(JNS) The negotiation affairs department of the PLO tweeted on May 15, 2020, “Every nakba commemoration day, we mark the catastrophe that befell our people in 1948, when 957,000 Palestinians became refugees.” The truth is that number was concocted, as is the current figure of 5.7 million used by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The actual number is more likely less than 30,000.
Palestinians typically claim that 800,000 to 1,000,000 Palestinians became refugees between 1947 and 1949. The last census was taken in 1945. It found only 756,000 permanent Arab residents in Israel. On Nov. 30, 1947, the date the United Nations voted for partition, the total was 809,100. A 1949 Government of Israel census counted 160,000 Arabs living in the country after the war, which meant no more than 650,000 Palestinian Arabs could have become refugees. A report by the U.N. Mediator on Palestine (as of September 1948) arrived at an even lower figure: 360,000. The CIA estimate was 330,000. In 2011, historian Efraim Karsh analyzed the number of refugees by city and came up with an estimate of 583,000 to 609,000.
When the United Nations created UNRWA to assist the Palestinians, a refugee was defined as “a needy person, who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood.”
Initially, UNRWA had a list of 950,000 names, but the agency knew that this number was inaccurate. UNRWA accepted most claims while acknowledging that, for example, many Palestinians did not report deaths in their families so they could continue to collect rations for the deceased. The agency admitted that many fraudulent cases were discovered but was unable to remove undeserving individuals from the relief rolls. It also knew that it would not get any cooperation from the refugees themselves. UNRWA was petrified, however, of criticism for failing to address the humanitarian problem:
Conferring refugee status on non-refugees in the first instance has created a situation that cannot be ignored but removing it exposes the Agency to unwarranted and unfair criticism from the misinformed public as well as fanatical opposition on the part of the undeserving recipient and his friends and supporters.
In 1951, UNRWA lamented the inability to conduct an accurate census. “It is still not possible to give an absolute figure of the true number of refugees as understood by the working definition of ‘a person normally resident in Palestine who has lost his home and his livelihood as a result of the hostilities, and who is in need.’ ”
UNRWA now says, “When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”
Even accepting the exaggerated figures adopted by UNRWA, how did the number of refugees grow from 750,000 to 5.7 million?
We know one reason is ongoing fraud, such as was discovered from the early days of the agency. The principal explanation, however, is that UNRWA changed the definition of a refugee. Instead of providing for “a needy person, who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood,” UNRWA expanded the definition to include “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children” (emphasis added).
UNRWA took a difficult problem and, by simply redefining “refugee,” made it an impossible one.
It is important to remember that the original refugees could have been settled soon after the war if the Arab states were willing to accept them. They were not, however, and confined them to camps where they could stew and become radicalized. Israel offered to take back 100,000 in the context of a peace agreement, but Arab leaders were still committed to Israel’s destruction. In the interim, the refugees were useful propaganda tools—evidence, Arabs claimed, of Israel’s aggression and perfidy.
Even today, more than 70 years after the war, only Jordan has accepted Palestinians as citizens. More than 1 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel, but none are citizens of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt or other Arab countries. Palestinians can be citizens in the United States, Europe—almost anyplace else.
UNRWA operates 58 refugee camps with nearly 1.6 million inhabitants. That is more than twice the Palestinian population in 1948. Twenty-seven of those camps (19 in the West Bank, eight in Gaza), with more than 800,000 “refugees,” are controlled by the Palestinians. Nothing prevents the Palestinian Authority and Hamas from closing the camps, moving the refugees into permanent housing and thereby solving the problem.
When Israel controlled Gaza, it routinely proposed closing the camps and building permanent homes for the Palestinians, but the Arab states objected and voted at the United Nations to condemn Israel for even proposing such an idea.
Where are all the advocates for the Palestinians who cry crocodile tears for their welfare? They are silent when it comes to abuses by the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership.
The Palestinians are kept in camps to perpetuate the hoax that millions of refugees must be allowed to return to their homes if peace is to be achieved. They have an entirely different idea than Western peace advocates. They demand that 5 million “refugees” return to their “homes” so they will become the majority of the population (5.7 million, plus nearly 2 million Arab citizens of Israel, compared to 6.9 million Jews). This is their two-state solution—one state in the West Bank and Gaza, and a second Palestinian state in what used to be Israel. This would be merged into their ultimate objective of a state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. No Israeli will accept this suicide pact.
The refugee issue is easily solvable if we return to the original definition that applied only to people who lived in Palestine in 1948-1949, not their descendants. This is the true number of refugees.
What is that number?
Consider an infant in 1948 would be over 70 today. An adult would be at least in their late 80s or 90s. The percentage of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza over the age of 65 is 3.15 percent. If we include Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, the figure could be as high (on average) as 4.48 percent. That means if there were 400,000 refugees in 1948 and they were all still alive, there would be only 12,600 to 17,912 refugees today. Even if you use the exaggerated number of 750,000 refugees, there would be at most 33,585.
In the Palestinian Authority, the percentage of people older than 72 is 1.4 percent, bringing the estimates down to 5,600 to 10,500. Since the life expectancy in the P.A. today is 76 years, the only refugees likely to be alive today were children in 1948, so the numbers would be even smaller.
If the accepted number of Palestinian refugees was less than 35,000, as it should be, how difficult would it be to solve the problem? Israel should have no problem accepting that number of Palestinians over 65 as a humanitarian gesture (more than 150,000 have been admitted in the past). Problem solved.
What about the other 5 million? Well, they’re not refugees from 1948 and are not Israel’s concern. They are the problem of the P.A. and the Arab states where they are living now.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”