by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The San Remo agreement became, and remained, the international affirmation of Jewish sovereignty over the land west (and originally also east) of the Jordan River. But the United Nations, with its long history of discomfort often shading into overt hostility toward Israel, has yet to recognize this embedded precedent of international law.
Yishai Fleisher, spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, recently cited “This momentous occasion, on which the international community recognized and then ratified the inalienable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for the first time in modern history.” But one year later, at the Cairo Conference, Great Britain excluded Transjordan from the territory comprising the Jewish national home and bestowed it as a gift to King Abdullah for his newly invented Kingdom of Jordan.
Israeli scholar Efraim Karsh has affirmed the impact of the San Remo Conference on international law and, by extension, its geographical and legal boundaries for the nascent Jewish state. But the 1948 partition of Palestine that followed Israel’s Independence War transformed Biblical Judea and Samaria into Jordan’s “West Bank.” So it remained for nearly two decades until the Six-Day War returned Israel to the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. The partition boundaries were erased.
Karsh has carefully scrutinized another, and enduring, aspect of the struggle in his Palestine Betrayed (2010). In the course of the Arab attempt to annihilate the fledging Jewish State in 1947-48 there was a massive flight of Palestinian Arabs. Beginning in Haifa, home to equal numbers of Arabs and Jews, local Arabs disregarded the effort of Jewish authorities – especially the mayor – to persuade them to remain in their homes. Seventy thousand Arabs (half the Haifa population) fled to the north. The same number fled from Jaffa.
The number of Arabs who abandoned Palestine has long been disputed – and, the better to blame Israel, vastly inflated. The New York Times, for example, repeatedly revised the fictitious refugee number upward: 870,000 (1953); “nearly 906,000” (1955); 925,000 (1957); “nearly a million” (1967). But according to Karsh’s meticulously documented research, the total number of Palestinian refugees in 1947-48 was between 583,121 and 609,071. A terrible tragedy to be sure, and one for which the Arab nations that waged war to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state must bear responsibility. But it was, as Karsh pointedly writes, “a self-inflicted tragedy.”
In 1949 the United Nations Relief and Works Administration was established to support Arabs ”whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948”. A laudable endeavor at its inception, over time it has become a farce. As though refugees never die, thereby inevitably reducing the number of beneficiaries, UNRWA (by its own calculation) now provides assistance to more than 1.5 million “refugees” and their descendants. Last August the Trump administration had the good sense to halt UNRWA funding. By then there were as many UNRWA employees as living Palestinian refugees.
Israel certainly can – and arguably should – invite the return of some thirty thousand genuine Palestinian refugees, a number guaranteed to decline over time. The only objections, ironically, are likely to come from UNRWA and its Arab minions. They desperately need Palestinian “refugees” to sustain their unyielding public relations war against Israel and, perhaps more important, to protect UNRWA bank accounts that assure their own salaries. But it is long past time to close this fraudulent charade that lacerates Israel for crimes that it did not commit.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Mosaic Best Book for 2019.