BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

As we noted earlier this year, via the country profile for Israel on the BBC’s Middle East page, readers reach a series of four articles under the heading “Related Stories” which are entitled  “Obstacles to Peace”. We previously dealt with the item on the subject of water here and here. This article will address the item entitled “Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Palestinian refugees“.

All four of the “Obstacles to Peace” articles were written by Martin Asser and are dated September 2nd 2010. However, they already existed prior to that date and were the subject of critiques by CAMERA in mid-2007 – including the one about Palestinian refugees. Significantly, the BBC has not corrected the inaccuracies pointed out over six years ago and the article continues to mislead BBC audiences searching for information on the Middle East. 

Asser article refugees

Asser’s article is nothing more than an emotive exercise in promoting the narrative of Palestinian extremists on the subject of refugees, with a few half-hearted references to ‘the Israeli view’ added to create an impression of impartiality.

The fact that Asser provides no significant context regarding the belligerent actions of the various Arab armies and paramilitary groups both in the years before the War of Independence and in the Six Day War means that he is able to present the refugee issue as an isolated product of “Israel’s creation” and remove from the view of his audiences any responsibility for that refugee problem which cannot be apportioned to Israel.

“In the course of Israel’s creation in 1948 and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, more than half the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine are thought to have been displaced.”

In his third paragraph Asser claims: [emphasis added]

“Today there are millions of Palestinians living in exile from homes and land their families had inhabited for generations.”

Of course the UNRWA definition of a Palestinian refugee plainly contradicts the claim that all refugees were long-established residents of the area (whilst the British were restricting Jewish immigration to mandate Palestine, migration from the surrounding Arab countries went on relatively uninhibited – and largely unrecorded) and shows the extent to which Asser inflates his figures: [emphasis added]

“Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration. When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”

Asser makes no attempt to explain to his readers why Palestinian refugees inherit that status – in contrast to refugees elsewhere who do not fall under the auspices of UNRWA – or why they are not taken care of by the UN body responsible for all other refugees in the world – the UNHCR.

Asser continues:

“Many still suffer the legacy of their dispossession: destitution, penury, insecurity.”

Predictably, he makes no effort to inform his audience of the deliberate politically motivated refusal of most Arab countries to grant citizenship and equal rights to Palestinian refugees.

“In the year 1959 the Arab League accepted decision number 1457 and this is its text: “Arab states will reject the giving of citizenship to applicants of Palestinian origin in order to prevent their integration into the host countries”. This is a shocking decision, which stands in stark opposition to international norms on all subjects concerning the treatment of refugees during those years and particularly during that decade.” 

Neither does Asser pose the tricky question of why – post-Oslo – Palestinians continue to keep other Palestinians in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.

In paragraph five, Asser introduces the pernicious “ethnic cleansing” canard:

“Palestinian historians, and some Israelis, call 1948 a clear example of ethnic cleansing – perpetrated by the Haganah (later the Israeli Defence Forces) and armed Jewish gangs.” 

Predictably, he has nothing to say about the preceding expulsions of Jews by Arab militias from places in which some of them really had lived “for generations” such as Hebron (1929), neighbourhoods of Jerusalem (1936) and the Old City of Jerusalem (1948). Neither does he mention the Jewish communities depopulated during the War of Independence such as Kfar Darom, Mishmar HaYarden or the Gush Etzion villages.

Apparently not content with UNRWA figures regarding the number of registered refugees (which the organization itself admits are inflated in some cases), Asser turns to quoting bizarre numbers from the political NGO ‘Badil’ – an organization which has not shied away from using anti-Semitic imagery to promote its dedicated cause of ‘right of return’. 

Having vanished away the context of a war of annihilation against the nascent Jewish state, Asser is able to turn to some moral finger-wagging:

“Israel steadfastly argues that all refugees – and it disputes the numbers – should relinquish any aspirations to return to what is now its territory, and instead be absorbed by Arab host countries or by a future Palestinian state.

It disavows moral responsibility by arguing that 800,000 Mizrahi Jews were displaced from Arab countries between 1945 and 1956 (most of whom settled in Israel) and insists Palestinians left willingly.”

He then tries to back up his argument using the UN and the UDHR:

“But that view is at odds with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Resolution 194 asserts the refugees’ unconditional right of return to live at peace in their old homes or to receive compensation for their losses.”

As Asser remembers to add later on, UN GA resolutions have no legal status whatsoever and in any case, his interpretation of 194 (passed on December 11th 1948) is distorted, with the actual text of clause 11 (which notably does not mention Israel by name or specifically refer to Palestinian refugees only) reading:

“Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;

Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations;”

In other words, the suggestion (as indicated by the words “should be permitted”) of resettlement is placed on an equal footing with repatriation of those who commit to “live at peace with their neighbours” – a not insignificant detail which would necessarily involve acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and clearly negates Asser’s claim of an “unconditional right of return”. It should also be noted that all the Arab countries which were members of the UN at the time (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen) voted against the resolution.

As for Asser’s invocation of the UDHR – part 2 of Article 13 reads:

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The co-option of that clause to the case of Palestinian (or any other) refugees is not consistent with its background.

“The clause “return to his country” was never intended to establish a right of return, rather it was added to underscore the right to leave. According to its legislative history Article 13 was aimed at governments that, in effect, imprisoned certain subgroups of their nationals by preventing them from leaving – Jews in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, for example. The clause “and to return to his country” was added at the last minute, according to its sponsor, in order to assure that “the right to leave a country, already sanctioned in the article, would be strengthened by the assurance of the right to return.” (Jose Ingles, Study of Discrimination in Respect of the Right of Everyone to Leave Any Country, Including His Own, and to Return to His Country, UN Doc E/CN.4/Sub.2/220/Rev.1, 1963)”

Towards the end of the article Asser tosses out some particularly offensive terminology clearly designed to place the mostly self-initiated departure of Palestinian refugees on a par with the Holocaust.

“Palestinians accuse Israel of a kind of “Nakba-denial” “

That is swiftly followed by a malicious attempt to bring readers’ attention back to his earlier theme of “ethnic cleansing”. 

“But some of Israel’s “new”, or revisionist, historians argue that its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exaggerated the Arab threat, in order to implement a pre-determined plan to expel Palestinian civilians and grab as much of the former Palestine as possible.”

By the time Asser was penning this article, at least one ‘new historian’ had revised his position in light of the declassification of documentation from the time. 

“Even Benny Morris, the most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians,” and one who went out of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin,” grudgingly stipulated that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.”

Next, Asser attempts to suggest to his readers a ‘logical’ background for a “pre-determined plan to expel Palestinian civilians” by resurrecting the non-binding recommendation known as the 1947 Partition Plan, which of course has no significance whatsoever as it was not accepted by the Arab states – a fact which obviously does not fit in with Asser’s one-sided narrative.

“Under a 1947 UN-sanctioned plan to partition Palestine, Israel would have been established on 55% of the former territory, and without a significant transfer of population the Jews in that territory would have scarcely exceeded the Arab population there.”

Asser’s entire article is nothing more than a rehash of some of the most extreme anti-Israel propaganda which the passage of time – and the distortion of history – has done much to enable. In the second part of this article, we will take a look at one particular case study which shows the range of context and facts ignored by Asser in order to promote his inaccurate and partial narrative. 

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