The Privileged Palestinian

Original article by Efraim Karsh on
No sooner had the Palestinian Arabs fled their homes during the 1948-49 war than they were taken under the protective wing of the international community and protected like no other group in similar circumstances. This special treatment ranged from their very recognition as refugees despite the failure of many to satisfy the basic criteria for such status, to the unprecedented creation of a relief agency committed exclusively for their welfare: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.

Yet rather than help resolve the Palestinian refugee problem, this unparalleled indulgence has only served to confirm its permanency. And no factor has contributed more to this perpetuation than UNRWA, which, instead of ending direct relief and transferring responsibility for the refugees to the host Arab states within months, as stipulated by its mandate, has kept them on the U.N.’s dole for decades under false humanitarian pretense.

Singled out for Privilege

World War II created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. In Europe alone, more than 16 million refugees and displaced persons languished in search of a solution to their plight. This included some 13 million Germans expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and other East European countries; nearly 2.5 million Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Russians, and Lithuanians driven from their homelands to their newly demarcated states; some 250,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors herded in overcrowded camps (mainly) in the country that had just slaughtered six million of their brothers; and over 400,000 Finns driven from Soviet-occupied Karelia for the second time in half-a-decade. [1]

Not only has UNRWA not helped to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem, it has amplified the problem. UNRWA was initially envisaged as a short-lived agency, but its mandate was perpetuated by declaring Palestinian “refugee” status hereditary, allowing its application to descendants of the original refugees.

These massive refugee problems were handled by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), established by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1946 and succeeded in January 1951 by the High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees (UNHCR), which rapidly expanded its initial Eurocentric outlook to include refugees and displaced persons from all over the world. There was only one exception to this pattern: the Arab escapees of the 1948-49 war who received their own relief agency, theUnited Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR), set up in November 1948 and succeeded on May 1, 1950 by UNRWA. And while UNHCR was created on a shoestring annual budget of $300,000, [2], UNRWA was established on the assumption thatthe equivalent of approximately $33,700,000 will be required for direct relief and works programmes for the period 1 January to 31 December 1950.” [3] In other words, the Palestinian refugees received 110 times the money allocated to the treatment of all other refugees throughout the world.

Sixty-eight years later, UNHCR comprises nearly 11,000 personnel handling 17.2 million refugees (or 1,568 refugees per worker) and 65.6 million forcibly displaced persons compared to UNRWA’s 30,000-plus employees handling some 5.3 million “refugees” (or 176 refugees per worker). That is: Palestinian “refugees” receive ten times the human resources as their less fortunate counterparts anywhere in the world, and 34 times the humanitarian support extended to displaced persons worldwide. [4]

The word “refugees” has been put in quotes with regard to the Palestinians currently cared for by UNRWA for the simple reason that they do not correspond to the conventional refugee concept, which views this phenomenon as a temporary plight that needs to be rectified swiftly. As early as 1929, the League of Nations decided that its International Office for Refugees would shut down within a decade at the most. Its U.N. successor, the International Refugee Organization, was similarly created as a temporary organ due to cease activities by the end of 1950 while the High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees was initially conceived as a three-to-five-years-long agency. [5]

Likewise, the U.N.’s Relief for Palestine Refugees was set up on the assumption “that the problem would be resolved in a matter of months,” [6] and even UNRWA was initially envisaged as a short-lived agency though it quickly had its mandate perpetuated by uniquely making the Palestinian “refugee” status hereditary so as to allow its indefinite application to descendants of the original refugees. [7]

What makes this distinct self-perpetuating leniency all the more extraordinary is that even the original designation of the Palestinians as refugees ran counter to both the standard definition of this status and the international treatment of similar, if not worse, contemporary humanitarian predicaments.

Real Refugees?

Misconstruing failed aggressors for victims. The notion of refugees and displaced persons has been invariably equated with unprovoked victimhood: being on the receiving end of aggression. Members of aggressing parties, including innocent civilians victimized as a result of their governments’ aggression, have been viewed as culprits, undeserving of humanitarian international support.

Thus, for example, not only did the IRO constitution deny refugee status to the millions of “persons of ethnic German origins” driven from their homes in the wake of the war—thereby forcing West (and East) Germany to resettle them in their territories at their expense—but it also singled out persons who “have voluntarily assisted the enemy forces since the outbreak of the second world war in their operations against the United Nations.” It moreover stipulated that Germany and Japan should pay, “to the extent practicable,” for repatriating the millions of people displaced as a result of their wartime aggression. [8] Likewise, Finland not only had to absorb the 400,000-plus Karelian refugees with no international support but was forced to pay massive reparations to Moscow for having assisted the German attack on the Soviet Union.

Child refugees at Wilhelmshaven, Germany. After World War II, Europe saw more than 16 million refugees and displaced persons. UNRWA received 110 times the funds for the 600,000 Palestinian refugees than the amount allocated for all other refugees throughout the world. The Germans as aggressors were not recognized as refugees, but the Palestinians were.

In contrast, the Palestinians and the Arab states have never been penalized for their “war of extermination and momentous massacre,” to use the words of Arab League secretary-general Abdul Rahman Azzam, [9] against the nascent state of Israel. Quite the reverse, in fact. Despite U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie’s admonition that “the United Nations could not permit that aggression to succeed and at the same time survive as an influential force for peaceful settlement, collective security, and meaningful international law,” [10] the Palestinians and the Arab states were generously rewarded for that very aggression. The former have become the most privileged refugee group ever; the latter have been generously remunerated for hosting the displaced persons whose dispersal they caused in the first place.

This unprovoked war of aggression should have ipso facto precluded the Palestinians from refugee status, should have obliged them to compensate their Jewish and Israeli victims, and should have made their rehabilitation incumbent upon their leaders and the Arab regimes as with post-World War II Germany and collaborating parties. However, it did not. In addition, their designation as refugees also failed to satisfy the internationally accepted definition of this status in several other key respects.

“Internal refugees”? The IRO constitution defined refugee as “a person who has left, or who is outside of, his country of nationality or of former habitual residence,” [11] and this definition was reaffirmed by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which applied the term to any person who “is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or … unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or … is unwilling to return to it.” [12] This definition has been expanded by the UNHCR without changing its general gist to include “persons who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” [13]

The equation of refugeedom with being outside the national homeland was neither accidental nor a semantic sophistry. Apart from the immense dislocation occasioned by World War II, the immediate postwar years saw a number of massive population dispersals, notably the 13 million Hindus and Muslims displaced during the 1947 partition of the Indian Subcontinent into the new states of India and Pakistan; the millions dispersed during the Chinese civil strife, and the 700,000 displaced during the Greek civil war. [14] Overwhelmed by the post-World War II European refugee crisis and daunted by the magnitude of the problem elsewhere, the newly established United Nations sought to shun responsibility for these crises as evidenced by the IRO constitution and the deliberations leading to its replacement by the UNHCR and the 1951 refugee convention. Insisting that the protection of refugees “could only gain substance if it were given by all the Members of the United Nations,” the U.S. representative (and former First Lady) Eleanor Roosevelt emphasized the impracticality of the idea. Only eighteen states had become members of the IRO while most other governments refrained from doing so mainly for financial reasons, she argued.

It would, therefore, be better to adhere to the IRO’s definition of refugees that focused on protecting those outside their national homeland than to seek the unattainable goal of providing material assistance to “all categories of refugees existing in any part of the world.” [15] As this line of thinking prevailed, the millions of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Greek “internal refugees” were not recognized as refugees by the 1951 convention.

There was, however, once again, one notable exception: the Palestinians. While 480,000 of the 600,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes during the 1948-49 war—or 80 percent—remained in what used to be the country of their nationality at the outbreak of hostilities, namely mandatory Palestine, [16] they were, nevertheless, recognized as refugees. And by way of legitimizing this aberration, the 1951 convention specifically excluded the Palestinians from the need to comply with its definition as a result of them benefitting “from the protection or assistance of a United Nations agency other than UNHCR.”


Hundreds of thousands of hapless Jews were expelled from the Arab states during and after the 1948-49 war. Most of these refugees were absorbed by the Jewish state. No U.N. agency was created to deal with this influx.

[1] “About Us: Figures at a Glance,” U.N. High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees (UNHCR), New York.

[2] “General Assembly Resolution 302. Assistance to Palestine Refugees,” United Nations, A/RES/302 (IV), Dec. 8, 1949, art. 6

[3] See, for example, “The Integration of Refugees into German Life. A Report of the ECA Technical Assistance Commission on the Integration of Refugees in the German Republic, Submitted to the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mar. 21, 1951”; Malcolm J. Proudfoot, European Refugees: 1939-52. A Study in Forced Population Movement (London: Faber, 1956)

[4] “About Us: Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR; “Who We Are,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); Programme Budget 2016-2017, UNRWA, Aug. 2015

[5] Deborah Kaplan, The Arab Refugees: An Abnormal Problem (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1959), pp. 118-19, 124; Mrs. Roosevelt at the General Assembly’s 4th sess., 3rd comm., “Refugees and stateless persons,” Lake Success, N.Y., Nov. 12, 1949, p. 132

[6] “Assistance to Palestine Refugees. Interim Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,” General Assembly Official Records, 5th sess., supplement no. 19, (A/1451/Rev.), Oct. 6, 1950, art. 6.

[7] “Report of the commissioner-general,” UNRWA, July 1, 1970-June 30, 1971, UNGA A/8413, fn. 1.

[8] “Constitution of the International Refugee Organization,The Yearbook of the United Nations, 1946-47, pp. 810, 816-17.

[9] David Barnett and Efraim Karsh, “Azzam’s Genocidal Threat,Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2011, pp. 85-8.

[10] Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace. Seven Years with the United Nations (New York: Macmillan, 1954), pp. 162-3.

[11] Constitution of the International Refugee Organization, p. 806.

[12] “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Done in Geneva on 28 July 1951,” Collection of International Instruments Concerning Refugees (Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNCHR, 1979), art. 1/A (2).

[13] UNHCR Resettlement Handbook (Geneva: UNHCR, 2011), p. 19 (emphasis in the original).

[14] Joseph B. Schechtman, Postwar Population Transfers in Europe, 1945-1955 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962); Schechtman, Population Transfers in Asia (New York: Hallsby Press, 1949).

[15] General Assembly, 4th sess., 3rd comm., meeting 260, No

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