Arab reaction from 1949 shows Israel isn’t exclusively responsible for refugee problem.
By Alexander Joffe, Asaf Romirowsky
The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called Palestinians “the victims of the victims.” As the September deadline for the Palestinian “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” approaches, and the certain endorsement by the United Nations General Assembly, it is worth asking again who originally victimized the Palestinians. Today, of course, the unanimous consensus among Palestinians, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, is that it was Israel that, in 1948, attacked and expelled Palestinians. But who did Palestinians blame for their fate in 1949?
The two largest Palestinian communities in the US are located in Dearborn Michigan and Jacksonville Florida. On December 15th, 1949 the Michigan Arab newspaper As Sabah (literally the Morning Tribune) published an editorial on the question of the Palestine Arab refugees:
“What is the crime of the refugees in the eyes of the lords of Arabia who stand by and watch the misery of the refugees, and who suck the blood of the poor and needy-without shame before God and the world? Yes the poor refugees committed the crime of listening to those deceivers, they believed the liars, and went to the extreme foolishness of leaving their homes, counting on their deceitful leaders to bring them back! And because of what is happening to the Palestine refugees, Arab public opinion is changing little by little to support the Jews in Israel where not a single Arab dies from starvation and cold! And if there should be another war, it should be against the Arab leaders, the princes and kings who brought this catastrophe upon the poor people of Palestine.”
The editorial’s analysis regarding Arab public opinion favoring Israel was incorrect, to say the least. But the claim that Palestinians fled their homes in response to Arab leaders has been controversial since the events occurred. The Palestinians of Michigan in 1949 thought this was the case.
In October 1949, Palestinian intellectual Musa Alami wrote: “What concerned (the Arab states) most and guided their policy was not to win the war and save Palestine from the enemy, but what would happen after the struggle, who would be predominant in Palestine, or annex it themselves.”
But in addition to the usurpation of the Palestinian cause, which upset As Sabah’s editorialists, there was another dimension. British officials on the scene at the time, hardly pro-Zionist, were convinced that Palestinian leaders were steadily abandoning their people. In December 1947 the High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham reported that “panic of (the) middle class persists and there is a steady exodus of those who can afford to leave the country." He added later in April 1948, “In all parts of the country the effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing.”
In June 1949 Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo reported that the refugees “express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies are,” they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes…I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over.”
Israeli officials maintained from the beginning that a majority of the Palestinians were encouraged to flee by their own leaders and those of Arab states, who then abandoned them before or in the midst of battle. This has long been dismissed by Palestinians and their supporters as Zionist propaganda. But British officials on the scene and opposed to Israel, and Palestinians in America, would not have simply parroted their enemy’s assessment.
The implications of this long-forgotten editorial, and all the other statements, are in the first instance that Israel does not bear full and exclusive responsibility for the Palestinian refugee situation – the Arab states and the Palestinians themselves do too. This also puts their upcoming “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” into a wholly different light.
In effect, Palestinian leaders have asked the United Nations for yet another opportunity to turn the clock back to give them another chance at achieving statehood that could have been theirs in 1948 or even in 1938. Meanwhile, some Palestinian officials have begun floating the idea of returning to the 1947 partition plan, the same plan that their predecessors rejected summarily in 1947. When do these chances run out? In the process, as their predecessors did in 1949, they blame everyone but themselves for not having achieved their goals to date.
A culture without a sense of responsibility for its own decisions, that blames others for its own decisions and at the same time perpetually demands that its maintenance is someone else’s responsibility, is not likely to create a stable, functioning nation-state. Any new Palestinian state would be an instant pauper, utterly dependent on aid, primarily from the American taxpayer.
Little wonder then that at least some Palestinian leaders are trying to back off from the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The “deceivers” that Palestinian Americans of 1949 railed against are ultimately their own leaders and other Arab states. Until new leaders can be found for both, and a new culture of responsibility and self-reliance installed, little progress will be made.
Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky are the authors of "A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography,” published in the journal Middle Eastern Studies