Israel is Jewish – Part Three: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee

© James Pyles – Cover image for David Brog’s book “Reclaiming Israel’s History”

“Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” –Thomas L. Friedman, 2002

I was going to make Part Three of this series address the idea of the “occupation,” but then I started reading David Brog‘s excellent book Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace. I’ve only gotten through the Preface and Introduction, but already there are so many important details to share.

To back up a step, I created this series, which includes Is There a Palestine and Israel is Not Apartheid, in response to certain actions committed during the recent protests/riots here in the U.S. Namely that synagogues and Jewish businesses have been vandalized with the phrase “Free Palestine” being prominently included in the “message.”

As the quote above suggests, you can criticize Israel as a nation and not be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, but the relentless and narrowly focused allegations against the Jewish state and their “crimes” against the Palestinian people, including refugees, ignores the reality that there are many more displaced people groups all over the world. We rarely or never hear of them, and according to what I’ve read so far, the Palestinian Arabs and their experiences are hardly unique historically and in the current world.

Brog tells some of the history of “Jewish Arab” nationalist Albert Memmi. As a marginalized Jew in Arab Tunisia, his efforts helped free Tunisia from French rule, but then the Arabs turned around and exiled him from his homeland because he was Jewish.

As early as 1969, Memmi was calling for a Palestinian homeland, but the irony of that cry is one had existed twenty years prior. On November 29, 1947, according to the author:

…the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab.

In a 2011 Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, PLO President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a passionate plea to the United Nations to create a Palestinian state that for decades Israel had denied them. But such a state did exist as a legally recognized entity, just as much as “Jewish Palestine” did.

In his essay, Abbas said that the Jews started the 1948 war in order to oust the Arabs from their land. That’s a lie (politely, we’re supposed to say it’s the “Palestinian narrative”)

Brog writes:

The 1948 War began as a civil war, with Palestine’s Arabs attacking Palestine’s Jews in an effort to prevent the creation of a Jewish state.

It wasn’t about Jews taking away and occupying Arab land. The conflict, the real conflict is and always has been preventing, and now, destroying every bit of the Jewish state in the Middle East. It’s about eradicating Israel from the face of the Earth.

In 1969, in the aftermath of 1967’s “Six Day War,” Albert Memmi called for a Palestinian state to be created alongside Jewish Israel, and considering himself both Arab and Jewish, he was sincere. However, as Brog says:

From the start, Palestinian leaders linked their national liberation to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians did not seek a state alongside the Jewish state; they demanded a state that would replace the Jewish state. In doing so, they were setting the stage for endless conflict.

But let’s go back to 1947-48 for a minute. You might be saying to yourself that by carving Palestine up in two (it’s actually more complicated than that), wasn’t it the United Nations who stole Arab land?

We could argue about the historic right of the Jews to the Land as I did in Part One and Brog does say that has to be considered in light of the lack of a Jewish presence in Palestine for so long, but remember, lands, borders, and people groups had been shifted around for centuries.

Brog covered some historical ground about World Wars One and Two, and how in their aftermath, whole populations were moved hundreds of miles away from lands they’d occupied for nearly a thousand years. Then there were the massive reshifting of national boundaries as well as the creation of brand new countries. So whether you agree or not that the Jewish state should have been created by the U.N., it was hardly a rare or unique event.

When the British Mandate for Palestine was officially ended on May 15, 1948, the civil war between Jewish and Arab Palestinians “went international,” with Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq all attacking the tiny, newborn Jewish state.

Now, here’s the kicker:

The Arab states did not invade Israel to help the Palestinian refugees (as Abbas’s essay erroneously claimed). It was the Arab invasion that produced the Palestinian refugees. Had the Arabs accepted the UN Partition Plan and agreed to the creation of the Jewish state, there would have been a Palestinian state back in 1948. And had the Arabs accepted the partition of Palestine, there would not have been so much as one Palestinian refugee.

There’s a lot more to this history of course, and I certainly encourage you to get a copy of Brog’s book (I found one at my local public library) to discover the rest.

Now let’s return to the title of this write up. “The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee”. They weren’t oppressed and didn’t exist as refugees until the surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel and attempted to destroy them. It was the consequences of that war which created these refugees.

There’s a reason they still exist. Most refugee populations dwindle as time passes. Although there are hundreds of different people groups who have been displaced and have refugee status, the Palestinians are unique in a single detail.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the United Nations established a new organization dedicated exclusively to the Palestinian refugees: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA defines a “Palestine refugee” as anyone who was displaced by the 1948 War plus the “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children.” In other words, Palestinian refugees pass their refugee status to their children in perpetuity.

It’s even worse than that because any Palestinian refugee who obtains citizenship in another county is still considered a refugee…forever. Brog continues:

For example, there are approximately two million Palestinian refugees currently living in Jordan. They are all counted as refugees even though over ninety percent of these individuals are full Jordanian citizens.

The only refugee population on Earth that grows in size over time and continues to exist generation after generation, at least based on what I’ve read so far, are Palestinian refugees.

I hate to drag Wikipedia into this but:

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population in 2019 was estimated at 1,890,000, representing 20.95% of the country’s population. The majority of these identify themselves as Arab or Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship.


Arab citizens of Israel, or Arab Israelis, are Israeli citizens who are Arab. Many Arab citizens of Israel self-identify as Palestinian and commonly self-designate themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel or Israeli Palestinians.

  • Muslim: 82%
  • Christian: 9%
  • Druze: 9%

So, Palestinian refugees can live in Gaza or the West Bank, they can become full citizens of Israel (and we saw in Part Two that Arab Israeli citizens enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens), and as we’ve seen, an additional nearly two million are citizens of neighboring Jordan.

Brog says according to the UNRWA website, when the agency began operating in 1950, there were about some 750,000 Palestinian refugees. As of the publication of his book a few years ago, that number had exploded to 5 million refugees eligible for services. He concludes this point with:

If Palestinian refugees were defined the same way as all other refugees, the number of Palestinian refugees in 2014 would be closer to 30,000.

There’s a very strategic reason for the continued existence and population growth of the “Palestinian refugee” and it seems to be to continually outrage people in many other nations on how Israel has oppressed its refugee population for decades. The goal, although the “outraged” are probably not aware of this for the most part, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the Jewish nation of Israel.

So, when (probably) well meaning U.S. protesters torch synagogues and physically assault elderly Jews men on the street, all in the name of “Freeing Palestine,” I think they are simply another expression of folks who have bought a fantasy and ignored the facts. To be fair, we all practice bias confirmation, and you would say I’m doing that right now.

On the other hand, anyone with a library card and who can read can educate themselves.

David Brog is scrupulous to point out that Israel is not a perfect nation and that Jews have committed injustices against Arabs. That said, the injustices much of the world believes Israel is guilty of aren’t factual.

I’m not writing this series to come up with some “magic” answer. People a lot smarter than I am have been approaching that for a long time. I do want to remind people, or maybe inform people for the first time, that what you see in the news and what’s actually happening are sometimes, maybe often, two different things.

Just because someone paints “Free Palestine” on the side of a Jewish deli, or breaks the windows, or assaults the proprietor, doesn’t mean they’re being just. In fact, quite the opposite. They’ve just been fooled.

6 thoughts on “Israel is Jewish – Part Three: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee”

  1. One not-so-minor detail you omitted when you discussed 1947 and the formation of a Palestinian state, is that the transjordanian portion of the British Mandate for Palestine, which comprises 78% of its total area, was set aside in Article 25 of the 1920 San Remo agreements as entirely for the Arabs of the Palestine region. No Jews were permitted to settle there, but only in the cisjordanian sector. In 1947 the transjordanian sector became the Arab state of Transjordan, which two years later was renamed as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In other words, the Arabs of Palestine did receive a homeland in Palestine, covering four-fifths of its territory. They just didn’t call it “Palestine”. However, one result of Jordan’s seizure of Judea and Samaria during its 1948 war to destroy the brand-new Jewish state Israel, which it proceeded to rename as “the West Bank” (of the Jordan river), was that it moved a number of its Arab population into the area, precisely opposite to the refugee narrative. Most of these people and their descendants are still in place 70-plus years later, though some of them were displaced in 1967 when Israel successfully reclaimed the area, adding to the UN’s accounting of “refugees”.

    Also worth noting is another massive refugee migration after the 1948 war, which resulted from the expulsion and flight of Jews living throughout the Middle East, in such newly-formed nations as Iraq and Iran, and there was also a massive airlift conducted by Israel to rescue the persecuted Jews of Yemen and resettle them in Israel. All these Jews left significant property and wealth behind, for which reparations have never been repaid as was required of Nazi Germany. But most importantly, these Jews, whose numbers are more than the number of Palestinian Arab regugees, were all resettled into Israel and not counted as refugees. I’m not certain if Jews from Morocco and Tunisia are also accounted in this particular refugee group.

    So, while you did mention massive population transfers of all sorts of people in the ME, NEA, and NA regions, one must not neglect the exchange of Palestinian Arabs out of Israel for the Jews of Arab lands into Israel. Palestinian Arabs could all have moved to Jordan and been resettled in Palestine as no longer being refugees, just as Jews were resettled into Israel. But Arab policy was to keep them in “refugee camps” as a political ploy against Israel. The UN has been complicit in this deception and crime against refugee resettlement for seven decades.

    1. To my credit, the book doesn’t contain everything, and further, I’m hesitant to quote so much of it that I might as well just scan the pages into my computer and post them.

      Thanks for adding all of those important details. I agree, and I believe I did allude to this, that the ultimate purpose of keeping the “refugee” issue alive is as a weapon against the Jewish state, and thus has nothing to do with justice.

  2. I suppose the conclusion that ought to be drawn from my previous post is that the slogan “Free Palestine” ought to be interpreted as addressing political conditions in Jordan for its “ethnic” Palestinian population, including the full absorption of any remaining “refugees” as ordinary citizens. It could even be interpreted as a plea for insurrection against the Jordanian monarchy and its replacement with some more democratic regime. However, that could be viewed as reprising the PLO insurrection there in 1970, resulting in the “Black September” massacre. “Liberating” Palestine should have nothing to do with Israel or any of the cisjordanian sector of the former “British Mandate for Palestine” region. But I’m not really able to evaluate just how much freedom exists in Jordanian Palestine for the average Palestinian Arab; hence I couldn’t say if there is any justification for a slogan like: “Free Palestine” given that it would not be painted on synagogue walls or aimed against Israel. Can you imagine protesters outside Jordanian embassies carrying such signs?

    1. I did quote the author as stating that nearly 2 million Palestinians live in Jordan, 90% of them being full citizens. Are you saying that are being discriminated against by Arab Jordanians? I would say that’s a mark against Jordan and has nothing to do with Israel. As far as painting “Free Palestine on Jordanian embassies, I doubt that these protesters are aware of the facts you mention. Historically, and you know this, the Jews have been a far easier target to accuse of…well, just about anything.

      1. PL said: I suppose the conclusion that ought to be drawn from my previous post is that the slogan “Free Palestine” ought to be interpreted as addressing political conditions in Jordan for … “ethnic” Palestinian[s] … including the full absorption of any remaining “refugees”….

        Some version of that is pithy and possibly practical in the context of responding to someone [most likely uninformed but perhaps not and possibly using it in just this way as I would be (only responsively and not as the main point or even a main point of the demonstrations) if I showed up] who randomly brings up Palestine in a protest within America. I like this, PL, very much, in that it can further communication (in the right attitude) and recognizes the “Palestinians” are stuck. I don’t know that I’d put it all on the kingdom of Jordan, however. The Arab League/League of Arab States (composed of far fewer countries, then, compared to now) embarked on this matter together.

        Quotation from the book mentioned: It was the Arab invasion that produced the Palestinian refugees.

        I submit, James, that if someone such as yourself who has had intense interest in Jewish and Israeli and historical matters on a personal level and for a long time is finding out such a detail this week, impatience with people highlighting another injustice in the world but on this side of the planet isn’t called for. I commend you for recognizing they are probably well meaning even if not comprehensively educated — as most of the United States and the rest of the world isn’t too (in any number of matters to include some that affect us more directly every day*).

        I will use your words [close to words from Donald Trump even though he’s a/n #¥& and has quoted Mussolini favorably and flippantly] to add:

        I do want to remind people, or maybe inform people for the first time, that what you see in the news and what’s actually happening are sometimes, maybe often, two different things.

        It has been shown, recently, that early vandalism attributed in a knee-jerk fashion to BLM and that led to or was followed by further destructive behaviors was committed by a white nationalist/supremacist. He achieved his aim of misdirection, a sort of sleight of hand that had certain individuals or types multiplying one times one to get one and the same instead of rightly seeing one and one for two different things.

        {I put that in bold because some places won’t report it or will try to slip it past as unnoticeably as possible.}

        The narrative, ready and set to go, was Why I oughta’ — those people who say black lives matter, you know. [Or somebody or the police or unidentified agents oughta’ … something… paint everybody according to the assumption or whatever seems to fit in with Trump’s usual.]

        What I would recommend with the news is to pay attention to what one can in fact see occurring in extended footage (such as what I do when I watch real-time from sources that allow and offer this rather than constant brainwashing and propaganda), and what can actually be known. Then actively evaluate what may be so and what isn’t necessarily so when commentators speak or when one’s own thoughts arrise; in other words, we can entertain theories but mustn’t equate them with real observation or substitute them for proper conclusions rather than wait until we have more information. (And, really, conclusions can’t always be drawn… in that we do honestly have cold cases throughout law enforcement).

        Let’s highlight what is best about our time of very present cameras and good intelligence.

        Not everyone has time for that. People who don’t should be very careful what they say.

        Of course, to an extent, that applies to everyone since none of us sees everything.

      2. I don’t have footage of exactly who spray painted “Free Palestine” on the side of a vandalized synagogue, but I have seen the security videos of African-Americans going into a Jewish deli and assaulting the patrons and proprietor. There was a news report of an elderly Orthodox Jewish man in Crown Heights being assaulted by black youth. Now, I only say this to assert that not all violence is somehow being committed during these protests is being done by white-supremacists as some white BLM supporters suggest.

        I can make a reasonable case for marginalized populations in the U.S. having an affinity with what they perceive to be a marginalized population in the Middle East, namely the Palestinians. One of the points I was trying to make in this blog post is out of the hundreds and hundreds of separate people groups marginalized around the world, why do the Palestinians stand out? After all, relative to suffering or any other condition, the Palestinians aren’t particularly unique. They are only unique because they can be used to accused Jewish Israel of apartheid, occupying Arab land, and human rights violations.

        Am I saying that this is the motivation of BLM or their supporters? No. But if they perceive a kinship with the Palestinians (as opposed to the hundreds of other marginalized groups globally), then the sentiment “Free Palestine,” no matter how well meaning, contributes to the continued world-wide hate of Israel, and to the degree that these acts are being perpetrated against Jews in the U.S. who have no control over Israeli politics, becomes anti-Semitic.

        I’ve seen photos of BLM members alongside members of Hamas, a group that even the Obama administration considered terrorists, in solidarity with one another. Maybe they don’t represent all of BLM and certainly they don’t represent all African-Americans, but whatever injustices BLM claims to be combating in our nation is spilling over into the long-standing myth of Israel “occupying” Palestine. This is a myth that has long needed to be debunked, and unfortunately, the recent vandalism and slogan “Free Palestine” has been the catalyst.

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