Notwithstanding a huge amount of literature on this subject, many misconceptions, emotions and political games obscure the picture of the Palestinian refugee issue. Palestinian advocates claim that without granting all registered refugees the right to return to Israel, peace in the region is impossible. Israel, therefore, has to let about 5,000,000 descendants of Arab refugees settle in its territory. This also means that peace depends entirely on Israel.
The phenomenon of Palestinian Arab refugees stands out in the history of refugees. As of 2013, it has already lasted 65 years and it seems there is no end in sight.
The UN established a specific agency to deal solely with the problem of Palestine’s refugees: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It has about 30,000 employees, most of them recruited from Palestinian Arab refugees. It is funded by the UN, Western Europe and the US, and deals with education and other aspects of refugee life. Corruption and the wasting of money are rampant there, but who cares? The agency ostensibly deals with one of the most important issues of our time, and as such is deemed worth every penny.
To see the bigger picture, let’s step back and compare the Palestinian Arabs refugee problem with some other refugee problems of the last century, which took place at approximately the same time.
The problem of Arab refugees emerged in 1948, when an alliance of Arab countries started the war against Israel. Here are the numbers from different sources of refugees who fled the war zone:
UN – progress report Oct. 1948…………………………………:472,000
UNRWA (Agency designated to deal with Arab refugees):711,000
Arab countries (claim):………………………………………………:850,000
For the sake of further discussion, I will take the number stated by the UNRWA: 711,000.
At the same time, Arab countries expelled more than 600,000 Jews and expropriated their properties. How did the world react to these two events?
In the UN, no issue of compensation, or right to return for Jews, was discussed. Western media and politicians did not see any moral, legal or political problem there. Be as it may.
The international treatment of Arab refugees was quite different. The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to original Palestinian Arab refugees (or their descendants) ‘to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland’. The message was clear: to conserve the hatred and a state of war until total victory over Israel. The wellbeing of the refugees was not a consideration.
More than 150 UN resolutions on Arab Middle East refugees have been issued since then, but none mentioned Jewish refugees from Arab countries. One of the reasons for neglecting the Jewish refugees is that there are none now. All of them were absorbed into Israel and granted citizen status. In the political arena, there is no discussion of their property and their right to return. The situation with Arab refugees is quite different. At the time of writing, there are about 5 million of them, who grew from the original 711,000. Since the outset of the problem, tension and hatred in the Middle East has grown, together with the number of registered Palestinian refugees. According to the UNRWA, in January 2010 the distribution of registered Palestinian refugees by country or territory was as follows:
In the Table1 is the rate of growth of Palestinian refugees and the population of countries where they are settled.
In Syria it is hard to estimate exact growth of refugees, as about 100,000 fled from Golan Heights in 1967, and some from Lebanon.
As the table suggests, the Palestinian refugee population grew comparably with the Arab population in their host countries. It is worth comparing the growth of Arab refugees with the growth of other refugees who were displaced in the 20th century.
At the end of WWII there were more than 40 million refugees in Europe. The issue, in all its complexity, is too big for a short article. I will therefore limit the discussion to German refugees as the most representative example.
Altogether, at least 12 million Germans were displaced after the war. Of them, about 7 million German civilians fled or were transported from territory controlled by East Prussia and Poland. 1.8 million German civilians were expelled from East Prussia alone, which the Soviet Union had annexed without any justification. The brutality in the period of 1945-1950 was appalling. Hundreds of thousands died due to terrible weather conditions and the difficulty of the journey. Thousands of German children, nicknamed ‘wolf children’, became orphans or died in brutal winters of 1945-1947. The last 7 Germans had been expelled from their homeland in January 1950. I bet most of my readers have never heard this, as the international community and media appear not interested in refugee problems where Israel is not involved.
If registered, supported and treated by the UN the way Palestinian refugees were, the number of German refugees from East Prussia would have grown by now from 1.8 million to a whopping 11 million, taking into account their descendants. The actual number of refugees from East Prussia is now zero. I would not hazard a guess about the number of descendants from all 12 million German refugees, or about the other 28 million of non-German refugees. None of them, or their descendants, are registered as a refugee, or have any claim as such.
There are hundreds of thousands of Japanese refugees, millions of Chinese, Arab (non-Palestinian) and African refugees, and refugees from other parts of the globe. Few people, other than some scholars on international affairs, know about them. The media and politicians do not seem to care about them.
The question arises: why does the world concentrate its attention on Palestinian refugees? What is it that makes Europe and the US care so much about them and donate billions of dollars every year to support their refugee status?
We hear arguments that their living conditions are below the poverty line, therefore they have to be supported out of compassion. How about the hundreds of millions of other people, living in misery side by side with them? Do they fare better? Do we, the so called ‘civilized world’, care about them?
A recent study by World Bank (2006) discovered that 25% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa region fell below the poverty line set at 2 USD per day. In comparison, according to the Index MUNDI, 16% of the Palestinian population are considered the poorest of the poor with an expenditure of about $50 USD per person, per month. So the percentage of the poorest refugee population is lower than the rest. It does not mean, in my opinion, that refugees from any nation, Arab or not, do not deserve compassion. But if we concentrate on the poverty issue, why take Arab refugees out of the picture, ignoring the population that lives around them?
Apparently the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees, or registrants, is so important for the normal functioning of the international community, that the UN initiated a project on the subject: ‘Population and Demographic Development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Until 1990’. There were other initiatives, which I will not discuss here. To evaluate the validity of these initiatives, I will compare the living conditions of Palestinian refugees with the other population of the countries where they live. Here are some helpful statistics.
The number of UNRWA registered Palestinian refugees by country or territory in January 2010 was as in Table 2:
In Jordan, Palestinian refugees are granted citizenship. It means that those refugee families living in camps are there by choice. But the living standards and the opportunities for refugees ‘not in camps’ are the same as the other Jordanian population.
According to Jordan Economy Profile 2012 (Index Mundi): ‘Whether for total income or wage income, refugees living outside the camps generally fare better than those living in the camps’.
Statistics and reports confirm that the other Jordanian population needs as much assistance as Palestinian refugees. In a separate statement of the MUNDI report, ‘Amman likely will continue to depend heavily on foreign assistance to finance the deficit in 2012’. However, in spite of the Jordanian population’s needs, the same report states: ‘In addition to UNRWA, more international organizations and local NGOs provide assistance in the occupied territories than in the neighbouring regions’.
On the same note, the FATO report 237 summary concludes:
The results of the Jordan Living Conditions Survey show that the population of Palestinians who have come to Jordan as refugees or are displaced due to the Arab-Israeli wars seems to be divided into two very different groups: The 13 percent living in the UNRWA refugee camps, and the remaining 87 percent who have settled elsewhere in Jordan.
While the refugees and the displaced who are settled outside the camps live in conditions not very different from those of other households in Jordan, the camp dwellers are worse off with regard to almost all aspects of what are considered relevant indicators of a good life. They have poorer housing conditions, more physical and mental health problems, higher unemployment levels, and lower income.
Obviously living in official refugee camps gives them the advantage of getting financial help from the UN, which citizens of the country do not have.
Palestinian refugees in Syria before the civil war had almost the same civil rights as Syrian citizens, and had the same opportunities.
What are the causes of Palestinian refugee registrants’ poverty, if not discrimination and the lack of opportunities? If similarity of living standard is any indicator, there are common causes for this. One of them, unmistakably, is big families. The population of the Middle East grows with a speed which cannot be sustained by any economy, even the economy of the most developed countries. Not surprisingly, the poorest households are those with 5-8 children. Even with the best opportunities, it is impossible to provide proper care, education and other services for such large families. Refugees or not, they will always live in poverty and won’t be able to function without assistance. As a matter of fact, the same MUNDI report confirms this indirectly, while considering the low rate labour force participation: ‘First, almost one third of the population is below the age of 16, which limits the pool of those who could be actively involved in the labour force’.
In the US and Canada, most large families would struggle to live without government assistance. There are numerous programs and initiatives in both countries geared toward supporting these families. They have a welfare system, food stamps, food banks, charities, social programs, etc. In spite of powerful economies, these countries would collapse if the number of large families in them were to increase to the same proportion as in the Middle East Arab countries. There are certain laws in economic development which cannot be changed by donations, charity, or determination. Until population growth is not in sync with the growth of economy, there is not much scope to improve the living standard of the population.
It appears obvious that the UN, the US, and the Western media are only interested in problems involving Israel. It does not seem to matter how large the refugee numbers are, or whether they are Arabs or not. The word ‘humanity’ does not have the same meaning for different nations and groups of people. How often do we hear about human trafficking and slavery, which amount to 12 million persons per year? Their living conditions are largely worse than that of an average Palestinian refugee.
What about other refugees, who have no connection to the Israeli-Arab conflict? The contemporary refugee crisis in Syria reveals the true nature of the Palestinian refugee problem. West Bank and Gaza refuse to help Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria and refuse to accept them, as this would undermine ‘their right to return’ to Israel. Never mind that their Palestinian brothers and sisters suffer. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority and Gaza rulers appeal to the UN and the international community to help Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria. In other words, ‘You take care of our brothers, not us’. Even less care is demonstrated by the international community. As this crisis is not caused by Israel, these Arabs have become as neglected as other refugees in history.
The Palestinian refugee problem, if not supported unanimously by Arab countries, Western Europe and the United States, would disappear without much intervention from the international community. Statistics suggest that such situations naturally resolve in time. Most Palestinian refugees would live outside the camps and settle in their host countries. Those who now live in camps would settle outside them, if not for the financial support of the international community. Even the spirit of refugee descendants is different now from what it was years ago. An independent poll conducted in 2003 with the Palestinian populations of Gaza, West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon showed that the majority (54%) would accept financial compensation and a place to live in West Bank or Gaza instead of returning to the exact place in modern-day Israel where they or their ancestors lived.
In conclusion, I believe that the problem is perpetuated by the international community’s discrimination of Israel, and historical attitude toward its people. It seems clear that the whole problem will disappear once the international community discontinues its policy of hostility against Israel.
On the photograph: Gaza Strip. Not as poor as propaganda suggests.
Alex Markman is the author of the following thrillers:
Messenger of Death
Payback for Revenge
The Dark Days of Love