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Will There be Refuge for the Refugees?

By Benjamin Smolley
No reasonable human being can remain indifferent to the plight of refugees. Whatever the reason for the situation, the picture is the same: men, women, and children fleeing in fear of their lives, with terror in their eyes and despair in their faces. They are abandoning their possessions, their past, the place to which they are tied and from which they are being torn.... Their plight is one of the side effects of war, one of the results of the established use of violence.... Society must bear direct responsibility for the fate of war refugees, always and everywhere. Their plight is the work of humankind alone.1

This quote, in all of its poignancy and sympathy for the world of the refugee, was not uttered, as one might perhaps expect, by a Palestinian nationalist or Arab government official. Rather, it is attributable to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. One cannot help but feel encouraged that despite decades of political strife and violence—employed seemingly without conscience and often against innocents—basic human values remain unchanged.

The refugees created by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that established the State of Israel’s independence remain one of the major stumbling blocks to a final Middle East settlement. Not much has changed since the first evaluation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, whose mission it was to improve the refugees’ lot after the War. The Agency reported: “We would emphasize once more that the magnitude and the danger inherent in the Near East Refugee problem needs the fullest understanding and support of the nations of the world.”2

This controversy, vehemently disputed for over a half-century and muddled by partisan distortion of fact, is not one that will be solved easily. Various proposals have entered the political arena since 1948, including the two-state solution, full repatriation, and compensation by Israel. One such proposal, the idea of absorption, was considered quite seriously after the War, but has since nearly disappeared from public discourse. Yet an analysis of the idea’s history and contemporary implications suggests that perhaps it should no longer be dismissed.

The Refugee "Problem": Abnormally Persistent

According to a United Nations estimate, the number of Arabs who fled Palestine as a result of the war was roughly 720,000. Of these, about 70,000 crossed into Transjordan (now Jordan), 100,000 settled in Lebanon, 75,000 fled to Syria, and smaller groups traveled to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Roughly 200,000 refugees landed in Egypt, all but 7,000 of whom were contained in the tiny Gaza Strip, at that time under Egyptian control. Finally, 280,000 fled to the West Bank, which was then occupied by Transjordan.3

In historical and comparative perspective, the Palestinian refugee problem is abnormal. Many have pointed out that refugee problems of much larger dimensions have been solved elsewhere in a far shorter time. Consider the 400,000 refugees absorbed by Finland after its war with Russia, or the 15 million absorbed by Germany, 2.5 million absorbed by Korea, and 15 million by India and Pakistan. Why did these large groups of refugees cease to be international problems? History has shown that nations tend to absorb refugees who are their national and religious kin.4 In this case, however, the states surrounding Israel deliberately chose to reject their Arab kinsmen.

Of course, the most apparent difficulty in resolving the problem is that many of the refugees themselves prefer to return “home.” However, it is itself unique that the refugees still consider land in Israel proper to be “home.” Peres understands and empathizes with the refugees’ powerful attachment to their former land. At the same time, however, he suggests that this sentiment may be an emotional attachment born of the anomie and horrid physical condition in which they currently live. As he says,

For the first generation of refugees, the experience of being a refugee and the culture that grew up around it served as a basis for the consciousness of exile from the land of their birth—the loss of the country, house, lands, landscapes familiar from childhood, and family graves—alongside the hope of returning to their homes. The second and third generations have inherited this experience, a powerful emotive load that grows ever stronger amid crushing poverty and degrading conditions in the refugee camps.5

The report of the Saudi Arabian mission quoted above also emphasizes the experience of the first generation of refugees. It particularly stresses the feelings of nostalgia and longing fostered by life in the camps. “It is heartrending for the refugees to see across the armistice line their homes and farms, and yet not be able to enjoy their farms, to enter their homes. Within eyesight, they gaze at their towns and their villages, but they cannot walk into their towns and villages.”6 Denied the opportunity to build new lives, they could only remain fixated on the nearby places they once called home.

The Aftermath of 1948: Roots of the Current Situation

The idea that the refugees should resettle in neighboring Arab countries came to the fore immediately after Israel’s War of Independence. Sir Hugh Dow, the British consul-general in Jerusalem in 1948, was one of the first to suggest that this was indeed the best solution to the problem.7 He also proposed that Israel pay for some of the refugees’ resettlement, in conjunction with a British “Lord Mayor’s Fund.” Yet at the same time, Dow also anticipated one of the major obstacles to implementing this solution. He predicted that the Arab League would oppose absorption because, as a “purely humanitarian and practical” program, it would “not fit in with their political desire to rid themselves of refugees in their territories…and to send large Arab populations back into Jewish areas as a nucleus for future trouble.”8 Indeed, this is precisely what happened and why the idea has been rejected to this day.

Israeli historian Benny Morris devotes many pages of his book, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians, to the deplorable conditions endured by the refugees in Arab countries, particularly at the early stages. At this time, the governments of Transjordan, Egypt, and Lebanon failed to address the presence and needs of their new populations. A message to King Abdullah of Transjordan transmitted via the Arab Legions’ radio communications system provides a rough yet representative picture of this early situation. “Seventy thousand people are scattered in the streets, the great majority of them impoverished [and] suffering from a major lack of basic goods and water, constituting a serious health hazard.... The municipal council beseeches Your Highness to issue [an order] to the city of Ramallah to evict the refugees as the city cannot cope.” In response, Abdullah demanded unsympathetically that the city’s residents display “patience towards your brothers.”9

Furthermore, while the cursory diplomatic investigations of Britain and America revealed that the refugees’ living conditions “were by and large ‘appalling,’” they also indicated that “most of the Arab states were doing little, if anything, for their relief.” 10 Though Abdullah appealed to his fellow Arab leaders for aid, he received only promises from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Abdullah and his Prime Minister claimed that “some of the Arab states best able to bear a heavy burden…are doing the least of all.”11

According to Morris, Arab and Western leaders understood from the start that the refugee camps were politically dangerous and insufficient. A supervisor of the camps in Lebanon illustrated this general feeling in 1948 when he said that the camps could easily lead to “an intensification of the feeling of isolation and frustration, which is the tendency of many of the refugees.”12 In other words, anyone marginally concerned about the plight of these people realized the problems of permanent refugee status, including the social psychology that such status would produce. However, even as early as 1949, many foreign leaders also understood that full repatriation, the re-entry of Arab refugees into the newly created State of Israel, was out of the question, primarily for security reasons. The alternative preferred by some American observers was organized resettlement in the Arab countries. The U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem (who, as Morris points out, was usually unfriendly to Israeli causes) reported that “political security is best served by settling refugees in Arab states. Returning refugees [to Israel] would create continuing minority problem and form constant temptation both to uprisings and intervention by neighboring Arab states.”13

Why the Prolonged Failure to Absorb?

Peres’ analysis of the situation is simple yet incisive. “The leaders of the Arab countries—apart from Jordan, under the leadership of King Hussein—have chosen to prolong the refugee problem for forty-six years.... The reasons for this were that the countries involved feared disruption and the introduction of revolutionary ideas into their lands. The Palestinians paid—and continue to pay—the price, and have become a nation of refugees.”14

Academic literature on the refugee question has identified many causes and responsibilities for the prolongation of the problem. This essay may discuss them only briefly. Saudi Arabia, for instance, was at first considered a possible site for refugee resettlement. Yet because the Saudi economy was based on oil and a small agricultural sector, it could absorb very few new citizens. Figuring even more prominently in the decision was the possibility of political turmoil. The Palestinians had, under British leadership, become accustomed to a semi-free press and other incipient democratic institutions. They would thus have found it quite difficult to accept the absolute rule of the Saudi king.

The situation in Lebanon was in some ways quite similar. Due to catastrophically high unemployment and a relatively small population, the government was wary of absorption in large numbers. Yet American historian Joseph Schechtman suggests that Lebanon may have been more capable of resettling the refugees than initially believed. He cites the recent finding of an international committee that the irrigated area for farming could have been increased five-fold, thereby accommodating many more inhabitants.15 He also notes that the country had profited financially from the influx of wealthy refugees after the war.

While there may have been legitimate economic and political reasons for Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s failure to absorb the refugees in the decade after 1948, it appears that Syria and Iraq could indeed have facilitated Palestinian resettlement. Syria, for instance, stood to gain by an absorption policy. Schechtman points out that Syria was severely underpopulated at this time, with only 3.6 million people living in a region that once supported 20 million. Fertile topsoil was—and still is—available yet uncultivated there; all that is missing is a viable irrigation system. The U.N. Department of Economic Affairs also noted Syria’s great potential. “The extension of irrigation and the bringing into cultivation of all cultivable lands would make it possible for Syria to increase her present farm population…[by] about 6 million souls.”16 Syria’s Jezira Province was particularly noted for its untapped absorptive capacity.17 Agricultural work would have been an attractive alternative to the idleness of life in the refugee camps, which has so often led to rebellion and violence. To this day, young men in Syrian camps supply a great deal of the manpower for radical groups and terrorist organizations.18

Iraq, too, was and continues to be in a position to benefit from an absorption policy. Iraq’s own officials indicated the need for a more populous agricultural sector; the Baghdad Hydraulic Section head reported that Iraq could absorb 3.5 million people to help cultivate acres made available by irrigation projects.19 An Egyptian newspaper even quoted Iraq’s Foreign Minister as expressing a willingness to absorb “all” Palestinian refugees:

The problem of the refugees is a political card … Iraq alone could absorb all the Arab refugees. In Iraq there are large stretches of fertile land which are not being exploited. Iraq is in need of manpower and can use more than 5 million workers. Even if such a number is found, fertile land will still be available. Iraq will agree to make all Palestinian refugees Iraqi citizens and thus contribute in a big way to the solution of the Palestine problem.20

Why, then, did the refugees remain in the camps, where many remain until today?21The American Embassy initially wrote, in speaking of Iraq, that the Palestinians, “despite their common Arab culture…would be likely to form another unassimilated, discontented minority group.”22 Yet while such internal considerations clearly played a role, a large part of the Arabs’ refusal was calculated anti-Israel politics. As Morris reports, the Palestine Conciliation Committee’s American representative, Mark Etheridge, was privy to Arab leaders’ thoughts on this issue as early as 1949:

A major reason for the Arab unwillingness to properly absorb and resettle the refugees…was rooted in their struggle against Israel rather than in internal political or economic and social considerations. The Arabs saw in the 700,000 or 800,000 refugees a political weapon against the Jews…. The Arabs sought the refugees’ repatriation, both as a demand of justice and as a means to subvert the Jewish State. Hence, it was better to leave the refugees living in squalor…than to support and implement resettlement schemes….23

Thus the refugees, by the hundreds of thousands, remained in the camps, often oblivious to the opportunities that would be theirs for the taking were they allowed entry into the other Arab states.

Repatriation: Returning to a Maximalist Deadlock?

Repatriation may be one of what King Hussein of Jordan once called “senseless illusions,” ideas that one must “have the courage to bury.”24 Repatriation is not the answer, he said, but a

maximal claim that…if accepted, would wipe out the national character of the State of Israel, making the Jewish majority into a minority. Consequently, there is no chance it will be accepted, either now or in the future. No Israeli government would agree to a strategy that entailed the destruction of its national entity.25

Schechtman elucidates the danger of wholesale repatriation, quoting then-Israeli Foreign Minister Sharett’s remarks to the United Nations in 1950. “Above all,” he said, “there is the paramount consideration of security. The obvious purpose of the Arab champions of repatriation is to blow up the Jewish State from within.”26As recently as 1989, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak concurred. “The Palestinian demand for the ‘right of return’ is totally unrealistic,” he said, “and would have to be solved by means of financial compensation and resettlement in Arab countries.”27

It is difficult to mount a credible opposition to this sentiment. Arab primary sources are rife with the suggestion of using the repatriated Arabs as a Trojan Horse. Schechtman refers to the February 17, 1949 issue of the Arabic newspaper Al-Sayyad: “We are unable to return [the refugees] honorably. Let us therefore try to make them our fifth column in the struggle yet before us. Up to now [the Jews] argued that there was a state of war between us and one could not ask them to accept soldiers, enemies, into their midst. But at present, if we shall appear in the guise of peace-seekers, they will have no argument.”28The April 6, 1950 issue of Al-Sayyad urged the repatriation of the refugees because it would “create a large Arab majority that would serve as the most effective means of reviving the Arab character to Palestine while forming a powerful fifth column for the day of revenge and reckoning.”29

Almost fifty years later, in 1999, then-Minister of Refugee Affairs for the Palestinian Authority As’ad Abd-Al Rahman demanded that Palestinians be allowed “to return…to their homes and property,” even while admitting that this idea “is tantamount to the destruction of Israel in Israeli political culture.”30Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, also upheld the right of return despite the threat it poses to Israel. “The fact that the Zionist project requires a Jewish majority,” he said, “does not justify a concession of the legitimate right [of the refugees] to return and to receive compensations.”31While some Palestinian leaders advocate return to an autonomous Palestinian state, others like Rahman and top official Abu Mazen continue to argue that Palestinians must be allowed to return to their original homes—even if these homes are now in Israel proper. According to Mazen, “the Palestinians must be given the right to choose where they live, and that includes returning to the homes out of which they were driven.”32As one can easily imagine, this would often require uprooting Israelis.

While the term “disaster” has become synonymous among Arabs with the establishment and victory of Israel in 1948, the undeniable real disaster is what followed, the impasse and failure to deal humanely with the Palestinian refugees. In absorption, the solution to the miserable plight of the Palestinian refugees seemed very attainable, and the confluence of factors—including underpopulation, close geographic location, and the sharing of a similar culture—seemed to make the plan quite viable. Yet although it has been consistently opposed by many Arab states, it need not be abandonned as an option for the future.

Artz and Peretz outline a modified absorption proposal that also includes compromise on both sides. They advocate that, since conditions remain favorable for absorbing Palestinians in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, absorption there ought to be explored as soon as possible. However, these authors also propose that Israel absorb a symbolic number to allow for regional balance. Absorption could also facilitate cooperation on the issue of refugee compensation. Some suggest that Israeli funds could be used to finance development projects that would help absorb the refugees on a large scale. This would benefit the Arab states while simultaneously promoting Israel’s security interests.

Before such solutions enter the realm of possibility, however, both Israel and the Arabs must be willing to compromise. The Israeli government must be prepared to provide economic incentives for relocation and to support the Arab states in their absorption efforts. On the other side, Arabs must abandon the call for full repatriation. As most readily admit, this scheme would destroy Israel’s character as a Jewish State and undermine the entire nature of the Zionist project. Even more fundamentally, then, the Arab world must fully accept Israel’s long-term presence in the region. It is in such recognition and compromise—and, most importantly, in looking to the future—that a solution may yet be found.

Benjamin Smolley, Harvard Class of 2005, is from Hollywood, Florida.


1. Shimon Peres, The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), pp. 181-183.
2. Saudi Arabian Mission to the United Nations, The Palestinian Refugees: Statements Made by His Excellency Mr. Ahmad Shukairy, Minister of State for United Nations Affairs (New York: United Nations, 1958), p. 5.
3. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 47.
4. See Deborah Kaplan, The Arab Refugees: An Abnormal Problem (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1959), p. 7.
5. Peres, p. 189.
6. Saudi Arabian Mission, p. 4.
7. Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 299.
8. Public Records Office (London), Foreign Office Papers 371-68576 (E10235/4/31), H. Dow, Jerusalem, to Foreign Office, July 29, 1948 and (E10219/10006/4), Amman to Foreign Office, July 29, 1948, as cited in Morris, p. 299.
9. National Archives (Washington D.C.) 501 BB. Palestine/7-1548, Amman to Secretary of State, July 15, 1948; Israel State Archives, Foreign Ministry Papers, 2569/13, July 21, 1948; PRO, FO 371-68578 (E10440/4/31), Sir H. Dow, Jerusalem, to Foreign Office, July 19, 1948; and ISA, FM 2569/13, the Research Department (the Foreign Ministry’s intelligence department), to Y. Shimoni, July 19, 1948, as cited in Morris, p. 296.
10. PRO, FO 371-68677 (E1088/4/31), Cairo to Foreign Office, August 16, 1948; and FO 371-68677 (E11025/10748/31), Amman to Foreign Office, August 18, 1948, as cited in Morris, p. 303.
11. Ibid.
12. NA 501. BB Palestine/12-2748, “Minutes of the Fifth Meeting with Voluntary Agencies,” Beirut, December 3, 1948, as cited in Morris, p. 315.
13. NA 501. BB Palestine/2-949, Burdett (Jerusalem) to Secretary of State, February 9, 1949, as cited in Morris, p. 315.
14. Peres, p. 187.
15. The Clapp Commission’s Economic Survey was initiated in 1999 by the Palestine Conciliation Commission, a group formed by the United States, France, and Turkey under U.N. Resolution 194. See Joseph Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), pp. 82-83.
16. “Population Movement and Population Pressure in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria”: The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, October, 1951, pp. 389-390, as cited in Schechtman, p. 78.
17. According to Schectman, high rainfall and fertile soil in Jezira would have allowed for increased output even in already cultivated areas. See also Hourani, Syria and Lebanon (London: 1946), p. 140 and Warriner, Land and Poverty in the Middle East (London: 1949), pp. 89-90. Schechtman goes on to state that the reason the 200,000 refugees recommended for absorption were not settled in late 1948 was because of the volatility of Syrian currency and finance at that time.
18. See, for instance, the pamphlet of the Public Affairs Institute, The Middle East and The Refugees: A Program to Counter the Soviet Menace in the Middle East (Washington: Public Affairs Institute), p. 28.
19. Public Affairs Institute, p. 29.
20. Ibid.
21. The question of how many refugees remain in the camps is an extremely controversial one.
22. NA 501. BB Palestine/2-749, Baghdad to Secretary of State, February 7, 1949, as cited in Morris, p. 318.
23. NA 501. BB Palestine/3-2849, Beirut to Secretary of State, March 28, 1949, as cited in Morris, pp. 318-319.
24. Donna Arzt and Don Peretz, “The Palestinian Refugees,” Middle East Policy 7:2 (February 2000), p. 2.
25. Peres, p. 189.
26. Schechtman, p. 23.
27. See Mitchell G. Bard and Joel Himelfard, Myths and Facts: A Concise Record of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Washington: Near East Report, 1992), p. 136.
28. Schechtman, pp. 23-24.
29. Schechtman, p. 24. A second reason for the impossibility of repatriation is that the refugees now have “no home to return to,” either because their land has been developed and put to other uses by Israelis or because the absorptive capacity of Israel has been exhausted by Jewish immigration. Though a fair assessment of this claim is beyond the scope of this paper, it suffices to note that few Arabs contend that an influx of refugees to Israel would not create a pressing security threat.
30. Al-Dustur (Jordan), August 16, 1999. Translation courtesy of M.E.M.R.I.
31. Shaml, Appendix to Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 4, 2000. Courtesy of M.E.M.R.I.
32. Al Ayyam, January 2, 2001. Courtesy of M.E.M.R.I.

This Issue

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