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The Palestinian Refugee Issue


  The UN Partition Plan of 1947 allowed for the establishment of two states. One for the Jews and one for the Palestinian Arabs. The Jews accepted this. The Arab leadership rejected the offer of a state.


  Despite the Arab rejection of the Partition Plan, the Jews of Palestine declared Independence in May 1948. Even before this, up to 30,000 Arabs left to go to surrounding countries. Following the establishment of Israel more left. In total, around 700,000 of the Arab inhabitants of the area left Israel and moved to surrounding countries.

  Approximately one third of the refugees went to the Gaza strip (then under Egyptian control), one third went to the West Bank (under Jordanian control), and the remaining third went to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

  The UN now estimates there to be approximately 3.1 million Palestinian refugees (1995 figures). 1.2 million of those reside in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority.

  All the figures here are controversial and disputed by all sides. As a result we have used UN figures, themselves open to dispute, wherever these have been available.


Accusation: Israel systematically expelled the Palestinian citizens of the area in 1948


Rebuttal: Why 700,000 Palestinians abandoned their homes in 1948 is a controversial question. The Palestinians claim that they were expelled. Recent scholarship has shown that this did happen but only in a few, isolated examples. The overwhelming majority left of their own accord to avoid the war, or because they were encouraged to do so by the Arab leadership. Much of the propaganda at the time encouraged the local Arab population to leave in order to allow the surrounding Arab armies to defeat the new Jewish state. In fact the Jewish Leadership tried to persuade the Arabs to stay. They offered reassurances and guarantees to them. For example, at the start of the Arab offensive on Haifa in early April 1947 around 25,000 Arab civilians fled the area. Jewish Forces captured Haifa on April 23rd. A British police report dated a few days later observed that "every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives". Golda Meir travelled to Haifa to try to convince them to stay. However the Arab civilians feared being accused of being traitors. By the end of the battle over 50,000 Palestinian Arabs had left. This pattern was repeated all over Israel. Those who did stay were given full citizenship after the War of Independence ended. Full equality for all Israel’s citizens regardless of religion was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.


Accusation: Israel's refusal to consider a "right of return" for the refugees condemns them to remain without a home


Rebuttal: Many of the Palestinian refugees have spent the last five decades living in difficult conditions. When the refugees fled they were placed in refugee camps. The Arab Governments refused to take steps to absorb the refugees or integrate them into the population. They felt that doing so would undermine the refugees’ claim to a right of return, and where reluctant to disturb their own population balances; a large Palestinian presence in Jordan and Lebanon led to serious conflict in these countries. At the same time, between 1948-1951, around 500,000 Jews were expelled from the Arab nations amongst which they lived, or fled their homes due to persecution and made their way to Israel. The new-born state absorbed and fully integrated these refugees from Iraq, Tunisa, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Morocco. Today there are no Jewish refugees from Arab lands, as they have all been resettled.


The problem with the Palestinian right of return is the fact that it concerns the right of refugees to "return" to land in Israel. Any future peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel would create a Palestinian state. The refugees would then be able to move to this Palestinian state, which would be the homeland for Palestinians. Before the negotiations broke down in 2000, Israel was considering plans to give compensation to the refugees.


Israel won't consider a full right of return for Palestinians to Israel because this would be in direct contradiction to the idea of a two state solution. A two state solution means that there would be one state for the Jews (Israel) and one state for the Palestinians. If millions of Palestinians were to move to Israel rather than Palestine, as Arafat demand, the result would be not one but two Palestinian states.


Accusation: Israel has its own right of return for Jews but won't allow Palestinians an equivalent. This is just racist.


Rebuttal: Israel's law of return allows any Jew to move to live in Israel. Israel has no objection to an equivalent law of return to allow Palestinian refugees to move to live in Palestine. The objection is to allowing them to move to Israel. Israel was created as a state for Jews because the Holocaust proved that Jews needed a refuge. A Palestinian state can play the same role for Palestinians, but that is not Israel's job.


The influx of what now amounts to millions of Palestinians into Israel would both upset the national demographic and constitute a considerable security risk. Israel cannot accept a right of return, however this doesn't mean that there is a total impasse. Salim Tamari, a Palestinian delegate to the Refugee Working Group, set up at the Madrid Peace Talks in 1991, called for


"Israel's acceptance, in principle, of the right of Palestinians and their descendants to return to their homes. The Palestinians, in exchange, would recognize that this right cannot be exercised inside the 1948 boundaries but in a state on Palestine [in the West Bank and Gaza]. As part of these mutual concessions, Israel should take into its territory several tens of thousands of refugees, particularly those who have family members living inside Israel."


In fact Ehud Barak's proposal at Camp David was not very far from this position. The Palestinian leadership were the ones who chose to take an all-or-nothing approach to this issue, fearing loss of support amongst the refugees.


If Israel were to absorb all the Palestinian refugees Jews could very quickly become a minority in their own land. This would undermine the entire point of the partition plan of 1947. This sought to create two states, one Jewish, one Arab. A Palestinian "right" of return would result in two Arab states and no Jewish one. This would be a direct contradiction of the "two state solution" that the Palestinians claim to accept.


Accusation: International law gives Palestinians a right of return


Rebuttal: The text of UN Resolution 194 states that:


"…refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; [The UN] Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation…"


This is the basis of Palestinian claims that the "right" to return is supported by international law, but let's look closer:


"Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so".


The resolution recognizes that Israel can hardly be expected to absorb a potentially hostile population that might threaten her security.


"…facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation".


Today there are around 3.7 million refugees. The Israeli population is only 6 million. Israel is a small country with limited resources that could not practically absorb a number of people equivalent to over 50% of the current population. The resolution allows for resettlement as a viable alternative. Israel supports the resettlement of the refugees in either the countries they have lived in for over 50 years, or in a Palestinian state. Israel has always accepted that it would absorb a small number of refugees judged on an individual basis but more than this is not practical.


"Compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible".


Israel has accepted that it will aid the refugees and offer some compensation but Israel cannot accept total responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem (see above). The Arab states must also accept some measure of responsibility and should therefore be bound by this resolution.

 See also Why shouldn't Palestinian Arabs have the Right of Return


The question of why the Palestinian Arabs left in 1947-1949 has been the subject of much recent scholarship. Conventional opinion said that all of the Arab civilians left voluntarily. They were generally instructed to leave by their own leadership. By contrast Arab historians have accused Israel of expelling local residents or of causing them to flee in fear of their lives. Recently a school of "new historians" has emerged in Israel. They have suggested a greater culpability by Israel in the creation of the refugee problem. The most reasonable conclusion is that there were cases of expulsion and some people fled in fear of their lives. In many cases the fear was built up by propaganda from the Arab leadership. There is ample evidence that Arab leadership did encourage and instruct many people to leave, promising them that they would be able to return shortly, once the Jews were defeated. It is important to acknowledge that all these opinions exist within Israel.

Documentation of Arab encouragement of the flight of refugees -

The Economist, reported on October 2, 1948: "Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit....It was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades."

Time Magazine (May 3, 1948) reported: "The mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by orders of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city....By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa."

Edward Atiyah, the secretary of the Arab League Office in London, wrote in his book, The Arabs: "This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re­enter and retake possession of their country."

According to Near East Arabic Radio, April 3, 1948: "It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugees to flee from their homes in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, and that certain leaders . . . make political capital out of their miserable situation . . ."

Nimr el Hawari, the Commander of the Palestine Arab Youth Organization, in his book Sir Am Nakbah (The Secret Behind the Disaster, published in Nazareth in 1955), quoted the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said as saying "We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down."

Habib Issa wrote in the New York Lebanese daily newspaper Al Hoda on June 8, 1951, " The Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and of Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade... He pointed out that they were already on the frontiers and that all the millions the Jews had spent on land and economic development would be easy booty, for it would be a simple matter to throw Jews into the Mediterranean. -- Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes, and property and to stay temporarily in neighbouring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down."

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem – Benny Morris

This book has been a landmark in the study of Israeli history. It has made an important contribution to debate and to our current understanding of Israel’s history. It remains however immensely controversial. The Birth attempts to debunk two prevailing myths. One, the Arab myth that Palestinian Arabs were expelled systematically and by force from their homes, and the second Zionist myth that they simply left either voluntarily or under instructions from the Arab leadership. Morris presents a third hypothesis which says that although there were incidents in which all of these things have occurred the real cause of the refugee problem was an inevitable, unsought, result of war. In other words, no side and both sides are to blame.  Due to the continuing conflict and Morris’s own views the book has come to be seen in a very political light, but the main point of his argument is coherent. Morris presents compelling evidence in the form of a list that details the fate of each individual Arab village.

Morris himself has argued from the same evidence that given the circumstances, it was justified for Jews to expel the Arabs, since the Arabs had declared a civil war in which there could be only one winner. Some of the quotes and evidence Morris offers has been contested, or is taken out of context. Most the Zionist advocacy of transfer (voluntary removal of Arabs from Palestine - not forced, occurred in the context of the 1937 Peel Commission Report, which was a British government proposal to partition Palestine and transfer Arabs out of the tiny Jewish state that would be formed.


Additional Links (ZIIC)

Does Zionist Expulsion of the Arabs of Palestine make Zionism Racist?

 The Palestinian Refugees



WUJS Handbook - Defending Zionism and Israel - Introduction and Main Page

Antisemitism (Anti-Semitism), Anti-Zionism, and Israel

Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, and Israel -II

Media Bias Toward Israel

Seven Characteristics of Propaganda

Personal Politics in Israel Advocacy

Accusations and Rebuttals:

The Collapse of the Peace Process And the Road Back to Peace

Camp David 2000 - And After


The Palestinian Refugees

The Jewish Right to Israel

Israel in the Middle East



Handbook text is copyright by The World Union of Jewish Students ( http://www.wujs.org.il ). Excerpts have been adapted and are reproduced here by permission.

 Israeli personality Mehereta Baruch and American-Israeli basketball star LaVon Mercer tell us Zionism is not racism.

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