With Oslo mired in the muck of PA non-compliance, the future of the Palestinian refugees is not a hot issue just now. Still it lurks behind the scenes, waiting to rear its head with, for Israel, potentially devastating results. To the world at large, these refugees are the victims of Israeli aggression. But who are they really? Where are they, and how did they get there? And what about the other refugees?
Some of the facts:
How many are there?
Estimates of the number of Arabs who fled the newly-created State of Israel in 1948 (i.e. from the area inside Israel's pre-1967 borders) vary from 430,000 to 957,000, depending on who you ask. The most reliable figure appears to be 539,000.
In the 1967 Six Day War, between 125,000 (Israeli estimate) and 250,000 (UNRWA estimate) Arabs fled from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, which came under Israeli administration. Of these, say some researchers, close on two-thirds were first-time refugees, the others were refugees from 1948 who fled once again.
According to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), in 1996 the number of refugees stood at 3.3 million, located as follows:
Jordan: In 10 camps - 242,922. Not in camps - 1.1 million
Judea and Samaria: In 20 camps - 147,302. Not in camps - 385,136
Gaza: In five camps - 378,279. Not in camps - 338,651
Lebanon: In 12 camps - 182,731. Not in camps - 169,937
Syria: In 10 camps - 89,472. Not in camps - 257, 919
TOTAL: In 57 camps - 1.04 million. Not in camps - 2.26 million.
Who qualifies for Palestinian refugee status?
Any Arab who entered Israel up to two years prior to the rebirth of the Jewish state could claim to be a Palestinian refugee, even if he and his ancestors had lived elsewhere for generations before and he owned no land or property in Palestine.
Did they jump or were they pushed?
While many Arabs doubtless left new-born Israel out of fear of the Israelis, there is an enormous amount of evidence showing that by far the majority left on the orders of the Arab leadership.
On May 15, 1948, "the Mufti of Jerusalem appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country, because the Arab armies were about to enter and fight in their stead…" (Akhbar El-Yom, Cairo, October 12, 1963)
"The Arab states, which had encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies, have failed to keep their promises to return." (Filastin, Jordan, February 19, 1949)
"The Arab governments told us: 'Get out so that we can get in!' So we got out, but they did not get in." (Ad-Difaa, Jordan, September 6, 1954)
"Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return." (The Memoirs of Haled al Azm, Syrian Prime Minister in 1948-49, Beirut, 1973)
"The leaders of the Arab states, when they cry about the poor fate of the Palestinians, remind me of the child who killed his father and then cried for pity because he was an orphan." An Arab refugee (quoted in Politics, Lies and Videotape by Yitzhak ben Gad.)
What about the other Middle East refugees - the Jews?
As early as 1975 Palestinian Arab researchers were warning their leaders that when the plight of the Palestinian refugees came up in some future negotiations process, Israel would raise the question of the Jewish refugees and their stolen property.
"[T]he Jews of the Arab states were driven out of their ancient homes, …shamefully deported after their property had been commandeered or taken over at the lowest possible valuation … This is true for the majority of the Jews in question." - so wrote Palestinian National Council member Sabri Jiryis in Al Nahar (Beirut) in May 1975.
In From Time Immemorial, (written during seven years of intensive research), Joan Peter's writes:
"For every [Arab] refugee -adult or child--in Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world who compels our sympathy, there is a Jewish refugee who fled from the Arab country of his birth."
There were 265,000 Jews in Morocco in 1948. In 1976 there were 17,000. Algeria's Jewish population went from 40,000 in 1948 to 500 in 1976. Tunisia's went from 105,000 to 2,000; Libya's from 38,000 to zero; Egypt's from 75,000 to 100; Iraq's from 35,000 to 400; Syria's from 30,000 to 4,350; Lebanon's from 5,000 to 500; Yemen's from 55,000 to 1,000, and Aden's from 8,000 to zero.
The value of property and other assets these Jews were forced to leave behind far exceeded the value of that which the Palestinian refugees left behind.
Why are these Jews no longer refugees, while the Arabs remain displaced?
The Jews who fled the Arab states were housed in tent transit camps, then absorbed into Israel's communities as soon as possible, quickly becoming fully-fledged members of the state.
The Arab states, by contrast, refused the Arab refugees they had urged to flee the right to settle in their midst.
In 1952 Jordanian MP Abd'Allah Nawass stated: "We shall be most insistent in perpetuating the Palestine problem as a life question … The Palestine war continues by dint of the refugees only. Their existence leaves the problem open."
Six years later, a frustrated former UNRWA director, Ralph Galloway, angrily declared: "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die."