There is an obvious mystery about the Palestine Nakba - the situation of the Arab refugees of the 1948 Israel War of Independence. It is one of those things that is so obvious that nobody mentions it, like an elephant in the room, but why it is not mentioned by anyone at all is not obvious.
Since 1948, many of the refugees have been living in a sort of legal noman's land. As distinguished from all other refugees in the world, their needs are handled by a special United Nations Agency. The rights of Palestinian refugees are also defined differently from those of all other refugees. Their situation varies from country to country. Contrary to the stereotyped picture, most of the refugees do not live in camps.
In Jordan, there are about 1.9 million "refugees," all of whom have Jordanian citizenship. Only about 300,000 live in camps. In the Gaza strip, there are slightly under a million refugees, all of whom are citizens of the Palestinian authority. About half of them live in the infamous refugee camps. In the West Bank there are 700,000 refugees, of whom about 175,000 live in camps. They too are citizens of the Palestinian Authority. In Syria, there are about 430,000 refugees, with about 250,000 living in official or unofficial camps. Palestinian refugees in Syria can work and travel, but they are not citizens and cannot vote, in order to "preserve their identity." In Lebanon, there are about 400,000 Palestinian refugees, of whom about half live in camps. In addition to registered refugees, another 10% are not registered, and about 10,000 are "non-ID" Palestinians, Palestinians who escaped from Jordan in September 1970, and never bothered to register with authorities. In theory, Lebanon, like Syria, ratified the 1965 Casablanca protocol on treatment of Palestinian refugees. In practice, rights of Palestinians in Lebanon are severely curtailed, as they have no access to Lebanese schools or health facilities.
Numerous organizations with the words "Justice" and "Humanitarian" in their titles bewail the plight of the Arab Palestinian refugees and the injustice that was supposedly done to them by Israel in 1948. They all demand "right of return." Nobody demands "right of eating" "right of education" or "right of decent housing" for the refugees. Only the dubious "right of return" is important to these "humanitarians." But what about the poor kid in the ubiquitous photos of Palestinian refugees that are supposed to tear at the heart-strings of humanity. Doesn't he or she have a right to eat, to grow, to learn, to have a future, to get on with their life? Aren't those rights more urgent and more cogent than the right to return to a non-existent village where their ancestors lived 60 years ago?
Everyone, regardless of their stand regarding the Israel-Arab conflict is agreed that there can be no solution to the conflict without a solution of the refugee problem, and that the camps, poverty and hopelessness are breeding grounds for violence born of despair. All of the leaders of the great powers, East and West, and all of the leaders of the Arab states agree that it is urgent to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as do all the United States Presidential candidates. And everyone agrees that the refugee problem is at the heart of that solution.
So what is the mystery? The mystery is that nobody wants to actually do anything, or tries to do anything, to solve the refugee problem. Even more mysterious is the fact that nobody even talks about this amazing and cruel policy quirk. It is not just a matter of legal definitions and speechifying. It should be possible to quietly improve the appalling conditions in the worst camps in Lebanon, where there is often no proper sanitation and inevitably, streets are not paved. Yet nothing is done. Flush toilets and paved streets would not endanger the rights of the Palestinian Arab refugees. Mahmoud Abbas is an Arab Palestinian refugee. His rights are not curtailed in any way by the fact that he doesn't live in a camp, and enjoys flush toilets and paved streets. Since it took over Gaza and the West Bank in 1994, the Palestinian Authority did nothing to ameliorate conditions in any of the refugee camps, and made no move whatever to break up the camps and find decent housing for the inmates. After the Israeli incursion into the Jenin refugee camp, the camp itself, in all its miserable glory, was reconstructed to provide precisely the same miserable level of existence as it did before. Whose doing was that? The UN? Israel?
Even Israeli representatives are more or less silent about the misery of the Arab Palestinian refugees in the camps, and the aberrant perpetuation of the refugee "problem." Moreover, we did not hear any US presidential candidate advocating a humanitarian solution to the Palestinian Arab refugee problem, nor does the Secretary General of the UN speak of such a solution, except in the framework of a hypothetical peace agreement. The Arab states do not concern themselves with this need very much either - quite the opposite. Everyone has invented the fiction that the Palestinian refugee problem is incapable of solution until and unless the Israeli-Arab conflict is solved.
Along with about 700,000 Arab Palestinian refugees, the war instigated by the Arab states in 1948 eventually created about a million Jewish refugees. A few were Palestinian refugees thrown out of Jerusalem and Hebron and Kfar Etzion. The others were Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Yet there is no Jewish refugee problem, because all those refugees were absorbed into Israel or the United States or other countries. They did not wait for a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the coming of the Messiah, the perfection of the unified field theory, the demonstration of the Higgs boson or any other such wished-for but unlikely event.
Likewise, there is no problem of Indian or Pakistani refugees any more, though the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 generated millions of refugees. In fact, there is no conflict that has generated permanent refugees. The reluctance of the Arab states to seek a humanitarian solution for the Palestinian Arab refugee problem is understandable. They want to use the problem, and the misery of the refugees, as a weapon in the war against Israel. That does not explain the silence of everyone else, from Israeli government spokespersons, to those with genuine humanitarian concerns for the refugees, to peace groups like the J Street lobby, to US presidential hopefuls. All of the economic aid that the quartet is showering on the Palestinian Authority will avail nothing, as long as the horrendous pockets of misery in the camps are sustained.
The practical solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must proceed in several stages, addressing the most urgent problems first. There is no way that any Palestinian Arab politico who lives in luxury in Ramallah or Beirut or New Haven Connecticut can justify forcing other Palestinians to live in the miserable refugee camps of Lebanon or Gaza. The first step must therefore be to eliminate all the camps, and to integrate the refugees into the economic and political life of different host countries. The UNRWA must be dismantled and the refugee problem must be given to other agencies that deal with all the rest of the refugees in the world, with precisely the same rights as any other refugees.
Anyone who wants "justice" or "rights" or "welfare" or peace for the Arabs of Palestine must recognize that eliminating the refugee camps is priority number one for improving the lot of the Arabs and for bringing the hope of peace and a normal life to the peoples of the Levant. This is true whether one is a Zionist or a member of the PLO, a Democrat or a Republican. And yet we know that mysteriously, almost nobody is going to advocate the one thing that must be done, and that ought to be done.
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Replies: 2 Comments
During the 1980;s the Israeli government developed a plan to transfer "refuges" living in camps to regular housing with modern amenities and access to employment. Both the "refuges" and the UNRWA objected because the feared that the refugees might loose their mythical "right of return."
The term "refugee" is a serious misnomer. Children in the "refugee" camps are often the great grand children of people who fled in 1948, thus are not real refugees. Let me explain the problem. During the 17th century one of my ancestors was exiled from Scotland to North America by Oliver Cromwell. Neither he, nor his offspring were ever invited back. So 350 years later I would appear to be a refugee who has a claim on a castle in Scotland illegally expropriated by Oliver Cromwell. I am also a refugee from France, Some of my ancestors were driven to flee France due to religious persecution. The French never invited us back, and their is probably a French castle that I have a right to. Am I not a refugee, by Palestinian standards?
If the "refugees" are not really refugees, what are they? They would in fact appear to be hostages of the UNRWA and the Arab League. Now the Gaza Hostages also appear to be hostages of Hamas. Hostages are deprived of civil and human rights, and the "refugees" certainly have been. In Lebanon they have been deprived of the right to vote, seek employment, have access to education or own property. Syria does not grant citizenship to the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of people who moved to Syria in 1948. Other Arab countries have engaged in mass expulsions of Palestinians who have sought employment on their soil. And the PA certainly has made no effort to solve the problems of the hostages.
The Palestinian hostages are keep prisoner, because their plight is blamed on Israel, instead of a conspiracy of the UNRWA, the Arab League and the PLO. This is what is so crazy.
Charles Barton, Monday, May 5th
Excellent article, ami, as ever. The Arabs don't want a humanitarian solution, only a political one. It's not just their policy towards Palestinian refugees - the Jordanians will not give citizenship to Iraqi refugees. Arab states only think about the political effects, never about the refugee's personal condition. In Lebanon, one can understand why giving 400,000 Sunni Palestinians Lebanese citizenship can upset the delicate sectarian balance.But is the present situation any better?
, Sunday, May 4th
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