Social Issues / A Broader Look At The Long-Lasting Conflicts Between Arabs And Jews And The Status Of The Refugees

A Broader Look At The Long-Lasting Conflicts Between Arabs And Jews And The Status Of The Refugees

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The Palestinian Refugee Problem

A Broader Look at the Long-Lasting Conflicts Between Arabs and Jews and the Status of the Refugees

Is the Palestinian refugee problem a unilateral matter? Is it fair to examine this problem from only the Arab or Jewish perspective? Since the situation of the Arabs living in the refugee camps are worse than the simultaneously emigrated Jewish people, we refer to this problem unilaterally as if the only victims of the Palestine events were the Arabs, but in fact that is not true, as it is also not true that the Jews and Israelis are the only responsible ones of overall events. To understand the Palestinian refugee problem, first the meaning of the word refugee should be understood; a refugee is an individual who left his or her native country and is unwilling or unable to return to it because of persecution or fear of persecution as because of race, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Those individuals who seek refugee status are sometimes known as asylum seekers; the most common asylum claims to be industrialized countries based on religious and/or political grounds. Once the definition of the word refugee is clarified it would be a good start to talk about the historical background of Palestine and then perceive the events from both Arab and Jewish sides, from the states and migrants point of views, considering the expulsions, massacres, human rights violations and follow the history and the conditions in which the refugees are living since 1948, Israel’s role and finally the almost non mentioned massacres and expulsions of the Jews from the Arab states. The aim of the first chapter is to give you a general historical background of Palestine and the origins of the refugee problems and the roots of the conflicts and this section will be followed by the Arab Israeli conflicts, Arab states irresponsibility on the refugee issues, statistics showing the emigration rates, and the role of the UNRWA, and my final chapter will include the other side of the issue; the Jewish refugees immigrated right after the Second World War and their massacre experiences in various Arab countries and then at the end I will sum up with clarifying my point of view objectively after summarizing my researches.

In order to understand the Palestinian refugee problem we should have a look at the Palestine’s historical background throughout the centuries. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks and in the aftermath for 300 years the Ottomans avoided any foreign influence to involve in the region, but in 1831 a dependent

of the Ottoman Sultan, an Egyptian viceroy entered with his forces to Palestine and occupied it and during his times the region was available to the European influence. The Sultan reestablished the control in 1940 again, however the Western influence continued to exist. In 1882 Jews especially the Russian Jews were the first ones to settle among many Europeans. Towards the end of the 19th century the Zionist movement was established and huge amounts of Zionist colonies established here. This Jewish movement was a response to the increasing anti-Semitic ideologies and according to the Zionist ideology a Jewish land must have been established in Palestine. In the beginning of the Zionist colonization of the Palestine land the majority of the Palestine population was Muslim and the rural population was mainly composed of Arab peasants, on the other hand in the urban areas there were located large sizes of Arab Christians at Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem and also many Jews at Jericho, Hebron, Jerusalem, Zefat, and Tiberias (Shemesh, 1998: p.112).

Contemporaneously there was a rise in the Arab nationalism in the Middle East against the Ottoman rule. At the First World War, the British troops invaded Palestine thanks to Arabs support. In 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, the British government made a deal with the Zionist leaders ensuring them to help them establishing a Jewish national land in Palestine and also to protect those non-Jews (Sicke, 1989: p.71). Interestingly British promised similar things to the Arabs simultaneously, like backing up the creation and independence of the Arab states. The problem was about the fact that Arabs considered Palestine to be one of these promised lands.

There were 58,000 Jews, 74,000 Christians, and 568,000 Muslims living in Palestine in 1919. After a year the first sign of public violence against Zionists started. The administration of the area initiated in 1920 and in 1922 the League of Nations approved the mandate of the Britain. Because of the fact that British government was the mandate, the responsibility to help the establishment of a Jewish homeland and also supporting and giving momentum to the Jewish immigration were also under British responsibility. With the 1922’s White Paper Britain emphasized that their policy was not to make the whole land Jewish, they thought to make only a part of Palestine a Jewish land, and also they stressed the economic constraints on the numbers of the immigrants and asked for a defined limits. In 1920’s even though the immigration of the Jews was almost slight, the economic improvement of the Jewish community was pretty sizeable. At the end of the 20’s because of the fact that Arabs were feeling threatened by the unexpected and fast prospering of the Jews, a very harsh tension rise between Arabs and Jews experienced. As a result of these, another White Paper was signed in 1930 in order to limit the immigration of the Jews. Huge increase of Nazism in the world especially in Europe, thoroughly triggered the immigration of the Jews to Palestine, while looking at the statistics it can be seen that while in 1932 the number of the authorized immigrants was about 5,000, this number goes up to 62,000 in 1935. Vis-а-vis this increase many boycotts and general strikes were realized by the Arabs, these were long lasting strikes, actually one of those lasted for six months and also guerilla forces were formed to fight against the Jews.

Because of all these disorders the Peel Commission gathered in 1937 and as a result of the gatherings, the Commission found British promises non reliable and incapable and unworkable in many ways British rule itself. Because of all of these points the Commission advised that the Palestine land should be divided into Jewish, Arab, and British mandatory states. The Arabs rejected this while the Zionists unwillingly accepted the segmentation. What Arabs mainly objected to was the proposal for the Arabs to leave the proposed Jewish state (Sicke,1989: p.18). Consequently Britain dropped the division idea and declared a fresh policy with the White Paper of 1939. According to the new White Paper there will be a limitation on the number of the immigrants; only 15,000 Jews in one year would be able to immigrate up until 1944 and if the conditions of immigration are applied properly, then the Arabs should give assent to Jewish immigration, in return the land purchase rates of the Jews would be diminished and limited. The main aim was to establish a state of Palestine, which would be completely independent and having two nations.

After these proposals the Zionists were pretty disturbed and shocked and viewed these decisions as the real enemy and betrayal of the Balfour Declaration. Surprisingly the Arabs agreed on this with the Jews and rejected the plan too, but their reason and desire were different; they wished a prompt and straightaway establishment of an Arab Palestine, a complete avoidance of the Jewish immigration and a reconsidering or the all-Jewish immigration from 1918 up until the present date( Sicke,1989: p.62). The only point realized of the plan was the restricting the land transfers, all the other issues mentioned did not get into system because of the beginning of the Second World War. During the war all the Zionists and most of the Arabs supported Britain, but internal conflicts in Palestine somehow increased. In Palestine the Jewish terrorist groups were active and they were killing the British officials. Because of destroyed situation of the European Jews and the Jewish lobbies in the United States which were pressuring decidedly, the United States started to support the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the US president at the time, Truman, demanded Britain to allow the admission of the 100,000 Jewish immigrants. As a result of the devastated Jewish people who were dreadfully escaping from Hitler’s death camps in order to save their lives, the illegal immigration occurred extensively in the region. Meanwhile, the independent ones of the Arab states get together to organize an Arab League to decide what to do about and how to pressure the Zionists (Sicke,1989: p.32). Then in 1946 a new commission of both the American and British parties decided that Britain should go on with its administrative role in Palestine and to annul the limitations on the land transfer, permit 100,000 Jewish people’s entrance, and finally to ban or fight against the dangerously armed Jewish terrorist groups. In 1947, again to establish autonomy for both Jews and Arabs another conference took place in London with the participation of the Zionists, Arabs, and Britain, but again in the conclusion there has been no agreement. As a conclusion of these events Britain accepted the fact that the rule that the British government applied was undoable and ineffective, in February 1947 Britain withdrew from being the mandate and transferred the Palestine dilemma to the United Nations. Just when this transfer has happened the population proportions were like this: there were about 146,000 Christians, 614,000 Jews, and 1,091,000 Muslims in the land of the Palestine. After the withdrawal of the Britain the United Nations demanded the segmentation of the western part of the land into two areas; Jewish and Arab areas. This time the Jews accepted the offer, but again the Arabs insisted on rejecting. But they were not satisfied with only sending rejections, this time seven Arab countries get together and made a formal public declaration for the extinction of the Jews and decided to attack the newcomer Jewish state.

Once we cleared the historical background and the ingredients of the Palestinian population now the refugee problem can be more wisely understand and issued. Actually the refugee problem takes its roots and derives from these ongoing conflicts throughout the Palestinian history, but the most considerable and concrete event of the emergence of the problem can be considered as these attacks of the seven Arab states to exterminate the Jews. These attacks were crucial in a sense that according to the statistics 539,000 Arabs left Israel in order to get away from the Arabs attacks’ itinerary and not to be subject to any attack. The attacking Arabs promised the migrating Arabs that they could come back and accommodate in the houses of the Jews right after they will finish the extinction of the Jews. On the other part of the mirror we see the Jews, exactly 850,000 Jews excluded and expelled from the Arab countries, which have been their motherland for hundreds of years. They all had to leave their money, assets, and property. 850,000 Jews had to leave their homes miserably without a penny and ran away to Israel from the Arab countries. Even the community assets of the Jews were immediately confiscated. As a result they had to move on with empty pockets. This was a kind of a practical population exchange, but the conditions waiting the migrant Arabs and Jews were pretty different; while the Jews were immediately accepted and given food, clothing, and shelter by the newly established Israel, the Arabs faced many difficulties and exclusionary policies. They migrated to many different Arab countries and were not obviously welcomed. Interestingly the Muslim brothers of these migrants did not regard them positively, but they behaved almost in hostile manners. They saw them as they were non trustable, but these host countries did not want to attract the pressures and negative opinions of the Western world and to keep them away apart from the issue and to silence them, they built very low quality refugee camps to show to the West.

The UNRWA (United Nations Relief Agency) assisted those countries’ camps that did or could not provide the appropriate conditions to the refugees. But these camps over time turned out to be training camps for terrorists who are targeted to Israel (Satanovskii, 2004: p.8). Some host countries such as Syria on the one hand provided weapons, training facilities, and explosives to Arabs, on the other hand the government did not accept or regard them as equal citizens. As much as they had experienced the misery, they became much angrier terrorists located at the front line to attack Israel. They were kind of a substitute of the Arab forces who were defeated many times by Jews and the motto of the Muslim society was pride and shame, the identity and symbol of the Arab Macho man was pretty destroyed and these terrorist were there in misery, angry, full of revenge, and ready take their reputation back. It can be said that the Arab forces get into Palestine land with the aim of keeping the Zionists away from the Palestinians, but their plan did not work properly. They had to leave their country instead, they were the ones forced to go and emigrate, they were imposed political and ideological blockade, and put into small dirty ghettos with lacking conditions which looked like the Jewish ghettos in the Eastern Europe. The Arab states abolished the Palestine state’s unity.

In 1948 the amount of Arabs who migrated to the new State of Israel is various depending on various sources. The most reliable source shows the number to be 539,000 people. Again in 1967 the number of the Arabs moving from Gaza, Judea, and Samaria that moved to Israel control, changes again from 125,000 according to Israelis’ statistics and 250,000 according to UNRWA statistics. Among these refugees almost the 30% were moving for the first time, whereas the rest of them have already been refugees before in 1948. Here are some statistics from the UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency); first of all the total number of the refugees in 1996 was 3,300,000 and the distribution of the refugees was like this; in Jordan there were 10 camps in which 242,922 people lived, whereas the number of people who didn’t live in the camps was 1,100,000. In Judea and Samara there were 147,302 refugees living in 20 camps and 385,136 people lived out of camps. In Gaza, 378,279 people lived in five camps and again 378,279 people out of the camps. In Lebanon 182,731 people lived in twelve camps and 169,937 out of camps. And finally in Syria 89,472 people lived in ten camps whereas 257,919 people lived out. To sum up with it can be said that in 57 camps located in the Middle East exactly 1,040,000 refugees lived in total, in addition to this 2,260,000 people lived out of the camps in these places.

Palestinians’ refugee status has a peculiarity, a unique characteristic when compared to the other population displacements around the world evolved after the First World War. Huge amounts of people having different nationalities, backgrounds, origins, religions, and ethnicity such as Sudeten Germans, Karelian Finns, Muslims and Hindus located in the Indian subcontinent had to leave their homelands and immigrate to the other countries and fortunately they have been welcomed and absorbed by the countries of similar religious or national characters. Unfortunately and differently the Palestinians did find shelter and food, but did not receive enough political or civil rights to be able to survive as a citizen in the neighboring Arab countries.

The UNRWA is the one and only body of the United Nations dedicated to only one specific group of refugees; the Palestinians. All other refugee groups are under the control and responsibility of another UN body called Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Under the UNRWA by 2003, there are more than 4 million refugees and their descendents who had to move or be displaced because of many different Arab-Israeli wars and among these refugees 1,300,000 ones continue their lives in the UNRWA camps. In its essence, the agency is responsible of the refugees up until they become repatriated, resettled, or compensated, but because of the needy conditions of the refugees the agency provides housing, feeding, and educating people for long times in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Additionally there is another duty under the agency’s control, to balance and deal with the converging and diverging interests of the Israel, the Arab States, and the Palestinian movement. The Palestinians’ refugee status was continued to be emphasized by the host countries and the Palestinian leaders and also by the international community thanks to UNRWA. As a consequence of this common perpetuating, the refugee status of the Palestinians transferred from father to son over an half century, and as a result of this situation today the Palestinians compose about the one fourth of the world refugees. However, there is another fact also mentioned at the report of the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the figures and the statistics of the UN cannot be totally accurate at all, because of the fact that most of the refugees claim to have more family members than they really have, in order to receive larger proportions of aid.

But, what about the determination of the refugee status? By whom and how this status is identified? Even though a person lived his life in somewhere around the world other than Palestine for many generations and had no land, assets, or property in Palestine land, if that person is an Arab and get into Israel soil up to two years before the rebirth of the Jewish state, she or he has the right to claim himself/herself to be a Palestinian refugee. It was unexpected situation that today there are still refugees from 1948 living in refugee camps even decades after the original displacement. According to Ralph Galloway, the former head of the UNRWA, the reason for this problem not to be solved is the unwillingness of the Arab states to solve it, because they have benefits from the outcomes of the situation. The Arab states want to keep the problem as an open raw, like an insult to the United Nations and more crucially as a weapon to use against Israel, according to Galloway the Arabs do not really care about the refugees and use them just as a tool or threat against others. Actually the Arabs viewed the destruction of Israel state as a more important issue than the refugee matter, and as the hunger and low standards of the refugees continue to exist the anger, bitterness, and revenge feelings of the Palestinians will increase. In 1967 War Israel inherited the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, by doing this Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee camps administrated by UNRWA too. Each time the Israelis asked to negotiate and to make a peace settlement the Arab states refused (Berger, 2003: p.63). The Palestinian refugees futures are put in danger because of their own Arab brother, this both very unfair and leading to hate. Under these circumstances with all this hate, negative conditions, poverty it would not be a surprise the growing up of a hateful generation to damage both themselves and the others. It is a real cruelty of the Arab states to use Palestinian refugees as propaganda.

I think it would be unfair to put all the blame on the state of Israel for the Palestinian refugee problem, first of all there would be no refugee problem if the Arab states accepted the United Nations’ partition and the Arabs are the ones to start the war in 1948 and this war caused the Arab refugees to leave their homes while the Israel state tried to convince them to stay and meanwhile the Arab leaders scared them to move with the suspicion of Jews to persecute the Arabs (Bronner; 2004: p.7) . In his speech in 1960, the king of Jordan king Hussein, talked about the Arabs behaving irresponsibly about the Palestinian refugee issue, they did not prepare a plan regarding the future and used those people for their own selfish political purposes, he also blames the Arabs to be criminal. At the Lausanne negotiations of 1949, the state of Israel proposed to take 100,000 Palestinian refugees, however the Arabs rejected again, because accepting this offer was the equal of recognizing the state of Israel. Apart from this since 1950’s Israel permitted more than 50,000 refugees to come back to Israel via family reunification program. After that allowed 75,000 more to come back to the West Bank or to Gaza and finally another 90,000 Palestinians after the Oslo process.

There is one more refugee situation emerged after the Israel state’s independence and surprisingly this situation is much less heard and mentioned but also involved larger number of people moved and more property lost when compared to Palestinian Arabs. Similarly to Arabs living in Palestine, Jews too were forced to leave their homes in which they built their memories for decades and after their assets, property, and lands’ being taken from them to the lowest prices, they were deported to Israel. Yes, the Israel’s establishment caused extrusion of some Palestinians (estimated at 700,000) from their homes at the war of 1948, but also the Arabs caused the extrusion of many Jews out of the Arab states and most of those people settled in Israel (Khalaf, 1991: p.34). It can be said that a kind of population and property exchange has happened. Israel tried to absorb the Jews coming from the Arab states and similarly the Arab states should deal with the Palestinian refugee problem. We should see the events bilaterally before having any judgment on any kind of issue; so we must examine the less known Jewish refugee issue too.

Starting with 1950’s when Algeria gained its independence from France, Algerian nationalists started to attack violently on Algerian Jews, applied restricting decrees and unfairly high level of taxes on Jews, and also all the synagogues were transformed into mosques except one. After these events 160,000 Jews left Algeria. In Libya there was this deeply rooted Jewish community for over 2,000 years and these people were supposed to anti-Jewish violent attacks in November 1945, just in Tripoli 120 people massacred, 2,000 were made homeless, more than 500 wounded, and the synagogues were destroyed. As a result of hostile exclusionist policies and violent attacks, by the 1950’s over 40,000 Jews left were forced to emigrate. In Egypt, because of unleashed discrimination and violence, after 1940 many of the 90,000 Jews in Egypt started to leave their lands. After 1950, 35,000 Jews migrated, 350 Jews were killed or damaged, their workplaces were attacked, and their assets were confiscated. The Jews living in Iraq were had deep ancient origins back from Babylonia; in 1947 their number was about 190,000. At the period of the Israel’s establishment many Jews were put into prison and emigration to Israel was forbidden. Jews were found guilty of possessing Zionist ideologies and sent to exile or forced to pay an amount equivalent of $40,000 as a punishment. Thousands of Jews escaped from the country and in 1950 the government made the emigration legal again and put pressure on Jews to leave. In 1950 there were only 6,000 Jews in Iraq, but those who left the country were allowed to bring only $140 per one adult person with them and they were obliged to leave all their assets and money to the Iraqis and their lands and properties were impounded by the Iraqi state. Whereas in 1948 in Syria, there were 17,000 Jews again deeply rooted back to biblical times. The first traces of the anti-Jewish movements were seen in Aleppo in 1947, Syrians destroyed the local synagogues and 10,000 Jews experienced violent attacks. After that, the Syrian government immediately has frozen the bank accounts of the Jews and impounded their property. In 1950 only 5,000 Jews remained in Syria and those who remained were not permitted to emigrate, were obliged to sell their property and to carry a special identity cards defining their Jewishness with them any time. Finally in Morocco, in 1948 there were 350,000 Jews at the time, in this year there have been experienced many massacres of Jews in Oujda and Djerada, because of these dreadful events, more than 50,000 Jews emigrated during 50’s and the violent attacks went on in Oujda, Rabat, and Casablanca.

As a last thing I want to look at these refugee issues from the human rights perspective. First of all, there is a crucial controversy on one issue, were the Arabs kicked out of their homes by Israel or they left their lands because of the promised glorious return by their own Arab leaders? Yes there were also many Arabs afraid of the massacres done by the Israeli soldiers and emigrating for that reason, but that was not the unique reason as we mentioned before. It is true that forcing Arab families to leave their homes is a direct violation of human rights, but sometimes in order to create order there must have been some relocations. Just to give an example, after the Second World War almost 15 million ethnic Germans were obliged to move from where they live such as from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and from some other Central and Eastern European countries and some of these people became displaced people and lost their lives during the forced migration. After the displacement countries like Britain, US and some international organizations declared that the relocation of these people is a hard process to deal with, but it is necessary to secure a more lasting process. But the difference in the Arabs case is that they did not want to have peace and they preferred to use this issue as a tool of hostility and as an excuse to not to make peace. First of all they did not accept to establish a binational state and then again in between 1948 and 1967 the Israeli government wasn’t against to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but again the Arab leaders did not want such a state next to a Jewish state.

To sum up with, it can be said that the roots of the Palestinian problem goes back to the initiating of the Zionist movements and later on the will of the Zionists to build a Jewish land created more conflict with the Britain’s dual promises of backing up both the Arabs and Jews at the same time starting with the Balfour Declaration, naturally the problems emerged between two parties when the interests started to converge. The obvious economically prospering of the Jews, threatened the Arabs and this became another factor leading to conflicts, the White Papers had also huge influence on the conflicts and the Nazism emerging in Europe backed up the massacres and isolationist policies. The most concrete start of the refugee problem is the beginning of the seven Arab states’ attack on Jews with the aim of extermination. After I’ve done my researches I believe that the Arab states misled the Arabs by promising them the return to their land after the extermination of the Jews. This has been the main reason of the refugee problem and in the aftermath the Arabs refused to deal every time there is an offer or a negotiation demand. As it is widely mentioned above, the Arabs use the refugee camps for their own political purposes without caring about the physical and mental conditions of the refugees; actually the UNRWA tries to deal with these people. After that, I mentioned about the Jews who had to leave their own houses both Palestinians and many others living in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, and Syria. What I aimed was to clarify the Palestinian refugee problem and look at the issue from both the Arabs and Jews points of view, because while learning about the history we should not view an issue from only one perspective, but we should look at the each component, be objective and give a final decision only after having a multilateral conceptualizations. Before concluding I can say that I hope better living standards for the Arab refugees and I think an international pressure should be done to Arab states to alter and support the conditions of the refugee camps in order to save the new generation from growing up in a hostile revengeful ambience.




• Berger, Elmer (2003) “Peace for Palestine : first lost opportunity.” Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1993

• Bronner, Ethan (2004) “Who Is to Blame for the Creation of Palestinian Refugees?” New York Times; 2/20/2004, from

• Khalaf, Issa (1991) “Politics in Palestine : Arab factionalism and social disintegration, 1939-1948.” State University of New York Press, 1991.

• Rees, Gareth (2001) “A Personal Experience oh the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Contemporary Review; Dec2001, Vol. 279 Issue 1631, p347, 2p, from

• Satanovskii, Evgenii (2004) “The Palestinian Problem in the 21st Century.” International Affairs: A Russian Journal of World Politics, Diplomacy & International Relations; 2004, Vol. 50 Issue 1, p74-82, 9p, from

• Shemesh, Moshe(1988) “The Palestinian Entity, 1959-1974 : Arab politics and the PLO.” London, England ; Totowa, N.J. : F. Cass, 1988

• Sicke, Martin. (1989) “Between Hashemites and Zionists : the struggle for Palestine, 1908-1988.” New York, N.Y. : Holmes & Meier, 1989.


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