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by Ruth King and Rael Jean Isaac


The Rogers Plan of 1969, like all subsequent and ill-fated efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict, tabled the issue of the Palestinian "refugees," leaving it for "final status" negotiations. "It is our hope," said the Rogers Plan, "that agreement on the key issues of peace, security, withdrawal and territory will create a climate in which these questions of refugees...can be resolved as part of the overall settlement."

But this is to put first things last. As the passage of time has made abundantly clear, the issue of "refugees" remains the defining obstacle to any reconciliation in the region. Pretending to negotiate, without addressing this issue at the outset, is like operating on a patient and leaving a growing cancer intact. Had it been confronted in 1949, the prospects for finding a subsequent modus vivendi between Israel and the Arabs would have been vastly improved.

President Obama has promised a fresh perspective on issues, to bring "change" in the old ways of doing things. There is no better place to start than by confronting the core issue of the Arab refugees head on — and putting responsibility for solving it on the only ones who can do so, the Arab states.

When the problem of the Arab refugees was at last put on the table at Camp David in the year 2000, the issue blew up the tattered remnant of the Oslo "peace process." Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak thought he had a winning formula. Israel would make a virtually total territorial withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. In return, all that would be asked of the Palestinian Authority was to abandon the "right to return," i.e. to eliminate, via demography, the Jewish state. If the Arab-Israel conflict was susceptible to solution via "land for peace," Barak should have had a deal. But Arafat refused to give up the "right to return" and launched outright war, including the most deadly series of terrorist attacks in Israel's history.

When the present "peace processing" runs into the same impasse (and the "moderate" Abbas, never mind Hamas, repeatedly reiterates that the Palestinians will never give up the refugees' right to return) the resulting explosion is likely to make the old intifada look like pale beer.

There is a widespread impression that the Arab refugee problem is immutable. But is it? Before we offer our answer, it's time to examine more closely the question: Who are the Palestinian Arab refugees?

Initially, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which administers the refugee camps, defined Palestine refugees as persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The camps opened in 1950, in the wake of the first Arab war to destroy Israel. The precise number of Arab refugees as a result of that war is uncertain, the estimates ranging from 450,000 to 700,000. Even experts who lean toward the higher side believe that no more than 550,000 wound up in refugee camps, since some fled to families settled in other Arab countries and fleeing Bedouin resumed their nomadic life style in Jordan.

UNRWA would set up 59 camps in what is now Judea and Samaria, Gaza (then part of Egypt), Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Certainly no one, including UNWRA and its donors, imagined that refugee status would become a heritable trust to be bestowed on the refugees' cousins, sisters and their aunts, their children, grandchildren, by now their great grandchildren. Yet now the world (including the world's Jews) accept without protest UNRWA's assertion (on its 2009 homepage) that it provides education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid to over 4.6 million Palestinian refugees. UNWRA, which has relocated headquarters from Amman to Gaza, the better to serve Hamas, has a staff of over 29,000 persons and its General Assembly-approved budget for 2008 was $541 million[1] As of May 31, 2008, the Agency's largest contributors are the United States, the European Commission, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands.[2] The Arab states contribute almost nothing in hard cash but millions in lip service.

Although long forgotten by the media and general public, the number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries was substantially greater. On May 16, 1948, the day following Israel's declaration of independence, the New York Times headlined an article: "Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands: Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes." And indeed within 15 years (the last great wave was from Algeria, after it gained independence from France in 1962), Jews had fled the Arab world en masse (until the Shah's ouster, in 1979, there remained one viable Jewish community in the Moslem world, in non-Arab Iran). Today there are barely 5,000, chiefly elderly, Jews in the entire Arab world.

One reason the expulsion and flight[3] of these Jews even then attracted little attention was that Israel never referred to them as refugees — they were welcomed as an "ingathering of the exiles," given citizenship on the spot. Yet these Jews had lived in the countries from which they were forced to flee far longer than the vast majority of those who left the small territory that became Israel. In Iraq,[4] for example, the Jewish community dated back to the Babylonian exile. In contrast, most of the Arabs leaving Israel in 1948 were recent arrivals, attracted to what had been an empty and desolate territory by the economic opportunities opened up by Zionist colonization of Palestine in the 20th century.

What happened in Israel was a replay, on a far smaller scale, of the vast population exchange that took place on the Indian subcontinent when England gave up rule of its last great colony. In that case, 8,500,000 Hindus fled Pakistan to India and 6,500,000 Muslims fled to Pakistan.

In the 1950s, in the wake of World War II, Elfan Rees, leader of World Refugee Year, reported the existence of 36 million refugees in Africa, Asia and Europe. Arab refugees numbered only one in 72 refugees. All but the Arab refugees from Palestine have been forgotten because they were integrated into the lands in which they sought refuge. No one today seeks the "right to return" of the ethnic Germans, probably 12 million in all, expelled after WWII from nations of Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, or the Japanese expelled from Manchuria and Korea or the 3 million North Koreans who fled to South Korea. More recently, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, 1.6 million refugees from Vietnam, including the "boat people" who escaped so perilously to freedom, have been resettled. And, this is what the official website of the boat people concluded in 2003: "Yes, we suffered in the past and we lost everything. But we've managed to overcome the difficult times, settle, rebuild our lives and bring up our children. And that's something to celebrate."

Only the Arab refugees, at the insistence of Arab host countries, and by now with full UN American and European Union support, have been denied integration, their plight perpetuated as an Arab "ultimate" weapon, armed force failing, to destroy Israel by demographic means.

It should be noted that UNWRA only gradually became transformed from an agency seeking to settle Arab refugees into one dedicated to perpetuating their refugee status. In a report he submitted in November 1951, UNRWA director John Blandford Jr. said he expected the Arab governments to assume responsibility for relief operations by July 1952. The international community assumed the refugees should be resettled as soon as possible, said Blandford, because, as he put it, "sustained relief operations inevitably contain the germ of human deterioration." By the late 1950s, the early UNRWA leaders were disillusioned and voiced their disgust. Ralph Garroway, who also served as an UNRWA director, said in August 1958:

"The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die."

Elfan Rees, who worked closely with UNRWA, noted in 1959 that the Arab refugee problem should be the easiest in the world to solve, for there was, in countries like Syria and Iraq, "a developing demand for the manpower they represent and their new settlements would be distinct economic assets." Unfortunately, said Dr. Rees, "the organized intransigence of the refugees and the calculated indifference of the Arabs states concerned have brought all its [UNRWA's] plans to nought." Even in 1959, Dr. Rees noted that UNRWA, because of Arab "chicanery" was "feeding the dead" and "by political pressure it is feeding non-refugees." (Interview in New York Post, June 11, 1959)

Nothing better illustrates UNRWA's transformation than its response to an Israeli effort, in the mid 1980s, to improve the lives of Arab refugees in the Gaza Strip by constructing new housing for them. UNRWA protested to the UN and on December 3, 1986, the General Assembly passed a resolution demanding Israel "desist from the removal and resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and from the destruction of their shelters." It declared that "measures to resettle Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return." Similarly, when Israel built new homes for residents of a camp near Nablus, UNRWA forbade anyone to move into them and posted a guard at the empty houses to make sure no one moved in. The Shuafat camp is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and the city offered to give it full services in street paving, sewers and other urban amenities; UNRWA forbade it.

The camps have become centers of recruitment, training and storage of weapons for terrorists. Camp ambulances are used for transportation of men and armaments; their schools teach hatred and Jihad; they glorify suicide bombers; some of their "honor students" have become notorious terrorists; corruption and profiteering with aid is endemic. In September 2008 a bipartisan group headed by Representative Steve Rothman (D.N.) submitted a report documenting those abuses and citing specific examples of UNRWA ambulances, schools and hospitals used to shield terrorists and build bombs and rockets.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration (which hectors Israel about the "natural growth" of settlements while ignoring the "unnatural growth" of the Arab refugee population) has pledged an additional $900 million for Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, including an extra $160 million for UNRWA. Thus the United States, struggling with a severe economic crisis, is involved in a morally and strategically indefensible contradiction to its avowed goals: it funds and enables suicide bombing, rocket launching and other forms of Middle East terrorism.

There have been noble protests, specifically from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, John A. Boehner of Ohio, House Republican leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, House Republican whip, Mike Pence of Indiana,[5] chairman of the House Republican Conference, Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee who in March excoriated the administration.

However, more is required.

Leaving the camps and their populations where they are permanently entrenches what the media calls "the cycle of violence." They must be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world. If the United States were to announce, "Millions for permanent resettlement in Arab states, not a penny more for perpetuating victimhood," the dynamic would be transformed overnight. Here would be a demand for a tangible concession by the Arabs instead of minor gestures that can be flouted within hours of being proffered.

Does this sound like a surprising, even shocking suggestion? Consider the absurdity of the alternatives. The "right to return" of over four million Arabs to a Jewish state that comprises a mere 8,000 square miles is in itself an insane demand. Nor is there any way a resourceless miniscule West Bank area — combined with Gaza comprising only 2,400 square miles, a fourth of the size of tiny Israel — can economically support the millions of UNRWA-defined refugees.

The fairest, most equitable, way to end the problem of the refugees is to base their resettlement on the population exchange that followed the 1948 Arab-Israel war. If 1948 is the starting point for the Arabs, it must also be the starting point for the Jews. Because so many Arab states had a substantial Jewish population, this also has the advantage of forcing a number of Arab states to take some share of responsibility for the refugees, without singling out or overwhelming any one of them. Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, that did not have a Jewish population, could shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost.

Returning to the population exchange also has the merit of throwing out reparations claims. The Jews left far more property behind in Arab lands than Arabs in what became Israel; generously, Israel can offer to declare a washout. Making the Arab states face up to the task of resettlement will also have the merit of encouraging them to evaluate honestly claims to refugee status. While the international community footed the bill and the larger the number of refugees, the greater pressure on Israel, the attitude of the Arab states was "the more the better." Once the burden is on them, phony claims are no longer welcome and it is safe to assume it will rapidly be discovered that there are far fewer refugees than UNRWA now claims.

What, then, would refugee resettlement look like? Iraq, Morocco and Algeria between them had almost half the population of expelled Jews; they should proportionately take responsibility for half the number of Arab refugees. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen,[6] Libya, and Syria, in that order, also had substantial Jewish populations; they would also take in substantial number of refugees. (Since Syria already hosts 409,000 refugees, it would need to permanently absorb them, not take in any more.) The burden on these states would not be as great as it sounds because Jordan has 1,718,767 registered refugees, only 304,000 of whom are in camps. Jordan has behaved better than any other Arab state toward the refugees, making them full citizens, in effect absorbing them (indeed they form a majority of Jordan's population). Of course, those so-called refugees in Jordan are, strictly and historically speaking, in Palestine, bearing in mind the 1922 partition of Mandatory Palestine which gave the Hashemites 80 percent of the land. Thus almost half the refugees are off the table.

Lebanon, with close to 400,000 refugees, over half in camps, is a special case. It did not expel its small Jewish population in 1948 and is desperate to rid itself of the Palestinian Arab refugee population, who have served as persistent troublemakers and would totally destroy the balance between Muslims and Christians, should they become citizens. The other overwhelmingly Muslim Arab states should resettle the refugees now in Lebanon. (If any of the Arab states had insuperable difficulties with absorbing their "fair share" of refugees, they could, if need be with the help of international funds, find Muslim states which would absorb a portion of their "quota.")

Once the refugees were resettled away from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and the entire refugee issue had dissolved, the Arab-Israel conflict would become manageable. An agreement between Israel and Jordan, perhaps on the lines of that proposed by Ministerof Tourism Benny Elon, dividing responsibilities for land and population in the territory now under the failed rule of the PA, should not be difficult to find. Jordan and Israel, which share Mandatory Palestine, are the only states that can negotiate any settlement, and this can only occur when the "refugee problem" is solved.

One can hear the State Department. One can hear the President's advisers. "Impossible. The Arabs will never agree." True, they will not willingly accept any such plan.

However a report from MEMRI on August 11th (Special Dispatch No. 2483) states that Daoud Al-Shiryan, Al-Hayat columnist and deputy secretary-general of Al-Arabiya TV, recently published several articles criticizing how the Palestinian refugees have been treated by the Arab countries in which they live. He called on these countries to integrate the refugees into their societies and to resettle them before they are forced to do so by the international community.

But this does not mean the United States is helpless to act. The United States can refuse to reauthorize UNRWA. It can say, as noted earlier, "We will no longer pay to perpetuate refugee victimhood. We have seen the catastrophe of destroyed lives, hatred and terrorism that we have unwittingly funded and we will do this no longer. Only if you agree to our plan of resettling the refugees will we contribute — and then, we will contribute generously. Otherwise you can take over the task of funding the refugees: not only are you on your own, but we will do our best to take as many of our European allies with us as we can."

The United States can do more. Each Arab ruler lets no opportunity go by to tell President Obama the hostility of the Arab world toward the U.S. will only end when the Arab-Israel conflict is solved. The President can take them up on this statement. If that is so, he should say, it is incumbent upon each of you to contribute now toward solving the crucial stumbling block of the Arab refugees. If they are unwilling to do so, the President should tell them the Road Map[7] has nowhere to go and they are on their own when it comes to the "peace process" as well.

No money for UNRWA. No U.S. promotion of any "Road Map" in the absence of guaranteed Arab absorption of the refugees. It would be a paradigm shift that would get the attention of the Arab states.

True, they might not change their behavior. The Arab goal is to destroy Israel, not to solve the Arab-Israel conflict. But surely it is better for the United States to confront the issue squarely now. For what is the alternative? As long as the U.S. is unwilling to exert pressure for real change on the Arabs, it winds up inevitably — as it is doing now — exerting pressure only on Israel. There are two possible outcomes. One is a repeat of the debacle in the year 2000. Israel offers radical territorial concessions but balks at the suicidal right of return, again precipitating an explosion, this time on a greater, more dangerous scale. Or, relentless U.S. and European pressure brings Israel to its knees. Israel agrees both to return to the vulnerable 1949 lines and to accept an Arab "right to return." The result can only be more refugees, this time 5 million Jewish refugees with no neighboring states to take them in.

Is this the legacy any U.S. President wishes to be his? If not, the time for the U.S. to reevaluate its fatally flawed Middle East policies is now.

The President has signaled his intention to sell his policy directly to the Israeli public. What he should be doing is formulating a new policy and selling it to the Arabs.









Ruth S. King is a freelance writer who writes a monthly column in OUTPOST, the publication of Americans for a Safe Israel. Rael Jean Isaac is a political sociologist and co-author of The Coercive Utopians published by Regnery in 1983. This appeared August 12, 2009 at Family Security Matters (


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