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June 21, 2018 7:01 pm

South African Trade Group, BDS Activists Promote Palestinian Refugees With Photo of Jewish Refugees From Arab Lands

avatar by Shiri Moshe

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Jewish refugees at an Israeli transit camp in 1950. Photo: Jewish Agency for Israel via Wikipedia commons.

South African activists and the country’s largest trade union group tried to raise awareness of Palestinian refugees on Wednesday by sharing a photo of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

In commemoration of World Refugee Day, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign in South Africa tweeted that “Palestinians are the largest and longest suffering group of refugees in the world.” It shared four photos alongside the text — one of which was taken in 1950, at an Israeli transit camp for Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries following the creation of the Jewish state.

The tweet was quoted later in the day by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which prominently featured the image of Jewish refugees without mentioning its source.

COSATU is a supporter of the BDS campaign, and has called a resolution passed by the ruling African National Congress in December to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv “a major step towards the total shutdown and isolation of … the colonial apartheid state of Israel.”

The group’s gaffe was mocked by several commentators on Twitter, one of whom sarcastically wrote, “Thank you Cosatu for bringing to the world attention the plight of Jewish refugees exiled from their homes in the 40’s and 50’s. Truly doing good work!!”

The issue of Palestinian refugees dates back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when a coalition of Arab armies invaded the Jewish state less than a day after it declared independence. Some 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from their homes during the fighting, and today their descendants number more than five million.

That year also saw the beginning of an exodus of an estimated 850,000 Jews from across the greater Middle East, whose communities were targeted with antisemitic pogroms and discriminatory laws following Israel’s creation. A majority of the refugees — hailing from countries including Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, and Libya — were resettled in Israel. Their descendants make up half of the country’s Jewish population, and are not considered refugees.

Conversely, the displaced Palestinians and their descendants — who now largely reside in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and elsewhere in the Middle East — maintain refugee status through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and their “right of return” to Israel remains a central tenant of the BDS campaign.

Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which serves every other refugee population in the world, UNRWA uniquely passes refugee status to the children, grandchildren, and subsequent descendants of Palestinians in their care, including those who have citizenship in other countries. This treatment has been supported by some Arab governments, which argued that it would increase both international focus on the Palestinians and their prospects of returning home.

The Palestinian refugee population is thus expected to grow in perpetuity, while all other refugee populations served by the UNHCR — which focuses on resettlement — eventually shrink.

Palestinians have long called on Israel to accept the immigration of the original refugees and their descendants — a demand supported by UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The Israeli government maintains that doing so would effectively turn the country into a Palestinian-majority state, and has accused UNRWA’s unique definition of complicating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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