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by William H. Benson

May 17, 2007

     By the late 1940s, the British were driven to distraction as to how to solve the problem of Palestine, for both the Arabs and the Jews were contending for ownership of this land. The Arabs, or Palestinians, had lived there for centuries and had legitimate claims to the land. The Jews were recent immigrants, but they claimed that it was their ancient homeland. The problem seemed insoluble.

     It was the British who had encouraged the Jews to immigrate to Palestine in the first place. In 1917 in order to gain support for its war effort against Germany, the British had issued the Balfour Declaration, which was a promise to the Jews of Europe and elsewhere that they would have a new national homeland in Palestine someday. The Jews responded by expanding their Zionist movement. 

     But as the Jews immigrated in ever increasing numbers into Palestine, the Arabs harbored feelings of resentment, and rightfully so. After all, they were losing their land to the Jews. The Arabs demanded that the British restrict Jewish immigration, and the British complied throughout the 1930s. Jewish militants resorted to violence to ensure their foothold in Palestine.

     By 1947 the British wished to wash their hands of what seemed an insolvable problem—two very different peoples claiming the same land, and so the British turned Palestine over to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947 UN delegates in the General Assembly voted 33 to 13 to divide Palestine into two states: an Arab state, and a Jewish state—Israel. The Jews agreed to this partition, but the Arabs refused.

     On May 14, 1948 Israel declared its independence, because that was the date that the British mandate over Palestine officially ended. And all parties understood that war was imminent. The next day five surrounding Arab nations—Syria, Transjordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt—all attacked this fledgling new nation of Israel. It was a war for independence. Some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, fearful of being caught in the middle of this war, fled their homes and lands, intending on returning after the war ended.

     By 1949 Transjordan, later renamed Jordan, controlled and had then annexed most of the territory west of the Jordan River, the West Bank; the United Nations’ delegates had designated this territory for the new Palestinian Arab state. Egypt retained the Gaza Strip. The Israelis had fought valiantly and had retained control of the territory the UN had intended for them and had taken additional lands, those intended for the new Arab state.    

     The Palestinians were suddenly, seemingly overnight, a displaced people, refugees living without land, without access to their homes. And they have remained in this position for decades, boiling with resentment at the injustices heaped upon them and their helplessness. Attempts to create their own government have met with a series of obstacles. This is a problem that must be solved someday.

     The Middle East now today has a new refugee problem—the people of Iraq, and their numbers dwarf even those of the Palestinians, half a century before. The New York Times reported last Sunday that “the overall estimate for the number of Iraqis who had fled Iraq was put at two million.” The civil war between Shiites and Sunnis have driven out all classes of people out of Iraq and into places in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey. It has been an exodus out of Iraq’s battlefields into shelter found in exile.

     The Bush government has only just begun to grapple with the question of the Iraqi refugees. John Bolton, who was undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, said that the refugees have “absolutely nothing to do with our overthrow of Saddam. . . . Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don’t think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.”

What that means is that the United States has passed the task of dealing with Iraq’s refugees over to Iraq’s neighbors.

     The Palestinians of a half a century ago, and the Iraqis of today are both refugees, and both are in search of a solution that seems not quickly or easily forthcoming.