The Palestinian Refugee Problem

UN refugee centre wall. Qalandiya, May 2018.

Mr. President, whoever tries to understand the Palestinian refugee problem reaches for the true nature of tragedy. For 20 years. a just resolution of this problem has defied the best efforts of the United Nations as well as the individual efforts of many nations, including the United States.

Indeed, we have only to consider what has been the result of these 20 years of concern: during the Arab-Israel conflict which followed the partition of the Palestine Mandate in 1948, an estimated 751,000 Arabs fled from their homes in Palestine and took refuge in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and a small enclave of 141 square miles of barrenness known as the Gaza Strip.

Today, after 20 years of dedicated effort by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — UNRWA — and the investment of over $400 million by the United States alone, the central facts are these: the original 750,000 Arab refugees now number 1.3 million, with over 720,000 in Jordan and almost 400,000 in Gaza; in addition, 40,000 new refugee children are born each year; over one-half the total number of refugees are under the age of 20; the refugee birth rate is one of the highest, if not the very highest, in the world today; one quarter of a million Arab children are now awaiting a place on the relief rolls.

These statistics are sobering and shocking, but the condition of these people is even more disturbing. The refugees themselves remain barely preserved from starvation by the United Nations. UNRWA is only able to provide each refugee with $14 worth of food per year, approximately 4 cents a day.

From my own observation — both in 1959 and now again from a visit from which I returned yesterday — these tragic people are hungry, miserable, embittered and impoverished, burdened with unwanted and uncared for children, numb and generally impassive, yet vulnerable to fanatical hate stimulated by those who hope for a triumphal return to a Palestine cleansed of Jews.

Desperation has bred disillusion; misery has spawned hatred, and years of idleness and want have withered pride in labour. These are the ingredients of a vast human tragedy which, if understood, would shock the conscience of mankind. This, Mr. President, is a veritable seedbed for political violence, hate, and another war.

Taking prisoners. Qalandiya, May 2018.

The refugee problem does not lie simply in the field of economics, even though the hardcore of refugees is composed of unskilled farmers and labourers — indigestible commodities to countries such as Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, already saturated with unskilled and unlearned peasants. The problem is much deeper and in many respects has symbolised the basic Arab-Israel dispute.

Until the events of the past few weeks, the Israeli position on the repatriation of the refugees was readily definable. Israel’s answer was the insistence that the refugee problem could only be dealt with as part of a peace treaty between the Arabs and Israel. This is now, in my view, neither appropriate nor enough.

As we are all aware, for the Arabs to subscribe publicly to a formal agreement with Israel has been impossible. I am convinced by my experience and talks on this trip that the Arabs are as of now emotionally and politically incapable of a formalised peace agreement with Israel.

Moreover, Israel has been reluctant to alter the demographic pattern of the country or to introduce a potential security threat by absorbing even a modest number of the refugees. For instance, in 1949 Israel first offered and then withdrew an offer to repatriate 100,000 refugees because it came to be regarded as a threat to the permanence of the Jewish homeland, so long sought by a suffering and persecuted people.

To many Arab political leaders, the perpetuation of the misery of the refugees was a powerful propaganda pawn in a game directed at the extermination of Israel. To the more moderate leaders, the option of repatriations and return or compensation for property was an important article of faith. Perhaps more important, the rights and the plight of the refugees symbolised a surging quest throughout the Arab world for not only justice for the refugees but for dignity and respect for the Arab.

Both positions were appealing — strong moral arguments were mustered for both sides. But whatever chance existed for sensible discussion and possible resolution of the refugee problem was destroyed by strident voices of hate and fear. Given this impasse, it is no wonder that peace in the Middle East has been shattered every 10 years by brutal and senseless wars.

The scream (in Arabic). Qalandiya, May 2018.

And now there is a new and still larger refugee problem. As a result of Israel’s stunning military victories, the nature of the Palestine refugee problem has been profoundly altered. In the aftermath of this war, Israel has suddenly found itself, virtually overnight, in the position of having “repatriated,” so to speak, more than a half a million refugees.

For a country that once withdrew an offer to repatriate 100,000 refugees the sudden responsibility of acquiring five times that many must come as a shock. Its effect, however, handled, will be profound. Many may consider the presence of over a half million refugees within the area occupied by Israel as a danger to Israel.

In one sense, this is probably true. But in my view, these unfortunate victims of conflict are both a responsibility and an opportunity for Israel. If Israel meets this challenge in a magnanimous way, as I believe she can, then the gates to the Middle East, previously closed to her, may become open. And Israel’s future is in the Middle East.

Adapted from a speech by Senator Albert Gore Sr. on 12 July 1967 courtesy of Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of Souciant Magazine. All rights reserved.