The Unique Tragedy of the Palestinian Refugees

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees. The films, pictures, slides and prints the organization has collected on the refugees’ plight will now be displayed in Jerusalem’s Old City in an exhibit entitled “The Long Journey,” which will then tour Europe and North America. The images, available online, are heartbreakingly powerful and emotive.

Like all refugee stories, Palestinian stories of displacement and loss needs to be told. The question is what lessons one takes out of it. For Israel, as many prominent Israeli intellectuals, historians and politicians have argued for decades, the Palestinian plight is one that must be confronted and acknowledged with honesty.

What about the rest of the world, and particularly Muslims, Arabs and the Palestinians themselves?

The Palestinian refugees have an emotional hold in the Muslim world unlike any other refugee group. No other Muslim refugee problem, including those of conflicts in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, generates such indignation. Why is that? What makes the Palestinians unique?

Remarkably, Palestinians refugees in the Levant are the only refugee group to have a special UN agency dedicated to them. All others across the world are handled by one agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). According to the UN, the special treatment of the Palestinians is justified by “the scale and uniqueness of the Palestinian refugee problem.”

Yet by any measure, the scale of the Palestinian refugee problem is dwarfed by numerous refugee events of the 20th Century. In 1948, credible estimates recorded approximately 700,000 refugees, and in 1967 approximately 300,000.

To put these numbers in perspective, the displacement of the Palestinians occurred within the context of the largest population transfers in history, in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, around the same time that the British mandate of Palestine was being portioned into one state for Jews and one for Arabs, India was partitioned to create a state for Muslims – Pakistan. This resulted in the largest movement of refugees in history, with over 14 million people displaced and the death of over 1 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

Meanwhile, at least 12 million ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe (where they had lived for centuries) from 1944–1950, in the largest population transfer in modern European history.

In 1923, Greece and Turkey engaged in a forcible population exchange that turned 2 million people into refugees. And since the 1950s, numerous African nations have fought civil wars that led to massive refugee flight. The UNHCR estimates that in 1992, there were over 6.5 million refugees across Africa, with that number remaining high in 2004 at over 2.7 million.

How many people have studied these events or were even aware of them? Most were forgotten because after one generation, or two at most, the refugees were integrated into other countries.

And that points to one aspect of the Palestinian problem that is in fact unique: unlike most others, it has lasted for generations. The original estimated 700,000-1 million refugees now number approximately 6.5 million. That is not just a problem, it is a tragedy. Imagine if the Palestinians had been allowed to integrate into neighboring Arab countries – often less than 20 miles away from their original homes? Germany took in ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern and Central Europe, though they had not lived in Germany for centuries. India accepted Hindu refugees from the newly created state of Pakistan. Israel absorbed an estimated 800,000–1 million Jewish refugees who were expelled or fled from Arab countries between 1948 and the early 1970s.

The Arab League has instructed Arab states to deny citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” The result is that six decades later, Palestinians languish in camps throughout Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – instead of becoming productive citizens, as they have in other countries where they have emigrated. While the Arab world urges Israel to face its responsibility, it should not be an excuse to ignore its own.

Painting the Palestinian problem as the most serious issue facing Muslims today minimizes the plight of refugees everywhere. Even through the narrower lens of the Muslim world, the Palestinian experience is not exceptional. Pakistan is far from the only case. In Darfur, an estimated 2.5 million people have become refugees since 2003 because of the Janjaweed militia, backed by the Sudanese army. In Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, 6 million refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran (5 million of whom have been repatriated since). Today an estimated 2 million Syrians have left their country to escape the civil war that began in 2011. Other refugees in the Muslim world include 1.6 million Iraqis fleeing civil war in the past decade and several hundred thousand Feyli Kurds forcibly expelled by Saddam Hussein starting in the 1970s.

Displacement as a result of war is not distinctive. History is replete with refugee suffering, and it would be difficult to argue that Palestinians have suffered infinitely more than others in recent times.

It is hard to see what good can come from this false sense of uniqueness. Arguable, it causes even greater pain and trauma. It also makes it harder for Palestinians to envisage peacemaking rather than revenge, and strengthens extremists who feed on hatred and oppose any prospect for peace.

Is it possible to have a more nuanced understanding of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict that does not absolve Israel of all wrongdoing, but doesn’t demonize it either? Similarly, is it feasible to recognize the pain individual Palestinians underwent but concedes that this tragedy is similar to that experienced by millions of others? Answers to both questions may ultimately help bring an end to this sad Middle Eastern chapter.