“How Many Palestinian Arab Refugees Were There?” asks Professor Efraim Karsh in Israel Affairs (April, 2011). The discussion and his work are critical, because they lie at the heart of other pivotal questions: who are the “Palestinian refugees,” and from where did they come?
Unfortunate victims of the Arab war to destroy Israel in 1948, they have been cared for by UNRWA for 60 years (UNRWA’s yearly budget is now a billion dollars) in numerous towns in Judea and Samaria, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Numbering about 5 million or more according to recent estimates, these once-refugees and their descendants constitute two-thirds of the population in Jordan; many hundreds of thousands reside as second-class residents in southern Lebanon and Syria; many more have headed to Iraq and the Gulf states.
For over four decades the world has increasingly condemned Israel for its “illegal occupation” of Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, eastern Jerusalem, and the Golan: claims of “stealing Palestinian land” and “violating international law.” Israel’s presence there is a result of the 1967 Six-Day war. For Arabs, however, the first and far greater “sin” was the establishment of Israel in 1948: the “Nakba (catastrophe)” which they claim caused Palestinians to flee and created the refugee problem.
Used as weapons in the struggle to destroy Israel, the issue of Arab refugees is a humanitarian concern, one for which Israel is blamed although it’s hard to understand what Israel could have done. The fate of the “refugees” is one of the most difficult knots preventing a resolution of the conflict.
So: who are these refugees?
The Libyan civil war offers an example of what likely happened during the 1930s and 1940s, especially in 1948 in Palestine during the British Mandate when jobs and war attracted Arabs from the region.
Hundreds of thousands of non-Libyans working in Libya, many settled with families, are caught up in the current war. Many thousands were recruited into the armies of both sides from neighboring Arab countries, including mercenaries looking for high-paying jobs (according to reports, $1,000 a day). This is similar to what happened in Palestine before 1948 when large numbers of Arabs moved to Palestine, facilitated by the British. At the same time, Britain actively opposed Jewish immigration and acquisition of land.
Arab attacks increased against Jews in 1947 and especially in early 1948, when Arab gangs and militias drew many outsiders into their forces. In 1948, when Israel was established, they joined the armies of five Arab countries in a war of extermination.
Arabs who were in Palestine in 1949, both native and foreign, either stayed in Israel or became “Palestinian refugees.” Since UNRWA accepted anyone who said they had lived in Palestine for at least two years, there is no way of knowing who was genuinely Palestinian and who was not.