Revealed From Archive: Israel's Secret Plan to Resettle Arab Refugees

Plans drawn up during the 1950s and ’60s had one overriding goal: to preserve the demographic status quo by resettling the 1948 Arab refugees far away from the country.

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Amid the flood of articles dealing with the traumatic impact of the event on American society, a modest place was devoted to Israeli-American relations during the Kennedy presidency − mostly in relation to Washington’s fears about Israel’s nuclear project. Little if anything was written about the deep anxiety that prevailed in Israel at the start of Kennedy’s term because of the president’s initiative to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem.

At the conclusion of the first meeting between Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Kennedy, held in New York in the autumn of 1961, there was no longer any doubt on the Israeli side that the White House was working on a new initiative concerning the Arab refugees called the “three-pronged approach.” Ben-Gurion did not like (to put it mildly) the idea presented to him by the president, which called for some of the refugees to be settled in Arab states, others overseas and some to return to Israel. However, in deference to the president, the Israeli leader did not reject the idea out of hand.

Since the end of the fighting during the War of Independence in 1948, the question of what would become of the 650,000 to 700,000 refugees who had abandoned their homes and property within Israel’s borders had become a millstone around the country’s neck. Some of the refugees had fled, others had been encouraged to leave, some had been expelled. According to one estimate, the property left behind by the refugees included more than four million dunams of land (one million acres), 73,000 rooms, and 8,000 stores and offices.

Some of the nascent state’s leaders viewed the country’s “voiding” of its Arab inhabitants − and thus the ability to establish a state possessing a Jewish majority − as the greatest achievement of the Zionist movement, transcending even the creation of the Jewish state as such. Accordingly, already in mid-1948, while the fighting raged, Israel formulated a policy under which the return of the refugees to its territory would not be permitted under any circumstances. Jerusalem sought to perpetuate the demographic status quo together with the geographic status quo, which was created upon the cessation of hostilities and the signing of the armistice agreements.

In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 (III), which stipulates, in Article 11, that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” In the wake of this, Israel came under heavy pressure to repatriate some of the refugees.

The refugee issue was raised every year during the deliberations of the General Assembly and in international conferences. Notable in this regard was the Lausanne Conference in May 1949, which was convened to advance a solution to the Middle East conflict. During the conference, Israel came under great pressure from Washington, with President Harry Truman sending a strongly worded message in which he maintained that Israel’s refusal to accept refugees put the peace in danger and ignored UN resolutions.

At Lausanne, Israel stated its willingness to take control of the Gaza Strip, under the mistaken impression that only 150,000 refugees lived there. Afterward, it turned out that the population of the Gaza Strip at that time consisted of between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees, in addition to 80,000 permanent residents. As the pressure mounted, Israel stated that, under certain conditions, it would be ready to accept up to 100,000 refugees. However, the Arab states rejected this offer, and Israel retracted it in July 1950.

International pressure on Israel waned in the early 1950s, as the international community’s efforts to find a solution for the refugee problem turned more toward regional economic possibilities and the integration of the majority of the refugees into the Arab states. Still, the idea that some of the refugees would return to Israel remained a central element of every proposed solution.

Burgeoning aid

In the summer of 1961, the skies above Jerusalem darkened when it emerged that the Kennedy administration was determined to find a solution for the approximately one million refugees who were crowded into camps from Syria and Lebanon in the north, as far as Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the south. (The exact number of refugees, and the question of who should be classified as a refugee, remained a constant subject of controversy.) It would be a mistake, though, to think that the catalyst for Washington’s new initiative was the refugees’ wretched and pitiful condition, the Middle East conflict or the Cold War. It was, in fact, Congress that set the initiative in motion by urging the State Department to find a solution for the problem.

What provoked Congress to become involved was the burgeoning amount of aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, in the form of food, education and health − and the fact that the American taxpayer was underwriting 70 percent of UNRWA’s budget. Israel understood thoroughly the intricacies of American politics − far more so, indeed, than it understood the developments in the refugee camps adjacent to its borders. Jerusalem thus believed that the refugee problem was gradually disappearing, or, as Ben-Gurion noted, “The Arabs of Israel are out of the game” and “the resolution of November 29 is dead” − a reference to the General Assembly’s partition of Palestine resolution on November 29, 1947. However, at the end of the 1950s, the ball started to roll in the opposite direction.

Not only did the refugees not disappear, and not only did their ambition to return to their homeland not fade, but an accelerated process of heightened national identity set in among them. Their desire to return to their former homes grew more intense, in tandem with the political institutionalization of that wish. Israel failed to discern the emergence of the process, though its ambassador to Rome, Eliyahu Sasson, issued a warning about it in a message to Foreign Minister Golda Meir at the end of 1961. Time was working against Israel, he wrote, for within a few years the refugees will establish an official body to represent them and speak in their name, while pursuing a policy akin to that of the rebels in Algeria.

Jerusalem was perturbed by the Kennedy administration’s new initiative and concerned about the upcoming 16th General Assembly session, particularly in light of the fact that Israel had suffered a setback the previous year in the General Assembly’s deliberations about the refugee question. “Palestinian existence” was dredged up from the recesses of oblivion, but the Foreign Ministry initially thought − wrongly − that this referred to “the refugees’ existing rights to their property.”

The Arab and Muslim states submitted a resolution calling for the appointment of a custodian to protect the refugees’ property rights. Ahmad Shukeiri, the first chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization − dubbed “the savage” by Meir − was, for the first time, allowed to address the General Assembly on behalf of the refugees. As these developments unfolded, concern grew in Jerusalem that this time Israel would have to “pay” in the currency of refugees, whom it would have no choice but to accept. The overriding question was: How many refugees could Israel accept without putting its survival and existence as a Jewish state at risk?

Appearing at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in June 1961, Golda Meir stated that Israel had been asked to accept elderly refugees. The country’s Arab minority already constituted 10 percent of Israel’s population, Meir noted, and she went on to ask how many refugees would have to be allowed in before the situation resembled that of Algeria.

The senior staff of the Foreign Ministry also considered the question of the price to be paid, in a series of meetings classified as top secret. The ministry’s director general, Dr. Haim Yahil, thought that admitting 30,000 to 40,000 refugees over a period of three or four years would not pose an excessive risk. Others disagreed. Some of the participants averred that an Arab minority constituting 25 percent of the population was a number Israel could live with, but others argued that this was a dangerously high percentage.

In July 1961, the government held two discussions about how Israel would present its position at the General Assembly. Since the status-quo policy was not on the agenda, except for the expressed willingness to make some tactical compromises, the ministers instead discussed the “price” Israel could live with.

Interior Minister Yosef Burg, who liked to sum up things with pithy quips, said, “The return of Arabs is not only an atomic bomb, it is an anatomical bomb.” Striking a somewhat businesslike note, Finance Minister Levi Eshkol asked what constituted a decisive Jewish majority: 51, 61 or 71 percent? He said that the last number certainly constituted a decisive majority. Ben-Gurion said that if there would be 600,000 Arabs in Israel, they would be the majority within two generations. (At the time, Israel’s population stood at 3.1 million, including 252,000 Arabs.) No formal decisions were made.

Encouraging emigration

As the idea that Israel, under international pressure, might have to allow some refugees to return began to sink in, Jerusalem started to look for demographic solutions to “balance out” this prospect. Starting with the premise that the birthrate among the refugees and among the Arabs who had remained in Israel was higher than among the Jews, the question the policymakers asked was how it would be possible to reduce the number of the country’s Arab population.

In the midst of the War of Independence, when more than 400,000 Arabs from then-nascent Israel had already become refugees, a “transfer committee” − i.e., one dealing with population transfer − was established with a mandate from the government to recommend policy on the subject of the refugees.

Yosef Weitz, a Jewish National Fund official who had been the driving force behind the committee’s establishment, was appointed its chairman. One of its recommendations was that the Arabs’ abandonment of their homes should be considered an irrevocable fait accompli and that Israel should support their resettlement elsewhere. The committee also recommended that Arabs who had remained in the country should be encouraged to emigrate and that the state should buy the land of Arabs who were willing to leave. In addition, Arab villages should be destroyed and Arabs should be prevented from working the land, including a ban on harvesting field crops and olive picking − this in the wake of attempts by refugees to cross back into Israel, to the villages and fields they had left behind.

Secretly, the highest levels in Jerusalem realized there would be no option but to take back some of the refugees. With this in mind, Weitz’s committee decreed that the number of Arabs in Israel should not exceed 15 percent of the total population. The recommendations, submitted in written form, were not adopted in a formal government resolution. However, they had the effect of reinforcing the government’s view that Israel had to be assertive in its effort to preserve the demographic status quo.

Ben-Gurion and his adviser on Arab affairs, Yehoshua Palmon, took part in some of the committee’s meetings, in which ways to encourage the
country’s Arabs to leave were discussed. In June 1950 Israel Defense Forces’ GOC Southern Command Moshe Dayan said: “The 170,000 Arabs who remain in the country should be treated as though their fate has not yet been sealed. I hope that, in the years ahead, another possibility might arise to implement a transfer of those Arabs from the Land of Israel.”

In the country’s first decade of existence, the leaders of the ruling Mapai party (the precursor of Labor) and its coalition partner Ahdut Ha’avoda, together with the senior officers of the Military Government (Israel’s Arab citizens were under military rule until 1966), believed that at least some local Arabs would draw the “right conclusions” from the outcome of the War of Independence, and consider emigrating of their own volition. In 1950, Palmon wrote to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett that the majority of the propertied Arabs aspired to leave if they could also take their assets. The Christians among them would choose to move to Lebanon, he noted, while the Muslims would opt for Egypt. Palmon confirmed that he had examined possibilities of a property exchange between Arabs from Israel and Jews in Egypt and Lebanon. His conclusion was that an arrangement to that effect could be worked out.

For his part, Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon referred to migration among the country’s Arabs in a talk he gave in November 1953. For the Jewish population, he said, “This is a vital matter, even if we do not see emigration as a solution to the basic question. We have to remember that the natural growth rate among the Arabs is approximately 6,000 a year, and emigration could solve that issue.”

The largest and most comprehensive plan, involving the transfer of thousands of Christian Arabs from Galilee to Argentina and Brazil, was given the secret codename “Operation Yohanan,” named for Yohanan from Gush Halav (John of Giscala), a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war. The plan was devised in the utmost secrecy in backroom meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, with Weitz’s aid. Foreign Ministry documents from the early 1950s show that it was actually Sharett, known for his moderate views, who encouraged the plan, even though he was concerned about the Church’s response when it became apparent that a large portion of the leavers were Christians.

In March 1952, Weitz forwarded to the Foreign Ministry a detailed report about the resettlement of Christian Arabs from Upper Galilee to Argentina and Brazil. The report pointed out that the Argentine authorities were abetting the migration of farmers to the country. He added that 35 families from the Galilee village of Jish (Gush Halav) had evinced an interest in the plan. The overall proposal included the creation of a share-holding company to be held by non-Jews and for which the initial financing would come from Jewish National Fund capital in Argentina. Sharett added that, if necessary, the project could be presented as an initiative of Israel’s Arab community, similar to the migration of Maronite Christians from Lebanon, which was then underway. Should the operation be discovered, the foreign minister made it clear, any connection to the government must be vehemently denied.

In November 1952, Sharett informed Weitz that the prime minister had authorized Operation Yohanan. He added that the details of the plan must be kept strictly confidential. In any event, the project was canceled at the beginning of 1953, apparently because the Argentine authorities balked. The Middle Eastern department in the Foreign Ministry dealt with the subject of resettling the refugees outside Israel from the day the department was created. Its mission was to find places where the refugees could be settled, raise funds and obtain international support for settling the refugees abroad.

In the spring of 1950, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s international institutions department, Yehezkel Gordon, suggested that Israel consider settling Arab refugees in Somalia and Libya, to take the place of the 17,000 to 18,000 Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Cyrenaica and Tripoli. The idea was particularly appealing because the Jews who left Libya had not been allowed to remove their property from the country.

After Libya became independent, in January 1952, Moshe Sasson, from the Foreign Ministry, put forward a secret proposal to settle Arabs from Israel − from among both the refugees and those who had remained in the country − in Libya, with the property of the Libyan Jews to be restored to them within the framework of the exchange. In June 1955, Weitz traveled from Paris to Tunisia and Algeria in order to examine the possibility of settling Arabs from Israel and Arab refugees there, parallel to the immigration to Israel of Jews from those countries.

Palmon was involved in an attempt by Israel to purchase about 100,000 dunams (25,000 acres) of land in the Ras al-Akhdar region of Libya, in order to settle refugees there. The plan went awry when it was leaked to the media and the Libyan ruler came under massive pressure not to allow the refugees to settle there. In 1956-1957, another plan was devised to acquire farms near Tripoli and bring in a core group of 50 to 70 refugee families. Codenamed “Uri,” the plan was to be carried out by a development and construction company which would be registered in Switzerland, with its shares held by a Swiss bank. The elaborate plan was canceled after it, too, was leaked to the press.

Palmon was also sent to Paris to hold talks with the president of Syria, Adib Shishakli (who ruled in 1953-54), about the possibility of resettling refugees in Arab countries. However, no concrete arrangement emerged from these talks. In 1955, Sharett examined the possibility that Brazil would admit 100,000 refugees. He also looked into the possible acquisition of land in Cyprus at a rock-bottom price in order to exchange it for property held in Israel by Arabs wishing to emigrate.

In September 1959, yet another plan was devised, codenamed “Theo,” to settle 2,000 refugee families in Libya and employ them through a commercial development company. It was estimated that $11.5 million (in the terms of that era) would be needed to execute this scheme. The terms of the plan ensured that the refugees’ presence would not be a burden on the Libyan economy and would not reduce the income of local workers. Furthermore, for every outside professional, three local workers would be employed.

In the first half of the 1960s, the Foreign Ministry continued to examine plans to encourage the emigration of Arab refugees from the Middle East to Europe, particularly to France and Germany. One option that was considered was to find them jobs in Germany, which was then in dire need of working hands. During 1962, Israeli officials examined the possibility of finding employment for Palestinian refugee laborers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The initial checks done for this plan, known as “Operation Worker,” and the correspondence involved, were kept completely under wraps. But both Foreign Minister Meir and her director general, Yahil, objected to these ideas. Meir was concerned that Germany would be flooded with Arab refugees, and, in any event, the whole scheme proved fruitless.

In February 1966, the possibility of settling refugees from Jordan in France was also examined.

Israel’s efforts to find overseas locations in which to settle Arab refugees continued even after the Six-Day War of 1967. In the end, though, these efforts failed, as had ideas and proposals raised by others, including Syrian President Husni al-Zaim and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in 1949. Sharett, for one, objected to the Iraqi leader’s proposal to exchange the refugees for Iraq’s community of 140,000 Jews. Sharett and others were concerned about the lawsuits demanding compensation that Iraqi Jews were liable to file for their property, as other Jewish communities in Arab countries were doing. The refugee issue was thus intertwined with the question of the property of the Jewish immigrants to Israel from the Arab states.

‘Quiet talks’

In late 1961, in the wake of President Kennedy’s initiative, Dr. Joseph Johnson, from the Carnegie Endowment, was appointed a special representative to tackle the problem and to work with the parties involved to come up with a solution. The plan he devised − to distribute questionnaires to the Palestinian refugees and permit those who wished to return to Israel, subject to security considerations − stirred deep fears in Jerusalem.

Meir, who was appalled by the idea, wielded all the influence at her command in Washington in order to ensure that the plan met a quick death.

The “payment” Israel would be required to make in return for the shelving of the plan became apparent in top-secret discussions − known as the “quiet talks’ − held between Jerusalem and Washington in 1962-63. In them, Israel expressed its readiness to absorb up to 10 percent of the refugees as part of a comprehensive settlement. At that time, the refugee population stood at approximately 1,100,000 souls. But this initiative, too, fell by the wayside, because the United States was unable to obtain the Arab states’ agreement to a comprehensive settlement.

Between 1948 and 1967, Israel viewed the refugee problem through the prism of Washington. The refugees appeared on Jerusalem’s agenda when the United States thought that measures should be taken or a new plan devised to resolve the problem. In the absence of external pressure, the status-quo policy prevailed.

The fact that the “political compass” of Jerusalem’s decision makers repeatedly pointed to Washington and New York as the sources dictating their policy on the refugees explains in good measure Israel’s lack of attention to the social and political developments occurring in the refugee camps across the border until 1967. Whereas security and military developments in the camps, such as the founding of Fatah and the establishment of armed units, were followed closely in Israel, the processes by which the refugees consolidated themselves politically was of little if any interest. Thus, as the refugee problem gradually evolved from a humanitarian issue into the Palestinian national issue, Israel found itself reacting to events.

Under American pressure, Israel displayed readiness to absorb a considerable number of refugees on three occasions, even if by doing so it would cross the “15 percent line” − i.e., the agreement of 1949 to absorb 150,000 refugees living in the Gaza Strip (together with the territory of the Strip); a proposal that same year to admit 100,000 refugees; and agreement to take in 10 percent of the refugees within the framework of the “quiet talks.”

Israel was willing to accept refugees at a time when its demographic and geostrategic situation was far worse than it is today. To the extent that one can learn from past experience, it can be said that willingness to take in a small token number of refugees based on Israeli-determined criteria − including age, timetables and family situation (UNRWA now has five million refugees registered, scattered in 58 camps) − could provide an important and symbolic response to the demand for “return,” which still underlies the ethos of the Palestinian refugees. Israel would thus acknowledge its moral share in the creation of the problem.

The establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a comprehensive settlement will take the edge off the demand for return, as it is illogical that a large proportion of the refugees will demand to return to this country rather than settle in their new state. In retrospect, the effort to preserve the status quo did not benefit Israel (as witnessed by the Yom Kippur War, the first intifada and other events). This is unlikely to change in the future.

Dr. Arik Ariel, an attorney, is a lecturer in intelligence and policy and in law and politics at the Emek Yezreel College. The article is based on his PhD. thesis at the University of Haifa.

Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948.
Corbis
Moshe Milner / GPO
AP
Fritz Cohen