Editor’s Note: Tuesday, April 20 is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. To mark the occasion, we’ve excerpted portions of an address by then-Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban to the UN General Assembly’s Special Political Committee on November 17, 1958.
The speech makes for remarkable reading, as it was written and delivered just ten years after Israel’s founding. The events described were still fresh in people’s minds; the historical distortions popularized by the ensuing decades’ relentless drumbeat of anti-Israel propaganda had yet to gain traction.
The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. Let there be no mistake. If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.
Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged.
The origins of that conflict are clearly defined by the confessions of Arab governments themselves: “This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”
The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.
The perils which then confronted our community; the danger which darkened every life and home; and the successful repulse of the assault and the emergence of Israel into the life of the world community are all chapters of past history, gone but not forgotten. But the traces of that conflict still remain deeply inscribed upon our region’s life. Caught up in the havoc and tension of war; demoralized by the flight of their leaders; urged on by irresponsible promises that they would return to inherit the spoils of Israel’s destruction, hundreds of thousands of Arabs sought the shelter of Arab lands.
A survey by an international body in 1957 described these violent events in the following terms: “As early as the first months of 1948 the Arab League issued orders exhorting the people to seek a temporary refuge in neighboring countries, later to return to their abodes in the wake of the victorious Arab armies and obtain their share of abandoned Jewish property” (Research Group for European Migration Problems Bulletin, Vol. V, No. 1, 1957).
Contemporary statements by Arab leaders fully confirm this version. On 16 August 1948 Msgr. George Hakini, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Galilee, recalled: “The refugees had been confident that their absence from Palestine would not last long; that they would return within a few days [or] within a week or two; their leaders had promised them that the Arab armies would crush the ‘Zionist gangs’ very quickly and that there would be no need for panic or fear of a long exile.”
A month later, on 15 September 1948, Emile Ghoury, who had been the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee at the time of the Arab invasion of Israel, declared: “I do not want to impugn anyone but only to help the refugees. The fact that there are these refugees is the direct consequence of the action of the Arab states in opposing partition and the Jewish state. The Arab states agreed upon this policy unanimously and they must share in the solution of the problem.”
No less compelling than these avowals by Arab leaders are the judgments of United Nations organs. In April 1948, when the flight of the refugees was in full swing, the United Nations Palestine Commission inscribed its verdict on the tablets of history:
“Arab opposition to the plan of the Assembly of 29 November 1947 has taken the form of organized efforts by strong Arab elements, both inside and outside Palestine, to prevent its implementation and to thwart its objectives by threats and acts of violence, including repeated armed incursions into Palestine territory. The Commission has had to report to the Security Council that powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of’ the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein.”
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Even after a full decade it is difficult to sit here with equanimity and listen to Arab representatives disengaging themselves from any responsibility for the travail and anguish which they caused. The claim of the world community on the cooperation of Arab governments is all the more compelling when we reflect that these states, in their vast lands, command all the resources and conditions which would enable them to liberate the refugees from their plight, in full dignity and freedom.
The refugee problem was not created by the General Assembly’s recommendation for the establishment of Israel. It was created by the attempts of Arab governments to destroy that recommendation by force. The crisis arose not, as Arab spokesmen have said, because the United Nations adopted a resolution eleven years ago; it arose because Arab governments attacked that resolution by force. If the United Nations proposal had been peacefully accepted, there would be no refugee problem today hanging as a cloud upon the tense horizons of the Middle East.
Apart from the question of its origin, the perpetuation of this refugee problem is an unnatural event, running against the whole course of experience and precedent. Since the end of the Second World War, problems affecting forty million refugees have confronted governments in various parts of the world. In no case, except that of the Arab refugees – amounting to less than two percent of the whole – has the international community shown constant responsibility and provided lavish aid.
In every other case a solution has been found by the integration of refugees into their host countries. Nine million Koreans; 900,000 refugees from the conflict in Vietnam; 8.5 million Hindus and Sikhs leaving Pakistan for India; 6.5 million Muslims fleeing India to Pakistan; 700,000 Chinese refugees in Hong Kong; 13 million Germans from the Sudetenland, Poland and other East European States reaching West and East Germany; thousands of Turkish refugees from Bulgaria; 440,000 Finns separated from their homeland by a change of frontier; 450,000 refugees from Arab lands arrived destitute in Israel; and an equal number converging on Israel from the remnants of the Jewish holocaust in Europe – these form the tragic procession of the world’s refugee population in the past two decades.
In every case but that of the Arab refugees now in Arab lands, the countries in which the refugees sought shelter have facilitated their integration. In this case alone has integration been obstructed.
The paradox is the more astonishing when we reflect that the kinship of language, religion, social background and national sentiment existing between the Arab refugees and their Arab host countries has been at least as intimate as those existing between any other host countries and any other refugee groups. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the integration of Arab refugees into the life of the Arab world is an objectively feasible process which has been resisted for political reasons.
Recent years have witnessed a great expansion of economic potentialities in the Middle East. The revenues of the oil-bearing countries have opened up great opportunities of work and development, into which the refugees, by virtue of their linguistic and national background, could fit without any sense of dislocation. There cannot be any doubt that if free movement had been granted to the refugees there would have been a spontaneous absorption of thousands of them into these expanded Arab economies.
The failure or refusal of Arab governments to achieve a permanent economic integration of refugees in their huge lands appears all the more remarkable when we contrast it with the achievements of other countries when confronted by the challenge and opportunity of absorbing their kinsmen into their midst.
Israel with her small territory, her meager water resources and her hard-pressed finances, has found homes, work and citizenship in the past ten years for nearly a million newcomers arriving in destitution no less acute than those of Arab refugees.
Refugees [to Israel] from Arab lands left their homes, property and jobs behind. Their standards of physique and nutrition were in many cases pathetically low. They have had to undergo processes of adaptation to a social, linguistic and national ethos far removed from any that they had known before. Thus, integration in this case has been far more arduous than it would be for Arab refugees in Arab lands, where no such differences exist between the society and culture of the host country and those with which the refugees are already familiar.
This is concisely described in the report published by the Carnegie Endowment:
“There is another aspect of the Middle East refugee problem that is also frequently ignored. It is necessary to remember that concurrently with the perpetuation of the Arab refugee problem, more than 400,000 Jews have been forced to leave their homes in Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa. They have not been counted as refugees because they were readily and immediately received as new immigrants into Israel. Nevertheless, they were forced to leave their traditional homes against their will and to abandon, in the process, all that they possessed. The latest addition to their number are the 20,000 Jews for whom life has become impossible in Egypt. Fifteen thousand of them have sought asylum in Israel while the remainder are in Europe seeking other solutions to their problem.”
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Indeed, compared with other problems, the Arab refugee problem is one of the easiest to solve.
The Research Group for European Migration points out in its report that “The Palestine refugees have the closest possible affinities of national sentiment, language, religion and social organization with the Arab host countries and the standard of living of the majority of the refugee population is little different from those of the inhabitants of the countries that have given them refuge or will do so in the future.”
Any discussion of this problem revolves around the two themes of resettlement and what is called “repatriation.” There is a growing skepticism about the feasibility of repatriation.
These hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees are now in Arab lands on the soil of their kinsmen. They have been nourished for ten years on one single theme – hatred of Israel; refusal to recognize Israel’s sovereignty; resentment against Israel’s existence; the dream of securing Israel’s extinction.
Repatriation would mean that hundreds of thousands of people would be introduced into a state whose existence they oppose, whose flag they despise and whose destruction they are resolved to seek. The refugees are all Arabs and the countries in which they find themselves are Arab countries. Yet the advocates of repatriation contend that these Arab refugees should be settled in a non-Arab country, in the only social and cultural environment alien to their background and tradition.
The Arab refugees are to be uprooted from the soil of nations to which they are akin and loyal and placed in a state to which they are alien and hostile. Israel, whose sovereignty and safety are already assailed by the states surrounding her, is invited to add to her perils by the influx from hostile territories of masses of people steeped in the hatred of her existence. All this is to happen in a region where the Arab nations possess unlimited opportunities for resettling their kinsmen, and in which Israel has already contributed to a solution of the refugee problems of Asia and Africa by receiving 450,000 refugees from Arab lands among its immigrants.
There are three other considerations which must be placed on the scale against repatriation.
First, the word itself is not accurately used in this context. Transplanting an Arab refugee from an Arab land to a non-Arab land is not really “repatriation.” “Patria” is not a mere geographical concept. Resettlement of a refugee in Israel would be not repatriation, but alienation from Arab society; a true repatriation of an Arab refugee would be a process which brought him into union with people who share his conditions of language and heritage, his impulses of national loyalty and cultural identity.
Secondly, the validity of the “repatriation” concept is further undermined when we examine the structure of the refugee population. More than 50 percent of the Arab refugees are under 15 years of age. This means that at the time of Israel’s establishment many of those, if born at all at that time, were under 5 years of age. We thus reach the striking fact that a majority of the refugee population can have no conscious memory of Israel at all.
Thirdly, those who speak of repatriation to Israel might not always be aware of the measure of existing integration of refugees into countries of their present residence. In the Kingdom of Jordan, refugees have full citizenship and participate fully in the government of the country. They are entitled to vote and be elected to the Jordanian parliament. Indeed, many of them hold high rank in the government of the kingdom.
Thousands of refugees are enrolled in the Jordanian army and its National Guard. It is, to say the least, eccentric to suggest that people who are citizens of another land and are actually or potentially enrolled in the armed forces of a country at war with Israel are simultaneously endowed with an optional right of Israel citizenship.
Every condition which has ever contributed to a solution of refugee problems by integration is present in this case. With its expanse of territory, its great rivers, its resources of mineral wealth, and its accessibility to international aid, the Arab world is easily capable of absorbing an additional population, not only without danger to itself, but with actual reinforcement of its security and welfare.
Abba Eban was a career Israeli diplomat and politician, serving in a variety of positions including ambassador to the U.S. and the UN; member of Knesset; foreign minister; and deputy prime minister. He passed away at age 87 on November 17, 2002 – 44 years to the day after delivering this address.