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.
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