Putting First Things Last


The 55-Year Failure to Address
the Arab Refugee Problem


Rael Jean Isaac & Ruth King

The Rogers Plan of 1969, like all subsequent and ill-fated efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict, tabled the issue of the Palestinian "refugees," leaving it for "final status" negotiations. "It is our hope," said the Rogers Plan, "that agreement on the key issues of peace, security, withdrawal and territory will create a climate in which these questions of refugees...can be resolved as part of the overall settlement." In retrospect, the issue of "refugees" remains the defining obstacle to any reconciliation in the region. Pretending to negotiate, without addressing this issue at the outset, is like operating on a patient and leaving a growing cancer intact. Had it been confronted in 1949, the prospects for finding a subsequent modus vivendi between Israel and the Arabs would have been vastly improved.

When the problem was at last put on the table at Camp David in the year 2000, the issue blew up the tattered remnant of the "peace process." Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak thought he had a winning formula with a virtually total territorial withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines in return for the Palestinian Authority abandoning the "right to return," i.e. to eliminate, via demography, the Jewish state. He had been encouraged in this belief by negotiations conducted through the so-called "Swedish channel" but when it came to the point, Arafat refused the deal and launched outright war, including the most deadly series of terrorist attacks in Israel's history.

In embarking on a repeat of the Oslo process, all those involved, from Bush to Sharon to the European Union, are ignoring the adage "If a man deceives me once, shame on him; if he deceives me twice, shame on me." Moreover, when the Road Map runs into the same impasse, the resulting explosion is likely to make the recent intifada look like pale beer.


There is a widespread impression that the Arab refugee problem is immutable, that nothing can be done without an Arab consensus. But the U.S. and Europe between them have huge clout on this issue, for they fund (to the tune of over $300 million a year) and thus perpetuate, the Arab refugee disaster. The U.S. alone contributes roughly 40% of the budget. The Arab states contribute almost nothing: Saudi Arabia, by far the largest Arab contributor, provides only a fourth of what Sweden gives. As things stand, the U.S., which sent $120 million into the sinkhole of the refugee camps in 2002, is the great enabler of the scandal of permanent refugee squalor through the generations. (In 2001, the U.S. voluntarily contributed $101 million above its UN dues!) And, because the camps have become centers of recruitment and training of terrorists and storage of their weapons, the U.S. -- in a morally and strategically indefensible contradiction to its avowed goals -- has become funder and enabler of suicide bombing and other forms of Middle East terrorism. If the United States were to announce "Millions for permanent resettlement, not a penny more for perpetuating victimhood," the dynamic would be transformed overnight.

Pretending to negotiate, without addressing this issue at the outset, is like operating on a patient and leaving a growing cancer intact.

Does this sound like a surprising, even shocking suggestion? If so, it is precisely because the camps have festered for so long that their existence has ceased to be a policy issue, open to alternative approaches. But this is all the more reason why we need to examine the background of the Arab refugee camps -- and of UNRWA, the UN agency which runs the program.

The camps opened in 1950, in the wake of the first Arab war to destroy Israel. The precise number of Arab refugees as a result of that war is uncertain, the estimates ranging from 450,000 to 700,000. Even experts who lean toward the higher side believe that no more than 550,000 wound up in refugee camps, since some fled to families settled in other Arab countries and fleeing Bedouin resumed their nomadic life style in Jordan. In the 1950s, in the wake of World War II, Elfan Rees, leader of World Refugee Year, reported the existence of 36 million refugees in Africa, Asia and Europe. In this period Arabs numbered only one in 72 refugees. Yet though the UN already had an agency for refugees, the UN High Commission for Refugees, it established a second organization -- UNRWA -- to care for only one group -- Arabs fleeing newly established Israel. It set up 59 camps in Judea and Samaria, Gaza (then part of Egypt), Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Who is a "refugee" according to UNRWA? Their home page,, defines it as follows: "Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million in 2002, and continues to rise due to natural population growth."


Although now forgotten by the media and general public, the number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries was substantially greater. The New York Times, on May 16, 1948, the day following Israel's declaration of independence, headlined an article: "Jews in Grave Danger in All Moslem Lands: Nine Hundred Thousand in Africa and Asia Face Wrath of Their Foes." And indeed within fifteen years (the last great wave was from Algeria, after it gained independence from France in 1962), Jews had fled the Arab world en masse (until the Shah's ouster, in 1979, there remained one viable Jewish community in the Moslem world, in non-Arab Iran). Today there are barely 5,000, chiefly elderly Jews in the entire Arab world.

Hundreds of thousands of other Arabs from the Arab countries of refuge signed up as refugees in order to get the handouts. It was as if a new TV show were invented with generous prizes, called "Who Wants to be a Palestinian Refugee?"

One reason the expulsion and flight of these Jews even then attracted little attention was that Israel never referred to them as refugees -- they were welcomed as an "ingathering of the exiles," given citizenship on the spot. Yet these Jews had lived in the countries from which they were forced to flee far longer than the vast majority of those who left the small territory that became Israel. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community dated back to the Babylonian exile. In contrast, most of the Arabs leaving Israel in 1948 were recent arrivals, attracted to what had been an empty and desolate territory by the economic opportunities opened up by Zionist colonization of Palestine in the twentieth century.

What happened in Israel was a replay, on a far smaller scale, of the vast population exchange that took place on the Indian subcontinent when England gave up rule of its last great colony. In that case, 8,500,000 Hindus fled Pakistan to India and 6,500,000 Moslems fled to Pakistan. The Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the Pakistani and Indian refugees, and the other refugees in that phenomenal number of 36 million have all been forgotten, because they were soon integrated into the lands in which they sought refuge. No one today seeks the "right to return" of the ethnic Germans, probably 12 million in all, expelled after WWII from nations of Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, or the Japanese expelled from Manchuria and Korea or the 3 million North Koreans who fled to South Korea. More recently, 1.6 million refugees from Vietnam, including the "boat people" who escaped so perilously to freedom, have been settled in new countries. And this is what the official website of the boat people says today: "Yes, we suffered in the past and we lost everything. But we've managed to overcome the difficult times, settle, rebuild our lives and bring up our children. And that's something to celebrate."


Only the Arab refugees, at the insistence of Arab host countries, and by now with full UN support, have been denied integration, their plight perpetuated as an Arab "ultimate" weapon, armed force failing, to destroy Israel by demographic means. It should be noted that originally UNRWA saw its role quite differently. In a report he submitted in November 1951, UNRWA director John Blandford Jr. said he expected the Arab governments to assume responsibility for relief operations by July 1952. The international community assumed the refugees should be resettled as soon as possible, said Blandford, because, as he put it, "Sustained relief operations inevitably contain the germ of human deterioration." By the late 1950s, the early UNRWA leaders were disillusioned and voiced their disgust. Ralph Garroway, who also served as an UNRWA director, said in August 1958: "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 don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die." Elfan Rees, an expert on refugee resettlement who worked closely with UNRWA, noted in 1959 that the Arab refugee problem should be the easiest in the world to solve, for there was, in countries like Syria and Iraq, "a developing demand for the manpower they represent and their new settlements would be distinct economic assets." Unfortunately, said Dr. Rees, "the organized intransigence of the refugees and the calculated indifference of the Arabs states concerned have brought all its [UNRWA's] plans to nought."

Over time, the situation in regard to both UNRWA and the camps it administers has grown steadily worse, to the point where it can only be described as intolerable. The number of registered refugees with UNRWA has multiplied by a factor of eight, so that there are now 4,082,300 of which 1,301,689, roughly a third, are in the camps this although, with the passage of 55 years, most of the actual refugees have died. UNRWA's budget to care for these 4 million people is over one-third that of the UN High Commission for Refugees which, as of Jan. 1, 2002, was caring for 20 million refugees (from Afghanistan, Rwanda etc.) worldwide on a budget of $881 million. Even in 1959, Dr. Rees noted that UNRWA, because of Arab "chicanery" was "feeding the dead" and "by political pressure it is feeding non-refugees." (Interview in New York Post, June 11, 1959) As WorldnetDaily's Joseph Farah has observed, if only the U.S. economy could hyper-inflate like the number of refugees! Nor is this surprising. Haifa University economist Steven Plaut notes: "Since the world community was handing out free food and cash to those claiming to be Palestinian refugees, hundreds of thousands of other Arabs from the Arab countries of refuge signed up as refugees in order to get the handouts. It was as if a new TV show were invented with generous prizes, called "Who Wants to be a Palestinian Refugee?"


UNRWA, originally an agency seeking to resettle Arab refugees, became transformed into one dedicated to perpetuating their refugee status, as indifferent as the notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority itself to honest administration. In the mid 1980s, Israel launched a major project to improve the lives of Arab refugees in the Gaza Strip, constructing new housing for them. UNRWA protested to the UN and on Dec. 3, 1986, the General Assembly duly passed a resolution demanding Israel "desist from the removal and resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and from the destruction of their shelters." It declared that "measures to resettle Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return." When Israel built new homes for residents of a camp near Nablus, UNRWA forbade anyone to move into them and posted a guard at the empty houses to make sure no one moved in. The Shuafat camp is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and the city offered to give it full services in street paving, sewers and other urban amenities; UNRWA forbade it.

Corruption is endemic. Remarkably, given the normal media silence on this issue, the Boston Globe on July 8, 2002 published an expose by reporter Charles Radin. He interviewed refugees who spoke candidly about the misuse of international funds. UNRWA, they said, tolerates profiteering on food supplies supposed to be free. Coupons given to refugees to get emergency food aid are openly bought and sold as is food marked "Not for resale." One custodian in the camps said his neighbor had a Mercedes and sons with good jobs, yet was receiving rations as a hardship case -- in other words, he was getting free supplies of food over and beyond what other refugees received. Radin quotes Faez Abu Amri, a food-distribution worker, who said "90 percent of the people who are getting this food aid do not need it."


More serious, UNRWA, as Gerald Steinberg points out in the Jerusalem Post (April 19, 2003), has become a "central component in the Palestinian political structure. UNRWA is allowed to operate in the camps as long as it cooperates with the political 'rules of the road,' determined by the gunmen, thugs, and terrorists from Fatah, Hamas and other militias." Alan Baker, chief counsel of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, has said that "bomb-making, indoctrination, recruiting and dispatching of suicide bombers all are centered in the camps." The PA itself, in documentation seized by the Israelis in Ramallah, refers to the Jenin camp as the "suicide capital" because it has dispatched so many suicide bombers. Israeli intelligence reports that arrested Palestinians Arabs say that they have taken advantage of UNRWA's diplomatic immunity and the freedom of its vehicles to travel unsearched to transport suicide bombers and ammunition between terror cells. Nor should all this be surprising. The vast majority of UNRWA's 23,000 employees are themselves refugees and residents of the camps. UNRWA's administrators have become experts in anti-Israel slander (and probably could not otherwise survive on the job). Peter Hansen, the Danish political science professor who currently heads UNRWA, was the chief instigator of the campaign of lies against Israel after it finally took action against the terror infrastructure in the Jenin camp. Hansen falsely declared he had seen "bodies piling up in mass graves" and witnessed "a human catastrophe that has few parallels in recent history."

Alan Baker, chief counsel of the Israeli Foreign Ministry has said that "bombmaking, indoctrination, recruiting and dispatching of suicide bombers all are centered in the camps."

President Bush has repeatedly declared that the U.S. will target not only those who perpetrate but those who fund and support terror. How then can his administration directly fund suicide bombers and other terror activities, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into UNRWA, oblivious and uncaring of its abuse of its mandate? It is also worth noting that not a penny of the billions that have gone to the Palestinian Authority since 1993 have been used to improve living conditions in the camps -- even though refugees make up the overwhelming majority of Gaza's population.

Even less noted than the escalating incitement and terror in the camps has been the escalating demands by refugee representatives -- demands that have reached insane proportions. The "right to return" -- of over four million Arabs to a Jewish state that comprises a mere 8,000 square miles and that even now houses only six and a half million people, five million of them Jews -- is itself an insane demand. And that demand has been reiterated by the supposedly "moderate" government of Abu Mazen. On August 16th, the Jerusalem Post reported a speech in Lebanon by Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Authority's "Foreign Minister." "The right of return is no longer an illlusion. It is an integral part of the Arab peace initiative, which is one of the reference points in the road map...I want to be clear: this right includes returning to an independent state and to Palestinian cities in the Jewish state. Whether a person returns to Haifa or to Nablus, their return is guaranteed."

And then there are the demands for "compensation." There has been talk in the U.S. of a "Marshall Plan" for the refugees -- what is overlooked is that they have already received far more money per capita than the countries that benefited from the Marshall Plan. Patrick Clawson points out in the Jerusalem Post (August 12, 2002) that the Marshall Plan distributed $60 billion in today's dollars or $272 per European in participating countries. The Palestinian Arabs have already received $4 billion or $1330 per person from the World Bank. In fact, the Marshall Plan was peanuts compared to what Palestinian Arab leaders have in mind. Journalist Ze'ev Schiff (Jerusalem Post, Jan. 3, 2001) notes that they demand a staggering $550 billion for refugee compensation. And the "moderate" Abu Mazen declared that it should be paid by Israel alone!

Iraq, Morocco and Algeria between them had almost half the population of expelled Jews; they should proportionately take responsibility for half the number of Arab refugees.

Schiff dubs one of the official documents on compensation submitted at Camp David so extreme that it could be regarded as a joke. The PA demanded that Israel compensate states like Syria and Jordan that provided refugees with asylum; that the PLO get compensation for public Palestinian Arab property that had remained in Israel; that returning refugees not be settled in areas that could "endanger their well-being;" that they receive automatic citizenship; that the right of return have no time limit though the registry for return would extend over five years; that an international committee monitor that the refugees are integrated and protected within Israel. Arafat's economic adviser Dr. Mahar al-Kurd has declared that in addition to refugee compensation, the Palestinian Arabs are entitled to damages since 1967 -- e.g. for exploitation of the "Palestinian beach front" on the Dead Sea.

Recently, much has been made of a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research that supposedly found while 95% of refugees questioned demanded that Israel recognize their right to return, most refugees would not exercise the right if given a choice. They would not be given a choice -- certainly not by the Palestinian Authority, which has over one and a half million registered refugees, nor by Lebanon or Syria which have nearly a million between them. In the camps, an outfit called the Higher Committee for the Return of Refugees has launched a consciousness-raising program in UNRWA schools to help children -- many of whom are three or four generations removed from any tie with land in Israel -- to bond with their "original" towns or villages, to which says the Committee "they must return and must be awarded their rights." Not to be outdone, Israeli Arabs have embarked on a similar program. The Arab Culture Association organizes "heritage outings" for Israeli Arabs to the villages their families once occupied. It declares that 250,000 Israeli Arab citizens within Israel have the right to go back "home." "We insist," says the Association, "on our right to realize the right of return."


Given all this nuttiness, it is little wonder that a State Department official is quoted as saying the refugee issue is "radioactive." But, as we have seen here, the lesson of the last 55 years is that the longer it is postponed, the more radioactive it gets. Before the fallout has catastrophic consequences for the region, and beyond, the issue needs to be confronted. And confronting it requires facing some obvious, if universally avoided realities. First among them is that the overwhelming majority of the population registered as refugees in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip -- both those in the camps and those living outside them -- must be settled elsewhere in the Arab world. The number of currently registered refugees in Judea and Samaria (it is foolish to call this the West Bank since Jordan severed ties with its "West Bank" in 1988) is 654,971 and in the Gaza Strip 907,221, a total of over one and a half million people, growing at a mind-boggling rate of 4% each year. There is no way this resourceless miniscule area -- combined only 2,400 square miles, a fourth of the size of tiny Israel -- can economically support this population. Leaving them where they are, even in the most modern new highrises, could only permanently entrench their dependence on international handouts for subsistence.

The fairest, most equitable, way to end the problem of the refugees is to base their resettlement on the population exchange that followed the 1948 Arab-Israel war. If 1948 is the starting point for the Arabs, it must also be the starting point for the Jews. Because so many Arab states had a substantial Jewish population, this also has the advantage of forcing a number of Arab states to take some share of responsibility for the refugees, without singling out or overwhelming any one of them. Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, that did not have a Jewish population, could shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost. Returning to the population exchange also has the merit of throwing out the PA's $550 billion reparations "bill" at the outset. The Jews left far more property behind in Arab lands than Arabs in what became Israel; generously, Israel can offer to declare a washout. Making the Arab states face up to the task of resettlement will also have the merit of encouraging them to evaluate honestly claims to refugee status. While the international community footed the bill and the larger the number of refugees, the greater pressure on Israel, the attitude of the Arab states was "the more the better." Once the burden is on them, phony claims are no longer welcome and it will likely rapidly be discovered that there are far fewer refugees than UNRWA now claims.


What, then, would refugee resettlement look like? Iraq, Morocco, and Algeria between them had almost half the population of expelled Jews; they should proportionately take responsibility for half the number of Arab refugees. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, in that order, also had substantial Jewish populations; they would also take in substantial number of refugees. (Since Syria already hosts 409,000 refugees, it would need to permanently absorb them, not take in any more.) The burden on these states would not be as great as it sounds because Jordan has 1,718,767 registered refugees, only 304,000 of whom are in camps. Jordan has behaved better than any other Arab state toward the refugees, making them full citizens, in effect absorbing them (indeed they form a majority of Jordan's population). Of course, those so-called refugees in Jordan are, strictly and historically speaking, in Palestine, bearing in mind the 1922 partition of Mandatory Palestine which gave the Hashemites 80% of the land. Thus almost half the refugees are off the table.

Lebanon, with close to 400,000 refugees, over half in camps, is a special case. It did not expel its small Jewish population in 1948 and is desperate to rid itself of the Palestinian Arab refugee population, who have served as persistent troublemakers and would totally destroy the balance between Moslems and Christians, should they become citizens. The other overwhelmingly Moslem Arab states should resettle the refugees now in Lebanon. (If any of the Arab states had insuperable difficulties with absorbing their "fair share" of refugees, they could, if need be with the help of international funds, find Moslem states which would absorb a portion of their "quota.")

Once the refugees were resettled away from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and the entire refugee issue had dissolved, the Arab-Israel conflict could become manageable. An agreement between Israel and Jordan, perhaps on the lines of that proposed by Minister of Tourism Benny Elon, dividing responsibilities for land and population in the territory now under the failed rule of the PA, should not be difficult to find. Jordan and Israel, which share Mandatory Palestine, are the only states that can negotiate any settlement, and this can only occur when the "refugee" problem is solved.


One can hear the State Department. One can hear the President's advisers. "Impossible. The Arabs will never agree." True, they will not willingly accept any such plan. But this does not mean the United States is helpless to act. The United States can refuse to reauthorize UNRWA. It can say, as noted earlier, "We will no longer pay to perpetuate refugee victimhood. We have seen the catastrophe of destroyed lives, hatred and terrorism that we have unwittingly funded and we will do this no longer. Only if you agree to our plan of resettling the refugees will we contribute -- and then, we will contribute generously. Otherwise you can take over the task of funding the refugees: not only are you on your own, but we will do our best to take as many of our European allies with us as we can."

The United States can do more. Each Arab ruler lets no opportunity go by to tell President Bush that the hostility of the Arab world toward the U.S. will only end when the Arab-Israel conflict is solved. The President can take them up on this statement. If that is so, he should say, it is incumbent upon each of you to contribute now toward solving the crucial stumbling block of the Arab refugees. If they are unwilling to do so, the President should tell them the Road Map has nowhere to go and they are on their own when it comes to the "peace process" as well.

Jordan and Israel, which share Mandatory Palestine, are the only states that can negotiate any settlement, and this can only occur when the "refugee" problem is solved.

No money for UNRWA. No U.S. promotion of any "Road Map" in the absence of guaranteed Arab absorption of the refugees. It would be a paradigm shift that would get the attention of the Arab states.

True, they might not change their behavior. If we at Americans for a Safe Israel are correct, the Arab goal is to destroy Israel, not solve the Arab-Israel conflict. But surely it is better for the United States to confront the issue squarely now. For what is the alternative? As long as the U.S. is unwilling to exert pressure for real change on the Arabs, it winds up inevitably -- as it is doing now -- exerting pressure only on Israel. There are two possible outcomes. One is a repeat of the debacle in the year 2000. Israel offers radical territorial concessions but balks at the suicidal right of return, again precipitating an explosion, this time on a greater, more dangerous scale. Or, relentless U.S. and European pressure this time brings Israel to its knees. Israel agrees both to return to the vulnerable 1949 lines and to accept an Arab "right to return." The result can only be more refugees, this time five million Jewish refugees with no neighboring states to take them in.

Is this the legacy President Bush, or any U.S. President, wishes to be his? If not, the time for the U.S. to reevaluate its fatally flawed Middle East policies is now.  

Rael Jean Isaac is editor of Outpost and author of two books on Israeli politics.

Ruth King is a member of the executive committee of Americans For a Safe Israel.

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