Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of January 16, 2001


By Evelyn Gordon

One of the most surprising developments of the past few weeks has been the support expressed by many ordinary Americans and Europeans for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel. What is surprising about this proposition, put forth in numerous letters and opinion pieces published in the press recently, is that it accords Palestinians a "right" enjoyed by virtually no other refugees in history.

Most of the writers are unaware of this. But that so many well-meaning people can mindlessly parrot the canard that the repatriation of refugees is an "inalienable right" is yet another proof of the efficacy of the well-known tactic of the "big lie" - that any lie, however outrageous, will eventually be believed if repeated often enough. Certainly, it would be hard to think of many lies as easily disprovable as the idea that refugees have a "right of return" to their former homes.

The history of the 20th century is one long lesson in the falsity of this claim. To cite just a few examples:

* Millions of Moslems fled India for Pakistan following the bloody riots of 1947. India not only stripped them of citizenship, but barred them, in its constitution, from ever returning. No one ever suggested that these Moslems had a "right of return."

* After World War II, Czechoslovakia expelled all its German citizens. Yet no one suggested that the millions of Sudeten Germans had a "right of return." In 1997, Germany even signed a treaty acknowledging the irrevocability of the expulsion.

* When the communists took power in Vietnam, millions of "boat people" fled to the United States and various Asian countries. No one has ever suggested that these people have a "right of return."

* In the five years after its establishment in 1948, Israel absorbed close to 500,000 Jewish refugees - about half from the wreckage of the Holocaust and the remainder from Arab countries.

A similar number poured in over the next three years. As a result, the new state's population had doubled by 1953 and tripled by 1956. Yet no one has ever suggested that these refugees have a "right of return" to their countries of origin.

In fact, none of these refugees were even granted monetary compensation - another "inalienable right" claimed for the Palestinians. Nor is there any lack of other examples that fit this pattern. Why, then, are the Palestinian refugees so unquestionably awarded a "right" enjoyed by virtually no other refugees in history?

The best explanation lies in a circumstance that is also virtually unique to the Palestinians: Unlike most of history's refugees, the countries to which the Palestinians fled refused to absorb them - preferring to leave them in squalid refugee camps for the sake of encouraging anti-Israel sentiment.

The Moslems who fled India became full-fledged citizens of Pakistan. The Sudeten Germans were fully absorbed in Germany. The Vietnamese boat people are now productive citizens of the US. Jewish refugees from the Arab world have been fully integrated into Israel.

Yet the Palestinians - whose Arab hosts bear direct responsibility for their flight - through their decision to declare war on Israel rather than accepting the UN partition plan - still languish in refugee camps after 52 years.

Jordan, at least, granted its Palestinian refugees citizenship, but made no effort to get them out of the camps. This is why refugee camps were still flourishing when Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, after 19 years of Jordanian rule.

Yet the refugees who fled to Jordanian-controlled territory were lucky: Those who went to Lebanon, for instance, not only were not made citizens, but were also deprived of basic civil rights, such as the right to work in over 70 different professions.

Ironically, the one country that did try to improve the situation of the refugees was Israel.

In Gaza, for instance, some 36,000 refugees had been moved into better housing by 1973, before international pressure and PLO threats against the refugees put a stop to the project.

The most astonishing element in this tale of neglect, however, is the role of the Palestinians themselves.

Most of the refugees have been under autonomous Palestinian rule for the last five years - yet the Palestinian Authority has spent not one cent of the millions of dollars it received in foreign aid to improve their living conditions. Apparently, it, too, prefers to let its people suffer for propaganda purposes.

It is impossible not to pity refugees who, thanks to the callous unconcern of their fellow Arabs, have been living in misery for the last 50 years. But that does not entitle them to a "right of return" accorded no other refugees in history.

The only just solution to their problem is for the Arab world, and particularly the Palestinian state-to-be, to absorb them - just as Israel has absorbed Jewish refugees the world over since 1948.

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