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How many Palestinians Refugees? 
Inflating the numbers

Arabs, encouraged by their leaders to leave, fled from what is now Israel between April and December, 1948.1 The Arab leaders promised them that they would soon be able to return following Israel's destruction. In some cases the Jews, including Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, urged the Arabs to remain, promising that they would not be harmed.2 Those who remained became full and equal citizens of Israel, while those who chose to leave went to neighboring Arab states. Instead of welcoming their Arab brothers, and integrating them into the mainstream of their societies, the Arab states kept them in squalid refugee camps and used these Palestinians refugees as political pawns in their fight against Israel. 

1. Irving Howe and Carl Gershman (eds.), Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East (New York: Bantam, 1972), p. 168. 

2. See, for instance, The Economist, Oct. 2, 1948, for a description of Jewish efforts in Haifa to persuade the Arabs to stay. 

Source: The Jewish Agency for Israel: The Arab Refugees 1948

According to various estimates, the accurate number of Arab refugees who left Israel in 1948 was somewhere between 430,000 and 650,000. * An oft-cited study that used official records of the League of Nations' mandate and Arab census figures[37] determined that there were 539,000 ** Arab refugees in May 1948.[38]

* The Statistical Abstract of Palestine in 1944-45 set the figure for the total Arab population living in the Jewish-settled territories of Palestine at 570,800.

** Walter Pinner began with a total of 696,000 Arabs living within the Armistice lines in 1948, from which he subtracted the 140,000-157,000 who remained in their homes when Israel became  independent. Pinner further asserts that no more than 430,000 were "genuine refugees" in need of relief. See the population study in Chapter 12 of "From Time Immemorial" for new information and a detailed breakdown.

There was heated controversy over the exact number of Arab refugees who left Israel. In October 1948, there were already three "official" sets of figures: The United Nations had two, the higher of which estimated the number would "shortly increase to 500,000";[40] the Arab League's official figures reported a total already greater by almost 150,000 than the higher of the UN figures. The swollen Arab League figures could never be verified because the Arabs refused to allow official censuses to be completed among the refugees." Observers have deduced that the Arab purpose was to seek greater world attention through an exaggerated population figure and thereby induce the UN to put heavier pressures upon Israel, to force "repatriation."

But the propaganda use of erroneous, inflated, or otherwise manipulated population statistics was not a recent phenomenon restricted to the Arab refugee camps. As subsequent chapters reveal, this practice has long played a critical, underestimated role in shaping the perceptions and the resolution---or the lack of resolution---of the Arab-Israeli conflict.[39]

The former Director of Field Operations for the United Nations Disaster
Relief Project reported in July 1949 that

It is believed that some local [Arab] welfare cases are included in the refugee figures.[42]
When the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) was established        as a singular, special unit to deal with Arab refugees, practically its first undertaking, in May 1950, was an attempted refugee census to separate the genuinely desperate from the "fradulent claimants." After a year's time and a $300,000 expenditure, UNRWA reported that "it is still not possible to give an absolute figure of the true number of refugees as understood by the working definition of the word" [43]  For the purpose of that census, the definition of "refugee" was "a person normally resident in Palestine who had lost his home and his livelihood as a result of the hostilities and who is in need." A reason given by UNRWA for falsified numbers was that the refugees "eagerly report births and ... reluctantly report deaths."[44]

One of the first official reports to question the accuracy of the refugee figures stated that there could be "no true refugee population" figures because the agency director "did not consider it practicable to ask the operating agencies to impose any kind of eligibility test and ... had no observers of his own for this purpose.'"[45] The report stated it was having difficulty excluding "ordinarily nomadic Bedouins and ... unemployed or indigent local residents" from genuine refugees, and

it cannot be doubted that in many cases individuals who could not qualify as being bona fide refugees are in fact on the relief rolls.
One of the camp workers in Lebanon who was questioned about the accuracy of the refugee count answered,
We try to count them, but they are coming and going all the time; or we count them in Western clothes, then they return in aba and kafflyah and we count the same ones again.[46]
UNRWA's relief rolls from the beginning were inflated by more than a hundred thousand,* including those who could not qualify as refugees from Israel even under the newer, unprecedentedly broad eligibility criterion for the refugee relief rolls. UNRWA now altered its definition of "refugees" to include those people who had lived in "Palestine" a minimum of only two years preceding the 1948 conflict." In addition, the evidence of fraud in the count, which accumulated over the years, was given no cognizance toward reducing the UN estimates. They continued to surge.

* UNRWA Director Howard Kennedy on November 1, 1950, reported to the United Nation Ad Hoc Political Committee that "a large group of indigent people totalling over 100,000 ... not be called refugees, but ... have lost their means of livelihood because of the war and post-war conditions ... The Agency felt their need was even more acute than that of the refugees who were fed and housed." In November 1950, Kennedy referred to "the 600,000 [Arab] refugees," although he had reported in May 1950 that UNRWA had distributed 860,000 rations, citing the hundreds of thousands of "hungry Arabs" who were not bona fide refugees but who claimed need.[47] 

According to the Lebanese journal Al-Hayat, in 1959 "Of the 120,000 refugees who entered Lebanon, not more than 15,000 are still in camps."[49] A substantial de facto resettlement of Arab Palestinian refugees had actually taken place in Lebanon by 1959. Later that year AI-Hayat wrote that "the refugees' inclination-in spite of the noisy chorus all about them-is toward immediate integration."[50] The 1951-1952 UNRWA report itself had determined that "two-thirds of the refugees live elsewhere than in camps," and that "more fortunate refugees are not even on rations, but live rather comfortably ... and work at good jobs."[51] The recognition in the United Nations and in Arab journals that the refugee camps had largely been emptied, through absorption and resettlement ' raised appropriate subjects for inquiry with regard to correcting the number of persons receiving rations and seeking "repatriation."

After their 1960 investigation, Senators Gale McGee and Albert Gore[52] reported the surfeit of

Ration cards [which] have become chattel for sale, for rent or bargain by any Jordanian, whether refugee or not, needy or wealthy. These cards are used... almost as negotiable instruments.... many have acquired large numbers of ration cards ... rented or bartered to others who unjustifiably receive ... rations, much of which are now in the black market.
At the same time, the UNRWA Director admitted that the Jordan ration lists alone "are believed to include 150,000 ineligibles and many persons who have died."[53] Officials told the two senators of twenty percent to thirty percent inflation of the relief rolls,[54] and an American representative on the UNRWA Advisory Board added, "I have actually seen merchants openly weighing and buying       supplies from recipients of distribution centers."*[55]

* According to the Mideast Mirror, a weekly news review published by Arab News Agency of Cairo: "There are refugees who hold as many as 500 ration cards, 499 of them belonging to refugees long dead.... There are dealers in UNRWA food and clothing and ration cards to the highest bidder.... 'Refugee capitaliste is what UNRWA calls them." July 23, 1955. 

In 1961, UNRWA Agency Director John Davis acknowledged that the United Nations refugee counts included "other victims of the conflict of 1948 " and that it would be wrong to deny them aid merely because they weren't legaliy qualified.[56] However, they were persons neglected by their own Arab govern- ments, and they should not have been counted among the Arab refugees from Israel; by continuing to be unfaithful to its own mandate, UNRWA contributed to further distortion of an already misrepresented and misunderstood refugee situation. In fact, what were originally intended as humanitarian endeavors to aid needy Arab resident populations by the Red Cross and others would unwittingly contribute to the use of hapless humans for an entire political and military campaign. [57]

37. Jordanian National Law, Official Gazette, No. 1171, February 16, 1954, p. 105, Article 3(3). Between 1948 and 1967, 200,000 to 300,000 Arabs moved from the West Bank to the "East Bank," according to Eliyahu Kanovsky, in Jordan, People and Politics in the Middle East, Michael Curtis, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1971), p. 111.

38. In 1967, an additional 250,000 Arab refugees from the Israel-occupied territories were reported; added to the number who left in 1948, they brought the total to 789,000 Arab refugees.

39.A more current example of the traditional swelling of numbers was described by New York Times correspondent David Shipler during the 1982 Israeli routing of the PLO foundation in Lebanon. On July 14, Shipler wrote, "It is clear to anyone who has traveled in southern Lebanon ... that the original figures ... reported by correspondents quoting Beirut representatives of the Red Cross during the first week of the war, were extreme exaggerations." 

40. This estimate was made by officers of the Disaster Relief Organization and confirmed by statistical calculation of the potential number of refugees who might have left after the second truce. Gabbay, Political Study, p. 166.

41. Marguerite Cartwright, "Plain Speech on the Arab Refugee Problem," in Land Reborn, American Christian Palestine Committee, November-December 1958; according to a United Nations Interim Report, 1951, A/145/Rev. 1, p. 17: ". . . the figures for Lebanon (128,000) are confused, due to the fact that many Lebanese nationals ... claimed status as refugees"; UNRWA was "forbidden" by Jordan Syria, and Gaza from counting newborn children among refugees, according to Falastin, Jordanian daily, January 25, 1956; see Joseph Schectman, The Refugee in the World (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1963), pp. 201-207.

42. W. de St. Aubin, Director of Field Operations for the UN Disaster Relief Project, "Peace and Refugees in the Middle East," The Middle East Journal, vol. iii, no. 3. July 1949.

43. Report of the Director, Special Report of Director and Advisory Commission, UNRWA to Sixth Session, General Assembly, UN Document A/1905; compare, for example, with OAU (Organization of African Unity) definition at 1969 Convention: "Any person compelled to leave his place of habitual residence Quoted in "Africa and Refugees," by Neville Rubin, African Affairs, July 1974, Journal of Royal African Society, University of London.

44. UNRWA, Annual Report of the Director, July 1, 1951, to June 30, 1952, General Assembly, Seventh Session, Supp. No. 13 W217 1). See also October 1950, UNRWA Interim Report of Director, A/ 145 1: "there is reason to believe that births are always registered for ration purposes, but deaths are often, if not usually, concealed so that the family may continue to collect rations for the deceased." Cited by Schechtman, Refugee in the World, p. 206.

45. Assistance to Palestine Refigees, Report on UN Relief to Palestine Refugees (UNPRP) from December 1948 to September 1949; the UNRWA staff was largely "Palestinian" and "nationals of the countries" concerned, "increasingly assuming larger duties" regarding "UNRWA's responsibility." UNRWA, Annual Report of the Director, July 195 I-June, 1952, G.A. 7th Session, Supp. No. 13 (A/217 1), p. 8. 46.Cartwright, "Plain Speech," cited by Schechtman, Refugee in the World, pp. 200-201.

47. UN General Assembly, Official Record, 5th session, Ad Hoc Political Committee 31st Meeting, November 11, 1950, p. 194, and Anderson et al, "Arab Refugee Problem and How It Can Be Solved," p. 26.

48. Special Report of the Director, UNRWA, 1954-55, UN Document A/2717.

49. Schechtman, Refugee in the World, p. 248, citingAl-Hayat (Lebanon), June 25,1959.

50. ibid., p. 249, citing AI-Hayat, August 14, 1959.

51. UNRWA, Annual Report of the Director, July 195 I-June 1952, General Assembly, 7th Session, Supp, No. 13 (A/2171), pp. 3, 10.

52.Cable by McGee and Gore from Amman, Jordan, to President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Christian Herter, and the United Nations, October 1959, while traveling in the Mideast for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee.

53.Dr. John H. Davis, October 1959, cited in Schechtman, Refugee in the World, pp. 207-208.

54. Ibid., quoting George B. Vinson, UNRWA eligibility officer stationed in Jerusalem.

55. Dr. Harry Howard, from the United States Congressional Record, April 20, 1960.

56.UNRWA, Annual Report of the Director. Under the auspices of the Arab Information Center in New York, by 1970 Davis was reporting the figures he himself had proved erroneous and grossly inflated, as the bona fide refugee count. "Why Are There Still Arab Refugees?", The Arab World, Arab Information Center, New York, December 1969-January 1970, p. 3.

57.See New York Times, May 15, 1949; Life magazine, September 29, 1958; Time
magazine, December 2, 1957.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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