Hamas Rhetoric and Ideology/ The Refugee Question

Apr 4, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

Number 04/08 #04

Today’s Update offers up two pieces exploring aspects of the ideology and rhetoric of Islamist extremists, particularly Hamas.

First up, the New York Times offered a good long (and overdue) piece on Hamas’ incitement to anti-Jewish hatred and various forms of violence from Gaza. Based on reported incidents and knowledgeable comments from Palestinian and Israeli sources, including Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, it supplies an important summary of the media incitement problem. It is, however, a bit weak on the background and consequences. To read it all, CLICK HERE. For more on recent issues related to Hamas media incitement – Gaza children are treated to a TV puppet show in which a Palestinian puppet child murders US President Bush and turns the White House into a mosque, while other Palestinian children are shown an exhibit alleging Israel burns Arab children in crematoria

Next up, Lebanese Daily Star opinion editor Michael Young takes to task those who argue that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah really don’t mean their extreme rhetoric, and must be brought into negotiations to see if they can be induced to compromise. He says that the oft-heard argument that these groups are “pragmatic” mistakes tactical flexibility for willingness to compromise extreme goals, which is nowhere in evidence. He also argues that those who argue that Hamas and Hezbollah are really nationalists in religious clothing fail to recognise that there is no necessary contradiction between nationalist rhetoric and an uncompromising religious world-views. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Young had another good piece on the Washington Post website asking those who insist on “engagement” with Hamas, “negotiate with Hamas about what?”

Finally, we offer up an important summary of the claims, backgrounds, and reality of Israeli-Palestinian refugee issues from international economist Sidney Zabludoff. Zabludoff negotiates factually the history of the refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, which includes the substantial numbers of Jews forced out of Middle Eastern and North African nations in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as well as the Palestinian refugees who get most of the attention. He also places these refugees in the context of other historical refugee exchanges and populations, and has a lot of intelligent analysis of the issues of compensation for those who lost homes or property. For this important primer on a subject often discussed in debates about the Middle East, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

Hamas’s Insults to Jews Complicate Peace Effort


New York Times, Published: April 1, 2008

GAZA — In the Katib Wilayat mosque one recent Friday, the imam was discussing the wiliness of the Jew.

“Jews are a people who cannot be trusted,” Imam Yousif al-Zahar of Hamas told the faithful. “They have been traitors to all agreements — go back to history. Their fate is their vanishing. Look what they are doing to us.”

At Al Omari mosque, the imam cursed the Jews and the “Crusaders,” or Christians, and the Danes, for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He referred to Jews as “the brothers of apes and pigs,” while the Hamas television station, Al Aksa, praises suicide bombing and holy war until Palestine is free of Jewish control.

Its videos praise fighters and rocket-launching teams; its broadcasts insult the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, for talking to Israel and the United States; its children’s programs praise “martyrdom,” teach what it calls the perfidy of the Jews and the need to end Israeli occupation over Palestinian land, meaning any part of the state of Israel.

Such incitement against Israel and Jews was supposed to be banned under the 1993 Oslo accords and the 2003 “road map” peace plan. While the Palestinian Authority under Fatah has made significant, if imperfect efforts to end incitement, Hamas, no party to those agreements, feels no such restraint.

Since Hamas took over Gaza last June, routing Fatah, Hamas sermons and media reports preaching violence and hatred have become more pervasive, extreme and sophisticated, on the model of Hezbollah and its television station Al Manar, in Lebanon.

Intended to indoctrinate the young to its brand of radical Islam, which combines politics, social work and military resistance, including acts of terrorism, the programs of Al Aksa television and radio, including crucial Friday sermons, are an indication of how far from reconciliation Israelis and many Palestinians are.

Hamas’s grip on Gaza matters, but what may matter more in the long run is its control over propaganda and education there, breeding longer-term problems for Israel, and for peace. No matter what Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agree upon, there is concern here that the attitudes being instilled will make a sustainable peace extremely difficult.

“If you take a sample on Friday, you’re bound to hear incitement against the Jews in the prayers and the imam’s sermon,” said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University here. “He uses verses from the Koran to say how the Jews were the enemies of the prophet and didn’t keep their promises to the prophet 1,400 years ago.”

Mr. Abusada is a Muslim and political independent. “You have young people, and everyone has to listen to the imam whether you believe him or not,” he said. “By saying the same thing over and over, you find a lot of people believing it, especially when he cites the Koran or hadith,” the sayings of the prophet.

Radwan Abu Ayyash, deputy minister of culture in Ramallah, ran the Palestinian Broadcasting Company until 2005. Hamas “uses religious language to motivate simple people for political as well as religious goals,” he said. “People don’t distinguish between the two.” He said he found a lot of what Al Aksa broadcast “disgusting and unprofessional.”

Every Palestinian thinks the situation in Gaza is ugly, he said. “But what is not fine is to build up children with a culture of hatred, of closed minds, a culture of sickness. I don’t think they always know what they are creating. People use one weapon, language, without realizing that they also use it against themselves.”

Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group, said Hamas took its view of Jews from what it considered the roots of Islam, then tried to make the present match the past.

For example, in a column in the weekly Al Risalah, Sheik Yunus al-Astal, a Hamas legislator and imam, discussed a Koranic verse suggesting that “suffering by fire is the Jews’ destiny in this world and the next.”

“The reason for the punishment of burning is that it is fitting retribution for what they have done,” Mr. Astal wrote on March 13. “But the urgent question is, is it possible that they will have the punishment of burning in this world, before the great punishment” of hell? Many religious leaders believe so, he said, adding, “Therefore we are sure that the holocaust is still to come upon the Jews.”

At the end, Mr. Marcus points out, Mr. Astal switches from “harik,” the ordinary word for burning, to “mahraka,” normally used to connote the Holocaust.

Some Hamas videos, like one in March 2007, promote the participation of children in “resistance,” showing them training in uniform, holding rifles. Recent shows displayed Mr. Abbas kissing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, under the slogan “Palestine doesn’t return with kisses, it returns with martyrs.”

Programs for Children

Another children’s program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” has become infamous for its puppet characters — a kind of Mickey Mouse, a bee and a rabbit — who speak, like Assud the rabbit, of conquering the Jews to the young hostess, Saraa Barhoum, 11. “We will liberate Al Aksa mosque from the Zionists’ filth,” Assud said recently. “We will liberate Jaffa and Acre,” cities now in Israel proper. “We will liberate the whole homeland.”

The mouse, Farfour, was murdered by an Israeli interrogator and replaced by Nahoul, the bee, who died “a martyr’s death” from lack of health care because of Gaza’s closed borders. He has been supplanted by Assud, the rabbit, who vows “to get rid of the Jews, God willing, and I will eat them up, God willing.”

When Assud first made his appearance, he said to Saraa: “We are all martyrdom-seekers, are we not, Saraa?” She responded: “Of course we are. We are all ready to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our homeland. We will sacrifice our souls and everything we own for the homeland.”

Along with Mr. Marcus’s group, the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, also monitors the Arabic media. But no one disputes their translations, and there are numerous Palestinians in Gaza — in the hothouse atmosphere of an overcrowded, isolated territory where martyr posters and anger at Israel are widespread among Fatah, too — who are deeply upset about the hold Hamas has on their mosques and on what their children watch.

While the Palestinian Authority of Fatah also causes some concern — its textbooks, for example, rarely recognize the state of Israel — Yigal Carmon, who runs Memri, said Hamas and its media used “the kind of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish language you don’t really hear any more from the Palestinian Authority, which hasn’t talked like that in a long time.”

Abu Saleh, who asked that his full name not be used because of his critical views, is worried about his children. His eldest son, 13, likes to watch Al Aksa, especially the nationalist songs and military videos. “I talk to them about Hamas, but to be honest, it’s scary and you have to watch it over time,” he said. “When kids are 17 or 18, you don’t know what happens. They get enraged and can attach themselves to radical groups.”

Excluding Reconciliation

The Prophet Muhammad made a temporary hudna, or truce, with the Jews about 1,400 years ago, so Hamas allows the idea. But no one in Hamas says he would make a peace treaty with Israel or permanently give up any part of British Mandate Palestine.

“They talk of hudna, not of peace or reconciliation with Israel,” said Mr. Abusada, the political scientist. “They believe over time they will be strong enough to liberate all historic Palestine.”

Saraa, the host of “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” is the niece of Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. Some of the language used against other Arabs upsets him, Mr. Barhoum said, but he insisted that Israel was illegitimate. “No one can deny that all this was Palestinian land and Jews occupied the land,” he said firmly. “Therefore the Hamas charter is based on what Israel has committed against our people and our understanding of Israel and its practices.”

The charter is a deeply anti-Semitic document and cites a famous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as truth. But “our battle is not with Jews as Jews,” he said, “but those who came and occupied us and killed us.” After all, Mr. Barhoum said, “the Jews who recognized the evil of the occupation stayed outside and refused to come to Palestine as occupiers.”

“The Jews who came, came to occupy and to kill,” he said.

Marwan M. Abu Ras, 50, an imam who taught at Hamas’s Islamic University for 25 years, has an advice show on Al Aksa. He is proud that his show uses sign language for the deaf.

The chairman of the Palestinian Scholars League, and a Hamas legislator, Mr. Abu Ras is popularly called “Hamas’s mufti,” because he is ready to give religious sanction to Hamas political structures.

Last month, he criticized Egypt for closing the Gaza border at Israel’s request. He complained, “We are besieged by the sons of Arabism and Islam, as well as by the brothers of apes and pigs.”

He tried to distinguish between religious and political language, and then said: “The Israelis can’t accept criticism. They overreact, like any guilty person.” Israel for him is an enemy. “This is an open war with Israel, with each side trying to press the other,” he said. A war? “If it’s not a war, what is it?” he asked.

Then he spoke of his son, who tried to volunteer to fight the Israelis at 17. “I convinced him to wait, he had no weapon, until 20,” Mr. Abu Ras said. “Now he’s a member of Qassam,” the Hamas military wing, “and an example for young people.”

Promoting an Ethos

Mark Regev, spokesman for Mr. Olmert, called on “Arab leaders who are moderate and believe in peace to speak out more strongly against extremist elements.” He called the “incitement to hatred and violence standard Hamas operating procedure,” adding, “In Hamas education and broadcasting they turn the suicide bomber who murders the innocent into a positive role model, and they portray Jews in the most negative terms, that too often reminds us of language used in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.”

The “serious question,” he said, “is what ethos are they promoting?”

Hazim el-Sharawi, 30, the original host of the Farfour character on Hamas television, and known as “Uncle Hazim,” has no doubts. It was his idea to have Farfour killed by an Israeli interrogator, he said. “We wanted to send a message through this character that would fit the reality of Palestinian life.”

Israel is the source, he insisted. “A child sees his neighbors killed, or blown up on the beach, and how do I explain this to a child that already knows? The occupation is the reason; it creates the reality. I just organize the information for him.”

The point is simple, he said: “We want to connect the child to Palestine, to his country, so you know that your original city is Jaffa, your capital is Jerusalem and that the Jews took your land and closed your borders and are killing your friends and family.”

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The Islamists really are true believers

By Michael Young

Daily Star (Lebanon), Thursday, March 27, 2008

Recently, we’ve heard Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, pick up on a theme dear to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It goes something like this, to borrow from Nasrallah’s speech last Monday commemorating Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s operations chief: “Now we are left with one question: Will Israel cease to exist one day? … Yes … Israel will cease to exist.”

Nasrallah has often mentioned Israel’s eventual evaporation. In 1992, following his appointment as head of Hizbullah, he described the party’s long-term strategy as “fighting against Israel and liberating Jerusalem, as well as Imam Khomeini’s proposal – namely ending Israel as a state.”

One can debate the merits or demerits of such a pledge at great length. But the more interesting question, at least in this interregnum between thought and practice, between promise and fulfillment, is whether Nasrallah himself believes what he says. And then to ask what this tells us about armed Islamist movements located in Israel’s neighborhood.

First, does Nasrallah believe? The answer would seem to be obvious. Rarely does the Sayyed utter a phrase that analysts will not quote with a rider firmly informing us that he says what he means and means what he says. One can certainly find quite numerous exceptions to that rule, particularly when Nasrallah pronounces on the slippery substance of Lebanese domestic politics. But when it comes to Israel, where the lines are far clearer, Nasrallah actually does mean what he says, and has been saying it with considerable consistency for quite a long time.

For example, in an interview with the newspaper Al-Wahda al-Islamiyya in February 1989, when Nasrallah was still only a Hizbullah field commander, he remarked: “The future is one of war [against Israel], not settlement; the line that [Yasser] Arafat is pursuing will only lead him to a closed door, and the day will come when warfare and the elimination of Israel will be the only options.” (For a rundown of Nasrallah’s statements translated into English, read the indispensible “Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah”, edited by Nicholas Noe.)

Why is the topic important? Because over the years academics, analysts, journalists, and others, particularly the Westerners among them, who write about militant Islamist groups, have tended to project their own liberal attitudes and desires onto such groups, misinterpreting their intentions and largely ignoring what these groups say about themselves. Inasmuch as most such observers cannot really fathom the totalitarian strain in the aims and language of armed Islamists, totalitarian in the sense of pursuing a total idea, total in its purity, they cannot accept that the total idea can also be apocalyptic. Where Nasrallah and the leaders of Hamas will repeat that Israel’s elimination is a quasi-religious duty, the sympathetic Westernized observer, for whom the concept of elimination is intolerable, will think much more benignly in terms of well-intentioned “bargaining.” Hamas and Hizbullah are pragmatic, they will argue, so that their statements and deeds are only leverage to achieve specific political ends that, once attained, will allow a return to harmonious equilibrium.

This argument, so tirelessly made, is tiresomely irrelevant. No one has seriously suggested that Hizbullah or Hamas are not pragmatic. But one can be pragmatic in the means and not in the ends. If anything, pragmatism is obligatory in the pursuit of an absolute idea. And what characterizes those pursuing the absolute idea? In his essay “Terror and Liberalism”, Paul Berman provides a partial answer, writing how French author Albert Camus noticed that out of the French Revolution and the 19th century had grown a modern impulse to rebel. That impulse, Berman wrote, “mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission … it was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.”

Hizbullah and Hamas are themselves products of rebellion – rebellion against what they took and still take to be a foul, unjust political order in Lebanon or Palestine or the Middle East in general. That drive has, naturally, even necessarily, pushed them to advocate the absolute negation of everything embodying that allegedly unjust order. Their motivating force is submission to the pursuit of the just idea, and this goes to the very heart of Islam itself, indeed denotes its very meaning, which is based on the embrace of total submission to God. Nasrallah may rarely employ religious terminology, but everything about the way he structures his thoughts, contentions, or vows reflects a deeply religious mindset.

One thing eternally confusing outside observers is that Hamas and Hizbullah are what have come to be described as “nationalist Islamists.” Because nationalism started essentially as a Western notion, because its reference point is something reassuringly tangible like territory, not Armageddon, the Westernized writer will see something of himself or herself in such Islamists groups, and will resort to the terminology of modern nationalism to describe their actions. Hizbullah liberated South Lebanon, Hamas is trying to do the same in Palestine; their goals are no different than those of courageous patriots everywhere who have fought against foreign occupation. The American professor Norman Finkelstein recently went on Lebanese television to compare Hizbullah with the Red Army during World War II. Others liken Hamas to the National Liberation Front in Algeria – or why not its namesake in South Vietnam?

But what the observers won’t grasp is that nationalism does not necessarily disqualify religion; time and again the two have advanced hand in hand, even in unlikely settings. Take the avowedly atheistic Vietnamese communists, for instance. Did they not pray at the secular altar of communism, so that their nationalist triumph was part of a higher historical movement toward the classless millennium? By the same token, when Hamas describes the land of Palestine as an endowment handed down from God (and in this agree with their foes, the religious Zionists), is it not terribly na•ve to suppose that the group’s refusal to recognize Israel is just a ploy to strengthen its hand for a Camp David II or III?

One has to be careful in reading the statements of Islamist groups – or any political group for that matter. The flexibility of tactics counts for much. When Nasrallah argues that he will continue negotiating with Israel for the release of Arab prisoners, he’s temporarily replacing his long-term undertaking to hasten Israel’s demise with short-term gain. Ultimately, Hizbullah may fail in making Israel vanish, but it’s what Hizbullah and Hamas say about themselves, the way they define their aspirations, that determines their behavior. For outside observers to ignore or reinterpret their words in order to justify a personal weakness for these groups’ revolutionary seductions is both self-centered and analytically useless.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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The Palestinian Refugee Issue:  Rhetoric vs. Reality

Sidney Zabludoff

Published April 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)

The sixty-year-old Palestinian refugee issue has little connection with reality. It has become solely a bargaining chip used by Arabs and Palestinians in peace talks with Israel and, as such, is a distraction from the real issues of terrorism and boundaries.  Indeed, continuing to call Palestinians refugees is a misnomer. They no longer live in tents or temporary quarters. In addition, the Palestinian refugee issue is unique.  Since 1920 all other major refugee crises involving the exchange of religious or ethnic populations, while creating hardships, were dealt with in a single generation.  Meanwhile, issues such as the “right of return” and compensation never were adequately resolved and were largely forgotten. The same pattern evolved for Jews who fled Middle Eastern and North African countries, even though their number was some 50 percent larger than Palestinian refugees and the difference in individual assets lost was even greater.

The Palestinian refugee issue has festered for sixty years and remains a major stumbling block in reaching an Israeli-Palestinian accord. At the same time, there has been little discussion of the larger number of Jews who were forced out of Middle Eastern and North African countries where they had lived for thousand of years. The reality of the issue has given way to cloudy political motivations, and the facts about the numbers of refugees and assets lost in both cases are little known.[1]

The Facts

Number of Refugees

The exact number of Palestinians who fled Israel from November 1947 to December 1948 will never be known. The estimates range from about 400,000 to one million. The most plausible is some 550,000. Based on census figures and demographic trends, in 1947 there were most likely about 740,000 Palestinians living in the area that became Israel.[2] About 140,000 remained and roughly 50,000 soon returned after 1948 (estimates range from 30,000 to 90,000).[3] About two-thirds of those who left Israel went to the West Bank and Gaza with the remainder mainly going to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.[4]

The number of additional Palestinian refugees resulting from the 1967 war is also based on rough approximations. Most observers use some 300,000, of whom nearly 100,000 returned in the months following the war.[5] In addition, about half of those fleeing were already refugees from the 1948 war. The result is that new refugees probably amounted to about 100,000. Thus, the net total of refugees created by both wars was some 650,000.

Within Israel, there were also internally displaced persons (IDP). These were Palestinians who fled their homes but did not regain them upon returning.   Estimates of IDPs vary widely. Various Israeli scholars indicate 10,000 to 23,000; international organizations (International Red Cross and UN Relief and Works Agency-UNRWA), 25,000 to 46,000; and Palestinians, 150,000 to 300,000. Using the international organizations’ estimate, the IDPs would roughly equate to the 40,000 Jews forced out of the West Bank and Gaza during the 1948 war.

Before 1948, there were slightly more than one million Jews in the Middle East and North Africa outside the area that became Israel, including the 40,000 in the West Bank and Gaza.[6] The total number fell by half in the years following the 1948 war and then declined to some 100,000 following the 1967 conflict. The Jewish population fell further in the ensuing years and by 2007 amounted to just 15,000 to 35,000. The bulk of those remaining reside in Iran. Thus roughly one million Jews became refugees because of actions of Middle Eastern and North African countries.

When the two refugee exoduses are compared, it can be concluded with a high degree of likelihood that the number of Jewish refugees was some 50 percent greater than that of Palestinian refugees.

Value of Assets Lost by Refugees

A considerable number of estimates exist as to the value of the assets lost by the Jewish and Palestinian refugees. This includes numbers published by both groups that are well above any realistic amount and as such are likely politically motivated. Determining the value of property, businesses, financial holdings, and movable assets such as automobiles and furniture will under any circumstance be susceptible to a wide range of estimates. The best estimates are usually bank accounts if the data are available.

The most solid estimate for assets given up by Palestinians fleeing the 1948 war was by John Measham Berncastle, who undertook the task in the early 1950s under the aegis of the newly formed United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). He was a British land value estimator who had worked in Palestine since 1935. His estimate was 120 million Palestinian pounds of which about 100 million was for land and buildings and 20 million for movable property.[7] Other estimates would add some 4-5 million Palestinian pounds for Arab bank accounts blocked by the Israeli government.[8]

The total of 125 million Palestinian pounds amounts to $350 million in 1948. This is equal to some $650 per 1948-1949 refugee. This number seems reasonable when compared to similar data. For example, per capita assets for Poland, the Baltic states, and southeast European countries during the late 1930s ranged from $550 to $700,[9] these being the most equivalent asset statistics available.

To this must be added the asset losses for those additional 100,000 who fled in the aftermath of the 1967 war and the 40,000 IDPs. The latter are included even though they often were given new property and/or compensation.[10] At a realistic $700 per capita that would amount to another $100 million in lost Palestinian assets. Thus the total of assets lost by Palestinians is some $450 million. In 2007 prices this would amount to $3.9 billion. In per capita terms for 2007, this would be $4,740 or for a family of seven more than $33,000.  The 2007 values used in this article are calculated by using the U.S. Consumer Price Index.[11]

There also are no precise global figures of the assets lost by the Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Using a similar methodology, the minimal amount would be $700 million at period prices and $6 billion at 2007 prices. For the Jews of the above East European countries the per capita range is $700-$900. Jews had higher per capita assets than for the country as a whole because most lived in urban areas and held a large share of the professional jobs. The same demographic structure existed in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa. For example, while Jews made up 3 percent of the Iraqi population in 1948, they accounted for 20 percent of the population of Baghdad.

There are two key reasons for the higher value of assets for Jewish refugees. Most important, the number of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries is some 50 percent higher than that of Palestinian refugees. Second, the demographic nature of the two groups varied, as explained. A higher percentage of the Jewish population was urban, mainly traders and professionals, which would tend to accumulate more assets than the Palestine population that was more rural.

For both Jews and Palestinians, there are also two factors that somewhat reduced the amounts that needed to be repatriated. Assets, especially financial ones, were sometimes saved by moving or smuggling them out of the country. Both sides did so. Many wealthy Arab families from Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa left Palestine soon after the November 1947 UN partition resolution, taking with them their financial and other movable assets. Those fleeing after the fighting began obviously took whatever financial assets and other movable assets they could carry. There were no limits on the amount of money and goods. As a result, by the end of September 1950, $26.7 million ($229 million in 2007 prices) in Palestinian pounds was converted in Jordan to Jordanian currency.[12]

In the early days many Jews fleeing Middle Eastern and North African countries, mainly the wealthy ones, were able to smuggle money out of the countries in which they lived. For example, a number of Iraqi Jews moved money into Iran. But when it came to the mass exodus, each Middle Eastern or North African country had stringent regulations on the value of currency and high-valued goods, such as jewelry, that the refugees could take with them. In some countries Jews had a longer time to sell their property than did the Palestinians. But most often the transactions were at substantially reduced prices-less than 10 percent of their market value-and thus the losses were still substantial.

The second factor concerns assets repatriated. Israel returned more than 90 percent of Palestinian blocked bank accounts. The process started in 1953 under the UNCCP and was mainly completed by 1959, with the small remainder being paid out during the early 1960s. Similarly, for the most part contents of safe deposit boxes and items held in custody by the banks also were returned. The amounts returned exceeded $10 million ($86 million in 2007 prices).[13] There also were a few cases where Jewish property was restored. Egypt did pay some claims for compensation for nationalized Jewish property, mainly to Jews who had English or French citizenship, normally at prices at the time of confiscation. For example, an undisclosed sum was paid in 2007 to a French-Egyptian-Jewish family for a hotel in Alexandria that the Nasser regime seized in 1952.[14] In the case of Algeria, refugees who fled to France, including Jews, after independence in 1962 received resettlement support.

A major unknown is community property such as hospitals, mosques, synagogues, and religious schools. One estimate put the value of such Jewish-owned property in Egypt at $550 million in 2007 dollars.[15] It can be assumed, however, that the Jewish amounts are larger than those of Palestinians because of the higher number of refugees and a larger number of locations.

Other financial demands were made by both sides, none of which were seriously considered. The Israelis wanted compensation for direct damage caused by the Arab attack on Israel ($463 million in 2007 prices), of which 65 percent involved the heavily damaged Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and the economic damage caused by the closure of the Suez Canal to Israel ($5.3-$5.9 billion in 2007 prices).[16] Other claims that had no determined value included direct expenditures incurred in repulsing the Arab invasion, indirect war damages on individuals, companies, and government due to the invasion, and losses caused by Arab boycott of firms doing business with Israel.

The Palestinians have mentioned psychological damage to individuals as well as the lost income. When these are added to property losses, the total according to one Arab estimate runs from $181-$290 billion in 2007 prices.[17] Some estimates by Jewish groups also seem to be high. For example, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries indicates that the value of the properties they lost was some $100 billion (2006 values)[18] and another estimate is $300 billion in 2007 values.[19]

It should be noted that it is impossible to determine an exact value for asset losses and an argument can be made for higher asset values. The roughly $10 billion in current value losses by both sides described above is determined by bringing the 1949 value up to 2007 value by adjusting for inflation. Often, however, prices of property increase faster than inflation and interest on financial assets is greater than the price increases. One method of determining current value is to use government long-term bond yields instead of inflation rates. This would increase the combined Jewish and Palestinian losses to some $36 billion in 2007 prices. The bottom line, however, is that no matter what methodology is used the losses of Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries are almost certainly at least 50 percent higher than those of Palestinian refugees.

Reality vs. Political Machinations

In understanding the refugee issue, it is necessary to distinguish between the reality of the circumstances and political hopes and machinations.

Causes of the Refugee Outflow

Clearly, Israel in 1948 acted in self-defense against Arab states that wanted to eradicate the new country created by the United Nations. Many Palestinians fled in 1948 because Arab states said they should get out of the way of the war until the new state was defeated. Others took flight to avoid the fighting. Instances did occur in which Jewish forces drove the Palestinians out of their homes and Palestinian civilians were killed. But these occurrences were comparatively rare and take place in all wars.  Unquestionably, the prime responsibility lies with those who started the war-in this case the Arab states.

By contrast, the expulsion of the Jews from Arab states was purely vindictive. Attacks on Jews and their property in these countries intensified in the 1920s with the discussion of a possible Jewish state in Palestine. The killings and property losses grew worse in the 1930-1945 era partly because of the added factor of Nazi propaganda and the Nazi and Vichy occupation of North Africa. During this period there was a small but steady increase in the number of Jews from Arab countries migrating to Palestine.

It was the extreme Arab violence and discriminatory government measures in reaction to the 1948, 1956, and 1967 wars that lead to the huge exodus of Jews. Throughout the region there were anti-Jewish riots involving harassment and killings reminiscent of East European pogroms. Moreover, often there was confiscation of property, along with limitations on employment and economic opportunities similar to Nazi German actions in the 1930s. Added to this was the independence from France of North African countries, which removed the French protection. Actions against Jews in Iran were much more limited than in Arab countries. Nevertheless, there was a steady outflow after 1948 that accelerated after the increased discrimination that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The current Jewish population in Iran is about one-fifth that of 1948.

Perceptions of the Jewish and Palestinian Refugee Issues  

Why does the Palestinian refugee issue remain strong while the larger expulsion of Jews is a backburner issue? The answer is simple and straightforward. Whereas the Jews who were forced out of Middle Eastern and North African countries were effectively and quickly resettled in Israel and Western nations, most of the Palestinians who fled and their descendants-some 4.7 million in 2006[20]-are still considered refugees after sixty years or three generations. About one-third are in the West Bank and Gaza and the remainder in nearby countries, most prominently Jordan.

Calling these people refugees makes no sense. Few if any live in tent camps or temporary residences. Most own their homes and live in areas of towns that can be classified as working class neighborhoods. Rather than refugees, they are simply the recipients of assistance, mainly for education and health. Outside of the West Bank and Gaza, only Jordan has granted citizenship to all Palestinians and fully integrated them into the local society. But even those assimilated into Jordan and elsewhere are still considered refugees by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA).

The political motivations are clear. In the years after the 1948 war, the refugee issue was kept alive partly because the Arab countries felt disgraced by having lost the war they had initiated. This sense was further aggravated by a strong nationalism that persisted for decades. After all, Jordan and Egypt could have absorbed the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which they controlled as part of their own countries. Meanwhile, both Arab governments and the Arab League opposed granting citizenship to Palestinian refugees in their countries because it would undermine the use of the right of return to eliminate the Jewish state. In addition, it was quickly forgotten that the Arab states were the aggressors who bore the prime responsibility for causing the Palestinian refugee problem. The end result was that the Palestinian refugees became political pawns.

This fact was stated succinctly by the former head of UNRWA, Ralph Galloway, when he said: “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 UN, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.”[21]

Meanwhile, Israel did not aggressively pursue the Jewish refugee issue.  Although it raised the matter in the early years of the new state,[22] after that the issue seemed to wane. Israel was eager to absorb those forced out of Middle Eastern and North African countries since it bolstered the Jewish population in Israel. Meanwhile, at first some Palestinian spokesmen denounced the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries and even suggested a Jewish right of return.[23] They realized that the Jewish eviction undermined their own arguments.

The Palestinian and Arab leaders continued to press the Palestinian refugee and right-of-return issue, especially after the Oslo accords led to discussions of a two-state solution, mainly as a major bargaining chip in these negotiations. The more extremist leaders gave the issue great prominence as a means of achieving their goal of eliminating the Jewish state by creating an Arab majority. In all these cases, pushing the refugee issue cost them nothing since UNWRA, which was supporting the refugees in their countries, was financed largely by Western nations.

These political machinations made the Palestinian refugee situation unique. It is the oldest refugee situation handled by the United Nations and is the only one in which refugee status is granted to descendants. Moreover, the prolonged emphasis on refugee camps and the right of return goes against historical reality. Massive displacements of individuals across borders have occurred throughout human history. In most instances the refugee issue was dealt with by their absorption in other countries. Some were resolved by the conflicting nations.

For example, during the 1920s 1.75 million Greeks and Turks moved across new boundaries based on their religious beliefs-Greek Orthodox and Muslim. Others exchanges were tacitly agreed to. Such a case involved the fourteen million Hindus/Sikhs and Muslims exchanged in 1947 between the newly formed countries of India and Pakistan. Indeed, from World War I to the 1950s, it was a widely held global view that the separation of ethnic and religious groups by moving them across borders would reduce tensions among countries and the chances of war.

In other cases the moves were forced as a result of border changes. For example, at the end of World War II, at the insistence of the USSR, the Polish borders were moved west as the Soviets took over Polish territory and Poland took over areas previously in Germany. Millions were forced to move from their homes to new areas and no compensation was paid.

Normally, although initially the refugees faced poverty and difficult times, within one generation the resettled population assimilated into their new country. A case in point is the current president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. He was born in New Delhi and at age four was one of the many Muslims who moved to Pakistan. The story of refugees (survivors) of the Holocaust, by far the most devastating event inflicted on any group during the twentieth century, also followed a similar pattern. Most survivors just wanted to get on with their lives in a new and secure environment.

In all these cases there is a natural tendency of each dispossessed group to remember the past and what they lost. Although such feelings are passed down through generations, it does little to affect these groups’ absorption into their new setting. Like others, the Palestinians would probably have followed the same course if not for the disruptions caused by terrorism bolstered by incessant anti-Israeli propaganda.

The Economic Ingredient

Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 war, the plight of the Palestinian refugees improved. Overall, the area’s economy grew significantly. Israeli government economic assistance helped, but an even more important factor was the natural heavy dependence of the Palestinian economy on the Israeli market for its labor and goods. In addition, Palestinian wages were high compared to those of nearby Arab countries making Palestinian goods less competitive in these countries.  Indeed, as Hebrew University economics professor Nadav Halevi stated at a UN conference in Cairo: “The Palestinian economy needs the Israeli one more than the Israeli economy needs the Palestinian one.”[24]

As a result of the improved post-1967 economic situation, by 1974 90 percent of Palestinian refugees owned their own homes and their spending was close to that of nonrefugee families.[25] Refugees made up nearly half of the Palestinian population of the administered territories.

The favorable economic trend lasted until the First Intifada in the 1980s, when terrorist activity led to a downturn until the mid-1990s. Then, as a result of the Oslo accords, a more peaceful period emerged leading to resurgent economic activity and a 6-7 percent annual rise in GNP per capita.[26] During both growth periods, the economy benefited significantly from the enhanced integration of the Israeli and Palestinian economies.

The favorable Oslo period ended with the Second Intifada in 2000. There was some recovery from 2003 to 2005 but this soon diminished when Hamas came to power and then took over Gaza. From September 2000 to mid-2007, the Palestinian GNP per capita declined about 30 percent.[27]  Clearly, terrorism has been a main factor undercutting economic opportunities for refugees as well as the entire Palestinian economy. Israeli antiterror measures hamper the movement of goods and labor between Israel and the territories.

Compensation for Refugee Losses

All refugee crises since World War I have involved considerable discussions of how to compensate for the property and other asset losses of individuals.  International agreements on the subject have increased dramatically, especially since World War II and the founding of the United Nations. During World War II, a number of Allied agreements called for the return of property stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators. The United Nations and its agencies have passed several resolutions on returning property and the right of return of refugees.

In all these cases the agreements have had little effect, becoming no more than idealistic pronouncements. Moreover, all parties to the issue have different interpretations of the language used. This is true of the 1948 UN resolution 194, which refers to the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Finally, there is no balance since the United Nations has passed numerous such resolutions relating to the Palestinians but not one referring to the dispossessed Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.

The examples of compensation falling short are numerous. Less than 20 percent of asset losses by Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe have been returned despite the fact that the Holocaust was an event unequaled in modern history-the extermination of more than two-thirds of continental European Jewry.[28] The nine hundred thousand French pied-noirs who fled Algeria in 1962 lost property valued at $20 billion. Only about 10 percent of that was reimbursed by the French government in the form of assimilation assistance over the next fifteen years.[29]

More akin to the Arab-Israeli situation was the division of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent in 1947 into two states, India and Pakistan. Killings, riots, and property destruction led to the flight of Muslims in India to Pakistan and of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India. Among the more than fourteen million refugees, less than 2 percent returned and/or recovered their land or business. Although there was considerable discussion of individual compensation, it never worked out. Again in the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, individual compensation was suggested but dropped because of its complexities in favor of a global settlement between the parties. In both cases, the land and shops abandoned by those fleeing were turned over to the incoming refugees.

Such an exchange of property also took place between Jewish and Palestinian refugees. Israel used previously owned Palestinian land to absorb Jewish refugees. The Syrian government seized Jewish property and turned it over to Palestinian refugees.[30] But more commonly in other Middle Eastern and North African countries, seized Jewish property was not used to resettle Palestinians. Governments and local individuals simply took over the Jewish property and profited by not paying compensation.

A fairer resolution of the compensation issue involved the Israeli government’s settlement with the Palestinian IDPs. In 1953, it reached an agreement with UNRWA to take over responsibility for resettling these Palestinians. As a result they were no longer considered refugees but rather citizens of Israel. During the next ten years the Israeli government provided the IDPs either their original property and/or compensation for the losses.  Although some Palestinians felt the offers were too small and have raised the issue in recent years, the group as a whole has become an integral part of Israeli society.

For most refugee crises of the post-World War II era, compensation came mainly in the form of temporary assistance. Such rehabilitation efforts usually lasted for several years while the refugee groups were becoming assimilated into their new surroundings. It is only the Palestinian one in which such support continued for a prolonged period. In 2007 prices, UNRWA has spent $13.7 billion since its inception in 1950.[31] Its 2007 budget exceeds $500 million. The result is that UNRWA, over the past fifty-seven years, has spent 3.5 times more than the Palestinian refugees lost in assets, and this excludes assistance they received through other aid programs provided to the Palestinians mainly by Western countries.

Lessons Learned

Most important, the refugee issue is not only bogus but a major distraction from the real issues: establishing a Palestinian state and eliminating terrorism. Only these steps would provide Israel security and allow the Palestinian economy to flourish as it did following the 1967 war and the signing of the Oslo accords.

Restoring such a reality would mean:

  • Shelving the right-of-return issue and accepting the outcome of similar religious or ethnic disputes that created a significant number of refugees. Each side would continue to live in their new domains, and property and other asset claims would be dropped. At the same time, Arab countries-mainly Syria and Lebanon-would accept the Palestinians as citizens and help integrate them into the local society and economy. Or if they so chose, these Palestinians could be resettled in a new Palestinian state.
  • Eliminating the refugee status of Palestinians. Instead of providing support to so-called refugees, economic assistance would be given to a new Palestinian state. Similar aid could be provided to other nearby countries to facilitate their absorption of Palestinians.

Obviously, however, negotiations to reach an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will have to deal with the refugee issue and its subparts such as the right of return and/or compensation. Put into perspective, it remains as a bargaining chip for Arab and Palestinian negotiators who continue to emphasize the issue via their political drumbeat. The only way to move toward the reality of how such events have been handled in the past is to stress the clear fact that there were more Jews who fled Middle Eastern and North African countries than Palestinians who left Israel.

If it is decided to establish a fund to reimburse the original Jewish and Palestinian refugee families or their heirs for the asset losses, there are two options. The most just method would be to pay each family/heir what it lost. Such a procedure, however, would be extremely complicated and take many years to determine each person’s losses. The second alternative is to establish a global fund in which each family/heir receives an equivalent amount. This would be unfair to the few Jews and Palestinians who in each society held the bulk of the wealth. This is a common situation in all countries. For example, in Iraq in the late 1940s, 2 percent of the Jewish population held 44 percent of the group’s assets.[32] To overcome this problem, a higher award could be paid to those who could prove they possessed assets worth more than a stipulated amount.

Under either option an estimated $10 billion would be needed to support an asset restitution fund. Realistically, only a small portion could be expected to come from the countries from which the refugees fled. Most funds would have to be provided by developed or oil-rich Arab countries. During the peace negotiations in 2000, the Clinton administration suggested such a fund should be financed by developed countries. The Arab countries, Israel, and the Palestinians all quickly approved that idea since they would not have to contribute. This is reality!

*     *     *

[1] The amount of material produced, especially on the Palestinian refugees, is huge, and much of it highly slanted to support political views. These books and articles provided the most useful research and analysis for this article: Avi Beker, UNRWA, Terror and the Refugee Conundrum: Perpetuating the Misery (Jerusalem: WJC Institute, 2003); Avi Beker, “The Forgotten Narrative: Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2005); Randy Belinfante, “Resources for Research on Jews in Arab Countries,” Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries, Toronto, 2003; Eyal Benvenisti, “Principles and Procedures for Compensating Refugees,” PRRN/DRC Workshop on Compensation as a Part of the Comprehensive Palestinian Refugee Problem, Ottawa, July 1999; Rex Brynen, “The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation,” FOFOGNET Digest, March 1996; Michael Comay, Zionism, Israel and the Palestinian Arabs: Questions and Answers (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1983); Elizabeth Ferris, ed., Refugees and World Politics (New York: Praeger, 1985); Michael Fischbach, Records of Dispossession: Palestine Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Moshe Gat, The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948-1951 (London: Frank Cass, 1997); Sami Hadwi, Palestinian Rights and Losses in 1948: A Comprehensive Study (London: Saqi Books, 1988); Nadav Halevi, “Prospects for Palestinian Economic Development and Middle East Peace Process,” paper presented at a United Nations conference in Cairo, June 2000; Andre Jabes, Jews in Arab Countries: A Survey of Events since August 1967 (London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1971); Arie Kacowicz and Pawel Lutomski, eds., Population Resettlement in International Conflicts: A Comparative Study (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007); Arlene Kushner, UNRWA: A Report (Wellesley, MA: Center for Near East Policy Research, 2003); Ruth Lapidoth, “Legal Aspects of the Palestinian Refugee Question,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, 485, 1 September 2002; Luke Lee, “The Issue of Compensation for Palestinian Refugees,” PRRN/DRC Workshop on Compensation as a Part of the Comprehensive Palestinian Refugee Problem, Ottawa, July 1999; Itamar Levin,  Confiscated Wealth: The Fate of Jewish Property in Arab Lands (Jerusalem: WJC Institute, 2000); Itamar Levin, Locked Doors: The Seizure of Jewish Property in Arab Countries (London: Praeger, 2001); Emanuel Marx and Nachmias  Nitza, “Dilemmas of Prolonged Humanitarian Aid Operations: The Case of UNWRA,” Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 22 June 2004; Ya’akov Meron, “Why Jews Fled the Arab Countries,” Middle East Quarterly, September 1995; Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Ori Nir, “What Is a Refugee? What Is a Displaced Person?” Haaretz, 7 March 1995; Walter Pinner, How Many Refugees? (London: McGibbon & Kee, 1959); Walter Pinner, The Legend of the Arab Refugees (Tel Aviv: Economic and Social Research Institute, 1967); Terence Prittie and Bernard Dineen, Double Exodus: A Study of Arab and Jewish Refugees in the Middle East (London: Goodhart Press, 1974); Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue (New York: WOJAC, 1977); Joseph Schechtman, Arab Refugee Problem (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952); Joseph Schechtman, On Wings of Eagles: The Plight, Exodus and Homecoming of Oriental Jews (New York: Yoseloff, 1961); Joseph Schechtman, The Refugee in the World: Displacement and Integration (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1963); Malka Hillel Shulewitz, ed., The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands (London: Cassel, 1999); Norman Stillman, The Jews in Arab Lands in Modern Times (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991); Milton Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East (Washington: Middle East Institute, 1989); www.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_refugees.

[2] See Prittie and Dineen, Double Exodus, 8-9; Schechtman, Arab Refugee Problem; Schechtman, Refugee in the World, 199.

[3] See Morris, Birth.

[4] See Shulewitz, Forgotten Millions, 140.

[5] See Nir, “What Is a Refugee?”

[6] The total for 1948 is 1,036,000. This includes 856,000 from Arab countries (see Roumani, Case of the Jews from Arab Countries, 2), 140,000 from Iran, and 40,000 from the West Bank and Gaza.  For other years, see the American Jewish Year Book.

[7] See Fischbach, Records, 128.

[8] See ibid., 98.

[9] Sidney Zabludoff, And It All But Disappeared: The Nazi Seizure of Jewish Assets (Jerusalem: WJC Institute, 1998).

[10] See Kacowicz and Lutomski, Population Resettlement, 136-50.

[11] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index, 1982-1984=100.

[12] See Schechtman, Arab Refugee Problem, 95.

[13] See Fischbach, Records, 198-209.

[14] World Jewry Dateline, WJC Foundation, September 2007, 2.

[15] See Levin, Locked Doors, 137.

[16] See Fischbach, Records, 193.

[17] See Hadwi, Palestinian Rights.

[18] Jerusalem Post, 23 October 2006.

[19] Jerusalem Post, 16 November 2007.

[20] UNRWA as of 31 March 2006.

[21] See Roumani, Case of the Jews from Arab Countries, 50.

[22] See Schechtman, Arab Refugee Problem, 111-12.

[23] See Shulewitz, Forgotten Millions, 96; Meron, “Why Jews Fled.”

[24] See Halevi, “Prospects,” para. 40.

[25] See Marx and Nachmias, “Dilemmas.”

[26] World Bank, Two Years after London: Restoring Palestinian Economic Recovery (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sidney Zabludoff, “Restitution of Holocaust-Era Assets: Promises and Reality,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 19, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2007).

[29] See Kacowicz and Lutomski, Population Resettlement, 50.

[30] See Levin, Locked Doors, 182-84.

[31] Individual years from UNRWA reports with each year increased to 2007 prices using the US Consumer Price Index; see n. 11.

[32] See Gat, Jewish Exodus, 74.

*     *     *

SIDNEY ZABLUDOFF is an international economist who specializes in financial matters. Over the past twelve years he concentrated on issues related to returning assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Previously he worked on numerous economic issues at the CIA, White House, and Treasury including the movement of illicitly earned funds. 

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