BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Refugees

In light of Martin Asser’s May 24, 2007 “Obstacles to Peace: Refugees” feature, which employs the most extreme myths and cliches about the Palestinian refugees, its no wonder “there is no Arab-Israeli issue that remains as utterly divisive as the fate of Palestinian refugees.”

The Numbers Game

Recycling Palestinian claims instead of undertaking original reporting, Asser writes:

Today there are millions of Palestinians living in exile from homes and land their families had inhabited for generations. …

Four million UN-registered Palestinian refugees trace origins to the 1948 exodus; 750,000 belong to families displaced in 1967 – many for the second time.

Palestinian advocacy group Badil says another million and a half hail from pre-1948 Palestine but were not UN-registered, while an additional 274,000 were internally displaced inside Israel after 1948, and 150,000 were displaced in the occupied territories after 1967.

That makes more than six millions [sic] people, one of the biggest displaced populations in the world.

Asser’s depiction of the situation is, to use his word, “emotive,” but it’s not factual. First, while there are, no doubt, some Palestinian refugees whose families did inhabit the area for generations, the United Nations definition for Palestinian refugees makes it very clear that many did not. According to the Web site of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN body which handles Palestinian refugees, those who inhabited Mandate Palestine for as little as two years could qualify as refugees:

Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. UNRWA’s definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million in 2002, and continues to rise due to natural population growth. (emphasis added)

The UNRWA definition, as well as Asser’s grossly inflated figures, count the descendants of refugees as refugees, despite the fact that this definition is contrary to international law. Thus, under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

There is no room under this definition for a descendant of a refugee to be considered a refugee. The UN got around this problem by creating a loophole –– the usual refugee conventions do not apply to people receiving aid from UNRWA (and only Palestinians receive aid from UNRWA).

But, Asser is even more inclusive than the UN in his tally of refugees, reporting without challenge the inflated figures of Badil, an organization which, according to NGO Monitor, “uses the suffering of refugees as a political basis for maintaining the conflict with Israel” and “campaigns against recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.”

The UN, in contrast, has admitted that even its own numbers for Palestinian refugees are inflated. For example, in the Report of the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – 1 July 1997 – 30 June 1998, the UN acknowledges that:

UNRWA registration figures are based on information voluntarily supplied by refugees primarily for the purpose of obtaining access to Agency services, and hence cannot be considered statistically valid demographic data; the number of registered refugees present in the Agency’s area of operations is almost certainly less that the population recorded.

Since the refugee figures are based on “voluntarily supplied” information given for the purpose of obtaining services, such as financial aid and food rations, there is obvious incentive for people to falsely claim to be refugees to get services to which they are not entitled. Especially since, as previously stated, refugees don’t actually have to live in refugee camps.

There is also incentive not to update authorities on the death of people considered refugees –– since the rations for the deceased would be discontinued.
UN Resolution 194 Distortion

Asser distorts the key international document related to Palestinian refugees, writing:

Israel steadfastly argues that all refugees – and it disputes the numbers – [CAMERA note: Asser doesn’t give any details on Israel’s numbers for Palestinian refugees] should relinquish any aspirations to return to what is now its territory, and instead by absorbed by Arab host countries or by a future Palestinians state.

It disavows moral responsibility by arguing that 800,000 Mizrahi Jews were displaced from Arab countries between 1945 and 1956 (most of whom settled in Israel) and insists Palestinians left willingly.

But that view is at odds with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Resolution 194 asserts the refugees’ unconditional right of return to live at peace in their old homes or to receive compensation for their losses.

Asser is dead wrong to say that resettlement is at odds with Resolution 194. Passed Dec. 11, 1948, the resolution places resettlement of the refugees in their host countries on equal footing with return or compensation. The document’s wording is:

refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. . . [R]epatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation [should be facilitated].

Other General Assembly resolutions from that time period also spoke of resettlement in the same breath as repatriation and compensation. For instance, Resolution 393 of Dec. 2, 1950, which stated:

… without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 … the reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement is essential … for the realization of conditions of peace and stability in the area.

Likewise, Resolution 394 of December 14, 1950 called upon:

… the Governments concerned to undertake measures to ensure that refugees, whether repatriated or resettled, will be treated without any discrimination either in law or in fact.

Also, Resolution 513 of January 26, 1952, refers to “reintegration either by repatriation or resettlement.”

In addition, UN Resolution 194 does not assert “the refugees’ unconditional right of return . . . or to receive compensation,” as Asser claims. The wording of the resolution is that refugees (and Palestinians are not specifically cited, the document equally applies to Jewish refugees), “should be permitted,” signifying a recommendation, not a “right.”

Finally, the erroneous claim that Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds a Palestinian “right of return” is refuted in CAMERA’s Backgrounder “The Palestinian Claim to a ‘Right of Return.'”

Diplomatic Blinders

Asser blames Israel for diplomatically sidelining the refugee issue, stating, for instance, that “Israel has kept Palestinian refugees and their descendants out of negotiations on a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” But he fails to mention that in 1948, it was the Arab states that rejected UN Resolution 194 dealing with refugees. They did so because it failed to establish a “right of return” and because acceptance entailed tactic recognition of Israel. (For Arabs to now argue that Resolution 194 does guarantee a Palestinian “right of return” is totally specious.) Moreover, as a goodwill gesture during the Lausanne negotiations of 1949, Israel offered to open its doors to 100,000 Palestinian refugees before any discussion of the refugee issue. Again refusing to even implicitly recognize Israel, the Arab states turned down the offer and also rejected any face-to-face negotiations (Nadav Safran, Israel: The Embattled Ally, Harvard University Press, p 336).

Demographic Distortions

Asser’s territorial statistics territorial, regarding the UN Partition Plan are inaccurate. (He also does not mention, of course, that the Arabs summarily rejected the proposal.) He writes:

Under a 1947 UN-sanctioned plan to partition Palestine, Israel would have been established on 55% of the former territory, without a significant transfer of population . . . .

It is deceptive to claim that the Partition Plan would have given Israel 55% of the “former territory.” In fact, the original land of Palestine, as determined by the League of Nations, includes what is now Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and the entire state of Jordan. In 1922, the British severed Mandate Palestine so that nearly 80 percent of it became Transjordan (now Jordan), from which Jewish immigration was barred. Palestinian Arabs, however, were not restricted from settling in Transjordan or what was left of Palestine. In 1947, the United Nations partitioned the 20 percent of what remained of Palestine, offering Israel only about half.

The ‘Legacy of Destitution’

Asser notes that many Palestinians “still suffer the legacy of their dispossession: destitution, penury and insecurity,” but he ignores the Palestine Liberation Organization’s own concerted efforts over the decades to keep it that way.

With news reports like these, which pander to Palestinian propaganda, the refugee problem will likely continue to fester as an “open wound” for generations to come.

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