Danny Ayalon
The Guardian (Opinion)
December 22, 2010 - 1:00am

For a long time now, we have been wanting and waiting to sit down and talk. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not short of talking points that need to be urgently resolved. Unfortunately, however, instead of both sides discussing the problems, the Palestinians seem more comfortable issuing demands.

One of the topics that we could discuss is refugees, what some describe in the familiar mantra as the "right of return". The slogan itself is, of course, a misnomer – a right is a legal function and must be grounded in law to have applicable force. Yet, as with so many of the cliches and familiar refrains surrounding the Middle East, there are two sides to the refugee story, with the Israeli side one of the best-kept secrets of the conflict.

While those Arabs who fled or left mandatory Palestine and Israel numbered roughly 750,000, there were more than 900,000 Jewish refugees subsequently expelled or forced out from Arab lands at around the same time. Before the state of Israel was re-established in 1948, there were almost 1 million Jews in Arab lands; today there are around 5,000.

As opposed to the Arabs in mandatory Palestine, who had been waging a civil war on the Jewish community for decades, the Jews in Arab lands were loyal citizens and residents, and had not been involved in any violence. Sadly, however, the Arab leadership of the time treated them as a "fifth column", and began taking draconian measures to facilitate their expulsion.

On 16 May 1948, two days after the state of Israel was re-established, the New York Times reported that the Arab League had recommended to its member states to freeze all bank accounts belonging to Jews, discharge all Jews in civil service positions and arbitrarily subject Jews to mass imprisonment. Several Arab regimes went further and inspired pogroms and mass murder against their Jewish populations. Just a decade after the Nazi persecution began in earnest, it was now the turn of the Jews in the Middle East to suffer similar edicts.

It is also worth considering how deep-rooted the refugees were in their respective lands. British colonial officials in the early part of the 20th century estimated that the Arab immigration from neighbouring states into mandatory Palestine was "considerable". CS Jarvis, governor of Sinai from 1923-36, said in 1937: "This illegal immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Trans-Jordan and Syria."

So while many of the Palestinian refugees were newcomers and fresh economic migrants, the Jewish refugees by contrast were being pushed out of the lands that they had lived in for thousands of years, predating even Islam and the subsequent Arab invasion and occupation of the region, which placed on all non-Muslims a dhimmi or subjugated status.

These obvious disparities on the ground were not replicated in the international arena when dealing with the crises. While early United Nations resolutions attempted to be fair and deal with all refugees resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab bloc and its allies trampled on any references or discussions regarding Jewish refugees, while at the same time creating absurd criteria for the Arab refugees, who are still exploited as political pawns to this day. In fact, as early as the 1950s United Nations refugee agency officials claimed that the Jewish refugees fell within their mandate.

After all, with the exception of Jordan, no Arab refugees were given citizenship and the majority still live in overcrowded areas, with few rights afforded them by their Arab brethren. This stands in contrast to the Jewish refugees, who were all immediately provided with Israeli citizenship.

As well as being absurdly unbalanced, the Palestinian demand of "right of return" also flies in the face of modern refugee resettlement. A recent ruling by the European court of human rights declared that due to the time that had elapsed, Greek refugees expelled from northern Cyprus in 1974 would not be allowed to return to their homes.

The negotiations for a final status resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict are not merely about the creation of two states for two peoples; they are about historic reconciliation, justice, peace and security. There is also the issue of redress, and the Jews who were forced out or expelled from Arab lands are deserving of that.

Unfortunately, there are those who suggest that there is no need to burden the negotiations with another issue. Yet the fact that the Arab majority in multilateral forums have ensured that the Jewish refugee issue was never given a speaking part on the international stage until recently should be of no consequence.

This issue cuts to the heart of a regional solution to the conflict and recognises that a resolution will encompass all claims by all sides.

Israel has cleared the way for negotiations to restart by constantly declaring that all issues will be on the table. The Jewish refugee issue must be one of them.


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