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Palestinian Refugees and Right of Return

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The following article in Ha'aretz summarized the refugee problem and gives some statistics and insights. It is reproduced here with the addition of useful links to source documents mentioned in the article. A long anecdote about a Belizean diplomat of Palestinian origin is omitted from the opening paragraphs. A.I. See also - Palestinian Refugees

Everything you wanted to know about the right to return but were too afraid to ask

Friday July 6, 2001 Ha'aretz

By Uriya Shavit and Jalal Bana


How many Palestinian refugees are there, what is their political and economic status, and on what do they base themselves when they demand the "right of return"?

In 1949, the Palestinian population totaled 1,380,000 people, of whom 730,000 were refugees. Fifty-two years later, a second and third generation has been added to the first generation of refugees: Natural growth at a rate that is one of the fastest in the world has multiplied their number by fourfold at least. According to data of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which devotes its activity to the Palestinian refugees, their number today stands at 3.7 million.

The general opinion is that the agency's records tend to be exaggerated, for the simple reason that anyone registered as a refugee is entitled to financial support from the agency. The result is that some refugees never die; only the photographs in their ID cards change.

UNRWA defines a "Palestinian refugee" as a person who resided in Palestine for at least two years prior to May 1948 (when the State of Israel was established), lost his home and his means of livelihood as a result of the war of 1948-1949, and now lives in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. The definition is an expansive one and takes in all the refugee's offspring.

[Mideastweb - it also includes the offspring of marriages between Palestinians and non-Palestinians. Because of relative prosperity in the Jewish areas of Palestine and work offered by the British in the Haifa docks during WW II  there was apparently continuous net migration of Arabs into those areas from the West Bank and from outside Palestine.]

The general term "Palestinian refugee" refers to population groups whose social and political situation is extremely uneven. Thus, 22 percent of the refugees live in the Gaza Strip; according to the UN agency, 818,000 of the 1.1 million Palestinians who reside in the Gaza Strip are refugees. Most of them are members or descendants of families that in 1948 fled from the region extending from Jaffa southward. Nearly half of these refugees, 440,000 of them, live in eight tremendously overcrowded refugee camps. The Shati camp, for example, is home to 74,000 refugees who are squeezed into an area of less than one square kilometer.

The population explosion in the Gaza Strip shows no signs of abating. The annual birthrate there is no less than five percent, the mortality rate 0.5 percent; the average number of births per woman is 7.5, and half the population is below the age of 15. By the year 2020, the population of the Gaza Strip will be 2.5 million and the population density will be 7,000 people per square kilometer - the highest in the world. Taking into account the unstable economic infrastructure, even massive development in the years ahead will not alleviate the distress of the Gaza Strip.

[MidEastWeb. The reported rates of increase from 1990 to 1995 would have required a birthrate of 6% among all Palestinians, which is not supported by the birth statistics. Moreover, the total number of Palestinians who could claim Right of Return is not limited to UNRWA registered refugees. Palestinians who live in the United Stated for example, and are not included in the refugee statistics, can and do claim right of return, as do Palestinians living in Jordan who are not in the refugee camps and are not registered with UNRWA. Assuming that there are about 4 million such persons in all, a conservative estimate, at current rates of increase, resettling or returning 150,000 refugees each year forever would leave the same number of refugees as there are now.]

In the West Bank, the refugee population is 580,000 out of a total population of 1.8 million Palestinians, according to the UN relief agency. One quarter of the refugees live in 19 camps. The refugee families in the camps maintain an attachment to their towns and villages of origin.

Israeli researcher Yitzhak Ravid, who this year published a study on the refugees within the framework of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Research at Bar-Ilan University, says that the Palestinian Authority has some reservations about improving the situation in the refugee camps, and is making an effort to emphasize that such activity cannot be construed as undermining the temporary status of the refugees or as weakening their entitlement to the "right of return." Rehabilitation activity that might be construed as acceptance of the refugees' permanent residence in the Gaza Strip encounters resistance by activist groups in the camps. [MidEastWeb note - According to Palestinian sources, there have been virtually no improvements in the physical plant of refugee camps].

'No obstacles' in Jordan

There are 1.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, according to the UN agency, of whom 200,000 are considered "displaced persons" - Palestinians who left the West Bank in 1967. About 280,000 of the refugees live in 13 camps. The majority of the refugees in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship and have integrated themselves into the country's economic and social life.

"A Palestinian refugee with initiative who lives in Jordan and wants to get ahead faces virtually no obstacles," says Dr. Amnon Kartin from the department of geography at Tel Aviv University, who has conducted demographic research on Jordan. "In general, their economic situation is no worse than that of the Bedouin [who form the basis of the country's indigenous population]."

There are 376,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, constituting 10 percent of the country's population. According to Yitzhak Ravid, the actual number of refugees in Lebanon is between 250,000 and 300,000. Most of them are from families that fled to Lebanon from Haifa and Galilee in 1948. Of all the refugees in the Arab states, their plight is the most severe. Because of the Lebanese government's fear of upsetting the ethnic-religious balance in the country, only a quarter of the refugees have received citizenship. The majority of the refugees in Lebanon live in 12 camps. They are not accepted to government positions and are also barred from a wide range of professions, including those that require academic training.

The average monthly income of 80 percent of the refugee families in Lebanon is below $400. They are not entitled to government-sponsored education and health services or to social insurance. Their freedom of movement is restricted; if they want to leave the country, they need a special permit, which is issued for a limited period. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, Beirut has stepped up its pressure on the refugees in the country.

The refugee population in Syria stands at 378,000, according to the UN relief agency, though Ravid estimates their number at no more than 300,000. They are from families that fled from the north of Israel in 1948, mainly from Haifa and Safed, though some are from Jaffa as well. About 110,000 of the refugees in Syria reside in 12 camps.

The refugees in Syria enjoy employment and education rights, and the government helps maintain the camps. However, the refugees are denied citizenship and there are limitations on their employment in government posts.

A few hundred thousand Palestinians whose families fled from their homes in 1948 live in the Gulf states (according to the data of the PA's refugee affairs ministry, there are 274,000 refugees in Saudi Arabia, 34,000 in Kuwait and 105,000 in the other Gulf states), in other Arab countries and elsewhere in the world. The refugees in the Gulf states do not enjoy civil rights but, overall, are relatively well-off economically. The Palestinian Diaspora in the United States numbers about a quarter-of-a-million people, who constitute about 10 percent of the Arab-American community. Most of them are American citizens and have integrated economically and socially.

The UN resolutions

The Palestinians have always claimed that the "right of return" was recognized by the international community. To support this contention, they cited a number of international conventions (including the 1948 Universal Charter of Human Rights), resolutions passed by the UN Security Council (notably Resolution 242 of 1967), and several resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly calling on Israel to permit the refugees to return.

[MidEastWeb - the "1948 Universal Charter of Human Rights" is really the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Click here to view the whole document in Arabic Translation and in English. It is not international law and does not mention right to return. Click here to view resolution 242. Resolution 242 is a security council resolution and is therefore international law, but its reference to refugee rights is even less decisive.]

The Palestinians' major legal foundation in this regard is General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 11, 1948. Article 11 of this resolution states that the General Assembly: "Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return ..."

According to the Palestinians, the wording of the resolution obliges the international community to enable the refugees to return to the territory within the 1967 Green Line, even without Israel's consent.

Israel, for its part, has adduced several arguments to rebuff the Palestinians' interpretation. First, Israel says, it was not the aggressor in the war and therefore does not bear responsibility. Second, the implementation of the resolution is not feasible because the refugees do not want to "live at peace with their neighbors." Third, Israel has pointed out that resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding.

[Mideastweb - Click here for the text of resolution 194. What Ha'aretz meant to say is that Israel points out that General Assembly resolutions are not international law. The wording of 194 does not mention the word "right." Nonetheless, the consensus of opinion in the UN should carry some weight.]

In practice, the international community has never pressured Israel to agree to the realization of the right of return. The centrality of this issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict has gone through several transformations. At the end of Israel's War of Independence, the Israeli government expressed its readiness to take in 100,000 refugees, or about 15 percent of the number of refugees at that time, in 1949. About 30,000 returned within the framework of family reunification, but the problem of the rest remained unresolved.

Until 1967, the refugee problem was at the top of the agenda of the Arab states and the Palestinians. The Arab states kept intact the camps in which the refugees settled in order to emphasize their temporary status as refugees, and their intention to bring about the refugees' return to Israel in the future.

Following the rout of the Arabs in the Six-Day War of June 1967, and in the wake of the Palestine Liberation Organization's rise as the Palestinians' representative organization, the question of the right of return gradually took second place to the Palestinians' demand to realize their right of national self-determination. However, at the declaratory level, the PLO continued to insist on the implementation of the right of return in international forums. And from the practical point of view, the plight of the refugees was the organization's main source of strength.

Article V (2) and (3) of the "Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles" - popularly known as the "Oslo accord" - which was signed on September 13, 1993 at the White House, stipulated that the refugee question would be discussed as part of the talks on the permanent settlement: V (2) - "Permanent status negotiations will commence as soon as possible, but not later than the beginning of the third year of the interim period, between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian people representatives." [MidEastWeb - Click here to view the Declaration of Principles]

V (3) - "It is understood that these negotiations shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest."

In August 2000, Israeli and Palestinian delegations met at Camp David in an attempt to reach a final resolution of the conflict. The Israeli delegation was led by the prime minister, Ehud Barak; the Palestinian delegation, by PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli view Israel was convinced that the winning formulation had been found for the refugee question - until Arafat changed his mind. Although the delegations made progress on a number of points at Camp David, they did not succeed in putting together a general package of agreements that would lead to the signing of a permanent settlement. Two months later, the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted.

What happened at Camp David and what part did the question of the right of return play in the failure? Well, it all depends who you ask.

In the eyes of the Israeli negotiators, the story of the failure goes like this: The refugee question had been discussed comprehensively and in detail in talks via "the Swedish channel," which Shlomo Ben-Ami and Gilad Sher had conducted with Abu Ala and Hassan Asfur during the two months that preceded the Camp David talks. The Israeli strategy was to induce the Palestinians to make a historic concession on the right of return, in return for an Israeli concession of the decisive majority of the territories conquered in 1967. The Jerusalem question was outside this equation, the Israeli team viewing it as a separate issue in its own right.

The Swedish channel resulted in an agreement between the sides. Its first part was declaratory, consisting of a joint Israeli-Palestinian document, vaguely worded, presenting a historical recapitulation of the right of return issue in a manner commensurate with the national narratives of the Israelis and the Palestinians alike. The other part got down to the nitty-gritty: a mechanism by which to resolve the refugee problem.

The idea was that the international community would contribute $20 billion over a period of 15 to 20 years to settle all the claims of the refugees. The funds would be given as compensation to refugee households and as an aid grant to countries that would rehabilitate refugees. The refugees would be given three options: to settle in the Palestinian state, to remain where they were, or to immigrate to countries that would voluntarily open their gates to them, such as Canada, Australia and Norway.

The agreement also stated that, with regard to the absorption of Palestinian refugees living in Israel, Israel would be able to continue with its policy of taking in a few thousand refugees on a humanitarian basis and at its sole discretion. It was agreed that the declaration of the termination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be dependent on the conclusion of the process of rehabilitating the refugees. At no stage of the negotiations did Israel agree to take in more than 10,000 refugees.

On the eve of Camp David, the Israeli impression was that the question of the right of return had been satisfactorily resolved. The Israeli side also learned that members of the Palestinians' senior echelon had all given their assent to the agreement reached in the Swedish channel (there was one exception: Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy).

However, in the Camp David talks, the Israelis were astonished to discover that the Palestinians had reverted to their traditional position: a demand that Israel agree unconditionally to the right of return of every refugee who so desired. The right of return became an obstacle in the negotiations, and in the absence of a decision on all the "core issues," it was impossible to achieve any sort of agreement. The negotiations collapsed.

In the Israeli view, the Palestinians lost an opportunity to gain political independence after 53 years of struggle and to resolve the refugee question once and for all with the aid of an unprecedented worldwide mobilization. The Palestinians missed their chance, but Israel could not improve its offer. Ultimately, the sides will return to the negotiating table on the basis of the ideas that were put forward at Camp David.

The Palestinian view In the eyes of Hassan Asfur, one of the members of the Palestinian delegation, this is the way things look: "Israeli claims in regard to negotiations over the right of return and what was achieved in them are total lies. In the Swedish channel, the subject discussed was the application of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Our position was decisive: To grant each and every Palestinian the right of return. The Israeli side kept trying to negotiate over compensation that would be given to the refugees instead of the right of return, and we refused. [Click here to view Israeli and Palestinian versions of the agreement regarding Right of Return]

"We agreed to continue the discussions under the assumption that the Israelis would ultimately become more flexible in their position. We did not conduct negotiations on the number of refugees that would receive the right to return to Israel.

"Talk about agreements in which we backed down on the right of return, about a document that would present an agreed-upon narrative, and about an agreement over a mechanism which would allow for compensation for the refugees - such talk is untenable. When we arrived at Camp David, additional discussions took place in which there was no progress made.

"I would like to clarify this issue: There is, as far as we are concerned, no option of relinquishing an absolute, sweeping right of return. Every refugee has the right to return to his homeland."

In contrast to Asfur, other Palestinian representatives describe, off the record, the failure of Camp David in a different light. It is true that in the Swedish channel the discussions resulted in agreement in principle by the Palestinians, according to which they would forgo the total and sweeping right of return of the refugees. The general contours were also worked out for the establishment of an international mechanism that would compensate the refugees and be responsible for allocating funds to the countries involved in the rehabilitation of refugees.

However, contrary to the Israeli version, the sides did not reach full agreement on the right of return issue in the Swedish channel. The Palestinians did not accept the vague wording that was intended to resolve the contradictory narratives of the two nations. They demanded that Israel assume legal and moral responsibility for the situation of the 3.7 million refugees and also apologize to them - a demand to which Israel did not accede.

In addition, the Palestinians wanted the refugees to receive special compensation from Israel for the property and land they left behind, even before they received compensation from the international mechanism that would be set up for this purpose. Israel vehemently refused to accept this demand as well.

The largest disparity between the two sides involved the numerical question: How many refugees would be permitted to return to Israel? Israel agreed to the entry of only 10,000, as part of the family reunification program. The Palestinians insisted that a few hundred thousand refugees, up to half a million, be permitted to return to Israel, this within the framework of Israeli recognition of the principle of the right of return.

At the Camp David talks, the Palestinians also retracted their initial agreement to yield on the question of a comprehensive and total right of return for all the refugees. What Israel perceived as the Palestinians reneging on earlier promises was, from the Palestinians' point of view, a political shift attesting to the democratic character of their society. Arafat discerned fierce opposition among the refugee population, and among the general Palestinian population as well, to the idea of forsaking the right of return. A few of his aides expressed the concern that by dropping the demand for a sweeping right of return, the Palestinian leadership would bring about the establishment of a new political organization that would aim to torpedo a permanent settlement, persuade the refugees to reject the compensation offer, and raise a serious challenge to the authority of the PA.

As the Palestinians saw it, the proposal made by Israel would not be the last one. Israeli consent to permit only 10,000 refugees to return will never lead to the signing of a permanent settlement. Even if it is clear that not every refugee will be able to realize the right of return, Israel, from the Palestinian perspective, will be obliged to put forward a more flexible position than it did at Camp David if it wants to achieve peace.

The numbers don't add up Is it actually possible to come up with economic and demographic formulas that will resolve the question of the right of return?

Three quantitative issues accompany the discussions of this problem. One is how much money is required to compensate the refugees and to rehabilitate them in other countries, in return for the Palestinians forgoing the right of return. Second, in the event that a sweeping right of return is recognized, how many refugees will in fact want to exercise it? And third, what is the maximum number of refugees that Israel can take in without losing its character as a Jewish state?

Endeavoring to answer all three questions is mostly a guessing game. At Camp David, the sum of $20 billion was bandied about. The researcher Yitzhak Ravid talks about a far larger amount, $150 billion, adding, "It doesn't really matter, though, because there is no more than $10 billion available in the international community to resolve the problem. Past experience shows that no one will want to put up the money. You only have to look at the difficulties the United Nations and UNRWA have had in order to understand the problem."

Dr. Amnon Kartin, a researcher on Jordan, maintains that national longings cannot be bought off with money.

"As part of my research, I examined studies conducted by Arab and Turkish experts among Palestinian fellahin in Jordan. The impression I gleaned was that the whole existence of the refugees in Jordan is summed up in a desire to go back home. That is apparent in their conversations with their children and from their glorification of the past. It runs like a thread through their literature and their discourse. You can identify in them an angry and frustrated need to return home.

"It's not just a manipulation. In terms of scientific research, I can't say that the longing for the homeland has diminished in the young generation. On the other hand, it is impossible to estimate how many of these refugees will really want to exercise the right of return if they are given the opportunity. You can be clever and throw out a number, but that's simply not serious and not scientific."

The director of UNRWA is Peter Hansen, a Danish professor of political science. The organization has its headquarters in Gaza. No one knows better than Hansen just how elusive the mathematics of the Palestinian refugee problem is. His organization is crying out for donations. Hansen was in Vienna last week, in a desperate effort to raise funds.

"In the past 30 years, there was a gradual decline in the amount of money we can allocate for each refugee," he says. "We went down from an allocation of $200 a year per refugee to less than $70 per refugee today. The reason is not that we receive less donations, it is due to the demography of the refugee problem. The increase in numbers makes it very difficult for us to meet the expenses.

"Since the Intifada began, the situation has become worse. We are feeding 190,000 families in Gaza who are in a very serious situation. We have a budget deficit of $65 million. The deficit is the difference between the budget that the UN General Assembly allotted us and the donations we received in practice from the countries of the world."

If the world is not generous to the Palestinian refugees in normal times, what will be the point of promises made by the international community to compensate and rehabilitate them as part of a solution to the problem?

"As a professor of political science, I could say a lot about that. But I am talking about countries that are financing the organization I head, so I will not say anything about the way they keep their promises. The amount of $100 billion, which is being mentioned as the amount that is needed to solve the refugee problem, is higher than all the foreign aid that is given in any one year to all the countries of the world. It is a great deal of money. I can say that a very strong will and very strong motivation will be needed in order to finance the solution of the refugee problem.

"On the other hand, if it will be a solution that will lead to peace - and the world wants very much to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians - the effort might be made."

If a sweeping right of return is recognized, how many refugees will want to exercise it?

"That is the $64-million question. It is impossible to estimate how many refugees will want to return. There is no scientific way to answer that question. There are a tremendous number of unknowns in the equation. I have many acquaintances in the refugee camps. Some of them will want to take advantage of the right of return, but my feeling is that many of them are satisfied with their places of residence. They would like to visit Israel, but not necessarily to return to Israel.

"Many of them live in a more comfortable cultural environment than Israel. They will never give up the right of return, but they will not necessarily want to realize it. I think that on Israel's part, there is a tendency to exaggerate the number of people who will want to exercise the right of return.

"Another thing: There is a widespread view that refugees from Lebanon will want to return to Israel more than refugees from Jordan. It is clear that the refugees in Lebanon live in the hardest conditions, except for those in the territories. But I would like to point out also that many of the speculations about the refugees from one country or another give too much weight, and not necessarily correct weight, to the economic and social differences between the refugees. It is wrong that a distinction between refugees in different countries should become the basis for a solution of the problem."

[MideastWeb - Opinion polls almost always consistently show that over 80% of refugees insist on literal return to Israel, and would not accept compensation.]

The Israeli refugees

There are Palestinian refugees in Israel, too. Two months ago the Arab Culture Association in Nazareth organized, for the first time, a "back-to-the-roots" trip to Arab villages in Galilee that were destroyed in 1948. On this outing, tour guides, along with elderly people who were eye-witnesses to the destruction, told the participants the history of each village and talked about the size of its population before the "Naqba" - referring to what the Palestinians call the "calamity" of 1948 - as well as how the expulsion was implemented.

The goal of such "heritage" outings, according to the association is to acquaint the young Palestinians in Israel with the history of their people. To the surprise of the organizers, the trips have proved very popular and, to date, 35 have been organized.

Raouda Atallah, the head of the association (and the sister of MK Azmi Bishara), says the trips have an important educational value: They fill in what the textbooks of the Education Ministry leave out.

"Only in Israel are people who were expelled from their land forbidden to learn about their history," she observes. But to the organizers and the participants, the trips also have a practical value: They attest to the vitality of the demand to return the Palestinian displaced persons now living in Israel to their villages.

In the past year, awareness of the refugees living in Israel itself has increased among Israel's Arab population. These are the people whom Israel defines as "present absentees" - referring to Palestinians who left their homes in 1948, but remained within the boundaries of the Green Line and received Israeli citizenship.

[MidEastWeb - Internal refugees are not the proper subject matter of negotiations with the Palestinians, because the "internal refugees" are Israeli citizens.]

The discussion about the right of return at Camp David, and the subsequent failure of the summit talks, helped generate interest in the subject, which is expressed not only in the form of the heritage outings of the Arab Culture Association, but also in articles in the press, books and in a more thorough study by young Arabs of their past.

Attorney Wakim Wakim is secretary of the National Council for the Defense of the Rights of Displaced Persons in Israel, the major group involved in advancing the right of return of the refugees in Israel. The organization is gathering momentum from day to day, he says.

"There is no such thing as 'present absentees' - under international law they are refugees," Wakim explains, adding that he estimates there are 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Israel. "Historically, the refugees in Israel made their demand to return to their homes part of the demand to find a solution for the problem of the refugees overall. But since the Oslo accord was signed, activity has begun inside the Green Line and our association was established."

What are your demands?

Wakim: "We demand unequivocally to return to our villages. In March 2000, we held a conference in Nazareth at which we emphasized that we reject any alternative to a return to the villages. There were 280 representatives of the refugees in Israel at the meeting, who stated unequivocally: We will not agree to any other solution. We insist on our right to realize the right of return. We will not agree to accept compensation. Any agreement that is signed between the PA and Israel that disavows our right to return to our villages will not be binding on us, and is null and void. We have not forgotten and we will not forget our homes.

"There is a complete consensus on this subject among the Arab public. Today the Arab public understands that a solution of the problem of the refugees living in Israel will also solve our land distress as well. This is not a problem of history or nostalgia. It is a day-to-day, existential problem.

"In the al-Safafra neighborhood of Nazareth, where refugees from the village of Sefuria [Zippori] live, the residents preserve their identity and their ties to the village from which they were expelled. They have no land on which to build. But two kilometers away, there is a Jewish community that has thousands of dunams of land, even though there are only a few hundred residents there. People have to understand this problem."

What kind of concrete activity do you engage in?

"We intend to hold a population census in the near future, in order to find out the exact number of refugees living in Israel. During the census, we will go from locale to locale, we will learn about the economic and political situation of the refugees, and we will examine how many of them want to realize the right of return. We will not put up with the situation as it is now. We are not even thinking about expelling or removing Jewish settlements inside the Green Line, but we insist on our right to return to land on which there are no Jewish homes."

On what do you base your demand?

"Legally, Israel is obliged to uphold UN [General Assembly] Resolution 194. In addition, the Israeli legal system views us as citizens, and therefore we enjoy the right to live anywhere in Israel and to move about anywhere. We are not just refugees, we are refugees who have backing by virtue of the fact of being citizens."

What you are saying is straight out of the greatest nightmare of the Israeli left. In fact, you are saying that even an agreement with the PLO on the right of return will not put an end to the claims of the Palestinians.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as an 'Israeli left' because I don't see it anywhere. As a Palestinian living in Israel, who is aware also of his national affiliation, I say it is impossible to achieve a durable peace if the root of the problem is not resolved. If the Israelis will not understand that the root of the problem lies in the fact that 72 percent of the Palestinian people are refugees and displaced persons, there will not be a peace agreement. From our point of view, that is self-evident, it is something that passes from one generation to the next.

"The fact that Israeli public opinion doesn't understand this is due to the fact that the Israeli governments always hid all the crimes and massacres that were perpetrated against the Palestinians. Many Israelis don't know that there are 4.5 million refugees outside the borders of Israel. Do you know that a massacre was perpetrated in nearly every Palestinian settlement?"

Expulsion or flight?

A new study describes the events that led to the abandonment of Sheikh Munis, the village that became a symbol. Like attorney Wakim, official Palestinian publicity maintains that the story of the 1948 refugees is the story of people who were expelled from their land by force.

"The Palestinian refugee problem was not created out of a confrontation in which the Zionist forces defeated numerically superior Arab forces and the Palestinians left voluntarily, it was created by a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing," states an information document of the Palestinian ministry for refugee affairs. "The Israeli troops forcibly expelled 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land; the residents of 418 villages were uprooted and the villages destroyed."

The truth is both different and more complex than the propaganda. An example is the story of the village of Sheikh Munis, which was located north of Tel Aviv, on the land where the upscale neighborhood of Ramat Aviv was built. The resplendent house of the mukhtar (headman) of Sheikh Munis, known as the "Green House," is now the flagship restaurant of Tel Aviv University. Ramat Aviv and Tel Aviv University are considered bastions of the Israeli left.

The abandoned village of Sheikh Munis has become one of the symbols of the Palestinian refugee problem. Both Palestinians and right-wing Israelis say that it symbolizes the hypocrisy of the Israeli left, whose supporters are living and prospering on Palestinian land and have the effrontery to preach peace and reconciliation to others.

The historian Haim Fireberg is currently making a study of the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict in the urban area of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. One of the subjects of his research is the village of Sheikh Munis. Personally, he supports giving the Palestinians a sweeping right of return - but also supports the right of the Jewish settlers to remain in their homes (he himself is a resident of the urban settlement of Alfei Menashe).

Fireberg's historical findings will not necessarily serve the interests of the Palestinian narrative. In his study of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, he found no evidence of the violent expulsion of Arabs or of any intention to expel them by force. On the other hand, the residents of Sheikh Munis did not simply wake up one morning and decide to leave their homes for good.

From Israel's point of view, Sheikh Munis was of considerable strategic importance in the War of Independence. It overlooked both Sde Dov, which in 1948 was the major airport of the state-in-the-making, and the Reading power plant. The armed residents of the village posed a potential threat to the surrounding communities.

Toward the end of February 1948, the senior commanders of the Haganah - the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces - began to take note of what was happening in Sheikh Munis. Their concern was that the growing self-confidence of the Palestinians in Jaffa would spread to the village leaders. At the beginning of March, the Haganah General Staff received reports according to which Arab volunteers had entered Sheikh Munis, carrying large quantities of arms. Contradictory reports that arrived from veteran informers of the Haganah did not allay the fears.

Fomenting panic

On March 7, Yigael Sukenik (Yadin) ordered the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade to lay siege to all the access roads to the village. On March 12, five residents of the village were kidnapped and taken to an unknown destination. According to one version, the kidnappers were members of the dissident underground IZL (Israel Military Organization), while other accounts attributed the act to the more extreme underground group Lehi (Israel Freedom Fighters).

On the same day, several Palestinians complained to the commander of the "General Service" in Tel Aviv, Zvi Averbuch, about thefts committed by Jews in Sheikh Munis. They also complained that they were being humiliated by Jews and were objects of their contempt. Haganah soldiers who conducted patrols around the village and opened fire randomly contributed to the sense of panic.

According to the written testimonies, the Haganah did not intend to expel the residents of Sheikh Munis. Fireberg found that the Haganah's intentions were purely military in character: To impose a siege that would isolate the village and not enable the residents to link up with Arab forces in the Jaffa-Lod sector. Shmaya Bekenstein, a top officer in the Kiryati Brigade, expressed the hope, which was documented in the operations log of the brigade on March 17, 1948, that it would be possible to ensure quiet in the region by means of cooperation between the "moderate" circles in Sheikh Munis and "Jews who are well-acquainted with the village and its residents."

On March 20, 1948, soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade began to encircle Sheikh Munis. Houses on the edges of the village were seized. Within 24 hours, a mass flight began of more than 3,000 inhabitants of the village. Residents of Sheikh Munis - rich and poor, young and old - left in a panic, leaving behind much property. In the Green House, the home of the village mukhtar, Ibrahim Abu Kahil, boxes of household utensils were found afterward, as well as many other items laid out on the floor, ready for packing.

The direct cause of the flight from Sheikh Munis is not entirely clear. One possibility is that the residents were fearful of the Haganah's "true" intentions, or perhaps Jewish "friends" intimated to them that it would be best for them if they left. Or, possibly, the leaders of the Arab forces in Jaffa called on them to leave the village, based on the mistaken assumption that this would induce the British to intervene in the area of north Tel Aviv.

Maybe the combination of all these factors precipitated the mass exodus.

In any event, after the residents fled, units of the Kiryati Brigade entered the village. The headquarters of the task force were set up in the Green House. The soldiers, along with officials of the Tel Aviv Municipality, immediately began to make a record of the property left behind by the Palestinians.

The chief of the General Service, Zvi Averbuch, was concerned that the village would become the object of looting by Jewish forces. He recommended the "speedy entry of [Jewish] refugees" from the outlying areas of Tel Aviv into Sheikh Munis. The village became the home of destitute Jewish refugees, who clung to the land and the homes they received. Within a year, some 3,000 Jews were settled in 200 of the village's abandoned homes.

The study shows that the circumstances under which Sheikh Munis metamorphosed into Ramat Aviv are not black-and-white. In fact, it doesn't really make a difference. As Prof. Edward Said notes, the reason for the flight of the refugees is totally irrelevant; what matters is their right to return.

[MidEastWeb - it is not clear if the above is the view of Ha'aretz or of the researchers. Not all cases were like that of Sheikh Munis. In towns such as Yaffo, Haifa and Be'ersheba, Palestinians left largely of their own accord. However, in Deir Yassin (Click here for details) and in Ramla and Lod and elsewhere, Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. In some cases there were massacres. In other cases, people remaining after the fighting were forcibly evicted, as at Majdal (Ashkelon) and Isdood (Ashdod). ]

Your home is my home

Not even in return for a million dollars will Ahmed Jarmi forsake Jaffa. Jarmi was five years old when his family left Jaffa in 1948. First they fled to Taibe, and a few weeks later, they moved to the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tul Karm, just across the Green Line. At the age of 12, Jarmi was sent to Damascus to live with his uncles, refugees from Tiberias. He worked in a bakery and didn't attend school. When he was 19, he joined the Fatah organization and moved to Lebanon. He was a fighter, driver and chef.

In 1967, at the order of his superiors, he went to Jordan, where he was wounded, three years later, in the events of "Black September" (the battle between Jordanian troops and the PLO, which climaxed in September 1970), following which he returned to Lebanon and married, eventually fathering seven children. In 1982, he was expelled from Beirut along with the Palestinian forces and moved with them to Tunis. In 1986, following an improvement in relations between the PLO and Iraq, Jarmi was ordered to move to Baghdad.

Eight years later, in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian Cairo agreement and Arafat's return to Gaza, Jarmi and his family moved to the Balata refugee camp next to Nablus in the West Bank. Thirteen members of the family - Jarmi, his wife, their children and their grandchildren - now live in a four-room rented house.

Jaffa is a distant memory in the life of Ahmed Jarmi, who is now 67 and still in "active service" in the Palestinian police. He remembers only that he lived close to the sea and that the house was somewhere in the center of the city. Nevertheless, Jarmi says, he will never give up his right of return to his Jaffa home, not under any conditions or circumstances. And, he says, it's not just a matter of sentiment.

Then why?

Jarmi: "It is a sacred principle. I have lived in many countries and everywhere I went, I was treated as a refugee. Here, too, in Balata, I am treated as a refugee. I hear it at every opportunity. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have stayed in Iraq. There, at least, I got used to the surroundings I lived in. I still have not got used to Balata. The whole peace process was a deception and a bluff. What do we get out of it if I can't go back to Jaffa?"

You live in harsh conditions. If you get financial compensation, will that persuade you to remain in Balata and give up the right of return?

"Even if I will have enough money to buy half of Nablus, that would still not solve the problem. Even if I had a million dollars, I would still be treated as a refugee. What good will money do me?"

Where exactly in Jaffa would you return to?

"I don't know. It's not important. The main thing is to return to Jaffa."

Bassem, Jarmi's son, who is 25, also serves in the Palestinian police. He has never been to Jaffa. Yet he clings to the right of return even more tenaciously than his father.

"In every Arab country I studied in I was treated like a stranger. One day, in Iraq, I had a quarrel with another student over a pencil. He said the pencil was his, I said it was mine. And then he said, 'Isn't it enough that you are a refugee, do you want my pencil, too?'"

Asked if returning to Jaffa will solve the problem, and whether it would be better to make do with compensation, Bassem answers: "Who will compensate me and my family for all the suffering we went through? Financial compensation cannot replace the right of return. I prefer to live in a tent in Jaffa than to stay here. The main thing is to go back to where I belong."

This article is copyright by Ha'aretz and is reprinted and annotated for purposes of discussion.

See also - Palestinian Refugees  
The Growth of Palestinian identity
The Palestinian Refugee Problem

The refugee problem - a personal view
Population of Palestine prior to 1948
Must Palestinian Nationalism And Zionism Change For A Lasting Middle East Peace?
Jewish refugees of the Arab-Israel conflict

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