Western policymakers and media have misconstrued/misrepresented the Palestinian refugee issue, ignoring its global context and core data. Moreover, the Palestinian claim of dispossession — which impacts the U.S. financial aid to UNRWA, and is defined as a key issue in the peace process — fails the reality test.
The global context
At the end of 2012, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees documented 15.4 million refugees worldwide — excluding Palestinian refugees who are administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — and 28.8 million internally displaced persons. Four million of the refugees are from Afghanistan. One of the results of the civil war in Sudan was 5.5 million refugees. Fifteen million refugees (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh) were created by the 1947 partition of India, which created Pakistan. The Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 involved a forced population exchange of two million people.
From 1990 to 1991, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait expelled 800,000 Yemenites and almost 300,000 Palestinians for collaborating with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Some 300,000 Palestinians — who were allies of Saddam Hussein — fled Iraq following the first and second Gulf Wars. Since 1945, there have been some 100 million refugees worldwide, most of them resettled. On the other hand, Palestinian refugee camps in Arab territories have remained intact since 1950, while Palestinian leadership conducts a lavish life-style, including bank accounts stashed throughout the world.
According to an August 1971 Ford Foundation report, by 1950 the majority of the Palestinian refugees began evacuating the camps and non-refugees moved in to benefit from UNRWA’s services. For example, half of the population in the Jalazone refugee camp, near Ramallah, settled there after 1950.
A November 17, 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office documented that less than 33% of registered Palestinian refugees live in refugee camps.
The actual number of Palestinian refugees is determined by the following: Before the 1948-1949 War of Independence, 800,000 Arabs (per inflated numbers) resided within the boundaries of “pre-1967 Israel.” At the end of that war, 170,000 Arabs stayed in Israel. Of the remaining 630,000 Arabs, 100,000 were absorbed by Israel’s family reunification gesture; 100,000 middle and upper class Arabs left before the beginning of the 1948-1949 war and were absorbed by neighboring Arab states; 50,000 migrant laborers returned to their Arab countries of origin; 50,000 Bedouins joined their brethren-tribes in Jordan and Sinai; and 10,000 were war fatalities. Thus, the actual total number of Palestinian refugees was 320,000. Most of the refugees followed their political, economic and social leadership, which left before the eruption of the war. Many were enticed to depart by Arab leaders, who promised a quick devastation of the Jewish state that would provide the evacuees with Jewish property. British authorities influenced others, pressuring the minority in mixed Jewish-Arab towns to evacuate: Arabs evacuated but Jews did not.
The claim of dispossession examined
According to Dr. Yuval Arnon-Ohanna of Ariel University and former head of the Mossad’s Palestinian research division (“Line of Furrow and Fire: The Conflict for the Land of Israel, 1860-2010,” 2013, pp. 397-415): “The birth of the Palestinian refugee phenomenon — in the form of a massive Arab flight — occurred during the Arab riots of 1936-39, not during the 1947-49 war…. The flight was confirmed by the British consul general to Beirut, G.W. Furlonge, in an October 27, 1938 report to the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem… and by the Lebanese daily, Al Akhbar, in a December 1938 article…. A documentation of 40,000 Arab refugees, during 1936-39, was included in Dr. Rony Gabbay’s 1959 Ph.D. thesis, which was submitted to Geneva University….
“The flight was caused by an Arab wave of terrorism, which was aimed initially at British personnel and Jewish communities, but was rapidly diverted at Arab targets. It perpetrated a violent anarchy among Arabs, totally devoid of Jewish involvement. Just like the 1947-49 flight, the 1936-39 flight triggered a departure by upper class Arabs, followed by lower and middle class Arabs, who felt increasingly insecure. Many returned to their countries of origin….
“The 1947-49 flight was limited, mostly, to Arabs from the coastal plain and valleys of Israel, while most mountain Arabs from the Galilee (which was taken over by Israel, but produced very few refugees), Samaria and Judea remained intact…. Therefore, the Palestinian “claim of return” always highlights the coastal plain [pre-1967 Israel]….
“The coastal plain was devastated by the Muslims, following their victory over the Crusaders…. Consequently, in the 19th century, Jaffa was reduced to a small village, Haifa had less than 1,000 residents and the valleys (Jordan, Beit Shean, Jezrael, Hula, etc.) were desolated, as documented by the 1881-83 surveys of the Palestine Exploration Fund….
“[Since 1882,] Jewish [immigration] concentrated in the coastal plain, producing economic growth, which attracted massive Arab immigration from neighboring countries, mostly Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and North Africa. It was that coastal population, and its descendants — possessing limited roots in the Land of Israel — which fled in 1947, before the eruption of the war. The flight was accelerated during the 1948-49 war.”
Western policymakers and media who ignore reality, and embrace the claim of Palestinian dispossession, undermine the peace process and squander the Western taxpayers’ resources.