Sarah Helm misleads on Palestinian “right of return”

This month, the New Statesman published an article by Sarah Helm entitled “How Donald Trump provoked a Palestinian refugee revolt” which is inaccurate on two levels – it makes false assertions and misleading statements about specific details, and presents a very selective version of the overall story.

Written by Aron White

This month, the New Statesman – a British magazine which describes itself as “liberal” and “skeptical” – published an article by Sarah Helm entitled “How Donald Trump provoked a Palestinian refugee revolt” which is inaccurate on two levels – it makes false assertions and misleading statements about specific details, and presents a very selective version of the overall story.

The article discusses the Palestinian fear that Donald Trump will not recognise the Palestinian refugee’s so-called “right of return”. Helm is outraged by this, and does not mention that this “right” rests on very thin legal grounds, if any.

No other refugee population in the world is considered to have such a right, and, as Dr Elfan Rees notes, “no large scale refugee situation has ever been solved by repatriation”. It also rests on a historical distortion – UN resolution 194 is quoted as being the source for the Palestinian “right of return”; yet the Arab states voted against that resolution! A full exposition of the weakness of the argument for the “right of return” – and Helm’s mischaracterisation of UN resolution 194 – can be found here, but suffice to say the picture presented by Mrs Helm, that this is some universally accepted right now suddenly challenged by Trump, is extraordinarily misleading.

Mrs Helm also distorts the history of the roots of the refugee situation.  Here is her depiction of the history that lead to the situation:

“In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war that led to the creation of Israel, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their villages and cities, or fled in terror, and have never been allowed back. Of these refugees, about 200,000 fled to the Gaza area where they have remained ever since, despite repeated UN resolutions asserting their right to return – a right that Israel has always refused. Over 70 years, the number of refugees has swelled to 1.2 million because the descendants of those who fled in 1948 are also defined [by UNRWA] as refugees”.

First, contrary to the claim by Helms, the number of so-called “refugees” (as defined by UNRWA) has swelled to a staggering 5.3 million, not 1.2 million.  Of course, over 99% of these Palestinians are descendants of refugees, and not actual refugees

Moreover, this account is seriously lacking. It ignores the fact that many of the refugees left because of the requests of the Arab leadership, and despite the request of the Jewish leadership that they remain. In Haifa, which had some 60,000 Arabs in late 1947, half the Arabs left before the war even began, and the remainder who fled did so because the Arab leadership encouraged it, and they fled against the wishes of their Jewish neighbours. She also conveniently obscures the fact that the 1948 war was launched by the Arab states; turning Israel’s war of survival into an act of Israeli aggression is propaganda, not journalism.

This is not the first time that Sarah Helm has been guilty of journalistic inaccuracies about Israel. From her mythical “busloads of Ukranian immigrants” to Israel being “whisked” straight to settlements, to her misleading implication that Israel is responsible for the medical crisis in Gaza, to the pure invention of land ownership statistics in Jerusalem, Sarah Helm has consistently been guilty of shoddy journalism about Israel.

But it is important to note not only the specific issues with the article, but the flaw in the overall thrust. The article attacks Trump for his stance on the refugees, and blames Israel for the creation of the refugee issue, but the Palestinians are presented as agency-less and passive victims. The responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Gaza lies first and foremost with Hamas, the terrorist regime ruling there, who choose to funnel money into weapons and tunnels rather than hospital and schools. Why are there Palestinians born in the same refugee camps that their grandparents lived in, when this has not happened to any other refugee groups?

It is certainly not due to a lack of money or political will to help Palestinian refugees on the part of the international community, but because of a cynical exploitation of the refugees to “keep the wound fresh” for decades, and what is starting to approach a century.

But articles like Helm’s absolve the Palestinian leadership of any blame, and lambaste Israel and America for perpetuating the suffering of the Palestinians. This will lead to no re-examination of attitudes from the Palestinians, but will further entrench maximalist positions. If and when the journalists like Helm write articles lambasting Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, for mistreating its people by prioritising war against Israel over the humanitarian needs of its own people, then life might improve in Gaza.

Until that moment, there is nothing to stop Hamas from continuing its current policies, which are causing dire results for Gazans. Israel and America are not to blame for everything, and journalists should ask hard questions not only from those countries, but from the Palestinians themselves.

Aron White has a BSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of London (Lead College: LSE), and is a graduate of the Jewish Statesmanship Center in Jerusalem. His writings have been published at the Jerusalem Post, JNS, The Daily Caller and the Algemeiner.

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