Commentary Magazine


Topic: Palestinian refugees

Palestinian Delusions Fuel Conflict

As the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel concludes its first week today, no resolution is in sight. Israel’s government has made it clear that its goal is nothing more than “sustainable quiet” from Gaza but Hamas sees no reason to stop since the suffering they have created on both sides of the border has worked to their advantage. The reason for this has nothing to do with military technology and everything to do with the peculiar culture of Palestinian politics.

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As the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel concludes its first week today, no resolution is in sight. Israel’s government has made it clear that its goal is nothing more than “sustainable quiet” from Gaza but Hamas sees no reason to stop since the suffering they have created on both sides of the border has worked to their advantage. The reason for this has nothing to do with military technology and everything to do with the peculiar culture of Palestinian politics.

To an objective observer this makes no sense. Hamas set events in motion last month when some of its operatives kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers and then escalated the conflict by shooting several hundred rockets into the Jewish state from its Gaza stronghold. The result of these actions would all seem to undermine Hamas’s credibility vis-à-vis its Fatah rivals.

The rocket offensive has clearly failed on a military level. To shoot hundreds of rockets at cities for a week and to fail to score one hit or kill a single person—and killing civilians is exactly the goal of Hamas’s effort—can’t be represented as anything but a flop. At the same time, Hamas has not demonstrated any ability to deter or defend against Israeli precision attacks on Hamas targets.

All this would seem to add up to a perfect formula for a quick cease-fire. The Israelis want to end the attacks from Gaza and its government has no appetite for a ground invasion. Hamas could just declare a victory of sorts and preserve what is left of their arsenal since replacing their stocks of Iranian rockets won’t be so easy this time due to the closure of the border with Egypt. But there appears to be no sign of the “sustainable quiet” Israel craves of even a temporary cease-fire. The reason for that is that Hamas believes it is winning.

How so? The answer comes from the people of Gaza. They have born the brunt of Israeli counterattacks while the leaders and fighters of Hamas and their weapons stockpile remains safe in shelters underneath the strip. But the sight of rockets being launched into Israel by the hundreds has bolstered the Islamist group’s political stock. They know that Hamas TV claims of Israeli casualties are lies. But nonetheless, the idea that Jews in Tel Aviv are being forced to take shelter even if the rockets never find their targets is a big boost to their morale.

Scratch beneath the surface and actually read or listen to the comments of Gazans and you see why Hamas’s popularity always goes up whenever there is fighting.

It’s not because the Israelis are being particularly awful to the Palestinians. People in Gaza know that Hamas is begging for Israeli retaliation and understand why the rockets are being launched from neighborhoods packed with civilians or in the vicinity of schools, mosques, and hospitals. They know that if instead of facing an opponent like the IDF that strives to minimize civilian casualties they were up against an adversary as ruthless as Hamas, the price they would pay for the attempt to terrorize the Israeli people would be far higher. After all, the Assad regime and its Islamist opponents have managed to slaughter more than 160,000 Syrians in the last three years and few in the West have even raised an eyebrow about that, let alone be motivated to action to stop that war.

The Palestinians have embraced the suffering that Hamas has brought upon them because they think being set up to be killed is their part in the war against the Jewish state. Read this quote from Al-Ahkbar:

Undefeated, the 43 year-old man told Al-Akhbar “this is the price that we have to pay; Haifa cannot be shelled and the Resistance men cannot sneak into Ashkelon to clash with the occupation soldiers if we do not present martyrs and casualties… all our wounds do not matter it if they can shorten the distance to Palestine.”

When Palestinians speak of Hamas actions they refer to it as “resistance against the occupation.” But by that they are not referring to any occupation of Gaza. Israel evacuated every single soldier, settlement, and civilian from Gaza in 2005. Nor are they talking about the West Bank. When they speak of “occupation” they are referring to pre-June 1967 Israel. They genuinely think of their war with Israel as an anti-colonial struggle in which the “colonists”—the Jews—will someday be forced to leave or die, as Hamas’s charter promises. Indeed, the conceit of that piece in Al-Akhbar is that even if bomb shelters were available to Palestinians (and as I wrote last night, they exist but they’re used for Hamas and their bombs, not civilians), they wouldn’t use them because they see their spilled blood as a contribution to the cause of reversing the verdict of 1948, i.e. the “Palestine” that the Gaza man is talking about.

The problem with attempts to understand this conflict is that all too much effort is spent on unraveling the minutiae of recent events and almost none is directed at trying to understand the motivations of Hamas and its supporters. If Palestinian statehood as part of a two-state solution were their goal, they could have realized it 15 years ago. Palestinian leaders, including the allegedly moderate Mahmoud Abbas, have rejected four such offers in that time. Instead, they have mindlessly preferred to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and to insist on the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees (even though nearly as many Jews were expelled or fled their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after the same events) that is a prescription for the end of Israel.

Hamas makes no secret of its goal: the elimination of the Jewish state and the expulsion or murder of its people. Their rockets won’t get them closer to that objective. Nor will the spilled blood of Palestinians in Gaza. But it is the refusal of the Palestinian people to put aside the delusion that this is a desirable or achievable purpose that fuels Hamas’s popularity and perpetuates the conflict. Whether or not there is a cease-fire this week, it won’t really end until the Palestinians and their foreign supporters concede that history won’t be reversed and get on with the business of building their own lives in a world in which Israel’s existence is permanent.

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Want Peace? Change UN’s Refugee Policy

As the United States tries again to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the key sticking points in any such negotiation is getting some much-needed scrutiny in a United Nations forum this week. As Israel Hayom reports, a UN panel will discuss an effort to revise the rules under which the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operates. The pending debate is the result of an initiative pushed by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Judges and seeks to redefine who can be considered a Palestinian refugee and therefore a recipient of UNRWA’s largesse. While those made homeless by other conflicts are only considered refugees if they personally lost their homes, under current rules anyone descended from someone who fled the British Mandate of Palestine or the territory of the newborn State of Israel during the Jewish state’s War of Independence is eligible for refugee status. Thus, while the refugees of every other conflict or dislocation have ultimately all been resettled, only the Palestinians remain homeless, a tactic endorsed by their leaders and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world in order to keep the war against Israel alive.

While the chances that the UN will act on this issue are virtually non-existent, this discussion not only calls attention to UNRWA’s misguided policies but also highlights an issue that is one of the chief obstacles to peace. Though UNRWA is tasked with helping the Palestinians and is, for lack of a Palestinian government or groups dedicated to providing their people with a path to a better life, their primary source of sustenance, it actually plays a central role in their continued victimization.

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As the United States tries again to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the key sticking points in any such negotiation is getting some much-needed scrutiny in a United Nations forum this week. As Israel Hayom reports, a UN panel will discuss an effort to revise the rules under which the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operates. The pending debate is the result of an initiative pushed by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Judges and seeks to redefine who can be considered a Palestinian refugee and therefore a recipient of UNRWA’s largesse. While those made homeless by other conflicts are only considered refugees if they personally lost their homes, under current rules anyone descended from someone who fled the British Mandate of Palestine or the territory of the newborn State of Israel during the Jewish state’s War of Independence is eligible for refugee status. Thus, while the refugees of every other conflict or dislocation have ultimately all been resettled, only the Palestinians remain homeless, a tactic endorsed by their leaders and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world in order to keep the war against Israel alive.

While the chances that the UN will act on this issue are virtually non-existent, this discussion not only calls attention to UNRWA’s misguided policies but also highlights an issue that is one of the chief obstacles to peace. Though UNRWA is tasked with helping the Palestinians and is, for lack of a Palestinian government or groups dedicated to providing their people with a path to a better life, their primary source of sustenance, it actually plays a central role in their continued victimization.

The Palestinians have a unique status in the world of the UN. While all other refugees are handled by a single organization, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians have their own UN agency in UNRWA. But unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA’s goal is not to resettle the refugees and help them build new lives. UNRWA’s purpose has always been to keep them in place, living in squalid camps that long ago were transformed in concrete cities where they remain waiting for the day when they will “go home” to a Palestine that hasn’t existed for 66 years. Thus, rather than help the refugees to adjust to reality, UNRWA’s policies have dovetailed nicely with a Palestinian political identity that regards accommodation to Israel’s existence as tantamount to treason. The Palestinian belief in a “right of return” for not just the original Arabs who totaled a few hundred thousand but for the millions who claim to be their descendants is only made possible by UNRWA’s willingness to go on counting second, third, fourth, and now even fifth generations of Palestinians as refugees.

One aspect of this problem is the sheer inconsistency of international standards with regards to different kinds of refugees. In 1948, the Palestinians were counting on defeating and/or wiping out the Jewish community in the Mandate and therefore rejected the UN partition resolution that would have created the independent Palestinian state they now clamor for. Were they treated like other groups whose leaders gambled on aggression and lost—the millions of Germans who were brutally forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe come to mind after 1945—the Palestinians would have been helped to find new homes in the rest of the Arab world. Instead they were kept in place to continue to fuel the war against the one Jewish state in the world. Significantly, the roughly equal numbers of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after 1948 were given no such sympathy or UN aid. Those refugees were resettled in Israel and the West by Jewish groups and are now ignored when talk turns to restitution for the Middle East conflict.

Aside from the double standard here, the net effect of this policy is that in doing so UNRWA is serving to fuel the conflict rather than to seek its solution. UNRWA’s manifold problems—including education programs that foment hate against Israel and employees who aid terrorists—are well known. But so long as the Palestinians believe they have the support of the world in their effort to undo the verdict of the war they launched in 1948, the millions who call themselves refugees will never give up their goal of eradicating Israel’s existence. During the last 15 years the Palestinians have rejected three offers of independence and peace from Israel as well as walking away from a fourth such initiative this year. It’s clear the leaders of the Palestinian Authority do not think they have the support of their people for any treaty that will recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist no matter where its borders are drawn.

Rather than focus on forcing Israel to make more concessions that will endanger its security, those who wish to promote peace should focus their efforts on institutions like UNRWA that made a resolution of the conflict impossible. While it might be asking too much of a United Nations that is still rife with corruption and anti-Semitism to do the right thing on this issue, it is vital that the effort be made to change UNRWA before its actions help create more generations of angry refugees bent on destroying Israel. As much as the Israelis, the Palestinians would benefit from such a reform.

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The Other Refugees and the Path to Peace

Today Canada’s foreign minister proved once again why the Great White North is one of the world’s outliers with regard to the Middle East. Foreign Minister John Baird said that the Canadian government stated that the fate of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be both recognized and taken into account in discussions about Middle East peace. The statement followed Canada’s parliament adopting a report on the subject and though Baird was careful to say that he didn’t want the issue to become a point of contention in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians sponsored by the United States, the mere raising of the topic is enough to cause some of Israel’s critics to claim the Canadians are trying to sabotage the negotiations. While the Israelis have repeatedly raised the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes throughout the Arab world in the months and years following Israel’s birth in 1948, the Palestinians not only refuse to discuss the matter, they regard it as a distraction from the “nakba”—or disaster, as they refer to Israel’s creation. But in doing so they make it plain that this issue is central to understanding why peace has eluded the region.

The argument about competing sets of refugees is not an abstract historical puzzle. To even talk about Jewish refugees with their own history of suffering undermines the narrative that the only result of Israel’s War of Independence was the dispossession of a Palestinian refugee population whose descendants continue to demand a “right of return” to the homes they left 66 years ago. For the same reason that the Palestinian Authority refuses absolutely to recognize that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, so, too, do they and their supporters close their ears to any discussion about Jewish refugees. Palestinians fear that both subjects undermine their sense of themselves as victims who must be compensated by the world. But while they believe that any diminution of that victimhood, either to recognize the claims of other refugees or the state where most of dispossessed Jews found a home, would deprive them of their identity as a people, the truth is just the opposite. Discarding this mindset is the only way that they—or the Israelis—will ever find peace.

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Today Canada’s foreign minister proved once again why the Great White North is one of the world’s outliers with regard to the Middle East. Foreign Minister John Baird said that the Canadian government stated that the fate of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries should be both recognized and taken into account in discussions about Middle East peace. The statement followed Canada’s parliament adopting a report on the subject and though Baird was careful to say that he didn’t want the issue to become a point of contention in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians sponsored by the United States, the mere raising of the topic is enough to cause some of Israel’s critics to claim the Canadians are trying to sabotage the negotiations. While the Israelis have repeatedly raised the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes throughout the Arab world in the months and years following Israel’s birth in 1948, the Palestinians not only refuse to discuss the matter, they regard it as a distraction from the “nakba”—or disaster, as they refer to Israel’s creation. But in doing so they make it plain that this issue is central to understanding why peace has eluded the region.

The argument about competing sets of refugees is not an abstract historical puzzle. To even talk about Jewish refugees with their own history of suffering undermines the narrative that the only result of Israel’s War of Independence was the dispossession of a Palestinian refugee population whose descendants continue to demand a “right of return” to the homes they left 66 years ago. For the same reason that the Palestinian Authority refuses absolutely to recognize that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, so, too, do they and their supporters close their ears to any discussion about Jewish refugees. Palestinians fear that both subjects undermine their sense of themselves as victims who must be compensated by the world. But while they believe that any diminution of that victimhood, either to recognize the claims of other refugees or the state where most of dispossessed Jews found a home, would deprive them of their identity as a people, the truth is just the opposite. Discarding this mindset is the only way that they—or the Israelis—will ever find peace.

The Canadian report will undoubtedly be ignored by the international press that tends to treat any mention of Jewish refugees as somehow an illustration of Israel’s lack of contrition about the suffering of the Palestinians. But the more that one learns about the topic, the easier it is to understand that there was no monopoly on suffering in this conflict. Just as hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or, in a few cases, were told to leave their homes in the former British Mandate for Palestine, almost an equal number of Jews throughout the Arab and Muslim world experienced the same fate.

The difference between the two populations was that the Jews were taken in and resettled by their brethren, either in the newborn state of Israel or in Western countries. Though their journeys and adjustment to their new homes was not always easy, none were allowed to languish in limbo. Today, they and their descendants in Israel or in the United States and other Western countries are members of successful communities where they enjoy equal rights.

By contrast, the Arabs who left the territory that would become the State of Israel were deliberately kept in camps to this day and denied any resettlement or citizenship in the countries where they found themselves. The reason for this was that they were useful props in the Arab world’s ongoing war to reverse the verdict of that war. Their future was held hostage to the struggle to destroy Israel, and the refugees and their numerous progeny have been kept apart and in squalor in order to further that effort. Their plight merits the sympathy of the world. So, too, does the way they have been exploited and abused by their own leaders and other Arab countries.

Unfortunately, many of those who wish the Palestinians well, including many Jews, have accommodated their nakba narrative demands and sought to pressure Israel to apologize for winning the war of survival in 1948. But the Palestinian decision to cling to this narrative of suffering rather than embracing one of nation building in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel has repeatedly offered them an independent state, is the primary obstacle to peace. As Rick Richman noted earlier this week, the point of insisting on the so-called “right of return” is not really the refugees but to keep the war against Israel’s existence alive. Not until they realize that they were not the only ones who suffered and that the war that led to their dispossession was the result of their own unwillingness to compromise and share the land will the Palestinians be prepared to accept the current compromise that has been on the table from Israel for many years, and finally move on.

Far from harming the cause of peace, the best thing those who wish to promote a resolution of the Middle East conflict can do is to remind the Palestinians that they were not the only ones who lost their homes and that the Arab world has as much apologizing to do as the Israelis. If one group of refugees must be compensated, so must the other. Just as two states for two peoples is the only possible formula for peace, let the Palestinians recognize that they aren’t the only 1948 refugees. Until they do and acknowledge the legitimacy of a state for those Jewish refugees, peace will be impossible.

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Refugees Who Insist on the Impossible

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a budget problem, and as a result its workers are on strike. As the New York Times reports, that’s bad news for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank who depend on the UN agency for food, services, and employment. But the controversy over the impact of the strike and the refugees’ demands for the Palestinian Authority to step in and pick up where the UN left off doesn’t address the heart of their problem. Instead of arguing over who should take care of them, the Palestinians should be seeking the same resolution that has successfully solved every other refugee problem since the Second World War: resettlement. Instead, they have been allowed to languish in camps to keep the war against Israel alive, doing far more injury to themselves than they have ever done to the Israelis.

The curious thing about the dispute between the refugees and the PA is that while the former demand that the corrupt Palestinian government take care of them while UNRWA is on strike, they are resolutely against being governed by it. Doing so would mean giving up their special status as refugees and taking up the more prosaic identity of Palestinian Arabs living on the territory of the putative independent Palestinian state that, while already recognized by some governments, doesn’t yet exist. Leaving the camps would mean a better life, either in the West Bank or elsewhere. But it would also entail giving up their precious fiction that the descendants of the Arabs who fled the land of what is now Israel will someday return to it and thus erase the Jewish state. Rather than do that, they prefer to stay where they are, living in poverty and condemning each subsequent generation to a futile and destructive quest that makes any peace agreement impossible. Instead of demanding more funding for UNRWA in order to continue to maintain the shaky welfare state operating in the West Bank, Gaza, and other refugee camps around the region, those who actually care about the welfare of the Palestinians should advocate instead for its dissolution.

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a budget problem, and as a result its workers are on strike. As the New York Times reports, that’s bad news for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank who depend on the UN agency for food, services, and employment. But the controversy over the impact of the strike and the refugees’ demands for the Palestinian Authority to step in and pick up where the UN left off doesn’t address the heart of their problem. Instead of arguing over who should take care of them, the Palestinians should be seeking the same resolution that has successfully solved every other refugee problem since the Second World War: resettlement. Instead, they have been allowed to languish in camps to keep the war against Israel alive, doing far more injury to themselves than they have ever done to the Israelis.

The curious thing about the dispute between the refugees and the PA is that while the former demand that the corrupt Palestinian government take care of them while UNRWA is on strike, they are resolutely against being governed by it. Doing so would mean giving up their special status as refugees and taking up the more prosaic identity of Palestinian Arabs living on the territory of the putative independent Palestinian state that, while already recognized by some governments, doesn’t yet exist. Leaving the camps would mean a better life, either in the West Bank or elsewhere. But it would also entail giving up their precious fiction that the descendants of the Arabs who fled the land of what is now Israel will someday return to it and thus erase the Jewish state. Rather than do that, they prefer to stay where they are, living in poverty and condemning each subsequent generation to a futile and destructive quest that makes any peace agreement impossible. Instead of demanding more funding for UNRWA in order to continue to maintain the shaky welfare state operating in the West Bank, Gaza, and other refugee camps around the region, those who actually care about the welfare of the Palestinians should advocate instead for its dissolution.

The Times report paints a fairly accurate picture of the systemic chaos of Palestinian society. According to Palestinian population figures, fully 740,000 of the 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank call themselves refugees. These figures are notoriously unreliable since both the refugees and other Palestinian groups have a financial and political incentive to inflate the estimates of their population. But even if we were to accept these numbers as accurate, the current Palestinian refugee population is primarily a function of a political decision undertaken by Arab governments and the leadership of the Palestinians to keep them trapped in camps so they can continue to be used as pawns in the never-ending propaganda war against Israel. Since 1945, wars have created tens of millions of refugees around the world. All, with the sole exception of the Palestinians, are served by a single UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And almost all, including the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries who were forced to flee their homes after 1948, have been resettled in new ones. But only the Palestinians, for whom UNRWA was specifically created, were not given the aid they needed to develop skills and get on with their lives.

The fault for this decades-long scandal lies principally with the Arab states. Not one has sought to absorb the refugees created by the war of aggression launched by the Arab world against the new Jewish state in 1948. Worse than that, the refugees were not allowed to leave the camps and denied the opportunity to acquire citizenship in any of the Arab countries in which they resided. That was also the case with Egypt and Jordan, the nations that governed, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 when the Arab and Muslim world refused to advocate the creation of a Palestinian state in those territories. Instead, their goal was to eradicate the Jewish state that existed inside the truncated borders created by the 1949 armistice agreements that ended Israel’s War of Independence.

But the refugees and the Palestinian political movements themselves also bear a great deal of the blame for the fact that the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees are stuck in exactly the same predicament as their forebears. A case in point is provided by the Times in its interview with Mai Abd al-Razzaq, a 49-year-old Palestinian seeking services from UNRWA.

Asked about a solution for the refugee problem, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq laughed and said: “It is impossible to return.” But she added: “We insist on return. We don’t want to give up our rights. We will leave it for the generations to come. We don’t want our grandchildren to say we sold out the land.”

Others made the same counter-productive point, eschewing any solution but a “return,” which is tantamount to a demand for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and a preservation of a conflict for which they send out new generations of children to goad or to engage in violent exchanges with Israelis. Seen in that light, the answer to their problems is not more money for UNRWA and its employees nor for a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in helping them. The only answer is the abolition of UNRWA  and its replacement by an agency dedicated to giving Palestinians the same resettlement help other refugees have received. Until that happens, the refugees—still the driving force of Palestinian politics—will ensure peace with Israel can never be achieved.

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Peace Means Justice for Jewish Refugees

The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

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The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

It is true that the descendants of the Jewish refugees are not still living in camps waiting for new homes. Though the process was not without its problems, rather than abuse those Jews who were dispossessed and using them as political props as the Arabs did, refugees from the Arab world found homes and lives in Israel and the West with the help of their brethren. But that does not diminish their right to compensation or a fair hearing for their grievances.

The truth about the Jewish refugees is something that foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians as well as the Arab nations who took part in the expulsion have never acknowledged, let alone refuted. As Ron Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador, pointed out in his speech at the conference, what occurred after Israel’s birth was nothing less than a campaign aimed at eliminating ancient Jewish communities. Arab leaders “launched a war of terror, incitement, and expulsion to decimate and destroy their Jewish communities. Their effort was systematic. It was deliberate. It was planned.”

Indeed, not only did Jews lose billions of dollars in property but were deprived of property that amounts to a land mass that is five times the size of the state of Israel.

This is something that a lot of people, especially those to whom the peace process with the Palestinians has become an end unto itself don’t want to hear about. They believe that the putting forward of Jewish claims from 1948 is merely an obstacle to negotiations. But such arguments are absurd. Peace cannot be built merely by appeasing the Palestinian claim to sole victimhood. Just as the dispute over territory is one between two peoples with claims, so, too is the question of refugee compensation. Peace cannot be bought by pretending that only Palestinians suffered or that only Arabs have rights. Indeed, such a formulation is a guarantee that the struggle will continue indefinitely since the Palestinians are encouraged to think that they are the only ones with just claims.

For far too long the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been cast as one pitting the security of the former against the rights of the latter. Framed this way, it is no surprise that the more emotional appeals of the Palestinians have often prevailed over the arguments of Israelis. Rather than asserting their historic rights, the Jews have often allowed themselves to be cast in the false role of colonial oppressor. The Palestinian pose as the only victims of the war enables them to evade their historic responsibility for both the creation of a refugee problem in 1948 as well as their refusal to accept Israeli peace offers.

Let’s hope today’s conference is the beginning of a serious debate about the issue as well as a turning point in discussions about Middle East peace. Peace requires respect for the rights of Jewish refugees as well as those of the Palestinians.

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Refugee Definition Promotes Conflict

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.

The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:

The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.

The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:

The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.

If the State Department accepts the UNRWA definition, there are about 5 million Palestinian refugees, but if one accepts the standard UNHCR definition, there are about 30,000.

To understand how dangerous it is to accept an expansive, political definition of refugees, consider India: The 1947 partition of India created about 14.5 million refugees, as those born in what became Pakistan fled to India and vice versa. At a 2002 speech at Hebrew University, Bernard Lewis suggested that applying the same definition to refugees created by the partition of India that UNRWA and the State Department apply to refugees created by the partition of Palestine meant that there existed 140 million refugees in South Asia. Today, that might equate to 170 million refugees or so. Had the international community adopted the same strategy in South Asia that it does in the Levant, this would guarantee the impossibility of any peace and reconciliation. Secretary of State Clinton knows this. By pandering to UNRWA, therefore, she is in effect choosing war over any hope of peace.

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The Meaning of Nakba Day

Palestinians and their supporters will demonstrate in the territories, on Israel’s borders and around the world today to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. Nakba is an Arabic word which means disaster, and that is what those who participate in today’s protests consider the founding of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948. But the focus on 1948 is significant.

For those who claim the Middle East conflict is about borders or Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prominence given Nakba commemorations ought to be an embarrassment as it highlights something Israel’s critics are often at pains to obfuscate. The goal of the Palestinians isn’t an independent state alongside Israel. Their goal is to eradicate Israel and replace it with yet another Arab majority country.

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Palestinians and their supporters will demonstrate in the territories, on Israel’s borders and around the world today to mark the anniversary of the Nakba. Nakba is an Arabic word which means disaster, and that is what those who participate in today’s protests consider the founding of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948. But the focus on 1948 is significant.

For those who claim the Middle East conflict is about borders or Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prominence given Nakba commemorations ought to be an embarrassment as it highlights something Israel’s critics are often at pains to obfuscate. The goal of the Palestinians isn’t an independent state alongside Israel. Their goal is to eradicate Israel and replace it with yet another Arab majority country.

As Palestine Media Watch notes in their survey of official Palestinian Authority programs, the point about the Nakba narrative is that it draws no distinction between the pre- and post-1967 borders. That means the Jewish presence within the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel is treated as just as illegitimate as that of the settlers in the territories who we are constantly told are the main obstacle to peace. This is not a minor point, because for the Palestinians, the desire for the descendants of the 1948 refugees to “return” to Israel is tantamount to demanding the dismantling of the Jewish state.

The Jewish left has become increasingly sympathetic to Nakba Day demonstrations. They feel it is only right that the victors show compassion to the losers in Israel’s War of Independence. But compassion for those who suffer — and the Palestinian Arabs have suffered since 1948 — is one thing. Indulging the political fantasies of those who wish to reverse the verdict of that war is something else.

As much as the world seems to have tired of hearing about the history of the events of that year, it is vital we point out that the war that created the refugees was one started by Arabs whose goal was not to share the land but to prevent Jewish sovereignty on any part of it. The vast majority of Palestinians who fled did so because they feared the consequences of this war. Most thought they would return to reap the spoils of the expected destruction of the besieged Jewish community. That they and their descendants still regret this reversal of fortune may be understandable, but it is not a point on which they have any right to demand the world’s sympathy.

Nakba Day is also a reminder that the focus on refugees also ought to discredit Israel’s critics and others who have kept the Palestinians stateless and homeless during the last 64 years. Unlike every other refugee population during this period, the Palestinians have been deliberately not resettled or allowed to assimilate into the Arab populations of the surrounding nations. Instead, they have been kept in poverty by a United Nations agency (UNRWA) supposedly dedicated to their welfare but which is, in fact, merely interested in perpetuating their status as refugees so they can remain props in the Arab war on Israel.

On this day, the unhappy fate of the Palestinian refugees will be endlessly rehearsed. But no mention will be made of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries in the wake of the events of 1948. Unlike the Palestinians, these people were given homes and new lives in Israel and the West. If Arabs are entitled to compensation for what they lost when they fled the newborn State of Israel, the Jews of the Arab and Muslim world deserve to be paid for what was stolen from them.

Nakba Day takes us back to the unfortunate fact that the Arabs have always treated the struggle between these two peoples as a zero sum game. In 1948, the Jews were willing to share the country, but the Arabs would hear of no solution other than the destruction of any Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Those who wonder why the Palestinians continue to refuse to negotiate with Israel and have rejected offers of statehood repeatedly during the past two decades need only go back to 1948 to discover the roots of this madness.

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Who’s Mistreating the Palestinians Again?

The standard cliché of Middle East reporting is the notion of Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians. But as anyone with even a minimal grasp of the history of the region knows, the real victimizers of the Palestinians have always been the Arab nations who refused to absorb or resettle them after 1948 but instead preferred to keep them homeless as props to use in the war to destroy Israel. That this is an ongoing story rather than merely a chapter of history is demonstrated anew on the border between Jordan and Syria where Palestinians fleeing the chaos and violence of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad have been left stranded. But as has been the case with the exploitation of the Palestinians in the past, the world isn’t paying much attention.

As the always insightful Khaled Abu Toameh writes for the Gatestone Institute’s Website, more than 1,000 Palestinians attempted to enter Jordan from Syria, but the government of King Abdullah has kept them in a makeshift tent refugee camp with poor sanitary conditions while refusing them entry. The king’s priority remains repressing any possible signs of unrest among the approximately 80 percent of his subjects who are Palestinian and wants nothing to do with them or their plight. So while international “human rights” activists remained focused on aiding Palestinians seeking to destroy Israel, they ignore the real abuses of refugees going on right next door to the Jewish state.

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The standard cliché of Middle East reporting is the notion of Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians. But as anyone with even a minimal grasp of the history of the region knows, the real victimizers of the Palestinians have always been the Arab nations who refused to absorb or resettle them after 1948 but instead preferred to keep them homeless as props to use in the war to destroy Israel. That this is an ongoing story rather than merely a chapter of history is demonstrated anew on the border between Jordan and Syria where Palestinians fleeing the chaos and violence of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad have been left stranded. But as has been the case with the exploitation of the Palestinians in the past, the world isn’t paying much attention.

As the always insightful Khaled Abu Toameh writes for the Gatestone Institute’s Website, more than 1,000 Palestinians attempted to enter Jordan from Syria, but the government of King Abdullah has kept them in a makeshift tent refugee camp with poor sanitary conditions while refusing them entry. The king’s priority remains repressing any possible signs of unrest among the approximately 80 percent of his subjects who are Palestinian and wants nothing to do with them or their plight. So while international “human rights” activists remained focused on aiding Palestinians seeking to destroy Israel, they ignore the real abuses of refugees going on right next door to the Jewish state.

Abdullah understands all too well that a Fatah-Hamas unity coalition of Palestinian groups that is incapable of signing a peace with Israel that would give them an independent state may eventually decide to try and establish one on the territory of his kingdom. Given the fact that Jordan makes up two-thirds of the original land considered part of Palestine before it was first partitioned in 1922, Abdullah knows, as his father Hussein did, that they constitute a potentially mortal threat to the Bedouin minority that forms the ruling class there. As Abu Toahmeh writes, the king is having his government concoct new legislation that will exclude Palestinians from government institutions.

Abdullah’s concerns are real and shared by both the United States and Israel. But that doesn’t excuse the press and the so-called human rights crowd from ignoring any ill usage of the Palestinians that can’t be blamed on Israel. The suffering of ordinary Palestinians is real, but a solution to their problems requires both a sea change in their own political culture and a willingness on the part of the Arab world to stop abusing them. Unfortunately, neither seems even a remote possibility. In the meantime, don’t expect an army of activists to descend on Jordan to help the Palestinians there or anyplace else in the Arab world where they are being mistreated.

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