Refugees? Canadians, even if their families have lived here for centuries, know something about refugees. We know Hungarians, we know Vietnamese, we know many others. We admire their energy and their accomplishments. Observing them can be a bracing lesson in human tenacity under adverse circumstances.
But that pattern doesn’t cover Palestinian refugees. They are a special case. For many reasons, various populations across the planet are displaced; only the Palestinians cling to their “refugee” status decade after decade. They present themselves as helpless victims of Israeli aggression. They await rescue– as they have been awaiting it for three generations, since Israel was founded in 1948. Members of other history-battered groups choose to live by an urgent ethic: Get up, get going, make a new life. Palestinians have a different approach: Sit down, wait, stay angry till the world provides for you.
Andrew Roberts, a much-admired British historian, raised the issue of Palestinian refugees in a speech excerpted in the National Post on Tuesday. He argued, correctly, that Arab governments “are rich enough to have economically solved the Palestinian refugee problem decades ago.” The 5,000 or so members of the Saudi royal family could probably handle it by themselves.
Why haven’t they done so? They much prefer to let Palestinians remain poor. Every wretched, ill-fed and ill-housed Palestinian can be used as a living rebuke to Israel.
The Palestinians are the only people who have their own private section of the UN, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It defines “refugee” as someone who lived in Palestine between June, 1946, and May, 1948, and “lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” The definition includes all their descendants. Entirely credible numbers don’t exist, but UNRWA believes there were 711,000 such refugees in 1948, and now more than 4.7 million.
The Arab countries love the Palestinians, praise them and pray for them. They just don’t want them moving permanently into their neighbourhoods. The Arab League advises Arab states to deny citizenship to Palestinians, “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.”
They pretend it’s a favour. It also means Arabs can hire Palestinian workers when they need them and send them home when the economy sags.
The treatment of the Palestinians has become a major crime of omission committed by the rich Arabs against the poor in collusion with the UN. It has created a permanent underclass, living on meagre public assistance, growing more numerous every day but never put in a position where they can create a healthy, productive community. They are permanent grudge-bearers, who teach their children to yearn for a lost paradise.
Children in school learn the official line (and no other) on the Nakba ( “disaster”) of 1948, when peace-loving Arabs were rudely ejected from their own land by an alien military force, European Zionism. Every year, the pageants commemorating the Nakba grow larger and the stories about the sins of Israeli soldiers more appalling. No Palestinian wants to know that there were Jews in the region for rather a long time, or that the Arabs started the war of 1948.
The Palestinian national narrative depicts the Arabs of Palestine as history’s tragic losers, the unfairly dispossessed. Nowadays, it’s routine to compare the Nakba with the Holocaust in Europe. And around the world, a vast constituency of anti-Zionists and anti-Semites provide a willing audience for any lie the imaginative Palestinians can concoct.
No one in politics or diplomacy who hopes to win a few friends on the Arab side can acknowledge this historic con game. Anyone who tells the truth will be accused of Islamophobia, that infinitely convenient rhetorical invention.
And no politician, ever, compares the Palestinians to other refugees. Sol Stern, trying in a recent City Journal article to bring some perspective to the Palestinian question, noted that in 1945 about 11 million ethnic German civilians, living in Central and Eastern Europe, were expelled from their homes “and force-marched to Germany by the Red Army, with help from the Czech and Polish governments. Historians estimate that two million died on the way.” The survivors built new lives as best they could. Some still speak of reparations they deserve. None argue that they should live in squalor until they receive justice. The enemies of Israel have taught the world to pity the Palestinians and grant them an almost sacred position among the victims of colonialism. They deserve pity, of course, but pity for what their fellow Arabs have done to them.