By Ben-Dror Yemini
The Palestinians have been holding the title of “refugees” for over six decades . They have succeeded in creating a unique historical narrative for themselves . This myth is growing, so it should be shattered and the real facts presented: the Palestinian population before the first Aliya was sparse, hundreds of thousands of Jews were also expelled from Arab countries, and there is no precedent anywhere in the world for the right of return.
The Nakba – the story of the Palestinian refugees is the greatest success story in the history of modern times – a success that is a complete fraud. There is no other group of “refugees” in the world that has gotten such broad global coverage. Not a week goes by without a conference, another conference, about the wretched state of the Palestinians. There is not a campus in the West that does not devote countless events, conferences and publications, each year or each month to the issue of the Palestinian refugees. They have become the ultimate victims. A million calamities and injustices and expulsions and population exchanges and acts of genocide and slaughter and wars have befallen the world since the Arabs, among them the Palestinians, declared a war of annihilation on Israel – but the Nakba of the Palestinians takes up most of the space. A visitor from another planet would think that it was the greatest injustice suffered by the entire universe since the Second World War. So it is best to shatter this lie. It is best to present the real facts. It is best to expose the fraud.
The Jews came to the area of the Land of Israel, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, in many small waves, back before the First Aliya. Did they really expel millions of Arabs? Well, there is no debating the fact that in those years there were no “Palestinians” and there was no “Palestine” and there was no “Palestinian identity.” And, mainly, there was no real boundary between Arabs from Syria, Egypt or Jordan. There was a steady stream of people. In the years in which Muhammad Ali and his son conquered this region in 1831 – 1840, they sent many Arabs from Egypt to Gaza, Jaffa and other cities. The Jews who also arrived in Jaffa during those years helped to develop the city as well.
Forgotten research findings
There is a debate among historians over the number of Arabs who lived during those years in the area of “Palestine,” which, in effect, was composed of districts (Sanjaks) that were subject to Damascus or Beirut, as part of the Ottoman Empire. The most serious testimony about what existed before the First Aliya is a forgotten one. It’s known to many scholars, but it doesn’t exist in the public discourse. It was made by a delegation of British researchers – the Palestine Exploration Fund – which traveled through the western Land of Israel in 1871 – 1878, from Dan to Beer Sheba, and published a precise and authentic map of settlements in 26 parts, which is rare for its size, type and authenticity. The researchers found a small number of sparse settlements here. The journalist Zeev Galili published a comprehensive investigation following publication of the map, and found that Haifa, for example, was a settlement of 440 x 190 meters. No more than that. Acre and Nazareth were larger settlements, whose area was 600 x 300 meters. The size of Jaffa was 540 x 240 meters.
Jerusalem was situated between the walls, and was relatively huge, about 1,000 meters x 1,000 meters. There were a total of about 100,000 residents.
The way to Jerusalem, 1875
A rare collection of photographs of the Land of Israel in those years clarifies the size of the settlements, and gives another fascinating look at those times.
There are those who bring up the famous tour of the Land of Israel in 1891 by Achad Ha’am, who also found cultivated and flourishing fields. It seems, however, that the impressions of Achad Ha’am are dwarfed by a series of well-established findings from that era. Another visitor, like Achad Ha’am, was Mark Twain, who toured the land in 1865. “….A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely… We never saw a human being on the whole route. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes… desolate and unlovely… these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness…that melancholy ruin of Capernaum; this stupid village of Tiberias slumbering under its six funereal plumes of palms” Of the same mind was Henry Baker Tristram, who made several visits to the Holy Land during those same years, and his descriptions are very close to those of Twain’s.
Kfar Kanna, 1869
More well-established testimonies are given in the book of James Finn, the British consul in Jerusalem for 17 years (1845-1862), who traveled the length and breadth of the country and published a book describing the land, which was settled with appalling sparseness, waiting for residents that would redeem it. In a memorandum that he sent in 1857, he noted that “Palestine is mostly empty of residents.”
It appears, however, that the findings of the research delegation are above any dispute. These were not chance visitors. They were researchers who stayed here for years, researched the land, went from settlement to settlement, measured every mountain, settlement and hill, and published six volumes. One of the researchers, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, said about the Judea region that “mile after mile not a living thing is to be seen.”
An Arab village, at the foot of Mount Tavor, 1877
Despite these findings, there is a sharp debate among researchers, historians and demographers about the number of Arabs who lived in the area before the First Aliya. The estimates range from 100,000 according to the British research delegation and hundreds of thousands according to other researchers. There is another dispute on the question of the extent of Arab immigration to Israel following the advent of Zionism. This issue also occupied other researchers, among them Moshe Braver and Moshe Sharon.
Winston Churchill said in 1939, “Despite the fact that they were not persecuted, masses of Arabs streamed into Palestine and multiplied there until the Arab population increased more than all the Jews of the world could have added to the Jewish population.” There are dozens of information sources on both the sparse Arab population before the First Aliya and on the Arab immigration, the size of which is in dispute, after the advent of Zionism.
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The book by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial, which provides a great deal of data on Palestinian immigration, is very controversial. Some of the findings that appear in the book have been refuted, but more serious researchers, such as Arieh Avneri (who refutes the claim of eviction and colonialism) and Fred Gottheil present a reliable picture which actually establishes most of the claims made by Peters. When this is added to the testimony of the research delegation, and to the book and memorandum by Finn – the result is unequivocal: before the First Zionist Aliya, there was an appallingly sparse population in the Land of Israel.
With regard to the immigration, we should add that as long as the government was Arab or Muslim, the people sought a better place to live. The Arabs of the region were under Egyptian and Jordanian rule for two decades (1948-1967), and they never demanded a state for themselves. They lived under a cruel regime (a subject for a separate article) and made every effort to emigrate to other countries. The change began in 1967. The Israeli government caused another attraction. That is the reason that many Palestinians prefer to return to the territories of Judea and Samaria, and that is the reason that many of them want to immigrate to Israel and become citizens (hundreds of thousands have already done so).
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Throughout the years of the British Mandate, there were two populations here – Jews and Arabs. The original area of the Mandate, according to the Balfour Declaration, included the eastern side of the Jordan. As mentioned, the area was very sparsely populated. The establishment of a national homeland for the Jews would not have caused any injustice because there was no state here and there was no nation here. That was the real background to the Balfour Declaration. In 1922, the League of Nations cut off part of the promised area to give to the Hashemite family, and one year later the Golan Heights was also cut off to give to the French government in Syria.
Harassment of Jews also existed during the Ottoman period, and increased during the time of the British Mandate. The opposition was led by the Supreme Muslim Council, headed by Haj Amin Al-Husseini. The Palestinian leader attached himself to the Axis countries. He preached hatred and extermination of the Jews and spent World War II in Berlin. “The Mufti and Hitler have a common enemy – the Jews,” declared a German film clip about a meeting between the two.
The Mufti did more than just talk – he also acted. He established the Muslim Hanzar Brigades, which were sent into action in the service of Hitler.
The only remaining refugees
Parallel to the UN resolution on partition, the Arab countries declared a war of annihilation on Israel. The result is well known. The declaration of war led to hundreds of thousands of Arabs being forced to move to neighboring countries. Many of them fled. Many testified that they were forced to leave under pressure of their leaders. There were also some who were evicted in the heat of battle. About 600,000 people became refugees.
The experience undergone by the Arabs became the “Nakba,” a story that has inflated over the years. They became the only exiled people among all the disputes in the world. And there is no greater lie than that. First of all, because the “Jewish Nakba” occurred at the same time. With the same background, in the same conflict, more Jews in Arab countries – over 800,000 people – were forced to face eviction and expulsion. And they did not declare a war of annihilation on the countries in which they lived. Second, and even more important, more than 50 million people have undergone population exchanges as a result of national conflicts or the creation of new nation states. There is no difference between the Arabs of Palestine and the rest of the refugees, including the Jewish refugees. Just in the decade after World War II, and in Europe alone, more than 20 million people experienced population exchanges. That also happened later, in conflicts between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus; between Armenia and Azerbaijan (the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), between the states that were created as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia and in many other conflicts around the world.
But only the Palestinians, out of all those groups, have held the title of “refugees” for over six decades. They have succeeded in creating a unique historical narrative for themselves. This myth is also growing with the help of UNRWA, a group dedicated to taking care of the Palestinian refugees, separate from the care given to all the other refugees in the world by the UNHCR. Many countries, including Israel, help to maintain theUNRWA, which deals not only with assisting and perpetuating the refugee problem, but also with incitement. The tragedy is that if the Palestinians were to receive such treatment from the international community, their situation today would be far better.
The fraud that is called the right of return
In the many discussions in which I have participated, I asked my colleagues, devotees of the Palestinian narrative, when have deportees who declared war, and lost that war, been granted the “right of return”? Is there one among the dozens of groups and the tens of millions who experienced expulsion in the past century that has been granted a “right of return” in a manner that caused the political annihilation of a nation state? To this day I have not received an answer. Because there is no such right.
The Palestinian Authority presents a document which claims that there are precedents for a “right of return.” The most serious example presented there is the Dayton Agreement of 1995 which allows the return, for example, of Serbs to Croatia. The circumstances, however, are different. First, the return was never implemented. Croatia allowed the return of Croatians but placed barriers on the return of Serbs. Second, even if it had been implemented, the return would not have undermined the existence of Croatia as the national state of the Croatian people. Another example presented by the Palestinians is an agreement from 1997 regarding Azerbaijan. This is also a fraud because a report from 2002 shows that the Muslims who were exiled to Azerbaijan did not return to Armenia, and the Armenians who arrived as refugees did not return to Azerbaijan. In effect, the Armenian constitution grants the right of return only to Armenians (similar to the Israeli Law of Return, which exists in other countries around the world). The other examples presented by the Palestinians, from Africa and South America, are also irrelevant to the many population exchanges around the world and certainly to the population exchanges between the Arab countries and Israel.
The most serious reference to the issue of the right of return is in the Cypress agreement initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The agreement does not recognize the right of return, despite the fact that the European Court of Human Rights recognized the rights of petitioners on the Greek side of Turkey to return and to the restoration of property. In other words, not every legal precedent becomes a political truth. The agreement was welcomed by the international community in general and by the European Union in particular. There is a reason why the Palestinians do not mention the Cypress precedent because the right of return there was limited so that the Turkish majority, on the Turkish side, would always be at least eighty percent.
The Palestinians are also relying on resolution 194, so it should be recalled that the Arabs presented a united front in opposition to the resolution. They knew why. Because it is a resolution which, in effect, is based on recognition in a previous resolution – the partition resolution – which grants international legitimacy to recognition of the Jewish state. There are other stipulations in that resolution, such as the creation of suitable conditions and pre-agreement to the fact that candidates for return must agree to live in peace with their neighbors. Needless to say, the Palestinians are insisting on non-recognition of the Jewish state, which shows that the conditions have not been created and certainly that the return is for the purpose of eliminating the Jewish entity and not for the purpose of peace. And as Abu-Mazen stated in May 2009, he does not recognize the Jewish state because it is liable to prevent the return of the masses.
Is there a Palestinian people?
Azmi Bishara has stated in the past that “There is no Palestinian people. That is a colonial invention. There were never Palestinians.”
Bishara is right. It is even happening to him. Even the third Arab Congress in 1920, which was held in Jaffa, stated that Palestine is southern Syria and that there is no separate Palestinian identity. Ahmad Shukieri, the first chairman of the PLO, stated that “Palestine is just a part of Syria.” The president of Syria, Hafez al Assad, said in 1976 that Palestine was part of greater Syria. Many spokesmen have admitted, exactly like Bishara and Assad, time after time, that there is no separate Palestinian identity. Without Zionist immigration, masses of immigrants would not have come here from Muslim countries, and no Palestinian identity would have been created. But the fact that this does not involve a nation, but rather immigrants from neighboring countries, does not rule out the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. They see themselves as a nation, they have created a separate national identity, and their wishes should be respected.
One of the Palestinian claims is that for the purpose of resolving the conflict, the Palestinian Nakba must be recognized, and primarily the Israeli responsibility for the refugee problem. The truth is the opposite. Cultivating the myth of the Nakba is not what is delaying resolution of the conflict, because the Palestinians are busy reinforcing the problem, inflating it and insisting that it is different from any international precedent. They are forgetting that they are the ones who preferred to support the Nazi axis of evil. They are the ones who refused the partition proposal. They are the ones who declared a war of annihilation. They are the ones who started the war. They are forgetting that a greater number of Jews were persecuted, dispossessed and expelled from Arab countries. As long as they continue the myth of the Nakba, and delete the basic facts, they only perpetuate their suffering. And despite all this, the Palestinians deserve respect, freedom and independence. But alongside of Israel. Not instead of Israel. And not by means of the Nakba, which is no more than a political fraud and that a historical fraud.
Ben-Dror Yemini is a senior columnist in Maariv, daily newspaper