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Israeli Leader Wrongly Blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian Refugees

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is putting out a series of misleading videos on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
February 21, 2012 |
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Ayalon's claim that Arab states deny refugees basic rights as demographic warfare against the Jewish state is also out of context. All Arab refugee-hosting countries endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (API) in 2002 and again in 2007. The API contains an implicit compromise proposal to implement the right of return in a manner sensitive to Israel's demographic interests following Israeli recognition of international principles. As political landscapes shift in the Middle East, so may Arab foreign policies. Ayalon, however, relies on archaic public statements from former pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and long-passed UNRWA commissioners. Rather than quoting Arab leaders in 1969 or UN officials from the 1950s, Israeli officials should be honest about where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today.

This leads to the other major assertion advanced in the clip equating Jewish and Palestinian refugees. In 2008, American historian Michael Fischbach published a ground-breaking study on Jewish Property Claims against Arab Governments. Fischbach mined American, Israeli, and British archives to understand the circumstances surrounding the movement of 800,000 Jews from Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa over a 20-year period following Israel's establishment. His research revealed that Jews left Arab countries for a variety of reasons, with many leaving behind valuable assets that in some cases were seized by Arab governments. Ayalon reminds us of these claims but wrongly suggests that they fit within the rubric of Palestinian-Israeli relations. Jewish property claims should be resolved as a matter of priority, but bi-laterally with responsible Arab governments and according to the same universal norms applicable to Palestinians.

Ayalon commends his country for resettling Jewish refugees (conflating those who voluntarily pursued resettlement in the Jewish state over years and those who sought refuge from persecution) while accusing Arab states and the UN for perpetuating the status of Palestinian refugees for multiple generations. While Israel did absorb Jewish immigrants and refugees, Ayalon neglects to mention the primary motive: solidifying Jewish demographic majority in the country. As mentioned, several Arab countries that currently host Palestinian refugees cite a demographic disincentive to full integration.

Ayalon argues in his video that the Palestinian refugees were encouraged to flee by Arab countries, who refused to accept the Jewish state. Though this view is still advanced by Israeli officials, it conflicts with mainstream Israeli understandings. According to a new study from Hebrew University profiled by Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, "virtually all newspaper articles and research studies from the end of the 1980s to 2004", as well as all history textbooks authorized by the Israel's Ministry of Education since 2000, acknowledge that Palestinian refugees were subject to forcible expulsion. As Eldar noted, "It's a rejection of the [...] narrative that 'there was no expulsion in 1948.'"

Putting aside the question of culpability, irrespective of why the refugees left their homes, they were barred from returning to them despite their desire to do so. This underscores the fundamental distinction between the vast majority of Jews who left Arab countries and Palestinian refugees: whether Jews fled out of a fear of persecution or out of a desire to settle in Israel, they did not face a similar denial of the option of return.

Ayalon's video series simplifies and distorts the conflict with the hope of manipulating public perceptions in favor of rightist Israeli views. His attack on UNRWA was repeated at a high-level meeting of the UNHCR in Geneva days after the video was posted. And it comes at a time of heightened Congressional hostility to humanitarian aid to Palestinians (on top of a general scrutinizing of foreign aid), risking further support for this faltering agency that even Israel has recognized as being an important tool for conflict management. Whether Ayalon's criticism is part of the traditional Israeli narrative on the refugee question or signals an intention to escalate attacks against the UN agency, his extremist interpretations and misrepresentations of the historical record and international law are a dangerous addition to the discourse on the conflict.