PA "refugee camp"
PA "refugee camp"Israel news photo: Flash 90

The United Nations is marking World Refugee Day Sunday, June 20, with events worldwide. According to UN figures, there were more than 43 million refugees in 2010; the highest refugee level since the mid-1990s.

Leaders in Fatah and Hamas made use of the occasion to demand that Israel allow millions of Arab descended from those who fled during the War of Independence to “return” to the cities in which their grandparents and great-grandparents once lived.

Izzat Rishak of Hamas told the Arab paper Filistin, “The Palestinian refugees have the right to return to the houses from which they were expelled in 1948... As long as there is one Palestinian refugee who has not returned to his village, the resistance will continue.”

Zakariya El-Ara of the Palestinian Authority expressed similar sentiments. The PA believes refugees should be resettled in the villages they lived in prior to 1948, he said. The refugee problem is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he stated.

An estimated 10 million Arabs claim descent from a resident of pre-state Israel. The Jewish population of Israel is approximately 5.73 million.

When Israel declared independence in 1948, surrounding Arab countries launched an attack in an attempt to obliterate the fledgling Jewish state. An estimated 700,000 Arab residents of what is now Israel fled during the fighting, while many Jews fled from their homes in Gaza, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, areas which were overrun by Egypt and Jordan.

Over the next several years, an estimated one million Jewish refugees fled to Israel from Arab Muslim countries. While the Jewish refugees were resettled in Israel, Arabs who fled prestate Israel were not granted citizenship in the Arab countries to which they fled, but instead were forced to live in camps, and in some cases were not permitted to work or own property.

The United Nations has taken responsibility for Arabs who fled Israel and for their descendents. Unlike refugees from all other parts of the world, Arabs who fled Israel pass along their UN refugee status to children, grandchildren, and all subsequent generations born outside Israel. In addition, the UN considered Arabs to be “Palestinian refugees” if they resided in pre-state Israel for even two years prior to fleeing the country.

The UN has established a special agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to deal specifically with Arabs descended from those who fled Israel, while all other refugees worldwide are helped via the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Friday that the US will donate $60 million to UNRWA for the upcoming year. The US gave $267 million to UNRWA in 2009, and is expected to give a total of at least $225 million in 2010.