70 Years of a Refugee ‘Crisis’
OpinionGuest Column

70 Years of a Refugee ‘Crisis’

A new attitude is key for the descendants of the Arabs who lived in British-controlled Palestine.

Toby Block

Modern Israel does not sit on Palestinian land. After destroying the Second Temple, the Romans dubbed the Jews’ ancestral homeland “Palaestina” and exiled most of its Jews. Yet Jewish communities persisted there continuously.

Even the exiled Jews retained their connection to the land via Hebrew as the language of prayer and study, expressing a longing for Zion in liturgy and literature.

The Jewish population in the Holy Land increased with the birth of modern Zionism in the 1880s. Zionists bought land and improved its productivity, built schools and hospitals, and lobbied world leaders for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in what then was a region of the Ottoman Empire.

Many of the Arabs now calling themselves Palestinians (a title they rejected before 1964, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded) descend from families who entered the area only after Zionist activity began improving the living conditions. These Arabs were not distinguished from other Arabs in any way. They never had sovereignty over the land.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations gave Great Britain the Palestine Mandate. Britain used 78 percent of the land to establish the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan.

Cartoon by Yaakov Kirschen, Jerusalem Post, Israel

In 1947 the United Nations proposed dividing the remaining portion of the mandated land into a Jewish state and a second Arab state. The Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) accepted the proposal, but Arab nations did not. They went to war hoping to prevent Israel’s rebirth while saying the Arabs of the area were southern Syrians not needing or deserving their own state.

In the aftermath of the war, between 400,000 and 750,000 Arabs had been displaced. Most found themselves within a few hundred miles of their former homes, living among people with whom they shared language, religion and ethnicity. They should have been the world’s easiest refugees to resettle.

But Arab leaders told the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (the U.N. agency whose only task was rehabilitation of these refugees from Palestine) not to find work or new homes for them.

Fearing that the refugees would quickly forget Palestine if allowed to move on, the Arab League voted that no Muslim nation should grant them citizenship. They and their descendants were to remain in refugee limbo until Israel could be destroyed.

The number of Palestine refugees registered by UNRWA has increased to 5 million or more, of whom no more than 30,000 actually fled the 1948 war.

In contrast, 800,000 Jews thrust from their homes in the Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa in the decade after Israel’s rebirth were quickly absorbed and uplifted by Israel. Their descendants make up the majority of Israel’s current Jewish population.

Egypt had gained control of Gaza during the 1948 war, and Transjordan had conquered the Old City of Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria (dubbing these areas “the West Bank” and dropping “Trans” from its own name).

During 19 year of illegal occupation, neither Egypt nor Jordan attempted to set up an independent Arab state as a home for the Palestine refugees living under its rule. Both occupiers permitted their subjects to infiltrate Israeli territory to attack and murder Jews.

Israel liberated Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 after Jordan allied with Egypt and Syria in a war aimed at destroying Israel and her people. The Arab League rejected Israel’s offer to trade land for peace in 1968.

Israel eventually signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but relations between Israel and both countries remain tepid.

Today, all Palestinians in Gaza and 95 percent of Palestinians in Judaea and Samaria live under Palestinian rule. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has long refused to negotiate on Israeli proposals for the establishment of a Palestinian state while inciting his people to “violently resist the occupation” and richly rewarding those who answer the call.

He insists that Palestine refugees will not become citizens of any state that could eventually be established alongside Israel. On this, he agrees with Hamas, which is encouraging Gazans to attempt to break into Israel (“Our View: Gaza Violence,” May 11).

Having failed to destroy Israel by force, the Palestinian leaders want to see Israel overrun by millions of people raised in societies that reserve their highest honors for the murderers of Jews.

Toby Block lives in Northeast Atlanta.

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