Thursday, April 12, 2007

Israel treated refugees in 'civilised, humane' way

At last, a Saudi Columnist writing in a Kuwaiti newspaper is brave enough to call for the Arabs to abandon the illusion of the 'right of return' for Palestinians. Yussef Nasser al-Sweidan believes that Arab host countries should absorb the Palestinian refugees as Israel absorbed the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. (With thanks: Lily)

"Clearly, the refugee problem is mainly the result of cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live... such as Syria and Lebanon, which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence. Instead of helping them to become fully integrated in their new society, they let them become victims of isolation and suffering... Later, the worst of all happened when Arab intelligence agencies used the Palestinian organizations as a tool for settling scores in internal Arab conflicts that probably have nothing to do with the Palestinians...

"The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and who were forced to emigrate to Israel after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions [they needed] to become integrated in their new society..."

Read article in full

Following on from Al- Sweidan's piece, this is an article I submitted to the Guardian website, but which they rejected on the grounds that the subject had already been covered in a debate between two Palestinians on 6 April :

Naturalise the Palestinian refugees

Last week, a Saudi columnist caused a stir when he called on the Palestinians to abandon their 'right of return':

"The slogan 'right of return' which is brandished by Palestinian organisations is...the main obstacle to renewing and advancing the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the Road Map and the Two-State solution..It is patently obvious the uprooting the descendants of the refugees from their current homes in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other countries and returning to Israel, to the West Bank and to Gaza is a utopian ideal and a recipe for anarchy. More than that it is an idea that cannot be implemented..."

The words of Yousef Nasser Al-Sweidan, writing in the Kuwaiti daily 'Al Siyassa', must have seemed heresy to many Arabs, who cling to the tired old sacred cow of 'the right of return'. Even the Saudi Peace Plan, recently revived at an Arab League summit to much fanfare, did not dare break the taboo: it demanded a solution in line with UN resolution 194, which calls for 'refugees to be permitted to return at the earliest opportunity'. The Saudis could not really have been surprised when Israel's Prime Minister rejected this particular deal-breaker.

Al-Sweidan blames the Arab refugee problem on the 'cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live... such as Syria and Lebanon, which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence. Instead of helping them to become fully integrated in their new society, they let them become victims of isolation and suffering... Later, the worst of all happened when Arab intelligence agencies used the Palestinian organizations as a tool for settling scores in internal Arab conflicts that probably have nothing to do with the Palestinians..."

Arab countries should learn from Israel's handling of its refugees and naturalise their Palestinians. Al-Sweidan writes:

"The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and who were forced to emigrate to Israel after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions [they needed] to become integrated in their new society."

The mere existence of Jewish refugees may come as a surprise to those who think that the Arab-Israeli conflict only produced Palestinian refugees. In fact a greater number of Jews (870,000) were displaced from their ancient communities in Arab countries, fleeing mob violence, legal discrimination and harassment. In the 1950s the struggling state of Israel took in 600,000 Arab-born refugees (now 41 percent of the Jewish population)- with no help from the UN. The newcomers, some arriving incongruously in suits but with little else, were housed in tent camps or shacks that flooded in winter and baked in summer. There was scarcely enough food to go around. Gradually, the camps became townships and the refugees found jobs, learned Hebrew and rebuilt their lives.

The Orientals initially experienced social and cultural prejudice but Israel's integration of the Jews from Arab countries has, by and large, been a success. Although the underclass is still largely Oriental, Arab-born Jews have reached the top echelons of the Israeli establishment. Intermarriage between European and Oriental Jews is such that in a couple of generations Israelis will no longer remember where they came from.

How much easier, then, would it be for Palestinians, who share a religion, culture and a language with their Arab host countries, to integrate, given the chance. It is a disgrace that Palestinians born in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt should be denied citizenship and the right to jobs and property and a scandal that Palestinians born in Iraq should have been hounded out and refused entry into Syria. Last month Colonel Gaddafi threatened to deport his Palestinians so that they did not resettle permanently in Libya.

As Al-Sweidan puts it: "The Arab countries where the Palestinians live in refugee camps must pass the laws necessary to integrate the inhabitants of these camps into society. [In addition, they must] provide them with education and health services, and allow them freedom of occupation and movement and the right to own real estate, instead of [continuing] their policy of excluding [the refugees] and leaving the responsibility [of caring for them] to others, while marketing the impossible illusion of return [to Palestine]..."

In short, Yousef Al-Sweidan is bold enough to advocate a humanitarian solution for people who for sixty years have been treated as political footballs. Let's hope that his brand of brave and honest realism catches on.

Update: more Palestinians disavow 'right of return'

3 comments:

Albert said...

Israel refuses entry for Iranian immigrant's wife:

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/848009.html

Anonymous said...

If Israel ever did grant a right of return, it would probably be a disaster for the Palestinians. Imagine the attitudes of Syria and Lebanon. "Hey, these guys are no longer our problem! Get them out of here!"

Refugees who were happy with life in their new countries would be kicked out anyway. Israel/Palestine would become a massive ghetto for Jews and Palestinians. And the Arab world would be left Jew and Palestinian free, like Europe after World War Two.

bataween said...

God forbid - if Israel ever did grant such a right, it would certainly spell the end of Israel.
But many Palestinians (esp Christians) would not move away from the US, Canada and South America. You may be right that Syria and Lebanon would be offloading their responsibility, but it would be like cutting off their nose to spite their face. Every time Palestinians are expelled - eg 400,000 were driven out of Kuwait in 1991 - the country loses its best educated and most hardworking people.