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Scribblings: Refugees Reconsidered

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Scribblings: Refugees Reconsidered
The Palestinian refugees of 1948: Historical nuances are usually overlooked

The question of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war is an enduring stumbling block to a two-state resolution. The Palestinians demand a “right of return” to Israel for all descendants of those refugees, something unprecedented in international law. No conceivable Israeli government would agree, given that this would mean the transformation of Israel into a Palestinian state. 

Part of the impasse over this issue is rooted in differing understandings of what happened during the 1947-48 war that led to 700,000 or so Palestinians leaving their homes (the question of the 800,000 or so Jewish refugees from Arab lands is not so much disputed as ignored or dismissed on the Palestinian side). 

Palestinians and their supporters generally argue that the refugees were all deliberately expelled. As a Palestinian Authority 12th grade textbook taught students, “Palestine’s war ended with a catastrophe that is unprecedented in history, when Zionist gangs stole Palestine and expelled its people from their cities, their villages, their lands, and their houses and established the State of Israel.

In Israel, sometimes simplistic versions of what happened have given way to a more nuanced understanding based on thorough-going research by historians like Prof. Benny Morris. Morris, generally regarded as the foremost academic authority on the 1948 war, summarised his long-established views of what actually happened in a recent Haaretz article (Jan 21):

“Between November 1947 and March 1948, the militias of Arabs in the Land of Israel, which were later called the Palestinians, attacked the Jewish community, and in April-May of 1948, they were defeated by the Haganah Jewish defence organisation. Subsequently, in May-June 1948, the armies of the neighbouring countries invaded and attacked the State of Israel…

“During that same war, the Jewish forces conquered some 400 Arab communities that served as bases for the Palestinian militias, and thereafter hosted the invading armies… and most of the inhabitants fled and were expelled…

“During the war, the Israeli government formulated a policy intended to prevent the return of the refugees (who had just tried to destroy the Jewish community)…. But there was no policy of ‘expulsion of the Arabs,’ and so some 160,000 Arabs remained…

“There were officers who expelled Arabs… and there were some who did not… But the majority fled or were made to flee. Not exactly ‘ethnic cleansing.’”

This overall view – some expulsions under military exigencies, but no overall policy of doing so, and the majority of refugees fleeing without being expelled – is now generally accepted in Israel. 

Morris also wrote that “Some of the Arabs who were expelled left on the advice of, under pressure from or on the instructions of Arab leaders.” More specifically, there have long been claims that Arab leaders pressed Palestinians to flee, telling them they would be able to return shortly once the fledgling Jewish state was destroyed. 

Palestinians and their supporters often dispute that this happened, but you know who does not deny it? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whose own family fled the northern Israeli town of Safed during the 1948 war. In an address to the PLO Consultative Council last Dec. 9, Abbas had this to say about the Palestinian “Nakba” (catastrophe) of 1948:

“Everyone started to speak in our name, in our absence. Therefore we could do nothing. And you recall, if you remember, that in 1948, when the ‘Nakba, or catastrophe, took place, we weren’t a party to it. We were taken out, and we were told, after a week we will return you.”

Nor is this the first time he has said that the Arab armies forced the Palestinians to leave their homeland. He also said this explicitly in a quote he gave to the Beirut-based Palestinian publication Falastin El-Thawra in 1976. 

If only more Palestinians were prepared to concede these complex realities behind the tragedy of what happened to the refugees of 1948, as opposed to the simplistic stories in their textbooks and media, the refugee impasse to a two-state resolution might be a lot easier to resolve. 

Atypical Refugees

Speaking of Palestinian refugees, the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya has done some interesting new work to debunk stereotypes about the Palestinian “refugees” of today. In a new exhibit entitled “Double Identity”, the Institute tells the story of nine highly successful Palestinians – who are nonetheless considered refugees and entitled to refugee services under the ridiculous hereditary and irrevocable definition of refugee status used by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after Palestinian refugees. 

Among those featured in the exhibit are:

• Tareq Abu Nahel, a successful rapper in his early 20s who lives in Oslo, Norway. 

• Iyad el-Baghdadi, 41, born in Kuwait and a noted author and human rights activist who also now lives with his family in Norway.

• Mona Hatoum, 67, a successful UK-based artist. She was born in Lebanon and now holds British citizenship. In 1995 she was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, and has work on display in prominent museums across the globe. 

• Shukran Murtaja, 48, born in Saudi Arabia, now lives in Syria where she is a well-known actress in films and TV series. She has Syrian citizenship. 

• Mayssoun Azzam, 45, born in Abu Dhabi and a well-known television broadcaster in Dubai who has worked for the Al-Arabiya news network since 2003. She also teaches media studies at the American University in Dubai. 

• Fatma Dabdus, born in the US, and was five when her family moved to Lebanon. Today she teaches in the school of medicine at the American University of Beirut. 

This is not to suggest that any of these people are typical of Palestinian refugees. They are not. But these people – with comfortable lives and often citizenship in Arab or Western countries, yet are still refugees according to UNRWA – highlight the absurdity of the UNRWA definition of refugee status. This is especially true if you contrast UNRWA’s to the UN High Commission for Refugees’ definition, which is based on actual needs, not heredity.