For those who are home, and for those who are on the way. For those who support the historic and just return of the land of Israel to its people, forever loyal to their inheritance, and its restoration.
Rael Jean Isaac and Ruth King Mideast Outpost September 09
Editors Note: In the September 2003 Outpost we published the first version of this article entitled “Putting First Things Last: The 55 Year Failure to Address the Arab Refugee Problem.” The failure is now 61 years old and we felt it was time to say it again: the integration of the refugees into Arab countries is a prerequisite for any meaningful agreement. We published an updated version of our 2003 article on the Family Security Matters website on August 12, 2009. We reprint that article—slightly expanded—because this issue has been neglected by Jewish organizations almost as badly as by diplomats, Middle East experts and the media. If Jewish organizations, each time the issue of settlements was raised, would say “No, the core issue is refugees, with their claimed ‘right of return,’ What are you doing to resettle them in Arab countries?” they could force a shift in the terms of the debate.
The Rogers Plan of 1969, like all subsequent and ill-fated efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict, tabled the issue of the Palestinian "refugees," leaving it for "final status" negotiations. "It is our hope," said the Rogers Plan, "that agreement on the key issues of peace, security, withdrawal and territory will create a climate in which these questions of refugees...can be resolved as part of the overall settlement."
But this is to put first things last. As the passage of time has made abundantly clear, the issue of "refugees" remains the defining obstacle to any reconciliation in the region. Pretending to negotiate, without addressing this issue at the outset, is like operating on a patient and leaving a growing cancer intact. Had it been confronted in 1949, the prospects for finding a subsequent modus vivendi between Israel and the Arabs would have been vastly improved.
President Obama has promised a fresh perspective on issues, to bring "change" in the old ways of doing things. There is no better place to start than by confronting the core issue of the Arab refugees head on—and putting responsibility for solving it on the only ones who can do so, the Arab states.
When the problem of the Arab refugees was at last put on the table at Camp David in the year 2000, the issue blew up the tattered remnant of the Oslo "peace process." Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak thought he had a winning formula. Israel would make a virtually total territorial withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. In return, all that would be asked of the Palestinian Authority was to abandon the "right to return," i.e. to eliminate, via demography, the Jewish state. If the Arab-Israel conflict was susceptible to solution via "land for peace," Barak should have had a deal. But Arafat refused to give up the "right to return" and launched outright war, including the most deadly series of terrorist attacks in Israel's history.
When the present “peace processing” runs into the same impasse (and the "moderate" Abbas, never mind Hamas, repeatedly reiterates that the Palestinians will never give up the refugees' right to return) the resulting explosion is likely to make the old intifada look like pale beer.
There is a widespread impression that the Arab refugee problem is immutable. But is it? Before we offer our answer, it's time to examine more closely the question: Who are the Palestinian Arab refugees?
Initially, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which administers the refugee camps, defined Palestine refugees as persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The camps opened in 1950, in the wake of the first Arab war to destroy the state of Israel. The precise number of Arab refugees as a result of that war is uncertain, estimates ranging from 450,000 to 700,000. Even experts who lean to the higher side believe that no more than 550,000 wound up in refugee camps, since some fled to families settled in other Arab countries and fleeing Bedouin resumed their nomadic life in Jordan.
UNRWA would set up 59 camps in what is now Judea and Samaria, Gaza (then part of Egypt), Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Certainly no one, including UNWRA and its donors, imagined that refugee status would become a heritable trust to be bestowed on the refugees' cousins, sisters and their aunts, their children, grandchildren, by now their great grandchildren. Yet now the world (including the world's Jews) accept without protest UNRWA's assertion (on its 2009 homepage) that it provides education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid to over 4.6 million Palestinian refugees. UNWRA, which has relocated headquarters from Amman to Gaza, the better to serve Hamas, has a staff of over 29,000 persons and its General Assembly-approved budget for 2008 was $541 million (www.un.org/unrwa/finances/index.htm).
As of May 31, 2008, the Agency's largest contributors are the United States, the European Union, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands. The Arab states contribute almost nothing in hard cash but millions in lip service.
Although long forgotten by the media and general public, the number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries was substantially greater. On May 16, 1948, the day following Israel's declaration of independence, The New York Times headlined an article: "Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands: Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes." And indeed within 15 years (the last great wave was from Algeria, after it gained independence from France in 1962), Jews had fled the Arab world en masse (until the Shah's ouster, in 1979, there remained one viable Jewish community in the Moslem world, in non-Arab Iran). Today there are barely 5,000, chiefly elderly Jews in the entire Arab world.
One reason the expulsion and flight of these Jews even then attracted little attention was that Israel never referred to them as refugees—they were welcomed as an "ingathering of the exiles," given citizenship on the spot. Yet these Jews had lived in the countries from which they were forced to flee far longer than the vast majority of Arabs who left the small territory that became Israel. Indeed Jews had lived in these countries longer than their Arab conquerors. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community dated back to the Babylonian exile. In contrast, most of the Arabs leaving Israel in 1948 were recent arrivals, attracted by the economic opportunities opened up by Zionist colonization of Palestine in the 20th century.
What happened in Israel was a replay, on a far smaller scale, of the vast population exchange that took place on the Indian subcontinent when England gave up rule of its last great colony. In that case, 8,500,000 Hindus fled Pakistan to India and 6,500,000 Muslims fled to Pakistan. (Continue)
I visited Hevron in November 2000 after the outbreak of the Rosh Hashanah War to see what could be done to assist in the face of the growing daily attacks on the community. After returning to work for the community in the summer of 2001, a bond and a love was forged that grows to this day. My wife Melody and I merited to be married at Ma'arat HaMachpela and now host visitors from throughout the world every Shabbat as well as during the week. Our goal, "Time to come Home!"