OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Why are there still Palestinian refugees after 75 long years?

UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary organization set up to resettle Palestinian refugees. But to this day, it has failed to resettle even one refugee.

Palestinian at an UNRWA camp in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Nov. 4, 2023.  Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Palestinian at an UNRWA camp in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Nov. 4, 2023. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

Refugee crises have afflicted millions of innocent war victims in the last century, but only one has stretched for a record-breaking seven decades—a problem precipitated and perpetuated by Israel’s Arab enemies, including Palestinian Arabs themselves. 

In 1948, following Israel’s declaration of independence, five Arab nations launched a genocidal war to destroy the nascent Jewish state and annihilate its Jewish population. Despite overwhelming odds, Israel managed to repel the Arab invasion and preserve its independence. 

Because of this war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs—who would later call themselves “Palestinians”—found themselves homeless. Hundreds of thousands heeded the commands of Arab leaders to leave their homes, with the promise they could return pending extermination of the Jews—a promise unkept to this day. 

But two sad, disturbing questions—almost always ignored by the media—loom: Why do more than a million Palestinians still live in refugee camps after 75 years? How could the number of refugees—just some 700,000 in 1948 (and most no longer alive)—magically mushroom to seven million today?

One thing we know: The world has avoided chronic war refugees because historically, the international community, especially the United Nations, has supported and directly taken on refugee resettlement. 

Surely no group desires a perpetual refugee crisis? Surely no Arabs would decline to help their Palestinian brethren rise from refugee status? As we examine the Palestinians’ plight, we see that decisions made by themselves and Arab leaders begin to answer those profound questions in strange, troubling ways.

In fact, the Arabs, not Israel, are responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee crisis. They rejected the U.N. partition plan for Palestine in 1947, because they refused to accept a Jewish state in what they regarded as Arab, Muslim land. Then, they invaded Israel, attempting to destroy the new Jewish state and its Jewish population. Note that without the Arab attack on Israel, there would be no Palestinian refugees at all.

During the war, Arab leaders ordered their kinsmen to evacuate, promising they could return after their armies had decimated Israel and the Jews. Some Palestinian Arabs also fled after hearing false Arab propaganda about Israeli atrocities. In short, the vast majority of the Palestinian Arab population was not forcibly expelled. 

Moreover, some 170,000 Arabs remained in the new State of Israel and received full and equal Israeli citizenship. Many remained because their communities chose not to participate in the war, as was the case with Nazareth and Abu Ghosh. Today, about two million Arab Israeli citizens enjoy the same rights and freedoms as Israel’s Jewish citizens.

Virtually all refugee crises in the last century have been resolved through resettlement. More than a million Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and expulsion from Arab lands, for example, were welcomed by fellow Jews in Israel. Likewise, millions more refugees were resettled in the 20th century, including Germans expelled from Poland, Hungarians from Austria, Latin Americans from Chile, and Bosnians from the former Yugoslavia.

But the Arab states bordering Israel, to which most Palestinian Arabs fled, discouraged Palestinians from permanently resettling within their borders—refusing them citizenship, limiting their employment prospects and confining them to refugee camps. Surprisingly, Palestinian leaders have supported this dead-end strategy, helping them feed the lie that Palestinians have a “right of return” to “Palestine”—a state they never possessed. 

Moreover, the Palestinians and the United Nations have rewritten the definition of “refugee” for the Palestinians only, to include both the original refugees and their descendants—children, grandchildren and offspring without end, now numbering seven million worldwide. 

A “right of return” for these “refugees” would swamp Israel, negating its Jewish majority, and therefore, the Jewish state itself. 

As long as Palestinians remain refugees, they can collect financial aid from the international community. Each year, for example, countries like the United States give over one billion dollars to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides basic services to the Palestinians, including healthcare and education. Over the decades, the international community has donated more than $20 billion to the Palestinian Authority, though the Palestinian economy remains bankrupt and most of its people are destitute.  

UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary organization set up to resettle Palestinian refugees. But to this day, it has failed to resettle even one refugee. Nevertheless, any attempts to shut UNRWA down are quickly rebuffed by the Arab states and Palestinians. 

Nonetheless, many countries have suspended funding to UNRWA following revelations that some of its staff participated in the Oct. 7 massacre. In fact, UNRWA has become a bastion of antisemitism and terrorism, with about 10% of UNRWA’s 13,000 Gaza staff belonging to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, according to Israeli intelligence. 

Predictably, Palestinian and other Arab leaders have reacted angrily to the suspension of funding to UNRWA, claiming Palestinians will suffer. Ironically, the very existence of UNRWA services saves the two Palestinian dictatorships—Hamas and the P.A.—the responsibility of providing sustenance to their own people.

Israel has tried to help the Palestinians emerge from refugee status by offering them land and statehood several times since 2000—only to be rejected. Just as in 1947, the Palestinians still refuse to accept the Jewish state. In fact, recent polls indicate that most Palestinians do not support a two-state solution. As Palestinian choices indicate clearly, they prefer to remain refugees than live alongside a Jewish state. 

The Palestinians have nurtured a culture in which martyrdom in the service of killing Jews and destroying Israel ranks higher than building a thriving state. Palestinians frequently boast that “We love death like our enemies love life.” No surprise Palestinians have made little progress in creating a sustainable economy, institutions of governance, or political freedom.  

If the Palestinians want to “free Palestine”—from repressive dictatorships, from poverty and from futile hate for their neighbors—they are better served creating a free state at peace with Jewish Israel.

Originally published by Facts and Logic About the Middle East.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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