It has been suggested that counters don’t think and it is thinkers who really count. Nowhere is this mantra more applicable than to the perennial issue of Palestinian refugees, driven from their homes by cruel Israeli conquerors. Ever since 1948, when Israel defeated the armies of surrounding Arab nations determined to eradicate the Jewish state, the flight of Palestinians has remained high on the international list of grievances attributed to Israeli malice.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in 1949 to aid Palestinians “whose normal place of residence was Mandatory Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost their homes . . . as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” Now staffed by 30,000 Palestinians, it offers educational, relief and social service programs for which the United States contributed $368 million in 2016. Why so costly? Because UNRWA, imaginatively defining Palestinian refugees to include descendants (including adopted children) of male refugees who fled in 1948, registers 5,149,742 “patrilineal descendants” now receiving benefits.
The New York Times also rode the escalator of refugee inflation. In October 1948, it noted “the flight of 80 per cent” of “500,000 Arabs” who had inhabited territory gained by Israel during its struggle for independence. But, four years later, an editorial cited “850,000 Arab refugees.” By November 1954, the number had climbed to 900,000; two months later, correspondent Cyrus Sulzberger, the publisher’s nephew, referred to “almost one million” refugees. In 1956, and again in 1967 following the Six-Day War, Times editorials cited “nearly one million” displaced Palestinians.
According to Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, the refugee problem “arose from a systematic policy of ethnic dispossession and elimination” — not from the determination of Arab states to destroy Israel. Israeli forces, it claims, “forcibly evicted 737,166 Palestinians from their homes and land.” With descendants of those Palestinians defined as “refugees,” it preposterously concludes that now “There are about 7.2 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.” Slightly more modestly, Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights (AUPHR) identifies Palestinians as “the largest and longest suffering group of refugees in the world,” now numbering 6.5 million.
These organizations fail to note that despite evident Arab intention to destroy the nascent Jewish state, Israel’s Proclamation of Independence (May 14, 1948) declared: “we yet call upon Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship.” By then, 200,000 Palestinians — one-quarter of the Palestinian population — had already fled.
There is no question that the Arab war to destroy Israel in 1947-48 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, some voluntarily, and others at the urging of their leaders. One year later an Israeli government census counted 160,000 Arabs still living within its borders. This meant that 640,000 Palestinians had become refugees — although UN mediators reported significantly lower refugee estimates, ranging between 400,000 and 472,000.
But how is it possible, asks Asaf Romirowsky (executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East), “that while other refugee populations shrink, the Palestinian refugees only grow?” The reason is evident: “UNRWA has no incentive whatsoever to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem, since doing so would render it obsolete.” Defining virtually every Palestinian born anywhere since 1949 as a refugee, it continues to receive generous UN funding accordingly. In reality, however, reliable estimates of Palestinian refugees still alive range between 30,000-50,000, a number that will inevitably diminish as time passes.
How long will the UNRWA scam survive? Although President Donald Trump has recently made indirect threats to its continued funding, the fiction of “more than five million Palestinian refugees” — recently embraced by The New York Times (Jan. 3) — is likely to endure.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” to be published in 2018.