In 1948 the state of Israel was created and with it an estimated 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their towns and homes or fled in fear and have never been allowed by Israel to return. Today Palestinians are the oldest unsettled refugee population in the world.
The Trump administration’s decision in January to cut funds to the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees has brought new attention to them, as have protests in Gaza this spring where many of the refugees and their descendants live. Due to an Israeli blockade imposed in 2007, conditions in Gaza are desperate, with almost half the population unemployed and 97 percent of the water supply contaminated.
With Gaza starved of vital goods and inhabitants blocked from leaving it, Gazans are trapped in an open-air prison. Yet with U.S. support, the blockade continues, as does Israel’s shooting of unarmed protesters. This spring, Israel killed at least 131 Palestinians and wounded over 14,000.
The plight of Palestinian refugees sorely deserves attention, but an Aug. 1 guest commentary by the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Sol Koenigsberg, misrepresents or omits key facts.
Koenigsberg never acknowledges Israeli responsibility for the refugees and omits mention that Israel has neither offered compensation to the refugees, nor honored the right of refugees to return home — rights spelled out in the Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations always envisioned a Palestinian Arab and a Jewish state coexisting side by side, yet a Palestinian state that could offer a homeland to the refugees has never been realized despite Israel’s signing the Oslo Accords.
Koenigsberg misstates the facts when he writes that the Trump administration’s decision this year to cut funding to the UN relief agency aiding Palestinian refugees was because of terrorism. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the cutback was to promote reform at the agency and encourage other countries to increase aid to it. She refused comment when asked if the funding shortfall was linked to the president’s threat to end aid after Palestinian leaders said the United States should no longer play a role in peace talks with Israel. Punishment, yes. Terrorism, no.
Koenigsberg equates the situation of Jews from Middle Eastern countries who immigrated or fled to Israel in the years following its establishment with the situation of Palestinian refugees. But the circumstances in which Middle Eastern Jews came to Israel differ markedly from country to country. Some left unwillingly. Others came because they were intrigued by Zionism or sought better opportunities in a country eager to grow the number of Jewish citizens.
He proposes that 51 Muslim-majority countries should take in the Palestinian refugees. Yet many of the 51 are in Asia and Africa, far from Palestine and very different in culture, history and language. Further, not all Palestinian refugees are Muslim. And while Israel won’t accept refugees who are not Jewish, neighboring Muslim countries are already hosting huge numbers — not only Muslims but Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Bahai, atheists and others.
Koenigsberg writes that Hamas infects Palestinian refugees with hatred. He omits the 70 years of human rights violations that understandably impact Palestinians’ outlooks.
He repeats common Israeli talking points, including the allegation that Palestinian schoolchildren are taught to hate Israel. But an in-depth study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks funded by the U.S. State Department concluded that unlike many places in the world, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority publish textbooks virtually free of “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other.”
Purporting concern for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, Koenigsberg seems driven chiefly by a desire to deflect any responsibility for their situation from Israel onto impoverished Muslim countries that had nothing to do with their becoming refugees. Instead, he lays out a rationale for expelling refugees from where they are now heavily concentrated, notably the West Bank and Gaza. Expulsions of these refugees is another name for ethnic cleansing.
Margot Patterson is a member of the steering committee of Citizens for Justice in the Middle East.