The Right of Return to Manhattan and Other Places

We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island too. In 1626, so the legend goes, a group of Indians, Munsees, possibly members of the Lenni Lenape tribe, sold the island of Manhattan to Peter Minuit, governor of New Netherlands, for goods worth 60 guilders or $24.

The Indian tribe has long since been displaced, and Manhattan today is worth just a little more than $24. Nevertheless, nearly 500 years later, the descendants of the tribe have not demanded the "right of return" to the area where their ancient forefathers once had homes. Nor have they asked for a sum that would be in the trillions in compensation for the property.

The "international community" might bear this in mind when evaluating the Palestinian "right of return" that has been an Arab precondition for entering the peace negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is reasonable to assume that the Lenni Lenape descendants would not approve the reply of Yasser Arafat, as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to an interviewer, "May I remind you that our movement is based on three words: right of return."

The problem started with Arab opposition to Jewish settlement in the area of Palestine even before the establishment of the State of Israel. As a result of the violent Arab Revolt of 1936-39, mainly led and orchestrated by the Arab High Command under Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, over ten per cent of the adult Palestinian population was killed, injured, or imprisoned. This Arab wave of terror directed against British personnel, Jews, and other Arabs opposed to the Mufti and his followers resulted in the first wave of refugees, perhaps as many as 40,000 Arabs who fled the area.

But the main refugee problem was caused by the militant Arab activity in the mid 1940s and then by the 1948-49 War that was initiated by the Arabs. The "catastrophe," as the war is named by the Palestinians, was brought on by the invasion of Israel immediately after its establishment on May 14, 1948, by troops from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and other Arab countries. As a result of the fighting, and for reasons that are still disputed, Palestinians fled their home in large numbers.

Before the end of the war, the United Nations General Assembly on November 19, 1948 passed Resolution 212 (III) to create the UN Relief for Palestinian Refugees (UNRPR). This body was replaced by decision of UNGA Resolution 302 (IV) on December 8, 1949, by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

About this UN concern for Palestinian refugees, two aspects are worth noting. One is the fact the UN ignored, and indeed still ignores, the reality that 700,000 Jews, probably a larger number than the actual number of Palestinian refugees, made exodus from the Arab lands in which their families had lived for centuries. The second is that this instance is the only time that the UN has set up an agency only for one group of people and that this unique agency has remained in existence for 64 years.

The initiation of a Palestinian refugee relief agency was a remarkable and inexplicable departure from established relief activity. On December 14, 1950 the UNGA set up the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC), originally with a three-year mandate. Its function remains to coordinate international action to protect refugees and to resolve refugee problems worldwide. Since then it has helped more than 50 million people restart their lives. Among the various refugee populations it has assisted are the 4 million from Afghanistan, the 12 million ethnic Germans after World War II, the 5.5 million from Sudan, and the 15 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs after the 1947 Indian-Pakistani war.

With a budget in 2012 of $3.59 billion the UNHRC has a staff of 7,600 in more than 125 countries. Currently, it is concerned with 33 million people. About 14.7 million are internally displaced; 10.5 million are refugees; 3.1 million are returnees; 3.5 million are stateless; 800,000 are asylum seekers; and 1.3 million considered to be in danger. To these figures must be added the millions now fleeing countries like Syria, Iraq, Mali, South Sudan, and Libya.

These figures make an extraordinary contrast with the existence and activity of UNRWA involved with much smaller numbers but with a much larger staff at its disposal. It employees 29,000 people, mostly Palestinians, and has 2 headquarters, 5 field offices, and representatives abroad, including in Washington, DC. A member of the latter group was Chris McGrath, former aide to Senator Harry Reid.

Given the number of refugees worldwide, it is fallacious to argue that Palestinians should get special treatment because of the scale and uniqueness of their situation. Their situation is neither unique nor does it compare in size to other refugee problems in the world. They are only "unique" because the Arab League has ordered Arab states not to give citizenship to the Palestinians. Nor can it be reasonably argued, in spite of the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood, that Palestinians have suffered more than others, or that they should receive special treatment.

Two considerations that are vital in analyzing the problem are the actual size of the Palestinian refugee population and the determination of who is a refugee. The refugees dealt with by UNRWA, with its 58 registered camps, constitute the largest group in the world today and the largest unsettled group. The UNRWA estimate of the refugees in 1949 is 711,000, though estimates by others suggest 650,000. Of these original refugees the likely estimate is that 30,000 are still alive. But the number of registered refugees according to UNRWA today is 5 million. They are the patrilineal descendants of the original refugees.

In the 1948 and 1949 documents creating UNRWA and stating the purpose of the agency there is no mention of descendants, nor is there a call for a right of return. The first declaration was in UNGA Resolution 194(III) of December 11, 1948. Article 11 "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."

But who are "the refugees?" The original UNRWA definition was "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict." Two factors are pertinent: few, if any, of those homes exist; and the age of the remaining original refugees makes it improbable they are in a position or willing to move to those now non-existing homes.

The essential problem today is whether the legal status of refugees can be inherited. International law makes such a determination doubtful, yet UNRWA decided that descendants are also eligible for registration cards as refugees. Even Palestinians in the West Bank now living under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority are regarded as "refugees" and receive services from UNRWA.

Objective observers recognize that UNRWA is in many ways an organization with a bias against Israel, and that realistically it is a welfare state for millions of Palestinians. Worst of all, it is counterproductive. By perpetuating in its camps the status of "refugees" and the myth of the "right of return" UNRWA is providing the justification for Palestinians not to become productive members of their own communities and responsible for their own affairs. It is also preventing Palestinian leaders from joining the peace process. This is no way to a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.