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Fortieth Anniversary of the Six Day War RULE Refugees

Posted: May 22, 2007

About the Six Day War
United Nations Security Council Resolution 242
West Bank and Gaza Strip
From the Archives: "The Miracle" by Benjamin Epstein

During the 1967 Six Day War, an estimated 250,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the arrival of Israeli forces. Some of these were people who had left their homes in Israel in 1948. These individuals are considered by the international community to be displaced persons, not refugees.


The Palestinian refugee problem originated as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when five Arab armies invaded the State of Israel just hours after it was established. During the ensuing war as many as 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in the newly created state. Many of the Palestinians who fled did so voluntarily to avoid the ongoing war or at the urging of Arab leaders who promised that all who left would return after a quick Arab victory over the new Jewish state. Other Palestinians were forced to flee by individuals or groups fighting for Israel.

Of the Palestinians who left, one-third went to the West Bank, one-third to the Gaza Strip, and the remainder to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Arab nations refused to absorb these Palestinians into their population and they were instead settled into refugee camps. Only Jordan's King Abdullah agreed to confer citizenship on the 200,000 Palestinian living in Jordan and the Jordan-controlled West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created to oversee the economic integration of the refugees into these Arab countries. The Arab governments refused to consider integration, insisting that it would undermine the refugees' "right" to return to their homes in Palestine. UNRWA continues to operate, providing relief, health care, education and vocational training to the refugee populations in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  

A Jewish refugee problem was also created with the establishment of the State of Israel. From 1948-1951 as many as 800,000 Jews were expelled from their native Arab nations or forced to flee as a result of state-sponsored anti-Zionist violence. They left behind their property and the lives they had built in these lands over hundreds of years. As many as 500,000 of these refugees fled to Israel from Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Morocco and were immediately and fully absorbed into the new nation. Others fled to Europe and North and South America where they rebuilt their lives.

Tallying the number of individuals considered Palestinian refugees today is a matter of debate. UNRWA, which registers Palestinian refugees, claims that refugees and their descendants number about 4.2 million (as of March 2005), and includes those who left Israel in 1948, those who left the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, those who were abroad but were subsequently not allowed to return to Israel, and all of their descendents. (UNRWA's inclusion of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who left in 1948 and 1967 into the refugee population for demographic and aid purposes is highly unusual and is not done for any other refugee group.) Israel believes the UNRWA statistics are exaggerated. Israel also strictly distinguishes "refugees" from "displaced persons" and from "expired permit Palestinians" who were abroad at the time the conflicts ensued and were not allowed to return.

Palestinians' insistence that refugees must have a "right of return" to their former homes inside Israel, and that this "right" is founded in international law, is rejected by Israel. Israel denies that there is any foundation in international law for a Palestinian "right of return," and that the non-binding international resolutions on the issue call not for a "return" to Israel, but for a just resolution of the refugee problem. Israel also argues that a "return" is not viable for such a small state, given that the influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel would pose a threat to its national security and upset the country's demographic makeup. The "right of return" of Palestinian refugees was a rallying cry in the decades that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) did not recognize Israel's right to exist and actively sought to bring about Israel's downfall and replace it with a Palestinian state. In 1993, the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist and committed to a negotiating process to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. Given this situation, world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, have publicly stated that Palestinian refugees should rightly be resettled in a future Palestinian state.

Israel says it is not responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem since it is the result of a war forced on Israel by invading Arab armies. However, on humanitarian grounds Israel has agreed to be part of an international effort to resolve the situation. Negotiations to date have focused on Palestinian refugees settling in a newly independent state of Palestine, an international compensation fund, and individual cases of family reunification.

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