The United Nations office in Amman that administers to the needs of more than one million Palestinian refugees is situated in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of stone villas, whose roofs are dotted with TV antennas modeled after the Eiffel Tower. The neighborhood is one of several well-to-do suburban developments built in Amman during the oil boom years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the residents of these neighborhoods are Palestinian refugees who fled or who were driven from their homes by Jewish forces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Among the Arab states, only Jordan offered Palestinian refugees citizenship and encouraged them to integrate into Jordanian society. Palestinians now make up more than 60 percent of the population, and they have helped to transform Jordan from a desert backwater to a modern nation-state.
Not all Palestinians in Jordan are prosperous. Some forty years after the Palestinians’ mass exodus, more than 214,000, or about 25 percent of the Palestinians in Jordan, are still living in Jordan’s ten refugee camps, where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides basic services such as housing, health care, and education. Central to UNRWA’s work in Amman is a cramped, musty room filled with rows of battered steel file cabinets containing the case history and current status of each of the refugee families in Jordan. The UNRWA “investigation fact sheets,” as they are called, detail the name, age, and occupation of the family head, the names of his wife and children, if any, and the circumstances of their flight from Palestine. The files are routinely updated to include births, deaths, and marriages as well as the family’s financial status.
Children born to refugee parents are also considered refugees by UNRWA. Therefore, the Palestinian refugee population has grown enormously, now numbering some 2.3 million people in the regions adjoining Israel. More than 800,000, or about 35 percent of the Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA, live in sixty-one camps in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though built in the late 1940s and early 1950s as temporary housing, the camps have turned into permanent shantytowns, in which the atmosphere is one of intense Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian refugee families that are relatively well-off may continue to live in the camps if they choose to do so, but they are not entitled to receive many UNRWA benefits.
In the UNRWA records room in Amman last November I was allowed to read the case files of refugees at random. One case that resembled many others was that of Khamis Kassas, a Jaffa mechanic who was forty in 1948, when he fled his three-room apartment together with his wife and two children, Khalil, thirteen, and Mohammed, eleven. Khalil was accompanied by his twelve-year-old wife, Kamleh.
Jaffa, then the largest Arab city in Palestine with a population of some 70,000, had been designated by the United Nations to become part of the proposed Palestinian-Arab state. However, Palestinian leaders rejected the UN General Assembly Partition resolution of November 29, 1947, which would have carved Palestine into Jewish and Arab countries, and then began a bitter intercommunal war with the Zionists, who had accepted the plan.
Early in the war the Haganah, the military arm of the mainstream Labor Zionists led by David Ben-Gurion, did not believe it was either necessary or possible to occupy Jaffa; but the Irgun and the Stern Gang, the two small right-wing underground groups headed by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, launched a terrorist campaign against the city. On January 4, 1948, after weeks of fighting between Jewish and Palestinian forces, the Stern Gang detonated a huge car bomb in the center of Jaffa, destroying the municipal building and creating chaos, causing dozens of casualties and the flight of a small number of middle-class Palestinian families.
On April 25, 1948, the Irgun launched a major ground offensive against the northern neighborhood of Jaffa. “Owing to the heavy bombing of Jaffa [with mortars],” the UNRWA fact sheet notes, the Kassas family fled to Ramle, where they stayed for fifteen days before moving to Salt, a small town in Jordan. They settled in a tent behind the water pump of Salem El Yacoub’s house. Rent was one Jordanian dinar a month. “Documents produced by the family prove that they are real Palestinian refugees from Jaffa,… which is now under Jewish control,” according to their UNRWA file, which was opened on January 3, 1951. “They were forced to leave Jaffa—their place of residence and their means of livelihood and all their belongings. They are very poor, and we recommend them for relief”—which in fact was given to them in the forms of food, housing, education, and living expenses. Today, Khalil owns a sandwich shop near Amman’s Jordan University and Mohammed is a house painter. Neither lives in a camp, but both are registered with UNRWA as refugees. Khamis, who made sandwiches and served tea in his son’s shop, died in 1988.
By mid-May 1948 all but 4,000 of Jaffa’s Arab inhabitants were refugees. When Ben-Gurion visited Jaffa that month, he said, “I couldn’t understand: Why did the inhabitants leave?” Yet as Benny Morris, the former diplomatic correspondent of The Jerusalem Post, documents in his remarkable book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949,1 by the middle of the war Ben-Gurion was anxiously trying to reduce the number of Palestinians living in areas conquered by Jewish forces and took steps to do so, which included ordering the expulsion of the entire populations of two conquered towns, Ramle and Lydda, and of many villages. According to Morris, who has studied recently declassified British and Israeli government archives to document in intricate detail the step by step flight of the Palestinian refugees, the notion of “transfer,” the euphemism in Israel for mass expulsion, had been “in the air” and “in the minds” of Zionist leaders since at least the mid-1930s. “All schemes for establishing a Jewish State in Palestine,” Morris writes,
including the Peel Commission recommendations of July 1937, came up against the major problem of the existence of a large Arab minority: any way in which the land could possibly be partitioned would still leave a sizeable Arab minority in the Jewish State area. And while the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine before 1948] looked to massive Jewish immigration to fill up the state, it was clear that if a large Arab minority was left in situ, their far higher birthrate would mean that they would constitute a perpetual threat to the Jewish majority and, given their active or potential hostility, to the body politic itself. The idea of transferring the Arabs out of the Jewish State area to the Arab state area or to other Arab states was seen as the chief means of assuring the stability and “Jewishness” of the proposed Jewish State.
Though Ben-Gurion wrote during World War I, “We do not intend to push the Arabs aside, to take their land, or to disinherit them,” Morris notes that by the late 1930s he was privately advocating a program of transfer: “We must expel Arabs and take their places…and if we have to use force—not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our right to settle in those places—then we have force at our disposal,” he wrote to his son Amos in October 1937.
During the early years of the Zionist experiment, Jewish leaders believed that the Arab community would be grateful to the Jews for bringing them modern science and technology. Instead the Zionist pioneers were confronted by an indigenous Arab community that for the most part tenaciously clung to the land, repeatedly clashing with the Jewish settlers and taking dozens of lives. Following the Arab Rebellion in Palestine, between 1936 and 1939, against British rule and Zionist colonization, Ben-Gurion and the other Jewish leaders decided that, in view of continuing Arab enmity, the Palestinians would not peacefully accept a Jewish state and would not willingly become its citizens.
Zionist leaders considered various formulas for solving the “Arab problem.” Many Zionists, taking account of the population transfers in Europe after World War I, hoped that financial incentives would entice the Palestinians to leave. In November 1939 Zev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, which claimed that both banks of the Jordan River belonged by right to the Jewish people, wrote to a supporter,
We should instruct American Jewry to mobilize half a billion dollars in order that Iraq and Saudi Arabia will absorb the Palestinian Arabs. There is no choice: the Arabs must make room for the Jews of Eretz Israel. If it was possible to transfer the Baltic peoples, it is also possible to move the Palestinian Arabs.
In June 1938, during a day-long executive meeting of the Jewish Agency, the governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine, the leaders who were present overwhelmingly endorsed, in principle, the concept of transferring the Palestinian Arabs from proposed Jewish areas of a future Jewish state. “It is the most moral [thing to do],” said Avraham Menahem Ussishkin, who advocated transferring 60,000 Arab families to Arab countries. “We will not be able to begin our political life in a state in which Arabs will constitute 45 percent [of the population].”
On May 15, 1948, the day after Israel was founded, five Arab armies invaded Palestine with the declared intention of liquidating the Jewish state. When the war broke out, Ben-Gurion, according to Morris, “clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish State.” Morris provides much evidence of Ben-Gurion’s hard-line position. On October 21, 1948, when a Jewish official discussed with Ben-Gurion setting up an Arab “puppet state” on the West Bank, Ben-Gurion said: “The Arabs of the land of Israel have only one function left to them, to run away.” Though Ben-Gurion never devised a formal plan or policy to expel the Arabs, Morris says that as the war dragged on he preferred that his generals “understand” what he wanted done.
In Haifa the Jewish mayor pleaded with the local Arabs to remain. But with few exceptions Zionist officials failed to make similar appeals in other places. As the better armed and disciplined Jewish forces crushed the Palestinian irregulars and then the Arab armies and Palestinian society disintegrated, panic set in and the impulse to flee became infectious. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, led by the upper and middle classes, abruptly left. Some of them were impelled by reports of massacres like the one carried out by the Irgun at Deir Yassin, where some one hundred Palestinians, mostly non-combatants, were killed, a figure that was much exaggerated at the time by Arab radio broadcasts.
Undoubtedly many Palestinians fled to neighboring Arab countries to wait out the war, hoping to return as victors. The Jews had nowhere to run. Toward the end of the 1948 war, as Jewish troops prevailed over the combined Arab armies, Ben-Gurion sought to strengthen Israel’s strategic position and expand and secure its highly vulnerable borders by taking more territory and expelling Palestinians from villages—especially near border areas—before a UN-mediated armistice ended the conflict. Dozens of villages, as Morris shows, were evacuated, often brutally, by Jewish troops. In July 1948 Ben-Gurion approved the largest expulsion of the war from the neighboring towns of Ramle and Lydda. Jewish troops massacred 250 Palestinian civilians after taking Lydda. Both towns had been used as lightly armed garrisons by the Jordanian Arab Legion, the strongest of the Arab fighting forces, and the Israeli command feared that the garrisons posed a threat to Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
Following the killings in Lydda, the 50,000 to 60,000 townspeople remaining there and in Ramle were forcibly expelled. The Israeli army brought trucks and buses from Tel Aviv to evacuate Ramle’s Arabs. In Lydda, the Palestinians left town on Arab buses, trucks, cars, and on foot, carrying with them whatever they could manage. A report that Morris says was probably written by the commander of the Palmach forces, Yigal Allon, stated that the
flight of tens of thousands [from Ramle and Lydda] will no doubt cause demoralization in every Arab area [the refugees] reach…. This victory will yet have great effect on other sectors.
According to UNRWA’s investigation report, one of those expelled was seventy-year-old Abdul Foudeh, a day laborer from Ramle, and his eighty-year-old wife, Zeinah, who walked all the way to Ramallah, a Palestinian West Bank resort town some thirty kilometers to the east, and then went to Gaza, where they stayed for two years before moving to a refugee camp in Amman. “The family failed to produce any documents but we were satisfied that this family is a real Palestine refugee [family] from Ramle…who lost their permanent residence,” the report says. “The family used to draw rations [from UNRWA] in Gaza and asked that their ration be transferred to Amman…. They are very poor and needy…. We recommend this family for relief.”
Lydda and Ramle, like other evacuated areas, were resettled with Jewish immigrants, who moved into the vacant Arab houses. Ben-Gurion, who, at the beginning of the war, had said he was surprised by the flight of Arabs from Jaffa, in July 1948 turned to one of his officers while visiting the newly conquered, largely Christian Arab town of Nazareth, and said, “Why so many Arabs, why did you not expel them?”
By the war’s end in 1949 some 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinian refugees had fled or been expelled from Israel. Like refugees in other wars, most Palestinians who left their homes did so to get out of the way of the fighting. But whatever the cause of the Palestinians’ flight the Zionist leaders accepted their exodus as good news, or, in Chaim Weizmann’s words, “a miraculous simplification of the problem.” About 100,000 Palestinians remained in the Jewish state, and some 60,000 slipped back into Israel during the months following the war. As Morris notes, along with the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinian refugee problem was the major political consequence of the 1948 war. Contrary to Israeli government propaganda, Morris could find no evidence that Arab leaders issued blanket instructions to the Palestinians to flee; and he gives convincing evidence to suggest that some Arab leaders instructed the Palestinians to stay, even threatening those who fled with reprisals or punishment.
Contrary to Arab propaganda, Morris believes that the Palestinian exodus was not the result of a sinister, premeditated Jewish plan, but was the consequence of many complex factors, not least of which was the abandonment of Palestine by many Palestinian political and military leaders during the first months of the 1948 war. After June 1948, it was Israeli government policy to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees, not only out of concern that they would create a fifth column but because a large Arab minority would dilute the Jewish character of the state. Peace talks in Lausanne in 1949 between Israel and the Arab states foundered on this issue. Only after strong American pressure did Israel offer to repatriate 100,000 refugees as part of a peace treaty, a proposition that, according to Morris, Ben-Gurion believed would be unacceptable to the Arabs. Israel ultimately repatriated a mere 2,000 Palestinians under a family reunification scheme. Consequently, the Palestinian refugee problem became one of the most intractable components of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
UNRWA was created as a temporary agency in 1949 by the UN General Assembly to care for the Palestinian refugees until they were repatriated or received compensation. “It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice,” the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, told the General Assembly shortly before he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the Stern Gang, “if these innocent victims of the conflict…who have been rooted in the land for centuries…were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine.”
Over the years, UNRWA, whose main headquarters are in Vienna in a highrise on the banks of the Danube that the Austrian government has made available to the agency rent free, has become a sprawling bureaucracy. More than 250 employees work there, and there are an additional 18,000 employees, nearly all Palestinians, in UNRWA’s various field operations. All the senior supervisory posts are staffed by non-Palestinians. UNRWA’s 1989 budget totaled more than $227 million. An additional $21 million was approved for emergency aid to deal with the consequences of the intifada and the ongoing conflict in Lebanon, where UNRWA maintains thirteen camps and administers to nearly 300,000 refugees. UNRWA’s proposed budget for 1990 exceeds $230 million. The US, the largest donor nation, gave more than $61 million in 1989 and has given more than $1.4 billion since 1949, nearly half the money received by the agency. The PLO contributed nearly $11 million last year, while Kuwait and Saudi Arabia gave just $1 million each.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general is appointed by the UN secretary-general in consultation with members of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, a permanent body named by the General Assembly. The commission’s members are from the US, Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, and they work closely with the agency, helping to formulate budget and policy. UNRWA’s current commissioner-general, Giorgio Giacomelli, a member of Italy’s diplomatic corps and former ambassador to Syria, was appointed in October 1985. Before coming to UNRWA, he was in charge of Italy’s foreign aid program.
UNRWA’s refugee camps quickly became centers of Palestinian nationalism. Later, the camps became a recruiting ground for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which nurtured the concept of al-awda—or return—as well as al-kifàh al-musallah, armed struggle. Just as the Lausanne talks collapsed over the issue of repatriating the refugees, so too might future peace talks between Israel and representatives of the Palestinians. The right of return is stated in the Palestine National Covenant, and it is frequently evoked by Palestinian leaders as well as by the refugees themselves. Until now, the refugees have even refused UN assistance for long-term economic development projects in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied territories, because it suggests permanent resettlement, thus undermining the concept of return. In Israel, however, “return” is rejected by leaders throughout the political spectrum. Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi, a prominent Israeli dove, a former director of Israel’s military intelligence, and an expert on Palestinian affairs, says that for Israel al-awda is tantamount to political suicide, and no sizeable Jewish group in Israel would disagree with him.
When, in 1988, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist and declared the organization’s willingness to accept a two-state solution that would end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, he avoided mentioning the right of return. He is no doubt aware that Israel will not relent on the issue. While Arafat has widespread support among his people, many Palestinians cling to their notion of absolute justice—eliminating the state of Israel and reclaiming their land. These Palestinians will not easily let Arafat relinquish their long-standing dream of returning to their native towns and villages.
I visited a number of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, and the occupied territories last November, as a guest of UNRWA, in order to get a sense of what the refugees thought about Arafat’s call for a two-state solution. What benefit, material or otherwise, I wondered, would a refugee living in Amman who was originally from Haifa derive from a Palestinian West Bank–Gaza Strip state? Would it satisfy his or her political aspirations? Or would it be a prescription for future irredentism? And would those refugees now living in the occupied territories be willing to remain in their camps after a settlement?
Not surprisingly, Israeli officials I spoke with took a dim view of UNRWA; it is a tool of the PLO and the Arab states, they said, which have callously exploited the refugee problem in order to score propaganda points and to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict high on the world’s agenda. By its sheer existence, Israeli officials say, UNRWA perpetuates the conflict and keeps alive the refugees’ fantasies of repatriation. The officials I spoke to insist (as Israeli officials have done for the past forty years) that the refugees should be absorbed by the Arab states, and that Palestinian claims against Israel for compensation would have to be balanced against the claims of Jews from Islamic countries who left their homes and property behind when they moved to Israel. “The Arab countries are the prime agent responsible for the tragedy of Arab and Jewish refugees,” wrote Mordechai Ben Porat, a former minister without portfolio in the Israeli cabinet, who in 1982 headed a committee that examined the refugee problem for the Begin government.
More recently, Israel has accused UNRWA of collaborating with the Palestinian uprising. On November 13, 1989, the Israeli government complained in a private letter addressed to UNRWA’s commissioner-general in Vienna that the agency had superseded its mandate by lending support to Palestinians waging the intifada. The Israelis are particularly exercised by a program that UNRWA began in February 1988, which hired a group of largely European and American observers to monitor Israeli human rights violations in camps on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As many as two dozen officials called Refugee Affairs Officers (RAOs), cruise the territories in Volkswagen Passats that have blue UN plates and black UNRWA decals on the side. They keep in constant touch with headquarters on the cars’ short wave radios. RAOs, or Rambos, as they have been nicknamed by local Palestinians, have been known to try to intervene with Israeli soldiers to stop the beatings and arrests. UNRWA is so worried that publicity about the RAOs will cause trouble with Israel that an UNRWA official in Jerusalem threatened several RAOs with the loss of their jobs if they gave me an unauthorized interview.
In its letter to UNRWA, the Israeli government accused the RAOs of interfering with Israeli security operations in the occupied territories and monitoring troop movements. The letter was written nearly a month after Israeli troops raided four UNRWA field offices on the West Bank and Gaza, briefly detaining several UNRWA employees for questioning, and, according to the letter to the commissioner-general, confiscating “propaganda and incitement material.” Last November, Nadav Avner, an assistant to the director of the prime minister’s office, told me during an interview in Jerusalem that if UNRWA did not stop supporting the intifada, it might be asked to suspend its operations in the occupied territories.
More than 78,000 people, about one third of some 269,000 Palestinians registered as refugees in Syria, live in ten camps—a bleak collection of flimsily made one- and two-room shelters, constructed of concrete-and-mud brick, that are crammed together along unpaved roads, usually on the outskirts of cities. UNRWA is required to maintain the refugee camps, though they are under Syrian sovereignty. Palestinians in Syria have no political rights; they are not entitled to Syrian passports, and are prohibited from owning property, except for one house per family.
The largest concentration of Palestinians in Syria is in a quarter of Damascus known as Yarmouk, which was built as a suburb in 1957 to accommodate refugee squatters who had been living in parks or in mosques. A jumble of noisy outdoor food markets, shops, restaurants, and garages, Yarmouk has become indistinguishable from other gritty working-class neighborhoods in this somewhat shabby city of 1.8 million which resembles parts of Sofia and Bucharest. Most of the residents in Yarmouk work as laborers in factories in or near Damascus or on farms outside the city. Many of the shops in Yarmouk are owned by Syrians, who had more capital to start up businesses than the displaced Palestinians.
Though most refugees live in camps out of economic necessity, some do so in order to make a political statement, or out of inertia, or simply because—thanks to UN charity—living there is cheap and easy. UNRWA, which owns the buildings in the camps that house the refugees, charges no rent and provides free social services, including health care and primary and secondary schools that are far better than those of the Syrian state-run system. In 1989, for example, 77 percent of UNRWA’s ninth graders passed their high school entrance exams, compared to the national average of 42 percent. “The camps are not a negative experience at all,” says Muhammad Nashashibi, the head of the PLO’s economic planning department and a member of the PLO’s executive committee since 1972, who has lived in Damascus since the late 1940s. “Because they live together, they remember their history. The camps create a sense of solidarity and allow Palestinians to live as a community.”
Nashashibi, an Arafat loyalist and a member of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent Palestinian families, was forbidden to leave Damascus when Syrian President Assad broke with Arafat in 1983 and dissident Palestinian groups, backed by the Syrian army, routed him from his base in Tripoli among Lebanon’s refugee camps. According to Assad’s biographer. Patrick Seale,2 Arafat, who had been briefly jailed by Assad in 1966 for trying to push Syria into a war with Israel, provoked Assad’s anger following the Lebanon war in 1982, when Arafat seemed to consider giving support to the Reagan peace plan. Since then, Assad has jailed more than 300 pro-Arafat Palestinians without charges. In 1983, a pro-Arafat rally in Yarmouk was crushed by the army, and more than forty Palestinian demonstrators were gunned down.
Syria is a police state, and the mukhabarat—Syria’s dreaded internal security services—has many informants in the camps, making it dangerous for Palestinians to even voice support for Arafat or his conciliatory policies. The best way for Palestinians to stay out of trouble is to stay out of politics. Meanwhile, Assad, who not only denounces Arafat’s moderate line but detests him personally, allows the half dozen or so dissident Palestinian factions outside the PLO and opposed to him—they are called the Salvation Front—to maintain offices in the refugee camps, where they recruit for their militias. George Habash’s PFLP and Nayef Hawatmeh’s PDFLP, Marxist groups that are critical of many of Arafat’s policies while remaining members of the PLO, also have a presence in the refugee camps, although Syrian authorities closely monitor their activities.
Syrian officials forbid the Palestinians in the camps to carry arms, no doubt recalling that the PLO nearly toppled Jordan’s King Hussein in 1970, and later brutally subjugated large parts of Lebanon, where the PLO turned the refugee camps into virtual military bases, bringing in heavy weapons and building a network of fortified positions. “You can’t even carry a Kalashnikov [in Syria’s refugee camps],” says Khaled Fahum, former head of the PNC, the PLO’s highest decision-making body, who broke with Arafat in 1983. “The Syrians will arrest you in an instant.”
Fahum is now allied with the Salvation Front, whose best known group is headed by Ahmed Jabril, the man accused by Western intelligence agencies of causing the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster. According to Fahum, radical Palestinian groups of the Salvation Front maintain at least ten small fedayeen training camps on Syrian soil. The training courses, which he says last about three months, instruct would-be guerrilla fighters in the use of light weapons, as well as in infiltration and sabotage techniques. Ninety-nine percent of the paid recruits come from the refugee camps, Fahum says, adding that Palestinians living in Syrian towns and cities are too comfortably off to become guerrillas. The Syrians collect special taxes from the Palestinians, using the money to support the Salvation Front and to finance the Palestinian contingent of the Syrian army, called the Palestine Liberation Army. Every Palestinian man is required to serve in the PLA unless he can pull strings and buy an exemption. A contingent is currently serving in North Lebanon.
From my talks with Palestinians living in Syria, it became clear that the Salvation Front is very unpopular with most Palestinians in the camps, who view its leaders as Syrian collaborators. Abu Musa, a Syrian-backed PLO dissident whose forces shelled refugee camps in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1983 in a successful effort to dislodge Arafat and his supporters, is so despised that he can’t walk into a refugee camp in Syria without armed guards. “We hate him,” said a Palestinian graduate student at a US university, who lives in Syria. “Support for the Salvation Front is very minimal.”
To live in Syria is also to be exposed to intense anti-Israeli propaganda. On the day that I arrived in Damascus, a feature “news” story in the government-run, English-language newspaper, The Syrian Times, which is handed out free at some of the Western tourist hotels, claimed to expose a secret plot between Israel and South Africa to exterminate their native populations. According to the article, which never fully explained how the diabolical scheme was intended to work, Israel would transfer 100,000 Arabs to South Africa, and in return would receive from Soweto 100,000 blacks, who would become slaves for the Jews. “The two racist regimes aim to exterminate the two peoples, the African and the Arab,” the article said.
In this climate, it is not surprising that UNRWA’s 110 schools with 53,000 students in Syria are centers of strong anti-Israel sentiment. The day I visited an Arabic class at a boy’s junior high school at Jeramana refugee camp, about eight kilometers outside Damascus, some fifty students with close-cropped hair and wearing drab brown, Syrian military-style uniforms—the required dress of all male students in Syria—were reciting verses from the Koran. The classroom walls, as well as the walls surrounding the interior courtyard, were filled with student art work depicting nationalist themes: kefiyah-clad fedayeen, young Palestinian boys in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem hurling stones at loutish-faced Israeli soldiers, children with heroic smiles slinging machine guns. Wall slogans in flowing Arabic calligraphy called for the liberation of Palestine. “We have an obligation to teach kids the history of Palestine, which goes back before Christ, as well as their folklore, traditions, and culture,” says Per Olof Hallqvist, who in 1988 became UNRWA director in Damascus. “We have an obligation to try not to politicize education, but you can imagine we are fighting in vain. All the teachers and students are Palestinians.”
There is a kind of unreality to Hallqvist’s statement that is typical of what I heard from other earnest UNRWA bureaucrats of Western backgrounds who insist that they are working for a neutral international welfare agency. UNRWA is in fact highly politicized and its sympathy for the Palestinian cause is obvious in every aspect of its operation, especially education, which consumes two thirds of UNRWA’s annual budget. In UNRWA schools, which offer classes through the ninth grade, little effort is made to restrain militant nationalist symbolism or instruction, including equating Zionism with racism. While UNRWA produces some of the best students in the Arab world, not surprisingly it also produces some of the most dedicated Palestinian nationalists who though they may support one or another Palestinian faction are at a minimum dedicated to the concept of Palestinian nationhood and self-determination.
Although in Syria UNRWA has to use the prescribed Syrian curriculum, textbooks and classroom reading material are sent to Paris for vetting by education experts from UNESCO, who are supposed to weed out offensive publications or language that is deemed overtly anti-Israeli or that incites anti-Semitism. UNESCO itself, however, has repeatedly been denounced by Israel and the US for its alleged anti-Israeli, anti-Western, pro-PLO bias—charges that, among others, prompted America to walk out of the agency for several years in the 1980s. According to an UNRWA spokesman in Vienna, Israeli officials have frequently banned material from UNRWA schools that they believed distorted the account of the events leading up to and following Israel’s establishment or that they believed would induce hatred of Israel.
UNRWA also screens prospective teachers for its schools in Syria, as it does in other places, in an effort to prevent hiring anyone who will use classrooms as centers for propaganda. However, according to Hallqvist, the Syrian government brings a great deal of pressure on UNRWA to hire “politically acceptable” Palestinians. Palestinians in the camps told me that more independent-minded teachers who question Syrian policy are frequently arrested by the secret police for questioning. “We swallow a lot of pride here,” says Hallqvist, who complains that because of Assad’s obsession with security, the Syrians don’t even allow UNRWA’s social workers to visit refugees in their houses, fearing that the agency may be fomenting dissent. However, Hallqvist told me, UNRWA believes it will be allowed to stay in Syria—if for no other reason than its ability to bring in about $25 miltion in hard currency a year while performing services that the government might otherwise be required to provide.
As for the politics of education, Hallqvist says, “although I try to prevent pictures of children of the intifada throwing stones from adorning the classrooms, it’s the daily food they have here.” Fierce anti-Israel sentiment “is in their homes, on TV. The schools are a breeding ground for Palestinian nationalism.” Fahum believes UNRWA’s schools are doing a “big job” preserving Palestinian history and culture while preventing assimilation. “My children went to Syrian schools and they feel like Syrians, not Palestinians,” he told me. “At UNRWA’s schools, the education is good and they feel like Palestinians. They teach that Zionism is a curse on Palestinian history.” Though he was a prominent figure in the PLO, Fahum says his five children would doubtless choose to remain in Syria if a Palestinian state were created, although he says that they would be proud to carry a Palestinian passport.
But for Nashashibi, who, like Fahum, lives in a well-furnished apartment in the center of town, with the comforts that the upper middle class enjoys in the rest of the third world, the hope of returning to Palestine still has not died. “The Jews, who didn’t live in Palestine for three thousand years, should be the last people to say Palestinians have no right to return. The Palestinians want to return and I think as many as 500,000 would want to go back to [pre-1967] Israel. The Israelis have no right to continue living in Israel at the expense of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants.”
In Jordan, Palestinian refugees have been eligible for Jordanian citizenship since 1952, and are prominent in government and business, but they have never “psychologically integrated,” says Ele Saaf, the genial Dutch director of UNRWA’s huge operation in Jordan, where nearly 900,000 refugees are registered, or 38 percent of all Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. “In their innermost feelings they feel deprived, cheated,” Saaf says.
Saaf readily acknowledges that UNRWA not only has delayed the process of integration into the Arab countries, but that it has also been “instrumental in keeping Palestinian nationalism alive.” “Every classroom has a map that shows in great detail where every town and village in Palestine was located,” he told me.
If you ask a child in class “where are you from?” he will look at the map and point out his village. He will describe his father’s house, the fig tree, the well—imagery that he has never seen. They constantly discuss their roots in class. It may not be part of the government curriculum. But they are educated as refugees. School is where they learn their folklore, their traditions and songs. And that’s why if you ask a refugee kid who was born in Amman where he is from, he will say Bethlehem, or Lydda, or Jaffa.
Most of Jordan’s ten refugee camps, where some 215,000 people live, seem like other congested, down-at-the-heels Middle Eastern villages. I visited the Baqa’a camp in northern Jordan during the rainy season last November when the camp’s wide, unpaved roads were pitted with calf-deep puddles of water mixed with raw sewage that had flowed out of the run-off drains and into the camp’s main thoroughfares. Refugee shelters, which by Jordanian law cannot exceed 100 square meters, and cannot rise higher than two stories, often house extended families of fifteen to twenty people.
One shelter I was taken to by an UNRWA guide was registered as belonging to a seventy-year-old day laborer who several years before had moved to Saudi Arabia, abandoning his two wives and six children. When I went to see them they were just finishing a lunch of cooked cabbage, rice, and round, flat Arabic bread. The family, which has no male provider, is what UNRWA calls a special hardship case, entitling then to food rations and a small stipend. The shelter for the family of eight consisted of two small damp and dingy rooms heated by a foul-smelling kerosene space heater, a tiny cavelike kitchen with a kerosene stove, and a detached bathroom off an open courtyard—in fact, a slab of concrete with a hole in the middle. Most of the shelters in Baqa’a have cesspits that UNRWA is responsible for emptying. The patchwork tin roofing of the shelter was augmented with sheets of asbestos siding that had been taken from a derelict building nearby.
Yet despite the apparent hardships, as in Syria, few refugees voluntarily leave the camps, because of the various subsidies, free health and dental clinics, schooling, supplemental feeding programs for children and nursing mothers, and the rent-free housing that UNRWA provides. Indeed, almost every camp in Syria and Jordan has a waiting list of families who want to move in.
As we walked through the mud to visit Baqa’a’s health clinic, where five Palestinian doctors and twenty nurses serve a population of nearly seventy thousand, an UNRWA bureaucrat from the West who accompanied me to the camp remarked with some heat that rich Palestinians have contributed little money to UNRWA for improving camp facilities, although, he said, there always seemed to be a rich Palestinian who was ready to give money to build a new mosque.
One of the reasons that some of the camps in Jordan and Syria are so squalid is that the refugees themselves have vetoed many major camp improvement projects such as permanent housing developments. In the early 1950s, the UN poured millions of dollars into work projects designed to get the refugees out of the camps and economically integrated into their host countries. Milton Viorst notes in Reaching for the Olive Branch, a study of UNRWA that was published by the Middle East Institute in Washington, that UNRWA had planned to create 100,000 jobs by mid-1951 in forestation and road building, which would have removed 400,000 people from the relief rolls. In addition, the General Assembly established a Reintegration Fund of $30 million for development projects that would have freed tens of thousands of refugees from dependency on UNRWA. Some $7 million were spent. “But they said ‘hey, this looks permanent,’ and the projects were stopped,” Saaf says. “Even after the 1967 War, the refugees didn’t understand what Israel meant—that the Jews also had roots [in Israel] and Zionism was an exclusivist political movement and there was little chance that they would ever be able to cross the Jordan River and tend their goats and fields.”
The desire to return to Palestine seems particularly acute among UNRWA’s 5,500 Palestinian staff members in Jordan, of whom some 80 percent are teachers. “It hasn’t registered on even the very senior [Palestinian] persons in UNRWA that they are not going back,” says Dennis L. Brown, the New York-born deputy director of UNRWA in Jordan. “It’s a bizarre mentality. You have people holding on to a dream that has been sustained by fantasy.”
The young Palestinians I spoke with in Jordan seemed somewhat more realistic than their elders about the possibility of someday reclaiming Palestine, though many said they, too, retain the dream. While I found some support for Arafat’s call for a two-state solution among the students I met during a tour of two junior colleges for refugees run by UNRWA in Amman, most of the students I interviewed told me that they believe Zionism is so hostile and threatening to their people that nothing short of uprooting it could bring peace to the region.
Of course, they have reason to feel that Israel is hostile. A daily diet of television and newspaper stories about Israel’s suppression of the intifada are supplemented by eyewitness reports of brutality from friends and family in the territories. But what surprised me was their dismissal of Arafat as just another third-rate Arab leader whose quest for a peaceful solution is a betrayal of Palestinian national rights. “Palestine is one country and one state should be there,” said a sixteen-year-old student at Wadi Seer Training Center, a trade school on the outskirts of Amman run by UNRWA.
During a visit to the school I was permitted to tour classrooms and talk with students about their political views. I was accompanied by Ishmail Saleh, UNRWA’s assistant public information officer in Amman, whose father and mother had fled their ancestral village, which straddled the main highway near Jerusalem, a scene of heavy fighting during the 1948 war. As in Syria, journalists visiting UNRWA installations are usually supposed to be accompanied by a government official, who monitors the conversations for the secret police. But we were able to visit the junior colleges without informing the authorities. Just a year before, I was told, a nineteen-year-old student at Wadi Seer was exposed as an informer for the Jordanian mulhabarat. By avoiding questions about Jordanian politics or King Hussein, who keeps a tight rein on Palestinians in his kingdom, I found the students could be open and even provocative, though none of them wanted their names printed in an American publication.
There were about twenty students between the ages of sixteen and nineteen in Wadi Seer’s Arabic class the day I visited. All but one of the ten women wore head coverings and long traditional gowns favored by conservative Muslims, a style that became popular in the Middle East with the rise of Khomeini. The men were neatly dressed in Western-style slacks and dress shirts. They were polite and soft-spoken, and their views were uncompromising. “Palestine was a Palestinian land throughout all of history and the only means to restore it is through military means,” I was told by a female student, who wore a bright purple headcovering with tiny silver stars and a long smock in the traditional style that covered her legs and arms. “Arafat is free to have any point of view he wants,” another woman said, “but all the Palestinians believe we have the right to return to Palestine. We won’t accept half of Palestine.” A young man said: “We don’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. It has no right to stay.” Only one of the students favored a two-state compromise. Interspersed in the conversation were accusations that America was helping to wage a genocidal war against the Palestinian people. Weren’t the tear gas and bullets used by Israeli soldiers manufactured and supplied by the US government? they asked.
During the talk about Israeli atrocities, the Arabic teacher—a Palestinian Christian in a print dress, wearing heavy make up and high heels—reminded the class that the Koran says that Muslims should respect “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews. I had the feeling that she said that as much for her own peace of mind as for mine.
Islamic fundamentalism has spread rapidly in the occupied territories during the intifada. In Jordan, Islamic fundamentalists won thirty-four of eighty seats in the November 1989 parliamentary elections. Some Islamic fundamentalists among the Palestinians in the occupied territories have criticized what they perceive to be a lack of deep nationalist fervor among Palestinian Christians—a phenomenon that worries PLO leaders, many of whom are Christian and want the PLO to remain a secular organization.
Earlier that day, I spoke with a dozen or so teen-age boys gathered around a diesel engine in a machine shop class. I asked each to pick his favorite Palestinian leader. Only one chose Arafat. Several chose Abu Jihad, the PLO official in charge of financing the intifada, who was shot to death in 1988 by Israeli commandos in a suburb outside Tunis. Widely admired for his intelligence and honesty, Abu Jihad, whose family now lives in Jordan, is considered a great martyr.
Most of the students told me they didn’t like anyone in the PLO. Their heroes, they said, are the rock-throwing children of the intifada. The students said they are waiting for a new, more militant generation of leaders to take over the organization. Diplomacy, they said, was getting the PLO nowhere. During my week touring UNRWA installations in Jordan, I repeatedly heard comments like the ones made by the students at Wadi Seer.
The intifada began in a Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza on December 9, 1987, when four Arab workers returning from their jobs in Israel were killed in a collision with an Israeli truck. Thousands of mourners from Jabalya marched on an Israeli army camp, convinced that the accident was deliberate. (Three days earlier an Israeli merchant had been stabbed to death in Gaza, and Gazans believed that the truck driver was a relative of the merchant intent on avenging his death.) The Israeli army fired on the demonstrators. Four Palestinians were killed, and the Gaza Strip, a small piece of land crowded with 650,000 inhabitants, exploded with a shower of stones, Molotov cocktails, and burning tires. The rebellion spread to the West Bank, where, as in the Gaza Strip, the refugee camps, and particularly UNRWA’s schools, became the front lines of the intifada.
Jabalya continues to be at the forefront of the uprising. The camp is located in a sandy depression about a half mile inland from the Mediterranean where more than 55,000 people live packed together in poorly insulated, one-and two-room reinforced cinder-block shelters. A huge pond swollen with raw sewage called Suliman’s Pool is situated near one of the elementary schools. An UNRWA spokesman told me that several children walking to school along the pond’s banks have fallen in and drowned.
Overcrowding, poor housing, and inadequate sewers and drainage in the camps result in a high incidence of waterborne and respiratory diseases. Dr. Mohammed Abu Sweireh, the head doctor of the camp clinic, says he has seen a 20 percent rise in the incidence of clinical depression and schizophrenia in the past ten months, from 189 to 226 diagnosed cases. He attributes the increase to the high number of shootings and beatings by Israeli soldiers, and the long curfews designed to keep youths indoors and away from stones. Last year, Jabalya was for 156 days under a curfew that forbade Palestinians to leave their homes, except for a few hours a day.
In Gaza, where more than half the residents are under age fourteen, children have been the main combatants and the chief victims of the intifada. At least seventy-eight of Gaza’s children have been killed and more than 11,000 wounded since the beginning of the uprising. Amnon Rubinstein, leader of the liberal Shinui party, recently called on Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to investigate the torture of a nine-year-old boy from Gaza’s Shati camp, who was said to have been stripped, hung upside down by his feet, and beaten for three hours by Israeli soldiers as an example to young stone-throwers. UNRWA filed a complaint with the Israeli military, but has received no reply.
Every refugee family I met in the occupied territories had at least one son in prison, in the hospital, or dead. “Mohammed” lives in Rafah with his wife and ten children. Two of his sons were killed in Lebanon fighting with the PLO; two are in an Israeli prison. The day I visited him last November, his shelter was filled with flowers and boxes of chocolate to celebrate the release of his eldest son from prison. “Mohammed” had been a policeman working for the Israelis. But when the intifada began the shabab—the militant youth who run the camp—told him to quit or he would be executed as a collaborator.
Gaza has been tense since 1948 when 180,000 refugees poured into the area, engulfing the 160,000 indigenous residents. Palestinian guerrilla attacks from Gaza, which was occupied by Egypt in 1948, were the casus belli for Israel’s participation in the 1956 Suez War. Israel routed the Egyptian army and occupied the Strip for about five months before it was pressured to leave by the Eisenhower administration. Israel occupied the Strip again during the June 1967 Six Day War. Almost immediately, the PLO turned Gaza into a base honey-combed with underground bunkers and safe houses, from which they waged a Vietcong-style guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation force. General Ariel Sharon was brought in to crush the uprising. He had bulldozers cut open spaces through the densely packed camps so that army jeeps could safely patrol along roadways, which are now known as Sharon Boulevards. The refugees whose houses were destroyed by Sharon were forcibly moved to deserted UN army barracks near the Egyptian border. Between July 1971 and February 1972 Sharon’s shock troops killed 104 Palestinian guerrillas and arrested 742 others.
At the same time, Sharon also came up with a plan to stop Palestinian children from stoning Israeli soldiers. “I invited all the Arab parents to meetings in the schools where our policy was explained to them,” he writes in his recently published autobiography, Warrior. “The parents were told that if a child was caught stoning a soldier, the child’s father or eldest brother would be given a jar of water, a loaf of bread, a head covering, some Jordanian money, and a white flag. We would then transport him to the Jordanian border, point out the direction of the nearest Jordanian town, and send him on his way.” On two occasions, Sharon reports, he deported about thirty people. “When you walked through the streets of Gaza, you often heard parents disciplining their children vigorously. None of them wanted to end up in Jordan….”
Meanwhile, Sharon devised a master plan to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. “The essence of my plan,” he writes, “was to get rid of the Palestinian refugee camps altogether.” Sharon proposed to the Golda Meir government that the camps be dismantled, resettling about 70,000 refugees in towns and cities on the West Bank—and another 70,000 in Gaza’s existing cities. In addition Sharon recommended resettling 20,000 to 30,000 Gaza refugees inside the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel “to show our good will and humane values.”
The elimination of the camps would be neither easy nor quick; it would take, as I envisioned, ten years or so. Yet I believed that with the help of other countries and international organizations it would be practical for Israel to do it. With such massive new construction [to rehouse the newly evicted refugees] it would have constituted a major spur to the [Israeli] economy.
According to Sharon, the government vetoed his plan for resettlement, fearing it would set a precedent of unilateral concessions, but it approved another of his schemes: the construction of Jewish settlements that would reach out like fingers to divide the cities and camps of the Gaza Strip. Now, thanks in part to Sharon, there are some 3,500 Jewish settlers living in nineteen ultranationalist settlements in Gaza that include hothouses and orange groves, and a restaurant with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean—all accessible from Israel on roads that bypass Palestinian population centers. A resort hotel catering to American Orthodox Jews was built near Jabalya at a cost of $9 million. The hotel’s glossy brochure advertised “paradisiacal beaches,” where families could frolic “within the framework of traditional Jewish Orthodox values.” As a special bonus, hotel guests could “meet the friendly Bedouin living and working as they have for generations.” The hotel closed last year.
Sixty thousand Gazans work as day laborers in Israel. Many of the Strip’s poorest residents live in Gaza City’s slums, where conditions are worse than in the most wretched refugee camps, with the exception of those in Lebanon. In general, the refugees’ standard of living in the occupied territories improved markedly after 1967. Israel government officials have all sorts of statistics to show the rise in the number of television sets, refrigerators, and improvement of health care for refugees under their aegis. UNRWA officials do not dispute these statistics. Jobs as laborers in the construction industry and cleaners and dishwashers in the hotel industry, to name two that employ many Palestinians, brought relative prosperity to the occupied territories. But those gains have been lost since the intifada as Palestinian society has tried to disengage itself from Israel. Far fewer Palestinians work in Israel, whose products they now boycott.
Yet as paradoxical as it may seem, young refugees in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are generally more willing to work out a settlement with Israel than are their counterparts in Jordan and Syria. Israel isn’t an abstraction for them. They are regularly confronted by the awesome power of Israel’s army and the vigor of its society. Moreover, the intifada has given Palestinians a sense of pride and accomplishment despite their severe hardships. “When a young man goes out of the house to throw stones, he knows he might be killed, but still all young people do it because this is not a decent life we are living,” said a woman student at Maghazi camp, which I visited during the dedication of a women’s vocational school that had been funded by the Near East Council of Churches.
One result of the refugees’ determined stand against the occupation is that for the first time, a broad cross section of refugees have asked UNRWA to improve their living conditions. “The intifada has cranked up their nationalism to a new level,” said a member of a British research team, employed by UNRWA to study ways of improving the camps in Gaza. “They [Gazans] feel they no longer have to walk around in sewage up to their necks. People are ready for improvements. They no longer feel that putting in a sewage treatment plant means they are surrendering their rights.” According to a study commissioned by the UNRWA, the estimated cost of installing sewage systems for Gaza’s camps is $28 million. The total cost of improving the camps’ hygiene, rehabilitating the worst shelters, and building a new hospital, which is planned for Gaza City, is more than $65 million.
The PLO has endorsed the proposed renovation projects, although once there is a peace settlement it would like to dismantle the camps and place refugees in new housing. “In the next three to five years UNRWA will play an important part,” says Muhammad Nashashibi, head of the PLO’s economic department in Damascus, who told me that he has discussed with UNRWA officials ways to develop the Palestinian economy in the occupied territories once Israel withdraws. “We want to work with them very closely. We want UNRWA to build infrastructure and improve living conditions.” Nashashibi told Milton Viorst that the PLO had at its disposal $100 million, contingent upon the UN’s coming up with an equal amount, to spend on industry and agriculture in a future Palestinian West Bank–Gaza Strip state.
UNRWA recently has expanded its activities in the occupied territories in other ways. In February 1988, UNRWA received $21 million in emergency funds3 authorized by the UN General Assembly to alleviate increased hardship brought on by the intifada. Part of the money was used to hire some two dozen RAOs to monitor the camps for human rights abuses, and in certain instances intervene with Israeli troops to prevent beatings, shootings, and summary arrests. Bernard Mills, a retired major in Britain’s special forces and former director of UNRWA’s Gaza office, says he was mainly responsible for the RAO program. He told me he left UNRWA last year because “if I had seen another Israeli officer shoot a small child in the stomach I would have probably grabbed his gun and shot him.”
As UNRWA has become a more forceful advocate for the refugees, the Israeli government has begun to bring the organization’s activities under close scrutiny. Last October Israeli troops stormed UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, arresting one local and two international staff members, as well as confiscating documents. The staff members were let go after questioning. In the occupied West Bank, troops raided UNRWA installations at four camps, and questioned staff members of each one. According to Reuters, a senior Israeli government official said several of the local UN staff who were questioned were suspected of illegally channeling money and jobs to activists in the Palestinian uprising. Margaret Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman, criticized Israel for interfering with UNRWA’s operations.
Last November, the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in Vienna wrote to UNRWA’s commissioner-general complaining that the agency had violated its mandate by going beyond its mission of providing relief and economic assistance. Israel specifically criticized the RAO program: “groups of UNRWA personnel using Agency vehicles and equipment have, for an extended period, been conducting widescale surveillance and monitoring of Israeli troop movements and activities in the administered areas,” the letter said.
These groups have been tracking, following and often interfering with Israeli military personnel fulfilling security functions in the areas. Similar activities include random photographing of Israeli troops and systematic maintenance of detailed inventories listing troop activities. UNRWA vehicles have been used to block roads and to delay and obstruct IDF patrols in maintaining security in the areas, most frequently in the midst of riots, extreme local disorder and violence.
The appearance of UNRWA vehicles and personnel at selected locations during such disorders…has served both to increase intensity of the violence on the part of the rioters as well as to enhance the danger to human life both of the Israeli and the UN personnel.
Last January, UNRWA director Giacomelli traveled to Israel where he discussed these allegations with Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and General Shmeul Goren, coordinator of the occupied territories. “I said that we don’t go beyond the mandate,” Giacomelli told me.
But maybe we should spend some time looking into the mandate. What is the mandate? In my view the mandate is not cast in bronze…. In the beginning it was providing tents and food and primary medical care, then it was more in the area of work to provide employment, then education and health…. Since the intifada what is needed is passive protection for the people.
Giacomelli and other UNRWA officials I talked to said that “passive protection” includes providing emergency rations to refugees under curfew, extending medical and psychological services to victims of shootings and beatings, and, where possible, having RAOs try to diffuse tense encounters between soldiers and refugees, preventing the beatings and arrest of children if they can. “While I’m duty-bound to coordinate activities that occur under the aegis of the host government and the occupying power, on the other hand, we have to address the needs of the refugees,” Giacomelli said.
Although the relationship between Israel and UNRWA has deteriorated, it is unlikely that Israel will shut down the agency, if for no other reason than that it would displease the US, UNRWA’s single largest contributor. Nor would Israel like the responsibility of caring for an increasingly destitute and hostile refugee population. In the long run Israel’s current leaders would like to carry out a version of Sharon’s refugee resettlement plan. Last March, Prime Minister Shamir visited the United States seeking $2 billion to dismantle the Palestinian refugee camps and build new housing in order to permanently resettle the refugees in the occupied territories—in effect breaking up the camps and redistributing the people who live in them. The concept was incorporated into Shamir’s four-point peace plan. Critics charged it was a callous attempt to save the Israeli construction industry, which once the money was obtained, could instead build housing for the flood of expected Soviet immigrants. The State Department rejected Shamir’s proposal, saying the refugees should be resettled only as part of a comprehensive peace plan.
Brigadier General Fredy Zach, the forty-two-year-old deputy coordinator of the occupied territories, said during an interview in his office at Hakirya, Israel’s Pentagon in downtown Tel Aviv, that Palestinian hostility toward Israel would be diffused if the camps were dismantled and the refugees’ economic status improved. He noted that Israel provides small plots of land and small grants to Gaza refugees who want to build homes outside the camps. In return, the refugee has six months to demolish his shelter in the camp and cede the land to Israel. Between 70,000 and 100,000 Palestinians have been resettled in new neighborhoods under the program, in homes that they build and pay for themselves.
When Israel started the program in 1972, according to UNRWA officials, it insisted that refugees sign documents in Hebrew that relinquished their rights as refugees, including their right to receive compensation for property left behind in pre-1967 Israel, but that practice was abandoned after it was condemned by the UN. “We are the only ones in the world who have done anything for these miserable people,” Zach said, omitting the fact that during the past twenty years the Israeli treasury has realized millions of dollars in surplus from its taxation of Gaza, while, according to Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, it has spent next to nothing on refugee welfare, not to mention Gaza’s infrastructure. But even Zach conceded that in spite of Israel’s best efforts at social engineering, the new neighborhoods in Gaza, have now become what Bernard Mills accurately describes as the “actual hotbeds of unrest.”
Finding a solution to the refugee problem will remain one of the major obstacles to solving the overall conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel will not consider a return of the refugees. The PLO’s Nashashibi says the number of Palestinians in the diaspora who will be able to immigrate to Gaza and the West Bank will be limited by the carrying capacity of the land, which he estimates at around 500,000 persons. He says that while a West Bank–Gaza state will give those Palestinians a passport and a sense of pride, it will not solve the problem of all those living in the camps—though it could provide a haven for refugees in Lebanon who are stateless and persecuted in a country that has become a charnel house. Some Western officials and liberal Israelis talk about a Marshall Plan for the Middle East that would include an ambitious development program for the refugees, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, or the occupied territories. No doubt the financing for such a plan would “come from the pocket of the American taxpayer, not the Israelis,” says Benny Morris, now a scholar in residence at the Brookings Institution.
The refugee problem won’t be resolved until there is a consensus in Israel for negotiating with the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Shamir abhors the PLO, which he calls a “terrorist organization,” comparing it to the Nazis, and claiming that it is cleverly following a “strategy of stages” in which it will use a West Bank-Gaza Strip state as a base to pursue its historic vision of liquidating Israel and establishing “Greater Palestine.” However sincere Arafat is about wanting peace with Israel, Shamir and others on the Israeli right say he will be powerless to control the organization’s radicals, let alone the Islamic fundamentalists who are locked in a life-and-death struggle with Judaism and Israel.
Benny Morris believes that no matter what kind of accommodation Israel may reach with the PLO there will be dissidents and terrorists who oppose Israel’s existence and who will try to attack Israel from the new territory. But he also believes that the government of a new Palestinian state would have a powerful incentive to cooperate with Israel in combating terrorism. “Giving the Palestinians a state,” he told me,
would vastly reduce the motivation behind terrorism, and therefore reduce the numbers of these potential terrorists. When people get something they want to hold onto—not just refugee camps, but a state, with all that it entails—a flag, pride, material benefits—they won’t want to be overrun a second time by Israel, which is what would happen if a full-fledged guerrilla war were waged from that territory.
Ze’ev Schiff, the respected military editor of Haaretz, wrote in a recent policy paper for the Washington Institute that a peace settlement between Israel and the PLO necessarily would include a joint Palestinian-Israeli command to fight terrorism, which Jordan would be invited to join. In Schiff’s model a Palestinian mini-state would have a small indigenous police force and no army, and would permit Israel to station troops in strategic areas, away from population centers, during a confidence-building period that would last a number of years until the Arab states bordering Israel sign peace treaties.
Schiff proposes first allowing the PLO to establish a civil authority in Gaza to test its willingness to coexist with Israel and control terrorism. I asked Schiff, who travels widely outside Israel and has had numerous conversations with “authoritative Palestinians,” if he has reason to believe the PLO is ready to join Israel in such an enterprise. “I think we can find a common denominator in the mainstreams of the two communities,” Schiff replied. “Otherwise, the Palestinians will never fulfill their aspirations and Israel will never have a quiet day in the future.”
Schiff also notes that Palestinians are terrified by the mass immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel and by Shamir’s recent comment about needing a “big Israel” to settle them. As many as 750,000 Soviet Jews are expected to settle in Israel and the occupied territories during the next few years. PLO strategists had always counted on demography to work in their favor, noting the high Palestinian birth rate in Israel and the occupied territories. But no longer. In Syria, both Fahoum, the former head of the PNC, and Nashashibi told me they believe that Soviet Jews ultimately will displace Palestinians from their homes, as a prelude to a 1940s-style mass expulsion, while an increased Jewish population on the West Bank and Gaza will deplete the territory’s most precious resources—land and water.
Meanwhile, if peace talks fail to take place because Shamir blocks the PLO’s attempt to begin negotiations with Israel, diplomacy will be discredited in the Arab world, further radicalizing young Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories. The refugee camps will then continue to be the seed of intense Palestinian resentment, frustration, and terror.
—March 1, 1990
March 29, 1990