Justice for all refugees is essential for peace

Some 200,000 Jewish refugees were housed in tent camps or ‘maabarot’ on arrival in Israel in the 1950s. (Photo: Israel at the UN)

Zvi Gabay, a former Israeli ambassador and deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry, has been a tireless advocate for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Only by granting justice to all refugees can any hope of peace come to the Middle East, he argues in The Huffington Post. (This is an English version of an article Gabay first published in Haaretz, entitled The Jewish Nakba)  :

 Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s initiative in opening the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab states to public debate
has met, as expected, with angry Arab reactions. One of the reactions
was the accusation that the issue is an “invention.” The reason for
these reactions is that this issue has up to now been unknown.
Successive Israeli governments ignored it and the media neglected it. It
was treated with contempt, amidst the concern that raising it would
awaken Palestinian claims and harm the peace process. So the world
became accustomed to relating only to the Palestinian nakba that
resulted in 650,000 refugees, according to UNWRA, the U.N. agency
created specifically to deal with these refugees.

The Arab governments are careful to perpetuate the misery of the
Palestinian refugees, not allowing them to be rehabilitated or to become
citizens in their countries, due to the ideology that maintains that
rehabilitating the Palestinians would be to Israel’s advantage. The Arab
leaders have repeatedly placed full responsibility for the creation of
the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel. At the same time, Israel
never made a serious effort to exonerate itself of this accusation, even
though U.N. Resolution 194 from 1948 did not hold Israel responsible for the problem.

Another claim made by the Arabs is that the Jews were not forced to flee
from the Arab states, where they lived in peace and harmony. Here, a
history lesson of the conflict would be in order. They would discover
that, during the U.N. debates in 1947 about the proposal to partition
Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, their representatives
(Heykal Pasha from Egypt, Dr. Fadhil Jamali from Iraq and Jamal
al-Husayni, head of the Palestinian Arab delegation, and others) not
only declared
that “the partition line will be a line of fire and blood;” they also
announced that partitioning Palestine would put the Jewish communities
in the Arab states in mortal danger. Immediately after the 29 of
November — the day that the partition plan passed — the Arab armies
and the Palestinian Arab gangs attacked the Jewish community (the
Yishuv) in Palestine and, simultaneously, rioted against the Jews in the
Arab countries.

The war started by the Arabs led to killing, destruction and terrible
human tragedy. Eight hundred and fifty-six thousand defenseless Jews fled to Israel
and other countries, leaving behind their personal and communal
property and assets, while six hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians
abandoned their firing positions and their homes and went to Arab
countries. In effect, a population exchange occurred between the State
of Israel and the Arab countries, similar to the population exchange
that occurred between India and Pakistan. However, the Arab states,
following the instructions of the Arab League, refuse to recognize this
situation and prevent the humane resolution of the problem that they

Despite the fact that the human dimensions of the catastrophe suffered
by the Jews from Arab countries were greater than the dimensions of the
catastrophe suffered by the Palestinians, the world’s attention has
always focused on the latter. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in
1957 did indeed recognize the Jews from Arab countries as refugees, but
the U.N. General Assembly did not pass a single resolution on their
behalf. In contrast, it has passed more than 160 resolutions and
declarations in support of the Palestinian refugees. This one-sided
approach has not solved the problem and has exacerbated the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It could be that the Jewish refugees were ignored because the Jews from
the Arab countries rehabilitated themselves in Israel and in other
countries and the conditions of their life in the camps became a thing
of the past. All of the U.N. resolutions and the billions of dollars
donated to the Palestinian refugees by the international community have
not improved their situation and they continue to live in appalling

The time has come for the Arab states to acknowledge the reality created
by their war on Israel and to stop toying with the possibility of
turning back history, stop reciting the slogan “right of return” for the
Palestinian refugees and stop sowing illusions in their hearts.

A solution to the tragedy of the refugees in the Middle East —
Palestinians and Jews — can only be found by looking at the total
picture. Any solution must be shared by the Arab states, Israel and the
international community. It must be based on President Clinton’s
proposal in 2000, to establish an international fund to compensate
Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

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