No other identifiable people has profited financially from sorrow and suffering like Palestinians. Ever since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, they have received more attention, sympathy and financial aid than all other displaced peoples combined.
Designated by the United Nations as “refugees”—defined as those who fled or were expelled from their homes (during Arab efforts to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state)—Palestinians were entitled to financial assistance from the U.N. Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA), established in 1949 solely for their benefit following a five-year period when Jewish refugees also received aid.
But the refugees are not the only beneficiaries. By authority of the U.N. General Assembly (1962), UNRWA also supports their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and generations to follow. No other refugee group enjoys these benefits. It is, in a word, a scam, and a profitable one for UNRWA employees, whose perpetual financial security is assured.
The actual number of genuine Palestinian refugees in 1947-48 has been much disputed and persistently inflated. In its first report, The New York Times (October 1948) cited “the flight of 80 percent” of the “500,000 Arabs” (not yet “Palestinians”) who had inhabited land gained by Israel in its struggle for independence. Four years later, an editorial cited “850,000 Arab refugees.” By November 1954, the number had increased to 900,000. In 1956, and again a decade later, Times editorials referred to “almost 1 million” refugees.
But repetitive exaggeration is no substitute for careful research. Historian Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East Program at Kings College (London), has meticulously documented Palestinian refugee numbers by city, town and village. In total, he concludes in Palestine Betrayed (2010), Palestinian refugees numbered between 583,121 and 609,071. A tragedy to be sure; still, those of us whose grandparents survived European pogroms and fled to the United States hardly expected to receive financial support from the League of Nations, nor should we from UNRWA.
Now the full story has finally been told. In The War of Return, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf carefully explore—and scathingly expose—“How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace.” Their credentials are impeccable: Schwartz is a former staff writer and senior editor for Haaretz; Wilf served as foreign-policy adviser to Shimon Peres and was a member of the Knesset between 2010-13. Their leftist political identities initially made me wary of yet another lament for the plight of Palestinian refugees amid the cruelty of Israeli conquerors. But The War of Return not only erased concern; it provides by far the most persuasive undermining of the conventional pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel narrative that still provides the political left with fodder for lacerating Israel.
It was, Schwartz and Wilf write, “the Arab rejection of partition that led to the Palestinian dispossession.” A Palestinian national identity, demanding the “right of return,” only began to emerge in refugee camps following the nakba, the “catastrophe” of flight in 1948 that coincided with the establishment of modern-day Israel. Fourteen years later, the U.N. General Assembly defined “refugees” to include descendants of actual refugees, thereby assuring that “the number of refugees would keep on growing forever.”
Except for Jordan, every Arab nation denied citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees. This “policy of discrimination,” the authors note, “played a key role in the construction of a distinct, political Palestinian identity.” It did not take long before “the political desire to prolong the politicized status of ‘refugees’ determined their future”—and turned refugee camps into “a farce.”
UNRWA defined its role as the stimulus for the development of a Palestinian national identity based upon “the violent resistance of Zionism.” (No such financial or ideological benefits were internationally provided to Holocaust survivors.) UNRWA schools indoctrinated students “with claims of exclusive Palestinian rights over the entire land, the illegitimacy of the Jewish state” and the “unprecedented injustice” they confronted. Students were taught to face Israel and recite: “Palestine is ours. … We promise to shed our blood for you!” The result, Schwartz and Wilf conclude, was “a national identity built entirely around a sense of victimhood and injustice” for which Israel was conveniently blamed.
By 1988, according to an UNRWA report, there were more than 2 million Palestinian “refugees.” Their “return,” Schwartz and Wulf note, would effectively end Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Thirty years later, more than 5 million Palestinians were registered with UNRWA as “refugees,” although only 30,000 actual refugees are estimated to still be alive—ironically, the same number as UNRWA staff employees.
Exposing the complicity of the United Nations in contriving and sustaining the never-ending Palestinian refugee scam, the two authors have served the cause of historical integrity. They have exposed the longest running U.N. hoax, assuring descendants of Palestinian refugees unto eternity and providing their avid supporters with a cherished weapon for flagellating Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.