Why is the Palestinian Arab refugee problem still a problem?



Palestinian_refugeesThe question of why the Palestinian refugees are still here could be considered sufficiently answered by my page looking at how the UNRWA handles Palestinian refugees. The U.N.’s bloated estimates of how many initial Palestinian Arab refugees were created in the 1948 Palestine War followed by redefining who was to be identified as a refugee gave us the initial exaggerated figures the UN works with. Then owing to the unprecedented inclusion of refugee offspring being considered brand new refugees, the Palestinian Arab refugee population has exploded rather than what traditionally occurs with a refugee population over the years (assuming no new hostilities 1), which is a decrease in size. Finally, the U.N. sees fit to remove the responsibility for finding a solution to these refugees from the UNRWA, the only organization handling them in the territories.


The U.N. has engineered the failure from the start, and can fix it at any time but doesn’t. It really is quite a stunning example of inhumanity in the midst of the United Nations; the same international arena so often heralded as the cure to humanitarian crisis. As confusing as the U.N. refusing to reverse their earlier incompetence seems on the surface, there are reasons that make the whole situation downright logical. Exploitative to be sure, but logical.
Dr. Pinner writing in the 60’s uses figures from that timeframe to point out “the simple financial interest of the Host-Countries [where the refugees reside]. For the number of Refugees which UNRWA allows them to record … they receive food, educational services and the salaries and wages for 12,000 men as UNRWA’s Area Staff. For every man reported re-settled (with his family an average of at least 5 persons) the country might lose an annual UNRWA-contribution worth 100 Dollars. For 367,500 Non-Refugees and 75,000 duplicated children Jordan might lose nearly 9,000,000 Dollars per year in UNRWA’s allocations and with the number of re-settlers among the genuine Refugees over 10,000,000 Dollars. If UNRWA’s Area Staff salaries would cease to be paid as well, the financial loss to Jordan might be higher by several million Dollars per annum. The figures for Syria or Lebanon are much smaller, but the principle is the same. It is not easy for a country to renounce a source of foreign income which the United Nations have provided for so many years and which the Agency of the United Nations defends with all its moral vigour. But from a purely personal point of view, 12,000 Arab employees of UNRWA might lose their jobs.” 2

Another critical piece of data to keep in mind when pondering why the Palestinian refugees are being perpetuated for so long is the fact that “UNRWA employs some 24,324 staff, of whom more than 99 per cent are locally-recruited Palestinians, almost all of them Palestine refugees.”3 So what we have is an organization that caters exclusively to Palestinian refugees which is also being run almost exclusively by Palestinian refugees. Some would see a problem here. Palestinians in the territories have extremely high rates of unemployment. Close to 25,000 Palestinians view the UNRWA as an employer that will soon be going away, taking their jobs and its aid with it, should the refugees ever be permanently resettled. The implications for the Palestinian economy were that to occur would be huge and something neither the PA, nor Hamas, is ready to deal with. The benefits bestowed upon by the UNRWA upon the Palestinian Arab refugee community is striking in contrast to Arabs in the region who do not enjoy its perpetual assistance:

“Over the course of their 50-year residence, housing within the camp areas radically improved from canvas tents to permanent structured housing that compared … with housing afforded by many non-refugee Arabs living in the host countries. The major difference … is that approximately 70 percent of the refugees living in UNRWA camps owned their own homes, and those who didn’t paid no rent, no municipal taxes, and had access to free water and sanitation services. … UNRWA … provided still a variety of vital medical services, among them prenatal care, medicine, and vaccination. According to conventional health indicators, the outcome for Palestinian refugees was … considerably better than most found in developing countries. But the most enriching form of entitlement … was education. Elementary and secondary education in camps generated literacy rates … that were even higher than rates achieved by non-refugees. In fact, rates for Palestinian refugees in Jordan turned out to be more akin to those in Southern Europe than in the Middle East.”4

“… even the 1.2 million refugees remaining in camps … have acquired standards of living that rival many of those in the open economies of the Middle East and continue to be conspicuously superior to the standards of living associated with the millions of UNHCR’s refugee populations and even the hundreds of millions of non-refugee populations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
“… many mercenaries remained in the country [Palestine] after the 1936 – 1938 riots. … When the War of Independence broke out … they shed their uniforms and joined the fleeing refugees. They, too, were absorbed in the refugee camps and were treated as full-fledged Palestinian refugees. … they had joined the various ‘Forces of Deliverance’ not only for nationalist reasons. Economic factors and love of adventure provided additional motives. These defeated ‘Foreign Legionnaires’ preferred to remain in the refugee camps, there to enjoy the relative economic security that their refugee status afforded them.”6

“Clearly, the population involved, and the UNRWA bureaucracy itself, had an interest in preserving the inflated lists in order to gain extra food rations for households and larger allocations for services (education, health, housing, etc.) in the camps.”7

Don’t Forget the Politics

Financial motivation for prolonging the Palestinian Arab refugee situation is not the only one. They also serve a valuable political purpose; being exploited in almost every way possible as a veritable Swiss Army knife of Arab nationalist and religious grievance. These refugees exist as an ever-present source of outrage the Arab nations can and do use as leverage in most any disagreement or negotiation that may arise with “the West”. Not to mention the convenient justification for violence and killing and perpetual terrorism. Were the Palestinian refugees to have been settled long ago as should have happened, it would be harder for us Westerners tounderstand what leads a human being to strap on a bomb and murder dozens of civilians riding a bus or shopping in a market.

With a constant finger pointed in the refugees’ direction, this and all manner of other violent behavior, which serves as a major tactic in the daily war against Israel, appears much more reasonable than it would on its own and morphs from blatant hatred and racism to a more noble “national struggle” for “independence”. The existence of the refugees fuels the “No justice, no peace” mantra which appeals to the modern Western mind in stark contrast to the historic Middle Eastern reality of “No power, no peace”.

Thanks to the ongoing presence of the Palestinian refugees, a claim can be advanced, however treacherous it may be, that the terrorism is simply the expected result of an occupied and dislocated people acting out their victimhood, an explanation many of today’s world leaders are all too eager to buy into. The fact that the surrounding Arab governments couldn’t be happier keeping the refugee problem alive and well escapes them. 

“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.8

“Since 1948 Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible manner. They have not looked into the future. They have no plan or approach. They have used the Palestine people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and, I could say, even criminal.”9

Benny Morris articulates the strategy behind the Arab states’ refusing to allow the refugees to be resettled, placing them “in a no-lose situation. Israeli refusal to take back the refugees, leaving them in misery, would turn world opinion and perhaps western governments against the Jewish state on humanitarian grounds. Israeli agreement to take back all or many of the refugees would result in the political and demographic destabilization of the Jewish state, with clear military implications. All of Israel’s leaders appreciated this: The refugees had become a ‘political weapon against the Jews’.”10

“The refugees, wrote Sasson, had become a scapegoat. No one pays attention to them, no one listens to their demands, explanations and suggestions. But … all use their problem for purposes which have almost no connection to the aspirations of the refugees themselves … while all the Arab states demanded the refugees’ repatriation, in practice none of them, ‘save Lebanon’, wanted this. Jordan and Syria wanted to hold on to their refugees in order to receive international relief aid; the Egyptians wanted the problem to remain in order to destabilize Jordan and Israel.”11

“In general, one can say that Arab governments regarded the destruction of the State of Israel as a more pressing matter than the welfare of the Palestinian refugees. Palestinian bitterness and anger had to be kept alive. … this could best be done by ensuring that a great many Palestinians Arabs continued to live under sub-normal conditions, the victims of hunger and poverty.”12

“The status and future of the Arabs living in Palestine is essentially a secondary matter to be settled later, or fought over, among the Arabs themselves. For the time being the resources of the Arab world must be concentrated on camouflaging the reason for Israel’s liquidation as a solution to a human problem – the problem of ‘homeless’ Palestinians. The Egyptian journal El Muswar in December 1968 admitted frankly: ‘The expulsion of our brothers from their homes should not cause us any anxiety, especially as they were driven into Arab countries … The masses of the Palestinian people are only the advance-guard of the Arab nation … a plan for rousing world opinion in stages, as it would not be able to understand or accept a war by a hundred million Arabs against a small state.’”13

“Some 30 years later, John McCarthy of the U.S. Catholic Conference described his efforts to work with Arab governments to solve the refugee problem. They refused, he said, even to attempt to resettle the refugees within their own land, insisting that resettlements could only take place in Israel. ‘The Arab countries don’t want to take Arabs. It’s discriminating against their own…” said McCarthy. As for the refugees themselves, ‘These people,’ he said, ‘are simply pawns.’”21

“From their Arab brethren in surrounding states, the Palestinian Arabs received little more than verbal support. In the late 1940s, the inter-Arab system was rife with personal and national jealousies. No Arab country stepped forward to promote exclusively the Palestinian Arab cause, and the newly born Arab League was relatively ineffective. Each Arab state was fixated on its own national development …”22 

“The refugee problem has become a political issue which each country uses in whatever way best suits its purpose. The Lebanese hesitate to naturalize the refugees within their borders for fear of upsetting the control at present exercised by the Christian majority. The Jordanians naturalized most of them immediately because sparsely populated Jordan, an anomalous expression of the nation-State created by fiat of Great Britain, is in need of people in order to strengthen its hand at the council tables. The Syrians and Egyptians can point to the refugees and say, “See what happened because we did not have a strong army,” and use that as a refrain in the building up of a strong army. There may even be some people who champion the Arabs’ cause against the Zionists in response to latent or subconscious anti-Jewish prejudices, which they had been harboring without even knowing it or admitting it to themselves.”23

On top of all this, the Palestinian refugees are forced to accept no other solution to their refugee status than repatriation (returning to exactly where they left from as opposed to settling elsewhere) no matter how unlikely that may be. The Arab states surrounding the Palestinians have long since contributed to this expectation due to their stubborn refusal to allow the refugees to settle within their co-Arab borders. 

“The Palestinians are the only refugees who cannot and must not be absorbed elsewhere; their fate is to be played up as the mirror image of the Wandering Jew.”14

“The decision to sacrifice them [the Palestinian Aab refugees] to the cause of Israel’s destruction was clearly enunciated in the aftermath of 1948-49 (keep them in camps so they can learn hate and seek revenge), and no action by Arab elites has shown evidence of a change of heart.”15

“While cooperating with UNRWA … none of the host governments – Jordan excepted – was willing to accept refugees as a matter of policy. Their resistance to resettlement, at least from their point of view, was well reasoned. The 1949 armistice notwithstanding, Arab governments still did not accept Israel’s legitimacy and to agree to resettlement as a resolution to the refugee problem would be tantamount to acknowledging the permanence of Israel. Self preservation was another factor. In the view of the 1954 U.S. Special Study Mission to the Near East: ‘…any Arab political leader suggesting an alternative to repatriation in what was formerly Palestine would have been ousted from office and, perhaps, have run the risk of assassination. … some Arab governments feared that absorption of refugees could well undermine their own political stability. The Lebanese government … believed that adding the large number of Palestinian refugees already in Lebanon … most of whom were Sunni – would undermine Lebanon’s delicate political sectarian balance. The Lebanese concern about internal security was not unique. Historian Benny Morris, commenting on the 1948–49 negotiations concerning repatriation and resettlement argued that the Arab states regarded the refugees as a potential Fifth Column”16

The collective Arab nations identify the absorption of fellow Arab Palestinian refugees as a national security threat, and for that reason refuse, all the while expecting Israel alone to shoulder the burden. Let me emphasize that the nations who are loathe to accept these Palestinian refugees into their borders based on security concerns are fundamentally brethren, sharing linguistic, religious, and cultural similarities. Israel, on the other hand, shares none of these traits with the refugees, and has instead been the target of their deadly terrorism and racial demonization for generations. But when Israel mentions national security to explain their refusal to welcome a deluge of Palestinians who for the most part are hostile to a Jewish state, her critics more easily see racism than the very real security concerns even Arab nations acknowledge. Yes, that is a double-standard.

“What is significant about 50 years of UNRWA is not that it was a refugee agency that served the Arab Palestinian refugee population with much affect, but that it continues to do so despite the fact that the majority of Palestinians have reintegrated into the open economies of the Middle East and elsewhere defacto, and that most of those who still remain in refugee camps – after 50 years – do so in the Palestinian homeland. By all accounts, the refugee status of the overwhelming numbers of Palestinian refugees should have expired somewhere along that 50-year range. But it continues. And therein lies the essence of its moral hazard. UNRWA was reinvented to serve political agendas unrelated to its initial and honourable mission. Forced to abandon the pursuit of assisting refugees to get on with their lives – repatriation or resettlement – it became strictly a caretaker agency, dispensing entitlements to refugees who, by UNHCR standards, would not be so defined. All this at enormous cost. Its over $250 million annual budgets represent, minimally, a continuing moral hazard. Even more so is the moral hazard associated with the set of disincentives built into UNRWA – political and monetary – that discourages refugees from seeking economic betterment. In the end, UNRWA cannot accomplish what it set out to do and is blamed for and must pay for what it ends up doing.”17

It is certainly understandable why the Arab states viewed absorbing the Palestinian Arabs with such a skeptical eye. In the 60′s, Jordan’s King Hussein opened his gates to many Palestinian refugees. These Palestinians proceeded to use Jordan as a base from which to launch terror raids into Israel. While King Hussein was complicit in allowing this to happen, it was his kingdom, not some Palestinian state, that suffered the Israeli reprisals. By 1970, the Palestinians in Jordan had so thoroughly destabilized the kingdom and posed such a grave threat to King Hussein’s sovereignty, he was forced to turn the Jordanian army against the PLO and expel them.

The expelled Palestinians made their way to Lebanon where they once again commenced in destabilizing a state through force of arms, antagonizing a Syrian invasion in 1976. Ultimately an Israeli invasion in 1982 was necessary to put an end to the incessant terrorist attacks, this time from the north instead of the now quiet Jordanian border. In varying capacities, the Syrians, Lebanese Christians, and Israelis expelled Palestinians out of a country for a third time.

Arab states have come to adopt a more nuanced reasoning for why they isolate and exclude Palestinian Arabs from integrating into their societies, thereby blocking all but their permanent refugee status. Nowadays the focus is not with the security threat or the ethnic/religious balance that could be disrupted, but instead a concern that the Palestinians’ “right of return” might be infringed upon if they become citizens elsewhere. Doesn’t that sound more noble? It also functions as reasoning the Israelis can not also invoke, such as was the case with the concern over state security. The Arab League in 1952 instructed the member states not to grant Palestinian Arabs citizenship in their countries, allegedly so the Palestinian national aspirations do not become diluted and ultimately vanish. It is this reasoning we still hear today:

A Saudi Arabian citizenship law passed in October 2004 allows “Expatriates of all nationalities are entitled to apply for Saudi citizenship”, but “the naturalization law would not be applicable to Palestinians living in the Kingdom as the Arab League has instructed that Palestinians living in Arab countries should not be given citizenship to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.”18

Lebanon took this order from the Arab League and ran with it. In addition to blocking Palestinians from citizenship, “They are banned from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. … They are not allowed to own property, unlike other foreigners, and are denied access to the Lebanese healthcare system. … The Lebanese government has said repeatedly it will not allow Palestinian refugees to settle. It says that granting them work permits and rights to own land will encourage them not to leave and jeopardize their right of return. … those living in other camps are not allowed even to obtain construction tools such as concrete to fix their houses.”19

In response to the Palestinian Arabs living in Kuwait and their support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990, Kuwait expelled over 400,000 of them. This elicited no substantial outrage among the Arabs because stateless Palestinian refugees is precisely the goal. In fact, instead of condemning the expulsions, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas apologized to Kuwait for the Palestinians’ support of Saddam!20 Don’t expect an apology to Israel, however, for expelling some of the Palestinians for their widespread support of the Arab Higher Committee that preached a doctrine of genocide against the Jews in the months leading up to the civil war stage of the 1948 War.
1 There were new hostilities that broke out in the June 1967 “Six Day War” creating more refugees. These are included in the current refugee count of 4.3 million. Despite almost 20 years passing between the first wave of refugees in the 1948 War and the ones created in the 1967 War, the UNRWA had not directly settled any and continued counting refugees who resettled themselves in foreign countries, leaving very little confidence the refugee population would have gone down even if there had been no further war.
2 Pinner, Walter. The Legend of the Arab Refugees; A Critical Study of UNRWA’s Reports and Statistics. Tel Aviv: Economic and Social Research Institute, 1967. 52-53.
3 UNRWA UNRWA Organization – Staff (Site accessed June 21, 2007)
4 Gottheil, Fred. “UNRWA and Moral Hazard.” Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 414-415.
5 Gottheil, Fred. “UNRWA and Moral Hazard.” Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 417-418.
6 Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. New Brunswick, [N.J.] USA: Transaction Books, 1984. 36-37.
7 Gilbar, Gad G. Population Dilemmas in the Middle East: Essays in Political Demography and Economy. London: F. Cass, 1997. 21.
8 Comay, Naomi. Arabs Speak Frankly on the Arab-Israeli Conflict: With Original Documents and Comments by World Leaders and Writers. [Great Britain]: Printing Miracles, 2005. 26.
9 Eigen’s Political & Historical Quotations. Hussein ibn Talal, King of Jordan. Quoted by Associated Press, January 1960.
10 Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge Middle East studies, 18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 550-551.
11 Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge Middle East studies, 18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 572.
12 Prittie, Terence, and Bernard Dineen. The Double Exodus: A Study of Arab and Jewish Refugees in the Middle East. S.l: s.n, 1974.
13 Katz, Shmuel. Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1973. 164.
14 Givet, Jacques. The Anti-Zionist Complex. Englewood, NJ: SBS Pub, 1982.
15 Laquer, Walter. The Anomaly of Israel. September 15, 1997.
16 Gottheil, Fred. “UNRWA and Moral Hazard.” Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 412.
17 Gottheil, Fred. “UNRWA and Moral Hazard.” Middle Eastern Studies. 42. 3 (2006): 418.
18 Ghafour, Abdul. A Million Expatriates to Benefit from New Citizenship Law (Site accessed April 4, 2007)
19 Shahine, Alaa. Poverty Trap for Palestinian Refugees (Site accessed Nov 1, 2007)
20 BBC News. Abbas Apology to Kuwait over Iraq (Site accessed Jan 8, 2006)
21 Berkley, George E. Jews. Boston: Branden Pub. Co, 1997. 277.
22 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
23 Crist, Raymond E. “Land for the Fellahin, VIII: Land Tenure and Land Use in the Near East”.American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1959). 417

Posted by Ted Belman @ 8:31 am | No Comments »


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