Time to end the false narrative of a right to return for millions of refugees who were never refugees at all.
In November 1947 the United Nations voted to approve a partition plan that would have created a Jewish-majority state and an Arab-majority state in historic Palestine, and shared Jerusalem between the two parties. The Jews accepted the partition plan, and the results of the UN vote, though it provided insecure borders in a fragmented new state. Reaching a compromise is always a process in which neither side gets everything they want, but it is better than war, with all the destruction and upheaval which war brings.
The Arab nations voted against the partition resolution in the General Assembly, and never accepted the results of the UN vote. The Arabs had never accepted the idea of a Jewish-majority state in any part of historic Palestine, and began a campaign of violence against the Zionists the very night the resolution was passed. During World War 2, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, holed up in Berlin, encouraged Adolf Hitler to turn his death machine against the Jews in Palestine while the Nazis were working to murder all the Jews in Europe. During the British mandate period, the Arabs had rejected earlier partition plans more favorable to them, such as the 1938 Peel Plan, because it allowed a tiny Jewish state to be created. In essence, the Arabs had fought Zionism for half a century, and were determined to deal the Jewish state a knockout blow as soon the British left in May 1948.
Five Arab nations attacked Israel the day it became a new nation, assisting the Arabs in Palestine in their effort to destroy Israel. Despite enormous advantages in armed men, planes, tanks, and other weaponry, the Arabs were unsuccessful. Israel survived the onslaught, and defeated the Arab armies , creating new borders for the Jewish state, as well as for Jordan and Egypt. At the end of the war, Jordan held Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank) and the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the old city, and expelled Jews who had lived there for thousands of years. Egypt captured Gaza in the war. At no point did Egypt and Jordan attempt to create a new Arab state of Palestine with the territories they had picked up in the war. Instead Jordan annexed the West Bank, a seizure recognized by only two nations, and Egypt held Gaza as a territory.
During the war, there were many people displaced on both sides. More than half a million Arabs became refugees. Most of them had left their towns as instructed by invading Arab armies to get out of the way of the coming planned slaughter of the Jews. Tens of thousands had left even before the UN partition resolution. Some fled a war zone, where there was very close fighting, a sensible thing to do. In some cases, the Israeli forces consolidated territorial corridors, particularly to Jerusalem. The Arabs also spread stories of civilian killings, which frightened many Arab residents to leave their towns, even though the stories were false or greatly exaggerated.
After the war, the Arabs demanded that the partition borders be restored, and all the refugees be allowed to return. This was a novel demand. If you start a war meaning to annihilate the enemy and you lose, you don’t get a do over. There are no do overs in history. The smart thing would have been for the Arabs to have accepted the partition plan and not started a war. There are consequences to starting a war and losing.
The Syrian Prime Minister during the war of 1948-1949, Haled Al Azm, wrote in his memoirs in 1973:
“Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call for them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in 1976:
“The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettoes in which the Jews used to live.”
This is the real tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs. Those who left their homes wound up not far from home, in Arab countries which had supported their cause during the war. They were among other Arabs, who spoke the same language, had the same culture, and the same religion. No refugee population should have had it easier, given that Arabs wound up among their own people. But the Arab countries refused to allow normal resettlement, as usually occurs with refugees, instead relegating many refugees to squalid camps, in which their families have lived now for 3 or 4 generations. Many Palestinians have chosen to remain in these camps dreaming of a return to Israel, clanging old keys from 70 years back, or been threatened if they wanted to leave. But how can you “return” to a place where you have never lived or even visited? The truth of the matter is that there may be no more than 25,000 refugees remaining alive from the 1948 war. The rest are descendants — children, grandchildren even great grandchildren of original refugees, none of whom have been in Israel or left it.
All the refugee populations in the world come under the jurisdiction of a single UN agency, except for the Palestinians. All other refugees do not pass refugee status on to descendants, only the refugees themselves are counted as such. Only the Palestinians are allowed to count all descendants as refugees, and many have chosen to live off their collective grievance, rather than move on with their lives.
Sephardic Jews, more than 800,000 of whom were expelled or encouraged to leave Arab countries in the years after the creation of Israel, provide a far better and more humane approach for dealing with refugees. Israel absorbed more than 70 per cent of these refugees (France and the United States took many others) and within a few short years, had moved them out of temporary housing and allowed them to start new lives in Israel. I know because my father and his 4 brothers and parents left all of their lives and assets behind when they fled from Iraq and they made themselves a new life in Israel.
Today there are 6.6 million Jews in Israel, and 1.8 million Arabs, more than 11 times as many Arabs as resided within the borders of Israel at the end of the fighting in 1949. So much for the absurd notion of ethnic cleansing. In essence, Israel’s war of independence resulted in a population exchange, something that is very common during wars or when new nations are created. 20 million Muslims and Hindus moved to new countries when India and Pakistan became nations.
The demand for a right of return for millions of Palestinians, including all the descendants of refugees, signals one enduring Palestinian goal — to destroy the state of Israel, by overwhelming it with Arabs from abroad. The Palestinians still do not accept a two-state solution, just as they refused the partition in 1948, but demand a single state they can dominate.
Israel will not commit national suicide to endorse a false narrative of what happened 70 years back.