In a recent column in the National Post (one of Canada’s two “national” newspapers) Robert Fulford writes that Palestinian refugees are “frozen in time, addicted in pity.” Given how many factual errors mar his piece, it’s a good case study for a refugee factcheck. It is also revealing of a particular brand of wishful thinking that would seek to ignore the refugee issue by dismissing it as an artificial creation of Arab regimes, the UN, and possibly the Palestinians themselves.
One of Fulford’s central arguments is that Arab governments, while critical of Israel, treat their own Palestinian populations less than admirably. This is undoubtedly true of several governments, and indeed I’ve spent a good part of my career writing about it myself. However, the argument that he presents is inaccurate, overstated, and distorted to serve an ideological purpose.
Fulford starts with his view that Palestinians are unique as multi-generational refugees:
For many reasons, various populations across the planet are displaced; only the Palestinians cling to their “refugee” status decade after decade. They present themselves as helpless victims of Israeli aggression. They await rescue — as they have been awaiting it for three generations, since Israel was founded in 1948. Members of other history-battered groups choose to live by an urgent ethic: Get up, get going, make a new life. Palestinians have a different approach: Sit down, wait, stay angry till the world provides for you.
As I’ve noted before on the blog, this simply isn’t true—there are a number of protracted refugee problems around the world, where stateless refugees have maintained that status across multiple generations. Certainly, some refugee populations have chosen to integrate in a host country in such a way that they gradually lose their attachment to their former homes. However, others—most notably in the Jewish yearning for a return to the Land of Israel that was the fundamental basis of modern Zionism—have sustained disapora attachments for a very long period of time. That Palestinians were forcibly displaced by a population claiming a prior right of ownership stretching back to antiquity has undoubtedly strengthened their own sense of injustice and resolve.
It also isn’t clear how and why Fulford thinks that refugees haven’t made a new life for themselves, or why he thinks that communities are somehow unable to both nurse grievances and achieve economic and social success. By any possible measure, Palestinians of the diaspora have been very successful at making lives for themselves in exile, with entrepreneurial skills and considerable success as economic migrants. However, such success doesn’t mean that groups somehow forget past wrongs, as the Armenians could well attest.
Fulford, of course, blames Arab regimes for using the refugees as pawns. He writes that: “They much prefer to let Palestinians remain poor. Every wretched, ill-fed and ill-housed Palestinian can be used as a living rebuke to Israel.” He goes on to suggest:
The Arab countries love the Palestinians, praise them and pray for them. They just don’t want them moving permanently into their neighbourhoods. The Arab League advises Arab states to deny citizenship to Palestinians, “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” They pretend it’s a favour. It also means Arabs can hire Palestinian workers when they need them and send them home when the economy sags.
Are Palestinians somehow kept poor? Virtually every piece of social science research of the last twenty years suggest that among refugees in UNRWA’s area of operations, those in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Syria have standards of living that are virtually identical to non-refugees. More than 70% of all refugees live outside of the camps. Only in Lebanon are refugees subject to extensive economic and social exclusion, for reasons arising from that country’s tense demographic politics and the past legacies of civil conflict.
Are Palestinians excluded from citizenship? Yes and no. Of the 4.8 million refugees currently registered with UNRWA, 2 million live in Jordan, where the overwhelming majority hold Jordanian citizenship. Another 1.8 million live in the West Bank ad Gaza, where their lack of citizenship is a function of Israeli occupation, not anything that the Arab states have done. In other words, roughly 80% of UNRWA-registered refugees either already have citizenship, or will automatically be citizens of a future Palestinian state. Another 472,000 refugees live in Syria. These don’t have citizenship but enjoy almost all the rights of Syrian citizens: they can own property, use government services, work, invest, and seek government employment. The only thing they can’t do is vote, which doesn’t really count for much in Syria in any case. In Lebanon, the 425,000 refugees (UNRWA numbers… the actual number in Lebanon is likely closer to 250,000) do face employment restrictions and can’t own property. It is a lamentable situation, but hardly characteristic of the situation of most of the refugees in most host countries.
Palestinians in Egypt and the Gulf are usually treated as extended visitors, rather than permanent residents or potential citizens. More often than not this is characteristic of their adverse treatment of all expatriate labour, and not necessarily Palestinian-specific. Moreover, when and if a Palestinian state is ever established, Palestinians in the diaspora will be able to secure Palestinian citizenships wherever they might reside, largely resolving the problem of statelessness. Oddly, Fulford doesn’t mention that.
Given all this, Fulford is simply wrong when he says that “The treatment of the Palestinians has become a major crime of omission committed by the rich Arabs against the poor in collusion with the UN. It has created a permanent underclass, living on meagre public assistance, growing more numerous every day but never put in a position where they can create a healthy, productive community.” What public assistance? UNRWA provides education and health services to some (but by no means all) refugees, but these are public services and not “public assistance.” The Agency doesn’t provide social welfare handouts, beyond a very limited number of “special hardship cases” (only 5.6% of refugees) and food assistance programmes in Gaza that are necessary only because of the Egyptian-Israeli embargo. Refugees per se are simply not an “underclass” in the areas where most of them are found.
Once again, none of my comments above are intended to absolve those Arab countries who have fallen short in their treatment of Palestinian refugees. Arab regimes have, at times, used the refugee issue for instrumental purposes. However, wilfully distorting the facts as Fulford does is hardly a useful contribution to debate, let alone addressing these issues.