The Truth About the Palestinian Refugees

According to the UN decisions on the subject – only about 50,000 people, most of them elderly – are defined as refugees.

Israel does not have a problem agreeing to the Right of Return based on the UN decisions on the matter • According to these last – only about 50,000 people, most of them elderly – are defined as refugees, with a similar number of Middle Eastern Jews owed compensation from surrounding Arab States • The problem, of course, is that the Palestinians and their collaborating aid agencies who spread the fiction that “the descendants of the refugees” – who number about 5 million – should also be allowed to “return” • A call for truth

Celebrating refugeeism. A Nakbah procession in Nablus. Photo: Shay Halatzi. Wikimedia

 In a speech before the UN General Assembly this year, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas demanded a solution to the Palestinian refugees based on UN Resolution 194. In the Palestinian narrative, this decision, adopted in 1948, grants Palestinian refugees and their descendants the legal right to settle in the State of Israel and sue for their rights to property and assets which they lost in 1948.

It is time to set things straight:

First, UN resolutions adopted by the General Assembly are only recommendations. As opposed to Security Council resolutions, they are not binding under international law. Resolution 194 is no different. Therefore, even if the resolution recognized the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel (and it doesn’t), the Palestinians cannot “demand” that Israel recognize such a right on that basis.

Second and more importantly, Article 11 of UN Resolution states “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return…”.

Notice the resolution does not refer to “Palestinian refugees” but “refugees”, as the conflict in the former British Mandate had created two groups of refugees: Arab and Jewish. The resolution offers two possible solutions: return or compensation. But most importantly, the resolution refers to the refugees themselves and not their future descendants.

This point is central to the whole refugee problem: The Palestinians claim that the status of refugee and subsequent Right of Return apply not only to the refugees themselves but to their generations to come. This claim has no basis in international law nor does it have any precedent in the history of the 20th century.

Victims of the Jewish Nakbah. Jewish refugees in Iraq packing up for their flight to Israel, 1951.

Refugees Around the World

The 20th Century saw a dramatic increase in the number of refugees fleeing from conflict or exchanged between states. Some two million people were exchanged between Turkey and Greece in 1923. In 1937, the Peel Commission even recommended an exchange of populations in preparation for the establishment of Jewish and Arab States in British Mandatory Palestine. Some 14 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe, while over a million Poles and hundreds of thousands of Ukranians crossed borders both under official encouragement and by force.

1948 was a signal year for upheavals and refugees. The partition of the Indian subcontinent created a dual refugee problem: 7 million Hindus and an equal number of Muslims (10 million were added to this number in the split between West and East Pakistan in 1971). The partition of Mandatory Palestine also caused a refugee problem, albeit on a smaller scale: 600,000 Arab refugees throughout the 1948 war and some 850,000 Jews forced out of Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the 1948 War of Independence, Operation Kadesh and the Six Day War. In all, some 60 million refugees existed around the world in 1948, of which the Palestinians were only one percent.

The latter could have easily been absorbed in a neighboring Arab state with the same ethnicity, language, culture and religion. Instead, these states left the refugees in camps and cynically used them as bargaining chips against Israel. Instead of solving the refugee problem, they have done everything they can to perpetuate it. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established to solve the global refugee problem, the UN Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) was meant to keep the Palestinian Refugee problem alive in perpetuity.

Although Palestinian refugees were only one percent of refugees in 1949, they are the only refugees from whom a separate UN Agency was established, working in parallel with the global UNHRC. This unjustified institutional redundancy has far-reaching consequences, as one defines “refugee” differently than the other. The UNHRC defines a refugee as an individual fleeing from their country while the UNRWA grants that definition to that individual’s descendants. This difference leads to the absurd result whereby the global number of refugees by the UNCHR definition has dropped from 60 million in 1948 to 15 million today while the number of Palestinian “refugees” has increased from 600,000 to 5 million in the same time period!

Global Refugee Index. One of these groups is not like the other – guess which one? From the Norwegian Blog “Taruds Blogg”


Accept the Right of Return!

The time has come to put an end to this absurd and unjustified double standard. There is no reason that the UNHRC definition of refugee not apply to Palestinian refugees just like everyone else. Such a step would cut the number of Palestinian refugees down to its natural size – about 50,000 people, most of them elderly. Or the UN could work in the opposite direction and create tens of millions of Poles, Germans, Hindus and Muslims with the right to re-cross the border their grandfathers and great grandfathers crossed more than half a century ago. Surely the latter is not a path the UN wishes to take.

The true meaning of UN resolution 194 is that the actual refugees of 1948, whether Arab or Jewish, are entitled to repatriation or compensation. Israel should therefore have no problem accepting 50,000 elderly Palestinians nor should Jewish refugees have a problem receiving compensation from the Arab states that ejected them. Therefore, Israel should announce its acceptance of resolution 194 according to its actual meaning, if only to expose the Palestinian deceit regarding the actual number of Palestinian refugees.

A Return to Truth

The binding UN resolution regarding refugees is UN Security Council resolution 242, which calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem”. As Arthur Goldberg, American Representative to the UN at the time explained: “[the resolution refers] both to Arab and Jewish refugees, for about an equal number of each abandoned their homes as a result of the several wars”. But a solution to the refugee problem did not interest Arab leaders then and it doesn’t today. The words of Ralph Garroway, former head of UNRWA, in 1957 are still true today: “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.”

The refugee question is one of the major obstacles to a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. As long as it is based on false claims, it will remain insoluble. Israel must break this impasse and expose the truth about Palestinian refugees’ right to return under 194; no-one will do it for her.

Dr. Emmanuel Navon is head of the Political Science and Communications Department at the Haredi College in Jerusalem, lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and IDC, and a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum

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