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Why are Palestinian Refugees treated differently than all other refugees in the world?

Why was this de facto exchange of Arab and Jewish populations treated differently from all other population exchanges? Virtually all mass movements of refugees -- even those which went one way and were not reciprocal, as are population exchanges -- have been solved by resettlement or absorption of the refugees in either the original host country or another designated area.1

In the roster of the world's unfortunate shifts of population the number of refugees is staggering: from 1933 to 1945, a total of 79,200,000 souls were displaced;2 since the Second World War at least 100,000,000 additional persons have become refugees. In times of conflict throughout history those who became insecure migrated to regions where they felt safer. Most are no longer refugees, because the resettlement and integration of these refugee transfers by the host country has been considered by the world community to be the normal and humanitarian course of action. The international legal precedent of granting refugees the privilege to live in dignity as citizens in their countries of asylum has been consistently urged for all refugees.3 There has been no successful mass repatriation by any refugee group except after a military victory; further, in instances of refugee exchanges there is no historical, moral, or other basis for one-way repatriation.

The exchange between India and Pakistan in the 1950s was overwhelming in magnitude: 8,500,000 Sikhs and Hindus from Pakistan fled to India, and roughly 6,500,000 Muslims moved from India to Pakistan.4 Even in "crowded, water-logged West Bengal," according to the New York Times,5 where refugees streamed from East Pakistan, the refugees "felt their only hope for solace was among people who spoke their language, had the same dietary habits and shared their customs and traditions." This exchange-bad not come about peacefully. As reported by the Times of London,6

Moslems have been murdering Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Sikhs have been murdering Moslems. Each side blames the other with passionate vehemence and refuses to admit that its own people are ever at fault.
Yet, contrary to Arab attitudes, Pakistani President Mohammed Ayub Khan, at a Cairo press conference in 1960, announced that he had directed his people to deal with their own refugees, without "substantial support from Muslim brethren over the world"; he suggested that Pakistan's settlement of its nearly seven million refugee-, from India might act as an example for the "three-quarters of a million refugees from Palestine" in the Arab countries."7

The modem precedent was set in 1913 when Turkey and Bulgaria began their equal population exchange; and in 1923, Turkey and Greece exchanged 1,250,000 Greeks and 3 55,000 Turks. An agreement was signed in 1930 abandoning individual appraisal in favor of wholesale liquidation of accounts by lump-sum compensation between Greece and Turkey.8 Since almost all the property of the Indians and Pakistanis who changed homelands had been taken over and put to use by the respective governments, India and Pakistan eventually had to reach a similar solution.9

Millions of refugees who left their homes because of religious, ethnic, or political pressures have been successfully resettled. Many millions more are now being absorbed slowly into the life of their respective countries of asylum. The United States Committee for Refugees' (USCR) latest official figure (1982)10 estimated a current "Worldwide Total" of more than 10,000,000 refugees. As thatcommittee reported, ". . . few resettled refugees ever require assistance again from the UN," although the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "lists resettled people as refugees until they acquire a new nationality."11

Among the dozens of countries to which tens of millions of refugees have fled for asylum, the only instance in which the "host countries refused," as a bloc, to assist properly, or even to accept aid in the permanent rehabilitation of their refugees, occurred in the "Arab states."12 In March 1976, the director of the United States Committee for Refugees said that while "everyone must accept their refugees - that's the world situation," still, the "Arab refugees are a special case.""13

Why is the "Palestinian refugee" problem treated as a special case? The United States Catholic Conference's eminent expert, John McCarthy, attempted to put the circumstances of the Arab refugees into the broader context, through his decades of first-hand worldwide experience with refugees. McCarthy's own private affiliations - he has wom "several hats" in Catholic-sponsored refugee resettlement organs - have accomplished the resettlement of roughly one hundredth of the world's hundred million refugees rendered homeless since World War II. During an interview in December 1978, he was asked:

Q: Is the world really receptive to observing the precedent of finding new homes for refugees?

McCarthy: We've settled about a million people in the past 30 years. At the present time we have from Southeast Asia-we can provide homes and jobs for 7,000 people a month, without regard to race, religion, what-have-you. There's no problem with this-it works. We're carrying out resettlement programs in Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Nordic countries, also New Zealand, Australia- all Southeast Asians. We're working with Egyptians, and out of Europe we're taking care of Ethiopians, Kurds, Iraqis, and the whole Iron Curtain. So we have quite a movement of people. There isn't any problem. It always works-if they're told the story as it should be told. You must remember that in any structure- black, white, green, yellow-there's always a certain resistance to the newcomer. If we can show that these people can contribute-that these people have a problem, that these people are good-if we can show that they're your brother, it works.

Q: In the case of the Palestinian Arab refugees-why hasn't it worked there?

McC: It has worked there.

Q: You mean unofficially?

McC: You must remember-it's such an involved political structure. I've worked in the Palestinian structure, trying to say, "Let's resettle these people." The governments of Egypt and so on, they all said, "Wait a while," or "No, we won't do it. The only place they're going to resettle is back in Israel, right or wrong." You must remember-well-these people are simply pawns.

Q: What can be done?

McC: We can do things with people if we have the help, just the permission of the governments. But you must remember one thing: the Arab countries don't want to take Arabs. It's discriminating against their own.... Our only job is to see if we can create new life opportunities.

The most important thing is to get the refugees, the people, resettled.14

"Permanent resettlement" remains the general goal of the United States government as well. 15  Yet the current dialogue omits any mention of the rehabilitation or resettlement of Palestinian Arab refugees. It is the "right of the Palestinians to their homeland" that is consistently reiterated.

The abuse of the refugees, their deprivation of real "human rights" from 1948 onward, and the true motive behind their rejection by the Arab world have all been buried by propaganda slogans and omissions. Humanitarian voices of concern for "human need" and dignity are now muted by the louder and increasingly prevalent trumpeting of the "rights" of the "Palestinians" to "return."

Amid that campaign, the belated recognition of the "other" Middle East refugees, the Jews, was termed an ill-timed "complication" by United States officials during the Ford administration."16 To the benefit of the Arab propaganda mechanism, and perhaps to the ill fortune of many perpetual Arab refugees, Israel has not made an effective case for its own Jewish refugee claim; Israelis say that they have reserved the matter of the population exchange for overall peace negotiations, although they have referred to the exchange during discussions of refugee compensation, and in forums such as the United Nations.

However, if the Israelis chose virtually to ignore the propaganda benefits to be gained from exploitation of their refugees, the Arabs predicted otherwise. Perhaps because of the Arab world's own political use of its refugees, some Arabs have anticipated with apprehension the Israelis' eventual use of what the Arabs see as a strong claim for Israel and its resettled Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

There have been sophisticated warnings that the existence of those hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled to Israel from Arab states would trump the Arab refugee "propaganda card." Even before the propaganda line substituted the term "Palestinians" to replace the term "Arab refugees," the Arab world manifested popular recognition that its demand for the "return" of the Arab refugees to Israel was implausible: in 1966, a prominent Egyptian newspaper published an editorial stating that "we all know that Zionist influence ... brought about the transfer to Israel, of thousands of Jews from Yemen . . . thousands of Moroccan Jews, the same thing was done in Tunisia, and Syria also tried to follow the same policy . . ."

As a result, the editorial reasoned, Israel can claim that, if "tens of thousands of Jews who previously lived in the Arab countries" are settled in Israel, "why should the Arab refugees not be settled in their stead? ... This proposal ... can serve as a propaganda card to arouse the interest of world public opinion.""17

In 1974 the question was obliquely raised again by the Arabs - this time by an Arab-born Israeli journalist, interviewing the head of the PLO delegation to the United Nations at that time, Dr. Nabil Shaat. The Israeli journalist asked, "Why did you send your people to kill innocent people in Ma'alot and Kiryat Shemona ... knowing they were mostly populated by Oriental Jews, whom you call brothers?" At the reference to the Arab-born Jewish refugees, Dr. Shaat responded, "I have no answer to that. I will personally raise the question in our organization when I return to Beirut. . . ." 18

The PLO's Dr. Shaat granted another interview months later, which he used as a platform for his answer: Shaat called for a "charter of rights of Arab citizens of Jewish persuasion."19 Shortly afterward the series of "invitations" from the Arab world to "its Jews" resumed.

Continuing Arab concern was indicated in May of 1975 by an unusually candid article written for the Beirut journal Al Nahar. Sabri Jiryis, an Arab researcher, author, and member of the Palestinian National Council, wrote that "the Arabs were very active" in the creation of Israel, although

this is hardly the place to describe how the Jews of the Arab states were driven out of their ancient homes.... shamefully deported after their property had been commandeered or taken over at the lowest possible valuation.... This is true for the majority of the Jews in question.
Jiryis warned that "Israel will air this issue in ... any negotiations undertaken regarding the rights of the Palestinians. . . . Israel has been assembling the minutest details about the Jews who left the Arab states after 1948 ... so that these can be used when the time comes."

Jiryis concluded that Israelis will put these claims forward: "It may be ... that we Israelis entailed the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians.... "However, you Arabs have entailed the expulsion of just as many Jews from the Arab states.... Actually, therefore, what happened was a . . . 'population and property exchange,' and each party must bear the consequences. "Israel is absorbing the Jews, . . . the Arab statesfor their part must settle the Palestinians in their own midst and solve their problems."20

Lebanese Arabs demanded in 1977 that the "Palestinian refugees be relocated to all Arab nations ... each according to its own capacity."21 That the motives for the Lebanese proclamation were political and not strictly humanitarian was evident: the PLO had contributed greatly to the transformation of Lebanon from international playground to countrywide battlefield. Significantly, however, the demand went to the Arab countries and not to Israel. Thus the responsibility for the refugees was placed, albeit briefly, by Arabs upon the Arab world.

Nonetheless, rumblings of renewed external recognition of this Middle East population exchange continued to appear in the late 1970s, nearly thirty years after the fact.

University of Chicago population expert Philip Hauser, former United States Census Director, who represented the United States on the United Nations' Population Commission from 1947 to 1951, stated in 1978 that

the exchange of populations between out-migrant Arabs and out-migrant Jews is real-precedents have been established. As far as the unprecedented refusal by the Arabs to accept Arab refugees-some quarters call this a deliberate means of destroying Israel. What the out-migration of Arabs from newly-created Israel did was to provide in Arab countries a milieu in which the Arab refugees had access to a common culture and language ... a unique historical situation, in the sense that most refugee populations are faced with the necessity of living in a new cultural and linguistic world.... In light of the total situation - and now I will speak not in the demographic vein but in the less familiar political vein - it would be absurd for the Arabs to insist on what would be double compensation from Israel .... 22
Moreover, perhaps in view of the Israeli government's relegation of its refugee equation to a state of suspended animation, the Jewish refugees themselves finally began to coalesce into independent bodies; in several countries such organizations grew up. One international body calls itself WOJAC-World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries-with delegations of Arab-bom Jews representing sixteen countries of asylum. The Jewish refugees, who never had been clearly identified or adequately discussed in world forums, decided to become recognized, to explain why they can never go back to their lands of origin, and to demand "even-handedness." 23

It was precisely when WOJAC announced the convening of its organizing conference in Paris that the Arabs issued several of their invitations to the Arab-bom Jews to "come back." The Jews disdained the gesture of "hospitality," and composed a response. They enumerated the "miseries" they had endured in the Muslim Arab society at a press conference called to communicate their negative answer to the invitation.*

[* In January 1976, the American Sephardi Federation "representing more than 1 1/2 million Jewish refugees from Arab lands" took a full-pagc advertisement in the New York Times to "decline" the Iraqi government's "invitation." A photograph of two bodies suspended from a scaffold, surrounded by angry-looking onlookers was identified as a "News Service Photo: Iraqis watch the bodies of Sabah Haim (left), and David Hazaquiel, both Jews, dangle from the scaffold after they were hanged in Baghdad." Beneath the photograph the organization responded: "INVITATION DECLINED."

"We, the Jewish refugees from Arab lands whose history in those countries goes back more than 2,000 years, long before Islam--suggest that the Arab governments finance the welfare of their own brothers instead of using them as political pawns, while they spend huge amounts for hypocritical propaganda, half truft and outright lies." (January 11, 1976, New York Times.)]

In 1981, the United States Committee for Refugees noted, as it had not done in many previous reports, the "600,000 Jewish refugees resettled from Arab countries ... three decades ago."24 By the next survey, however, that important recognition was singularly negated.25  Had the Jews initially drawn worldwide attention to their Arab-born Jewish refugees in Israel, had they broadcast the persecution of the Jews and other minorities in the Arab countries-and the social and economic burden of absorbing the Jewish refugees from Arab countries-the Arab demand for one-sided repatriation might be perceived today in a different, more evenhanded and objective perspective, and other, critical unknown elements in the conflict might have by now intruded into the consideration of "justice."

As we have seen, all those hapless peoples counted as "refugees" were not in fact refugees: many were needy souls of other nationalities who found sustenance in the camps, and in the process became-and their children became-unwitting human weapons in a holy war that never ends.

The immediate objective of the Arab world's propaganda strategy has been one-sided Arab "repatriation," a "return" in the name of "self-determination" of those Arab refugees who have been perceived as the Palestinian people from time immemorial, with "rights" to "their land." In the foundation for those claims, one cornerstone is the popular perception that the Arabs are the only hapless refugees who were uprooted in 1948.

The Arabs well know how Jews were-and in least one case, still are-treated in Arab countries, [See Chapter 7] however they may have publicly congratulated themselves for "traditionally benign" treatment of "their" Jews. Consequently, they have grounds for concern for the success of one aspect of their program. If the world recognizes that there has been an irreversible exchange of Jewish and Arab refugee populations, this Arab political maneuver, perhaps, might be expected to reach an impasse.

And yet, as illustrated earlier here, some in the world community have recognized the Arab world's cynical and heartless manipulation of those Arab brethren-men, women, and children who found themselves in refugee camps in search of a better life. Why has that recognition failed to bring about a reasonable solution? Why is this refugee problem different from other refugee problems?

Why has UNRWA spent well over a billion humanitarian-contributed dollars-mostly from the United States-to perpetuate the refugee dilemma? More important, why does the Arab world of nearly 200 million people and millions of miles of territory remain so steadfast in its rejection of one minuscule Jewish state that the Arabs have been willing to sacrifice the human rights and often the very lives of their own people? And, given the honorable and predominantly well-intentioned motives of the free world community-oil-benefit seekers aside -how have the Arabs managed to perpetuate this status quo ante?

The answers lie in what is known-and what is not known-about the region.

Having worked to obliterate from the practical dialogue the history of the Jews as "Palestinian people," and having in fact denied Jewish historical ties to their Holy Land (as in, for example, Article 20 of the PLO Covenant), the Arabs have consistently claimed that in the proposed "secular democratic state of Palestine," most of the Jews who are now in their homeland of Israel would have to depart,"26 presumably back to their countries of origin-including the little-known major component of Arab-born Jews.

But a mutual repatriation obviously could not be demanded if one side of an  exchange of populations had fled from intolerable conditions and could not return. Hence the need for a revised scenario, the Arab "invitation" to Jews to return, and the alteration from "Arab refugees" to "Palestinians." Armed by myths, prevalent among outsiders, that the "alien" Jews lived harmoniously among the "native" Arabs before Israel became a state, the Arabs have tried, through consistent diplomatic and media repetition of statements by Arab leaders, to convince world opinion that the Jews would be "welcome again" in the Arab states if they were forced out of their homeland in Israel, the "Palestinian homeland" of the "Palestinian people from time immemorial."

Because there are extensive contradictions to important popular perceptions and reports-discernible by reading the sentiments and strategies expressed by Arab writers and by visiting the Arab "confrontation" states-the purported "facts" and the "legitimate rights" that are part of the current rhetoric of the Arab-Israel conflict become recognizable as persistent and troubling questions.

Despite the Arab nations' splintered, disparate reactions to what they consider greater threats than Israel - for some the primary danger is seen as the Soviet Union, for others Muslim Fundamentalism, and for the Gulf states its retention of the power of oil-the Arab world remains adamant and uncharacteristically united in its goal, as Al-Ayubi stated it-to tighten a "noose" around the "Zionist entity."

It is the motive for the unchanging, overarching Arab strategy vis-i-vis Israel, the historical factors behind that motive, and the maneuvers that created a climate where that strategy is advocated as "morally" acceptable, which must now be traced.

1. See United States Committee for Refugees, Biennial Reports, C.G. Paikert, The German Exodus (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962); G. Frumkin, Population Changes in Europe Since 1939 (New York: A. M. Kelley, 195 1).

2. YMCA World Alliance, "World Communiqu6," no. 4, July-August 1957.

3.See speech by Charles S. Rhyne, past president of the American Bar Association, "Fundamental Human Rights of Refugees," August 1972, Vital Speeches, September 15, 1972.

4. United States Committee for Refugees, 1969 Report.

5. April 16, 1961.

6. August 28, 1947.

7. New York Times, November 12, 1960.

8.Schechtman, European Population Transfers, p. 12; Schechtman, Refugee in the World, p. 156; for Bulgarian-Turkish Convention of 1913, see Mark Vishniak, Transfer of Populations as a Means of Solving Problems of Minorities (New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1942), p. 15.

9. See surveys of the United States Committee for Refugees, particularly 1975-76 Biennial Report.

10. United States Committee for Refugees, 1982 World Refugee Survey.

11. United States Committee for Refugees, 1981 World Refugee Survey. Contrary to the UN, the United States Committee for Refugees until recently excluded other de facto "resettled" peoples who had "not," as yet, "acquired a new nationality," but its Survey still included the total UN estimate of "1.8 million Palestinian refugees in the Near East," despite the fact that so many, as the Survey noted, were living "out of camps" throughout the Middle East and the world, p. 37. Also see Chapter 18.

12. United States Committee for Refugees, 1975-76 Report,- Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

13. Matthew Mitchell, then director of the United States Committee for Refugees, to the author, March 1976.

14. Author's interview with John McCarthy, December 19, 1978, New York.

15. For examples of statements reiterating this policy, see an address by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David D. Newsom at the Consultations on Indochinese Refugees convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, December 11, 1978, Geneva; remarks by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Patricia Derian, on ABC, "The Boat People: No Port in the Storm?", February 5, 1978; "Refugees are Pawns of Natural and Man-Made Disasters . . . " (pamphlet), United States Committee for Refugees, Washington; Richard F. Jannsen, "The Uprooted," Wall Street Journal, July 18, 1975; Ronald Yates, "Asian refugees: 'Mother of Jesus have pity on us,' " Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1979.

16. "A solution will be further complicated by the property claims against Arab States of the many Jews from those States who moved to Israel in its early years after achieving statehood." Deputy Assistant Secretary Harold Saunders, testifying before House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Investigations, November 12, 1975, Department of State Bulletin, December 1, 1975, p. 798.

17. AI-Muharrir, January 25, 1966.

18. Interview by Yitzhak Ben Gad, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1, 1974.

19. Interview, Jeune Afrique, July 4, 1975.

20. Al Nahar (Beirut), May 15, 1975.

21.Chicago Sun- Times, January 24, 1977, issued after a "secret conclave;" later the same year, a similar statement was issued by Lebanese Christian leaders'joint "manifesto," including Camille Chamoun, a former President of Lebanon, Suleiman Franjieh, President "during the recent civil war," Pierre Gemayel, then Christian Phalangist leader, and others, New York Times~ August 27, 1977.

22. Interview with author, November 25, 1978; March 15, 1981. Professor Philip M. Hauser, Director Emeritus, Population Research Center, University of Chicago, was, beginning in 1938: Assistant Chief Statistician for Population, then Deputy Director (until 1947), then Acting Director (1949-50), U.S. Bureau of the Census; U.S. Representative to UN Population Commission, 1947-51.

23. Statement of the organizing conference, World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), Paris, November 24, 1975. In an Israeli Parliament debate in 1975, Mordechai Ben Porath (later a Cabinet Minister in charge of the rights of Jews from Arab lands) reproached the government: "The State of Israel, regrettably, has discriminated in this case, and has played down the rights of the Jews from the Arab States." Translation from transcript of Knesset Debate, January 1, 1975.

24. United States Committee for Refugees, 1981 World Refugee Survey, New York, p. 27.

25. United States Committee for Refugees, 1982 World Refugee Survey, p. 18.

26. See Article 20 of the PLO Covenant

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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