The thousands of Palestinians who tried to breach the Gaza border fence are the grandchildren of the war generation in which the refugee problem was born, the generation that concocted the petulant demand for the “right of return.”
Had the Arabs accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan (the last in a series of international decisions dating back to the 1920 San Remo Conference) to divide the land between its two peoples, a plan that also recognized the Jews’ rights in Palestine, they could have been dwelling peacefully on their land ever since. But the day after the resolution was passed, they launched a war and declared they would throw the Jews into the sea, and today they bear the responsibility for the consequences.
A month after the start of the shooting from Arab Jaffa at Tel Aviv, the local leaderships agreed to a cease-fire. Palestinian public leaders and the Najda paramilitary organization sought the consent of the Supreme Arab Committee but were rejected (see Dr. Itamar Radai’s “Palestinians in Jerusalem and Jaffa, 1948: A Tale of Two Cities”). Only after five more months of sniper fire on Tel Aviv did Menachem Begin permit the Irgun fighters to attack Jaffa. This was in April 1948, a month before Israel's establishment. The Arabs chose to become refugees. A similar situation occurred in Haifa at the same time. The Jews urged the Arabs to remain, but they left the city after their leadership assured them they would return in 10 days and get to plunder the Jews’ houses.
These facts can be concealed and denied by fake news, but they are the real truth. The two great abandonments happened at the Arabs’ initiative.
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In recent years, whenever Netanyahu pretended he still desired negotiations, he demanded the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Perhaps it would have been more apt to make negotiations contingent upon explicit acknowledgement that they, more than others, caused the refugee issue to arise. Contrary to what Odeh Bisharat asserted in a recent op-ed (Haaretz Hebrew, May 21), when Moshe Dayan said in his 1956 eulogy for Ro’i Rothberg, who was murdered by Kibbutz Nahal Oz, that the refugees were watching him from Gaza angry and hurting, this did not signify the Jews’ accepting any responsibility for the refugees’ situation, only compassion. Hence, too, Dayan’s conclusion that “this is the choice of our lives — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fists, and our lives severed.”
No one could have foreseen that in 2018 the refugees’ right of return to Jaffa and Haifa would still be at the center of events right near where Rothberg was murdered. This is the situation because the Arab countries have not let the issue fade. An illuminating new book in Hebrew by Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz (“The War for the Right of Return”), published just as the Palestinians in Gaza were resuming violent clashes under the “Great March of Return” banner, criticizes not only the Arab world but also the West and Israel. The main villain here, per the authors, is UNRWA, which began its operations with good intentions, but has since funneled billions of dollars into perpetuating the refugee problem for 70 years and not letting it subside.
UNRWA has become a money vault for a third and fourth generation of uprooted Palestinians, who migrated from Haifa to Nablus and built solid lives yet still receive refugee allowances. The organization kept – practically imprisoned – refugees in camps in Gaza. Israel let UNRWA be because it gave it temporary respite, and the government just wanted a lull. “Quiet now” was enough and to hell with tomorrow.
Yigal Allon was a voice crying in the wilderness that Israel must address the problem and not turn a blind eye, but his call was ignored. Now there is talk that the United States and its allies may cease funding UNRWA. This is the right general direction, but care and balance are required. Wilf and Schwartz suggest that donations remain intact but that UNRWA be dismantled and the money transferred to the Palestinian Authority for public purposes. The refugees would be given a fishing rod, not a fish. This is an idea that ought to be jump-started though Jerusalem may not welcome such a dramatic step.