By Richard Schifter and Adriana Camisar
Every year, around this time, numerous newspapers around the world publish articles that mark the commemoration of the Palestinian “Nakba.” The word Nakba means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and is used by the Palestinians to refer to the creation of the state of Israel and the beginning of the problem of the "Palestinian refugees."
The trouble with these articles, nearly identical versions of which are published by different international news agencies, and then replicated by newspapers around the globe, is that they repeat, and therefore promote, extreme Palestinian propaganda that is completely counterproductive to the beginning of any peaceful path between Israelis and Palestinians.
The vast majority of these articles contain a false account of the historical events that led to the creation of the state of Israel. According to this narrative, Israel’s creation was to the detriment of a “historic Palestine” populated almost exclusively by Arabs. And the ancestral ties of the Jewish people to that land are either ignored or denied.
There never really was a "Palestinian state" from which Israel took territory away. When the United Nations (U.N.), in November of 1947, recommended the partition of the area then called Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other one Jewish, all that territory was part of the British Mandate (and had previously been part of the Ottoman Empire). There never was Arab-Palestinian sovereignty over that territory and, in fact, back then, the Arab inhabitants of that area did not call themselves "Palestinians."
The U.N. partition plan, which had the approval of most of the nations of the world, was constructed on the basis that both peoples had a right to a portion of that territory, and it recommended that the Jewish state be established in those areas where the Jewish population was a majority. Even though the horrors of the Holocaust precipitated the decision to finally facilitate the creation of a Jewish state, the historical, religious and legal ties of the Jewish people to that land are ancient and well documented.
While the Jews accepted the partition plan, the Arab countries rejected it, even though the plan also provided for the formation of an Arab state, and despite the fact that numerous and vast Arab states already existed in the region. That was the first missed opportunity for the creation of an Arab-Palestinian state bordering the state of Israel.
Immediately after the establishment of the state of Israel, in May of 1948, five Arab states (Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan, Syria and Iraq, whose armies were also joined by volunteers from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Libya), started a war with the declared intention of annihilating the nascent state. With enormous effort and the loss of 1% of its population, Israel was able to defeat the Arab armies, and a series of armistices were signed.
As a consequence of this war, Israel not only kept the area granted to it in the partition plan of 1947, but its territory expanded by 23%. The area known today as the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt, and the West Bank was occupied by Transjordan (later named Jordan).
During the conflict, approximately 700,000 Arabs left Israel. The majority of them did it of their own free will, because their leaders exhorted them to abandon the land in order to facilitate the killing of the Jews. On the other hand, starting in 1948 and continuing in the following years, around 800,000 Jews were unfairly expelled from the Arab countries where their ancestors had lived for centuries.
As we look back at this time period, across the years, there was a similar number of Arab and Jewish refugees. And there is no doubt that the problem of the Palestinian refugees was generated by an armed conflict initiated by the Arab countries against Israel. If the Arab states had not attacked the newly created state of Israel, there would have been no Palestinian refugees.
Inexplicably, though, the Arab countries have historically been exonerated from any responsibility in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. They also have not been held responsible for the expulsion of thousands of Jews from their lands.
It is important to note that the descendants of the approximately 160,000 Arabs who remained within the borders of the nascent Jewish state in 1948, currently number almost two million people, about 21% of the total population of Israel, and have full civil and political rights.
It is also important to note that the Palestinian refugees were treated differently than any other refugee group in the world. The U.N. created in 1949 the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide relief for all the refugees of the conflict. But since Israel absorbed most of the Jewish refugees, the agency was left to deal with the Palestinian refugees only.
As its name implies, UNRWA was to provide assistance and jobs. But it was meant as a “temporary” organization, which would make sure the number of refugees decreased over time. This is why it was originally intended to resettle the refugees in the communities to which they had fled. About 40% of them were in areas that had been a part of the Mandate of Palestine, namely Gaza and what came to be called the West Bank. Most of the other 60% were in Jordan and Syria, countries whose people were of the same ethnicity and religion and spoke the same language.
But the Arab countries refused to resettle the Palestinian refugees (because they wanted them to be available to return to Israel and continue to be of help in efforts to destroy it). Through clever manipulation of the U.N. system, UNRWA was turned into an organization that assumed the task of preventing the integration of the Palestinian refugees into the communities in which they lived. That was done by setting up, under UNRWA auspices, a segregated system of medical, educational and social services for Palestinian refugees. Children were taught in UNRWA schools that their home was Palestine, the place to which they were to return so as to end Israel’s existence. When the operatives who had changed the very objective of UNRWA’s existence recognized that their goal might not be reached soon, they succeeded in creating for UNRWA an exception to the general U.N. rule, by providing that Palestinian "refugee status" would pass from generation to generation (along the paternal line).
The Palestinians are the only people in the world whose refugee status passes from generation to generation. By virtue of this, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original refugees, who today number more than 5 million people, are still considered "refugees”, and the U.N. continues to promote the so-called "right of return" of these refugees to Israel.
This massive migration program is something that no Israeli government would ever accept, because it would imply the liquidation of Israel as a Jewish state, the only Jewish state in the world, to become yet another Arab state.
While the Palestinian leaders say that they are in favor of a two-state solution, by not giving up the "right of return," what they are really seeking is the destruction of Israel through demographic means. This is the main reason why so many attempts to reach a peace agreement have failed.
By constantly repeating a historically incorrect and radical narrative, instead of making a fact-based, objective analysis of the conflict, international news agencies are contributing to the empowerment of the most rejectionist factions, and the unnecessary prolongation of this painful conflict.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Richard Schifter, Chairman of the Board of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), has had a distinguished career as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. and in government. Since 2005 he has served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of AJIRI.
Last week, the United Nations marked its International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a day created by the U.N. to further promote the continuing Palestinian narrative of victimhood and, of course, bash Israel. The date chosen for the international day—Nov. 29—was no accident. This was the date of the passage in 1947 of General Assembly resolution 181, which recommended partitioning the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted this plan and declared independence; the Arabs rejected it and, along with neighboring states, embarked on a war of annihilation against the newly independent Jewish state. Israel beat back the invading Arab armies and the Zionist dream became a reality.
As a result of the fighting, many Arabs fled their homes and became refugees. An even greater number of Jews from Arab countries were expelled from places that had seen thriving Jewish communities for centuries (some of these communities went back to ancient times, preceding the Arab invasion of the North Africa). The Jewish refugees were absorbed by Israel while being completely ignored by the international community. The U.N. created a refugee agency—United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—only for Palestinian refugees, who, unlike any other refugee population, can pass their refugee status on to their descendants. Billions of dollars (and euros) later, UNRWA now claims to serve over 5 million refugees.
After the Arabs lost the war they initiated in 1948, the Jordanians occupied an area known to Jews as Judea and Samaria (that the Jordanians later renamed the West Bank), along with eastern parts of Jerusalem (including the Old City); the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. No Palestinian state was established during this time of Arab control over these lands. The Palestinians have also rejected multiple Israeli peace offers and walked away from the negotiating table at nearly every turn.
The Palestinians see Nov. 29 as a catastrophe, and so the U.N.—which does not even attempt to hide its own pro-Palestinian bias—has adopted this narrative.
At the international day commemoration by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), a U.N. body funded by our tax dollars to attack Israel, the president of the General Assembly wore a scarf with the kaffiyeh and a Palestinian flag on it. Not normal attire at the usually buttoned-up U.N. Beyond the odd choice of neckwear, the GA president also endorsed a right of return in his speech, a non-existent “right” which the Palestinians would like to exercise for all five million of their UNRWA-designated refugees to flood Israel. The deputy secretary-general of the organization talked of the U.N. General Assembly’s decision to upgrade the U.N. status of the Palestinians to non-member state in 2012 as a “historic milestone.” Neutrality goes out the window when there is an opportunity to parrot the Palestinian talking points. Is there another conflict situation where the diplomats behave like this? I have yet to encounter one.
And this was before the U.N. member states, whose pronouncements on Israel can be far more unhinged, had their chance to vilify and demonize the Jewish state at the CEIRPP session and a later GA session in which a number of condemnatory resolutions (including ones continuing the operation of CEIRPP and other costly Palestinian propaganda bodies embedded deep within the U.N. system) were passed.
Algeria complained, rather absurdly considering the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, about the “increasing Judaization of Jerusalem.” Qatar decried the seven decades of occupation, meaning not only areas in dispute from Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967, but Israel’s very existence from 1948.
The vilest speech, though, at this year’s international day activities was delivered by Ecuador. Ecuador’s ambassador, quoting the recently-deceased former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (who received not one, but two different moments of silence during the day’s proceedings), declared, after condemning the Holocaust, that there was nothing more similar to the Holocaust as the “genocide” committed against the Palestinian people.
This display of overt anti-Semitism from a U.N. platform was truly beyond the pale and B’nai B’rith has called on Ecuador to replace the ambassador. But the problem goes beyond the hate-filled words of certain diplomats. When the U.N. sacrifices historical truth and simply repeats and amplifies all manner of lies against Israel, the end result does not improve the lives of anyone in the Middle East. It only encourages more anti-Semitism.
Nov. 29 should be recognized for what it was, a date in which the international community voted to affirm the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our homeland. The rejection by the Palestinians of that compromise (and all of the offers that came in later years) to live in peace next to a Jewish state has led to the current state of affairs. And there should be some recognition, finally, for the Jewish refugees that were violently pushed out of Arab countries throughout the Middle East.
If the international community is serious about a peaceful resolution to the conflict, then it is time to send the message to the Palestinians that if they want a state, they need to negotiate with Israel. It’s long past time to close down the Palestinian propaganda bodies at the U.N. and to end the incessant biased attacks against Israel. These are distractions that lead nowhere, but especially not toward peace. Without a change in direction by the international community, the Palestinians can look forward to many more years of ultimately meaningless speeches at the U.N. while more missed opportunities for peace continue to slip by.
Recently, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) celebrated the 65th anniversary of its creation with an event at U.N. Headquarters in New York. The agency—whose regular budget is funded predominately from Western donor countries—serves only Palestinian refugees. All other refugees in the world fall under the care of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Unlike other refugees, Palestinian refugees can also pass on their refugee status to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Instead of settling the refugees, UNRWA has exacerbated the problem and now claims to have 5 million refugees under its care.
It should not be forgotten that the Palestinians were not the only refugees of the period in the Middle East. A greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries were also in need of resettlement at the time. The difference, of course, was that the Arab refugees from the recently-declared State of Israel in 1948 were fleeing an active war zone due to the inability of Israel’s Arab neighbors to accept the nation-state of the Jewish people. Arab countries invaded the fledgling state of Israel while also kicking out their own Jewish populations. Most of the Jewish refugees arrived in the newly-emerging State of Israel penniless, but were integrated within the new state (albeit often in a far from seamless or ideal way).
The Arab world never took responsibility for the creation of both refugee situations: the Arab refugees by invading Israel in a bid to end its existence, and Jewish refugees by the mass expulsions of Jews from countries where they had been a thriving community for hundreds of years. The responsibility to care for the Palestinian refugees was transferred to the international community, where it festers to this day because they were never integrated into the neighboring Arab states. Worse, in some cases Arab states have put severe restrictions on the Palestinian refugees’ lives, most acutely in Lebanon which does not allow Palestinians to own property or to enter many professions. These laws were meant to ensure that the refugees could not integrate.
UNRWA is not just an aid agency, though. To be sure, UNRWA does provide medical care and education. One would not know it from the media portrayal of the Palestinians, but the health and education status of those under UNRWA care are actually among the highest in the Middle East (as UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl proudly stated at the celebratory event). But UNRWA also often strays from its humanitarian mission and moves into the political, pushing forward the Palestinian narrative. The agency’s media unit showed off a number of slickly-produced videos during the 65th anniversary event that could have been mistaken for something coming out of the Palestinian Authority, or one of the Palestinian propaganda units within the U.N. Secretariat (most notably the well-funded Department of Palestinian Rights or the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People).
UNRWA representatives also frequently take to the airwaves to bash Israel in times of renewed conflict. Hamas has fired from in and around UNRWA facilities, and when Israel is forced to respond, UNRWA condemns vociferously the Israeli counter-terrorism actions. During the latest round of fighting, rockets were found by UNRWA in its facilities in Gaza, but it is unclear what if any accountability measures have been put in place to make sure such a situation does not repeat itself. In reaction to the discovery of the rockets in three separate incidents, UNRWA could not bring itself to condemn Hamas by name. Needless to say, there is no such timidity when UNRWA has an issue with Israeli actions—the accusations are fast and the condemnations are furious.
Most fundamentally, though, UNRWA perpetuates and promotes the Palestinian narrative of the Palestinian claim to return. Generation upon generation of refugee is told the lie that there is a “right of return;” that they can remain a refugee until there is a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian representatives that will allow them to return to within Israel’s borders. Of course, there is no “right of return,” only the politically-driven (and non-binding) U.N. General Assembly resolution 194, which Israel is under zero obligation to follow. When a Palestinian state emerges as an end-product of direct negotiations with Israel, the refugees will be expected to either settle permanently in the states where they currently reside or move to within the borders of the newly-formed Palestinian state. No Israeli government will accept a flood of Palestinian refugees (and their succeeding generations) en masse within its borders, to do so would be an end to the Jewish democratic state.
As UNRWA turns 65, there appears to be little will in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian leadership, to address the root cause of the conflict: the inability to accept Zionism—the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty and self-determination in their homeland. As such, UNRWA will continue into the future to serve the ever-growing Palestinian refugee population on the dime of Western taxpayers. Donor countries must call for UNRWA reform so that the agency adheres strictly to its humanitarian mission and the refugee population is prepared for reality when a two-state solution is reached.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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