In 2008, during a presentation at a panel discussion on the Middle East conflict at Santa Clara University (Santa Clara, CA), a young Arab-American lady claiming to be a “Palestinian refugee” posed to the present writer the following question:
“Why can any ‘Moishe Pipik’ from Brooklyn go to live in Israel, but I, a child of Palestinian parents living in the USA, cannot go back to my ancestral homeland, Palestine, where our families lived since time immemorial?”
The response to that question may be useful to readers who find themselves confronted with similar questions by friends, relatives, colleagues, or others.
The first thing to note is that “Palestinians” have not been living in Palestine (now Israel) from time immemorial. Turkish and British records are clear that Palestine was flooded with Arab immigrants from the late 1850’s onward due to the salutary effects of British colonial and Zionist developments from the mid-19th century onward. Groundbreaking work on the Arab historical demography of Palestine during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries has been done by Professor Justin McCarthy in his book The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate (Institute for Palestine Studies Series), summarized here. McCarthy, not a Jew nor an Israeli nor a Zionist, writing for a Palestinian institute, demonstrates that the Arab population of Palestine almost quadrupled from c. 1855 to 1947. Only a tiny minority of Arabs can claim ancestral attachment to this territory, and even those claims are based solely on anecdotal accounts for which there is no empirical evidence.
Then one must recall that the Arab side started the war, and lost the war. Israel accepted the UN partition plan in 1947. The Arab states launched a war. When an aggressor loses a war because the victim country successfully repulses the aggression, and in doing so captures some of the aggressor’s land, the disposition of that captured territory, and its inhabitants, must await a peace treaty between the belligerents. Refugees from the aggressor country have recourse to repatriation only in the context of a peace treaty. Most Arab countries have refused to make peace. It was Arab aggression that started the war. Had there been no war there would have been no refugees, and there would have been a state for the Palestinians since 1947.
Moreover, a careful analysis of the evidence from Arab sources indicates that the Arab side encouraged, and in some cases even forced c. 90% of the refugees to flee. Therefore the Arab leadership bears the onus of culpability for creating the problem, and thus the Arab side, and not Israel, bears responsibility for solving the problem. Because Israel was not threatening that 90% who fled, there is no legal claim for refugee status. Refugee status accrues to those who flee due to persecution or danger. Just as that 170,000 stayed and encountered no danger, so too could many hundreds of thousands more have stayed.
It was not Israel, but Arab countries’ refusal to respond to Israel’s call for peaceful negotiations that made it impossible for refugees to be repatriated. At the Rhodes Armistice talks in 1949, Israel offered reparations, resettlement assistance, and repatriation, but only in the context of peace treaties. The Arab leaders refused all talk of peace. Had there been peace, there could have been repatriation, and perhaps even the creation of a Palestinian state after the war. It was the Arab side that slammed the door on that option.
To the onus of culpability for creating and maintaining the refugee problem at the onset one must add the calumny of Arab states’ exacerbating it for decades thereafter. Except for Jordan, Arab host countries denied citizenship to the refugees, locked them in barbed-wire camps, kept armed guards to prevent their leaving, and legislated laws against integration of refugees in to their host country. Lebanese law, for example, lists more than 70 professions in which the Arab refugees were prohibited from engaging. It is illegal for a Palestinian refugee to buy land in Lebanon. There is ample evidence from Arab sources that the Syrian government transported fleeing refugees, at gunpoint, in cattle cars to far-flung borders in 1949, in order to keep them away from Palestine, to thus prevent their repatriation, and to eternalize the “refugee problem.”
But Arab guilt in stymieing any solution does not stop there. At the Lausanne conference of 1949, Israel offered unconditionally and unilaterally to repatriate 100,000 Arab refugees even without any peace accords. The Arab leaders refused.
Israeli offers of repatriation and reparation continued until June, 1967. The Arab side refused all offers. Not Israel, but the Arab refusal to countenance any possibility of peace treaties offered by Israel condemned the refugees to penury and homelessness.
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