Any effort to understand the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict must examine the matter of Palestinian refugees and their so-called “right to return” to the homes that the Jews allegedly seized from them without cause.
The refugee issue can be traced back to Israel’s creation in 1948. At the time of Israel’s birth, Palestinian Arabs lived on roughly 90 percent of that original Mandate -- in Transjordan and in the UN partition area, as well as in the new state of Israel itself (where 800,000 Arabs lived alongside 1.2 million Jews). If the Palestinian Arabs had been willing to accept this arrangement (which was highly favorable to them) -- and under which they benefited from the industry, enterprise and political democracy the Jews brought to the region -- an internationally recognized Palestinian state would have come into existence in 1948, eliminating the need for a bloody Middle East conflict.
But instead, the Arab League -- representing five neighboring Arab states -- launched a war of annihilation against Israel on the very day of its creation. During the fighting, an estimated 472,000 Arab civilians in Israel fled their homes to escape the chaos of war. They planned on returning after what they expected would be a quick Arab victory and the destruction of the Jewish state. Unexpectedly, however, the Jews repelled the Arab invaders.
In the aftermath of the war, the defeated Arab states, determined to carry on their campaign of destruction, remained formally at war with Israel. The Palestinians who lived in the Arab area of the UN partition did not attempt to create a state of their own. Instead, in 1950, Jordan annexed the entire West Bank. As a result of the annexation and the continuing state of war, the Arab refugees who had fled Israel did not return. Instead, they became refugees in foreign lands.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) defines Palestinian refugees as “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 War.” The UNRWA provides facilities and services for these people in 59 recognized refugee camps in Jordan (10), Lebanon (12), Syria (10), the West Bank (19), and the Gaza Strip (8). It is important to note that the UNRWA does not itself run any of these camps; nor does it have police powers or administrative authority. Its camps house approximately one-third of the world's 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees. (In 1950 the number of registered Palestinian refugees was 914,000.)
During the "Oslo" peace process -- when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) pretended to recognize the existence of Israel, and the Jews therefore allowed the creation of a "Palestinian Authority" -- the PLO waged war by other means by demanding a "right of return" to Israel on behalf of "5 million" Arabs. (This figure is more than ten times the number of Arabs who actually left the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.) More than 90 percent of the Palestinians who now reside in the West Bank and Gaza have never lived a day of their lives in territorial Israel. Thus their claim of a "right of return" is logically incoherent.
The incorporation of five million Arabs into Israel would render the Jews a permanent minority in their own country, and would thus spell the end of Israel. The Arabs fully understand this, and that is why they have made it a fundamental demand.
While demanding a "right of return" whereby, virtually overnight, millions of Palestinians would take up residence in Israel, Palestinian leadership has continued to push for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, separate from Israel. However, that leadership has made it clear that such a state would refuse to accept, as citizens, the very refugees whom it has demanded that Israel accept. The Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, told the Lebanese English-language newspaper, the Daily Star: “They [the refugees] are Palestinians, that’s their identity. But … they are not automatically citizens.... [E]ven Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”
Rather, said Abdullah, the Palestine Liberation Organization would remain responsible for refugees, and the UNRWA would continue its work as usual. As Israel scholar David Meir-Levi observes:
"What an incredible irony. For years, the world has supported the concept of a Palestinian state, and forgiven the endless relentless Palestinian terrorism, on the grounds that Palestinians are stateless people who deserve a country of their own. And now, a senior Palestinian official has announced that once they have received a state, most Palestinians will still be stateless – even those who actually live in 'Palestine.' Moreover, the new state won’t provide these residents with any services: It expects UNRWA – or, more accurately, the American and European taxpayers, who provide the bulk of that organization’s funding – to continue providing their schooling, healthcare, welfare allowances, etc. So almost half of all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not be citizens of the state that demands to be created in order for these same people to have a state....
"The leaders of the Palestinian Authority are abrogating their own supposedly 'sacred right of return' (haq el-auwda), their hitherto uncompromisable demand, canonized in the UN umpteen times since 1949, for the end to the statelessness of the so-called 'Palestinian refugees.' That which they have demanded for the last 60 years as a non-negotiable concession from Israel they now nullify with one sentence, and with no explanation, by refusing to offer it to their own.
"Even the most obdurately blind to the real intentions of the Palestinian Authority cannot close their eyes to the transparent intentions expressed in this Machiavellian statement of rejection. Palestinian leaders are not demanding a state so that they can have their 'long-denied homeland' for their poor suffering 'Palestinian refugees,' all those millions of people who languish in the exile of their so-called 'Palestinian Diaspora.' If they were, they could not now deny to some that right that they have so vociferously and self-righteously demanded from Israel.
"Rather, they are demanding a state so that they can more effectively and efficiently pursue their war against Israel."
Adapted from "Why Israel Is the Victim and the Arabs Are the Indefensible Aggressors in the Middle East" (David Horowitz, January 9, 2002); and "Palestinian State Will Not Accept Palestinian Refugees," (David Meir-Levi, September 26, 2011).