The plight of Palestinian refugees was catapulted back into the spotlight last month, after a pair of events brought the issue to the forefront of international attention. While the Trump administration unveiled a new peace plan, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) received multinational pledges of $113 million in aid. Although these quick-fix efforts aimed to bring peace to, and improve living conditions for, Palestinians, they were rightfully met with widespread disenchantment.
To understand the current situation and how to move forward, it is worth comparing the Palestine refugee problem to the plight of Jewish refugees in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem followed the same series of events that created a parallel Jewish refugee problem: the UN Partition Plan of 1947, Israel’s independence in May 1948, and Arab armies’ immediate attack on the new Jewish state. The ensuing war devastated the entire region, affecting both Jews living in Arab lands (Mizrahi Jews) and Arabs living in the territories previously known as the British Mandate for Palestine (later known as Palestinians). The stories of these two inextricably linked refugee groups exhibit many similarities, yet have led to drastically divergent outcomes.
On the Jewish side, Zionism and the eventual birth of a Jewish state unleashed murderous pogroms such as the Farhud in Iraq, the Riots of Aden in Yemen, the Pogrom of Oujda and Jerada in Morocco, and countless others, causing most Mizrahi Jews to migrate to Israel in the decade following the 1948 war. The reasons for the Mizrahi migration were multifaceted; many were expelled or driven out by fear, while others left for new opportunities in Israel. In the Arab world, where approximately 1.1 million Jews once lived, today only a few thousand remain.
These events also turned many Arabs in Mandatory Palestine into refugees. They endured horrifying experiences of their own, most notably when Jewish paramilitary groups attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin. Their reasons for leaving were also complex; in addition to expulsion and fear, many left at the instruction of Arab states who were preparing to attack.
In both cases, substantial segments of both populations were displaced, leaving homes and property behind. The two stories begin to drift in dramatically different directions, however, when comparing the responses of the international community and of the receiving countries to the displacements.
Responding to hardships endured by Mizrahi Jews, and anticipating more to come, the World Jewish Congress unsuccessfully petitioned the United States in January 1948 to protect Jewish residents of Arab lands. Their experience ultimately should have qualified them to fit the United Nations’ definition of a refugee, but as UN historian David G. Littman notes, the UN failed to help Jewish refugees fleeing Arab lands, refusing to even classify them as such. Neither the United States nor the UN offered assistance, despite knowing that Jews were being arrested, tortured, and killed and their homes, businesses, and synagogues burned. Jews did not receive international aid or reparations from their home countries. Instead, they immigrated to Israel, where they began the difficult process of integration.
In contrast, Arabs fleeing Mandatory Palestine landed in Gaza (controlled by Egypt after the 1948 war), the West Bank (controlled by Jordan), and other neighboring Arab countries. Instead of receiving citizenship or aid from their new host countries, Palestinian Arabs were granted unprecedented refugee status in December 1949 with the creation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, despite the presence of an entire UN agency devoted to their welfare, plus billions in international aid in the decades that followed, the condition of Palestinian refugees has not improved. On the contrary, the intergenerational transfer of refugee status has entrenched the problem and caused the Palestinian refugee population to multiply more than seven-fold.
The diametrical outcomes for these two groups result from two opposing paradigms. Whereas the Jewish State acted as a safe haven for Mizrahi Jewish refugees, welcoming them and viewing them as assets in the nation building effort, Arab states held Palestinian refugees in squalid limbo, to be used as pawns in their conflict with Israel. Jewish refugees, who were mostly forgotten on the international stage, were able to move on and no longer live as refugees today. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, could not move forward because their Arab host states failed to absorb them. Instead, rejected by their Arab neighbors in pursuit of political gain, Palestinian Arabs were left with no choice but to develop their own independent national identity. In 1964, they founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to achieve that end. Tragically, this effort has manifested itself not as an effort toward rehabilitation or integration, but rather as one characterized by rejectionism. Enabled by their perpetual refugee status, Palestinians became preoccupied with victimhood and a “right to return.” Some also began directing resources to supporting terror and educating their children to engage in conflict.
Both groups have their own respective jeremiads, but all refugees deserve recognition and support. However, the current approach toward Palestinian refugees has made their prosperity and dignity dependent on a resolution to a heretofore intractable conflict. Building a better future will require multilateral cooperation among leading economies, international institutions, Arab governments, and non-governmental organizations. The following steps, in particular, are necessary to make progress toward improving the status of Palestinian refugees:
1. The international community must move past discussions about reparations and the right of return, and focus instead on creating actual opportunity for Palestinians. Both Palestinians and Jews have experienced loss and tragedy but, unlike Palestinians, Jews have accepted that they can never return to their previous homes in Arab lands. To this end, the UNRWA ought to be replaced by a program that promotes self-governance for Palestinians currently in the Palestinian Authority, and citizenship for Palestinians living in other Arab countries, rather than simply welfare for an ever-ballooning refugee population.
2. Arab governments hosting Palestinian refugees must embrace the benefits of integration, beginning with full citizenship. Countless examples demonstrate that, when refugees are treated as assets and economic investments, they make a significant positive contribution to the host society. In a 2017 report, the Atlantic Council found that Libyan refugees injected over $1.1 billion into the Tunisian economy, while Syrians contributed approximately $792 million to Egypt’s economy between 2011 and 2016. Jewish refugees from Arab countries and post-World War II Europe also made significant contributions once granted citizenship and opportunities in Israel.
3. In addition to pursuing economic prosperity for Palestinians, Arab governments must abandon culturally and/or religiously motivated retribution against Israel because such an attitude allows Palestinians to prioritize resistance ahead of reconciliation. Some Gulf states have already begun changing their approach, including Bahrain, where the Israeli national anthem recently played to welcome Israeli athletes in competition. Other Arab countries should follow suit.
4. Non-governmental organizations and individuals must be empowered to step in where the government is unable or unwilling. Canada, for example, has a program to sponsor refugees without direct government assistance. Often financially efficient and characterized by long-term success, such programs offer community and accountability for refugees on a level that a government could not possibly provide. Israel’s “Save a Child’s Heart” is another example of a country’s social infrastructure contributing to filling the gap. Organizations like this must be supported in Arab countries to take similar action, particularly when it comes to Palestinian refugees.
Implementing these solutions requires willpower and patience in the face of long-established practices. Damaging, dogma-based thought patterns cannot be eradicated overnight; only a concerted effort to integrate refugees will alleviate such a situation. If the Palestinians are not absorbed and empowered as individuals, they will be left behind, missing out on the opportunities and rights they deserve. The future belongs to both Jews and Arabs alike, but the region can only reach its greatest potential with empowered Palestinian participation.
Natalie Hilder is an editor-at-large for the J'accuse Coalition for Justice.