Deir Yassin was a small Palestinian village with about 750,000 Palestinian Arabs living in it. It was its destiny to be chosen by Zionist gangs, especially the Irgun gang led by Menachem Begin, and the Stern gang which was led by Yitzhak Shamir (both of them headed Israeli governments later on), to be a model for Zionist crime and a clear warning message for Palestinians in the rest of the Palestinian villages and territories targeted for the establishment of the Jewish state.
Britain had announced its intention to end its mandate over Palestine by 14 May 1948 and so, on the dawn of 9 April 1948, Zionist gangs attacked the village and committed a horrible massacre, taking over the village after emptying it completely from all Palestinians who were living there, and they turned it into a Zionist settlement. The message was clear to all unarmed Palestinian owners of the land, and it said that when the Jewish state would be established, they would have to choose between either genocide or survival through migrating from their land and homes.
That was the real beginning of the forced collective Palestinian displacement, or what is known as the Palestinian Diaspora, and turning them into refugees after the establishment of the State of Israel on 15 May 1948, followed by an Arab military defeat and the signing of truce agreements with the enemy state. All of these huge events led the Arabs to call what had happened a Nakba, a catastrophe, which led to the displacement of between 650,000-750,000 Palestinians. That was the beginning of Palestine’s Nakba which was characterised by the establishment of the Zionist state which includes nearly 650,000 Jewish immigrants from all over the world.
Jordan annexed the West Bank and it became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Gaza Strip was placed under Egypt’s administration. Palestinians who ended up in refugee camps were under the UN’s sponsorship through Resolution 194, which called for the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). It specialised in the relief of refugees in the five main areas: the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The resolution confirmed the rights of refugees to return to their homes and land, or to accept fair compensation if they wished to when the case is resolved and that no one has the right to act on their behalf.
That was in short the story of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA which still exists after nearly 70 years of the issuance of UN Resolution 194. The number of Palestinian refugees has gone from around 700,000 to more than five million. UNRWA is responsible for issuing their documents, registering them in official records to confirm their identities and providing them with livelihood services, education, health and others. More importantly is that the presence of UNRWA and its continuation is a confirmation of Resolution 194 which confirms the Palestinian land owners’ right of return, as difficult to get as that right seems to be.
Recalling the issue of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA introduces a key question which seems to be absent; what about the new Arab refugees? Is there anyone who registers them? Is there anyone responsible for their relief and livelihoods? Who can guarantee preserving theirs and their children’s identities? There are tens of questions related to this issue, and no one cares about how serious these questions are, especially that we are facing an unprecedented external and internal displacement of millions of Arab families.
Perhaps Syria is the most obvious example where many nations are fighting and involved in the war that is taking place in residential areas with no distinction between armed military personnel and unarmed civilians. Those wars have so far left cities with all their infrastructure and facilities completely destroyed, perhaps the last of which was what happened in Aleppo.
The Syrian case, which is the most prominent Arab conflict, experienced forced collective displacement because of bombings, mass murder and slaughter committed by the Syrian regime’s forces and foreign militias supporting them led by Iran, in addition to Russia’s military weight in support of Assad regime. On the other hand, there are armed factions of the Syrian opposition which are directly supported by regional powers, and recently they’ve been supported by Turkey. In addition to those powers and armed conflicting factions, new groups have become active in the Syrian arena. These are groups that have extreme ideological agendas, notably Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front.
According to data from Amnesty International last February, there are nearly five million Syrian refugees with nearly three million in Turkey alone, followed by Lebanon with nearly one million refugees, then Jordan with 700,000 refugees, Iraq with 230,000 refugees and Egypt with nearly 120,000 refugees. These numbers could be less than the real figures, especially if we add to these figures the hundreds of thousands of refugees who went to Europe and America. The majority of these refugees cannot find any other shelter but refugee camps.
Do we need a new UNRWA for the relief of these new Arab refugees to protect their rights? If so, who can be entrusted with creating such an agency in the absence of the United Nations? The UN left international powers to control such issues just like what happened recently when Russia and Turkey imposed a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria, and decided to hold a conference for negotiations between all parties in the Kazakh capital of Astana, away from the UN’s headquarters?
Do we leave the fate of refugees to those powers? Will the Arab League – which no one really knows exactly what it does despite the enormous potential it has – play a role in solving this Arab catastrophe that is like a second Nakba? Who can guarantee that millions of new Arab refugees can go back to their homes in their villages and cities in the near or distant future? Or will their fate be similar to the fates of millions of old Arab refugees (the Palestinians) and that they would end up spending their lives living in refugee camps while holding onto keys to their homes to pass onto their children, while their case turns into one of the so-called “final status” solution cases?
There are so many questions, but not many answers. Of course this is not a case of refugees and it should not be. It is a case of peoples who are violated by authoritarian regimes. They must struggle to regain their freedom and impose their will. Only then will there be no more refugees or displaced people looking for a new UNRWA to relieve them, but rather a free and dignified Arab people living in their homelands.