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The Palestine Resolution and the Plight of Refugees

Ralph Seliger
September 27, 2011
by Ralph Seliger IT’S MADDENING THAT THE UNITED NATIONS has again become a battleground between Arab and Jewish claims in what was the British Palestinian Mandate, rather than an instrument for ending the conflict. The original General Assembly Resolution 181, passed in November 1947, sought to resolve the issue by calling for Jewish and Arab states in place of the British Mandate authority. These two states were to be of approximately equal size (with a slight territorial edge for the Jewish state) along with an international body for the holy cities of Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. To this day, pro-Palestinian partisans cite the partition as unjust because it awarded the Jewish third of Palestine’s population, a small advantage in territory over the majority. What is rarely mentioned in this debate, however, is that this “Jewish state” was also to be established with a large Arab minority of nearly 40 percent, and that a large influx of stateless Jewish refugees also needed to be accommodated. Palestinian irregulars and Arab League volunteers immediately rejected this compromise with a broad military effort to destroy the Yishuv, the self-governing Jewish community in Palestine. Upon Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, this effort was joined by several outside Arab armies invading Palestine. Arab forces were very much on the offensive in the beginning, right after the UN partition plan was approved (what historian Benny Morris calls the “civil war” phase) and again with the outside invasion in May ’48, but for a variety of reasons (including the assistance of about 4,000 international volunteers — Jews and others), Jewish forces rallied both times to route most of the attackers. In the end, only the British-commanded Arab Legion of Trans-Jordan (now Jordan) held the nascent Israeli army in check, conquering part of Jerusalem and all of what became the West Bank. It was Israel’s success in defending itself from attack that led more or less inexorably to the Palestinian “Nakba,” the loss of homes by about half of Palestine’s Arabs. Yet this was not the only population uprooted by violence in the late 1940s. Millions of Hindus and Muslims felt obliged to flee or voluntarily migrate between India and Pakistan when British India was split in two in 1947. Upwards of ten million ethnic Germans fled and were evicted from Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic states and other parts of Eastern Europe, with no prospect for return or compensation. The East Prussian city of Königsberg (birthplace of the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant) became the Soviet-Russian city of Kaliningrad, while the German Baltic port of Danzig and the Silesian city of Breslau became the Polish cities of Gdansk and Wroclaw. Like 750,000 Palestinian Arabs in 1948, most of these Germans were innocent in the sense that non-combatants generally are, caught up in a ferocious war, which “their side” had started and ultimately lost. In both cases, a total victory for their side would have meant a humanitarian calamity. This conclusion is obvious regarding the Nazis in World War II, but also likely if there had been an Arab victory in the war of 1948, during which the slaughter of Jews would have been in the many thousands, if not higher. As it was, even with the victory of the Jewish side in ’48, the Palestinian/Israeli Jewish community suffered 6,000 killed and about 15,000 wounded, or 3.5 percent of its total population; and all Jews were ethnically cleansed (in a combination of massacre and expulsion) from the Old City of Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc of settlements near Bethlehem, where Arab forces triumphed. Germany absorbed its ethnic kin, while most Arab countries kept the Palestinians apart in camps. This doesn’t mean that any of these expulsions were just, or that the victims shouldn’t have been compensated. Any reasonable and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would implement a package of compensation and the option of resettlement in the new Palestinian state or in a third country in line with the provisions detailed in the Geneva Accord of 2003. The ethnic German refugee millions never received an international aid agreement. That they were able to move on with their lives in a way that Palestinians have not, however, was very much to the Germans’ advantage. Still, Israel will likely never find peace until a sufficient accommodation is made with the Palestinians that allows them to also get on with their lives. This picture of the rights of refugees is further complicated by the situation of about 800,000 Jews who left Arab lands in the 1950s and 1960s, most forcibly expelled — including the entire Jewish populations of Iraq, Egypt and Libya (communities that predated the coming of Islam) — along with most of the Jews of Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria. These “Mizrachi” (Eastern) Jews found new homes in Israel, France, Canada, England, and the United States, but many also still feel aggrieved by a historic injustice. Today, rather than a U.N. resolution which scores points for one side over the other, there is a desperate need for an international declaration that is actually designed to progress toward peace. This would affirm the Palestinians’ right to statehood on a viable territory adjacent to, and at peace with, Israel. Such a resolution would clear the air if it also acknowledges that Israel is a “Jewish state,” the national expression of the Jewish people (albeit obligated to guarantee the civil rights of its non-Jewish citizens). Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinian state have the right to privilege the immigration of the ethnic kin of its majority (i.e., to observe “laws of return”) to their respective sovereign territories. This would quietly meet the Netanyahu government’s demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, reassuring Jews and Israelis who fear that the Palestinian Authority leadership is not truly intent upon peace, and for Palestinians who are concerned about what is meant by a “Jewish state.” This resolution should state that acceptance of Palestinian membership in the United Nations is based on U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947, the partition of the British Palestine Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. And it should urge Israel and Palestine to return immediately to direct talks for the establishment of final borders and to end all claims by either side against the other. Along with a recognition of the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, a resolution would recognize the need for a mutually agreed exchange of territory. And it could call for special arrangements for the holy places in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ve heard veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat tell Jewish audiences that the Palestinian case should be addressed in part by an Israeli “apology” for Palestinian displacement. My feeling is that this would be very difficult because of the two peoples’ conflicting narratives. But if the Palestinians were also to admit that they and their Arab allies were wrong to have violently rejected the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 and in attacking the Palestinian Jewish community in what became Israel’s War of Independence, then a certain reconciliation on an emotional level can be achieved. However, unless both sides are willing to acknowledge the full truth of 1947-48, which contravenes the limited self-serving understandings of both peoples, they’d all be better off leaving history to the historians. Ralph Seliger blogs regularly for Tikkun magazine, Meretz USA, and the Forward’s Arty-Semite blog, and has been a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents.