Issues In The Palestinian—Israeli Conflict
__ Refugees Forever __
Refugees - A Global Issue
The Palestinians are neither the first nor the last population to become refugees. This condition is the inevitable outcome of tragic conflict - and the 20th century alone saw refugees on an epic scale due to its numerous conflicts. Tribal feuds, ethnic and religious clashes and full-scale wars have always resulted in the forced displacement of populations, usually as the only alternative to violent death. The more bitter and drawn out the fighting, the more numerous and scarred the refugees left amid the ruins.
Unique about the Palestinian refugee problem is that it has been allowed - even forced - to continue and to grow. Every other major refugee group has been resettled within a generation. Of the approximately 135 million refugees created over the last century, only the Palestinians have retained this dismal, nation less status. Thus, while a few decades ago they constituted less than 5% of the total number of refugees, they are today the biggest refugee group, at 17% of some 24 million worldwide. International attempts to solve refugee crises have met with mixed results.
To a limited degree, international intervention forces in the Balkans and Rwanda have restored refugees to their place of origin. In most cases, however, they have successfully settled elsewhere in their homelands, or found haven in other countries. After World War II, for example, the US stepped in to contain Europe's economic tailspin, its Marshal Aid Plan resurrecting Germany's industry and allowing for the absorption of German refugees. German towns which had been conquered were renamed (Danzig became Gdansk, Konigsberg became Kaliningrad, etc.) to ensure that those who had left accepted their new reality. As Pakistan broke off from India, Muslims crossed to the latter and Hindus to the former in a voluntary population transfer which, with the exception of Kashmir, proved largely successful. This method was first tested in 1922, when the League of Nations - predecessor to the UN -decreed that a territorial war between Turkey and Greece in Asia Minor be settled by having the sides exchange nationals and finalize their border. Israel - tiny, arid, and practically devoid of natural resources - has done its utmost to take in and rehabilitate refugees, multiplying its population by eight between 1948 and 2000. Many of these new arrivals were Jews who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Another 800,000 had fled anti-Israel hostility in their native Arab countries, where their property, valued at tens of billions of dollars, was confiscated. How can it be, then, that the Palestinian refugees have been denied resettlement? Is this a tragic oversight, or devious design? And who is to blame?
In 1947, while Britain was disengaging from Palestine, it was also withdrawing from India, leading to the birth of independent Pakistani and Indian states. Whereas the Arab- Israeli conflict created hundreds of thousands of refugees, the Indians and Pakistanis wisely agreed to transfer millions of their people across the border in order to defuse ethnic and religious tensions. India sent Muslims to Pakistan, which in turn sent Hindus to India. Both states granted citizenship to these refugees. The much smaller - and perhaps even more easily solvable - problem of Arab refugees is a sad paradox, in that it has cost the Western world so many billions of dollars in humanitarian aid that only perpetuates the refugees' plight, and has monopolized its media attention for over half a century, when alternatives in refugee transfers such as the one between India and Pakistan have proven
Excerpted from The Arabs in History (Oxford University Press)
- Prof. Bernard Lewis, leading expert on Islamic and Middle Eastern history.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post 1-15-2003 approximately,
and is reproduced solely for educational purposes.
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