Kattan: Truman administration threatened sanctions against ‘brutal’ Israeli stance on refugees

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I am reading From Coexistence to Conquest, by Victor Kattan, an English journalist-scholar (or "hackademic," as Ilan Pappe once put it), an amazing work of archival archaeology, uncovering the trail of broken promises that is the history of international law and consensus on the Arab-Israeli conflict from Balfour to the Armistice Agreement of 1949.

One of Kattan’s most riveting chapters is about the return of the Palestinian refugees, which all the world sought in 1948. As the Nakba was commemorated over the weekend, I sought Kattan’s permission to reprint portions of that chapter. They follow my spiel.

Bear in mind a couple of points as you read. Leave aside the issue of the right of return in 2010. The right of return in 1948-9 was not controversial: the world recognized the principle and understood that equitable treatment of refugees, driven out by "terrorism," as the U.S. State Department stated, was essential to peace in the region. Even the United States embraced the principle and some in the administration were willing to undertake sanctions in response to Israeli refusal. But Israel was intransigent and gamed the international bureaucracy. It had gotten its way through the Nakba–a state with a strong Jewish majority–and it now proceeded in a Never-again/no-one-will-tell-us-what-to-do manner. Note Israel’s political confidence in flouting U.S. policy.

In this way the argument absolutely mirrors the fight over the colonization of East Jerusalem. The world is against it, so is the U.S. Israel doesn’t care.

Note that Harry Truman is for the right of return. And note that the strongest moral voice in the discussion, U.N. mediator Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish diplomat who freed thousands from concentration camps during the Holocaust, whose clear statement concludes Kattan’s piece, was murdered by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem in 1948.

Kattan’s scholarship begins with the Lausanne Conference of 1949, which convened to try and get at the very least the 250,000 refugees from the Jewish portion of Partition back to their lands.

The Lausanne Conference officially opened on 27 April 1949. A month prior to this, the Archbishop of York told the House of Commons that: 

"They [the Palestinian Arab refugees] have been driven out of the land they have occupied for nearly a thousand years and are asking when are they going back to their homes. In many cases their homes have been taken over by the State of Israel and given to Jewish immigrants or have been destroyed or looted. It would be breaking every law of justice if the United Nations accepted the position that these people must be permanently expelled from their homes."

But the UN did not accept the position that the Palestinian Arabs should be permanently expelled from their homes and nor for that matter did the US Government. On 13 April, during the negotiations in Lausanne, Mark F. Ethridge, the US delegate on the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC) sent a secret memorandum to the US Secretary of State reporting on his talks with Comay, the second man at Israel’s Foreign Office in Sharett’s absence (Moshe Sharett was then the Foreign Minister of Israel). In the memorandum Ethridge pointed out to Comay that ‘since Israel had once accepted [a] state with 400,000 Arabs in it she should be prepared to take back at least 250,000 refugees and compensate others’. At the time, there were 150,000 Arabs remaining in Israel. Ethridge was making the point that if Israel had really been sincere about accepting the 1947 UN Partition Plan with its population of 400,000 Arabs, then it should not have a problem with repatriating at least 250,000 of those Arabs which had been displaced during the war. However, Comay responded by telling Ethridge that his suggestion was ‘completely impossible’. This prompted Ethridge to comment in his memo to US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson: 

"Israel does not intend to take back one refugee more than she is forced to take and she does not intend to compensate any directly if she can avoid it. Ben-Gurion and Comay have both argued that refugees are inevitable result of war and no state in modern history has been expected to repatriate them. Both cite Baltic states and Turkey. They contend also that number greatly exaggerated and they can prove it. Israel refuses to accept any responsibility whatever for creation of refugees. I flatly told Ben-Gurion and Comay that while Commission was not tribunal to judge truth of contentions, I could not for moment accept that statement in face of Jaffa, Deir Yassin, Haifa and all reports that come to us from refugee organizations that new refugees are being created every day by repression and terrorism such as now being reported from Haifa. I have repeatedly pointed out political weakness and brutality of their position on refugees but it has made little impression."

…it is clear from the Israeli archives that their Foreign Ministry was pushing for the Palestinian Arab refugees to be resettled in the Arab states rather than be returned to Israel. In a letter to Mr de Boisanger, the French chairman of the PCC [UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine] Walter Eytan [director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry] wrote:

"There can be no return to the status quo ante, as I have been at pains to demonstrate, since the destruction wrought by war and the changes brought about by immigration have decisively and unalterably transformed the whole aspect of the country. The clock cannot be turned back … If an Arab refugee counts upon living again in the house he abandoned, or plying his trade in the workshop he formerly rented, or tilling the fields in the vicinity of the village he once knew, he is living under an illusion which it seems to me essential to dispel."

On 29 May, Ben-Gurion received a letter from James G. McDonald, the first US Ambassador to Israel, by which the US President informed the Government of Israel that it was "seriously disturbed by the attitude of Israel with respect to a territorial settlement in Palestine and to the question of Palestine refugees". The letter continued:

"As a member of the U.N. Palestine Conciliation Commission and as a nation which has consistently striven to give practical effect to the principles of the U.N., the United States Government has recently made a number of representations to the Israeli Government, concerning the repatriation of refugees who fled from conflict in Palestine. These representations were made in conformity with the principles set forth in the resolution of the General Assembly of December 11th, 1948, and urged the acceptance of the principle of substantial repatriation and the immediate beginnings of repatriation on a reasonable scale which would be well within the numbers to be agreed in a final settlement."

The letter reiterated that the Israeli Government "should entertain no doubt whatever" that the US Government expected it "to take responsible and positive action concerning the Palestine Refugees". It then concluded:

"If the Government of Israel continues to reject the basic principles set forth by the resolution of the General Assembly of December 11, 1948 and the friendly advice offered by the United States Government for the sole purpose of facilitating a genuine peace in Palestine, the United States Government will regretfully be forced to the conclusion that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable."

In response to this letter, Foreign Minister Sharett wrote a stern reply, verging on a rebuke, to McDonald, in which Israel disclaimed any responsibility for creating the Palestine refugee problem. He also rejected any idea of territorial compensation for land the Haganah/Israeli Army had acquired beyond the boundaries established by the UN Partition Plan. An elderly Chaim Weizmann, who by 1948 had been elevated to the position of President of Israel, also joined in the fray, writing a personal letter to President Truman in which he claimed that the Palestinian refugees were ‘part of an aggressor group’. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he wrote: "It was not the birth of Israel which created the Arab refugee problem, as our enemies now proclaim, but the Arab attempt to prevent that birth by armed force. These people are not refugees in the sense in which that term has been sanctified by the martyrdom of millions in Europe". The US Government did not, however, accept Israel’s view of its role in the 1948 conflict. Instead it issued Israel the following aide-mémoire:

"The United States Government regards the solution of the refugee problem as a common responsibility of Israel and the Arab States, which neither side should be permitted to shirk. It is for this reason that it has urged Israel to accept the principle of substantial repatriation and to begin immediate repatriation on a reasonable scale, and has urged the Arab States to accept the principle of substantial resettlement of refugees outside Palestine."

The US Government envisaged a solution to the refugee problem, which involved both repatriation and resettlement as provided for in UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III). This show of strength from the US Government induced the Israelis to discuss figures for a potential refugee return between themselves. In July, Sharett sent a telegram to Aubrey Eban, Israel’s UN Ambassador in New York, in which he said that he had been authorised ‘to admit total 100,000 on peace’, which included 25,000 refugees they claimed had already ‘infiltrated’ back into Israel. In other words, they envisaged a net refugee return of 65,000 people. However, Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State did not think the Israeli offer of 100,000 met the provisions of paragraph 11 of UN General Assembly resolution 194 (III). On 13 August, Truman replied to Weizmann:

"With regard to the general question of the Arab refugees, you may recall that the General assembly resolution of December 11 provided 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. I am, therefore, glad to be reassured by your letter that Israel is ready to cooperate with the United Nations and the Arab states for a solution of the refugee problem; that Israel pledges itself to guarantee the civil rights of all minorities; that Israel accepts the principles of compensation for land abandoned by Arabs; that Israel declares its readiness to unfreeze Arab accounts under certain conditions; that Israel has set up a custodian of absentee property; and that Israel is ready to readmit members of Arab families."

Truman added that he ‘would be less than frank’ if he did not tell Weizmann that he was ‘disappointed’ when he read the reply of the Israeli Government written by its Foreign Minister Sharett. He wrote that he thought the views of the Israeli Government ‘are in many respects at variance with the General Assembly resolution of December 11’ and failed ‘to take into account the principles regarding territorial compensation advanced by the United States as indicated in our Aide-Mémoire of June 24’.

[Israel continues to be refractory, saying that the refugees must become citizens of the Arab countries.]

On 27 October, Eban, Israel’s UN Ambassador sent a letter to Mr Yalçin, the Turkish member of the UNCCP, in which he wrote:

"The Government of Israel, in the fulfilment of its duty to preserve the security, welfare and, indeed, the very existence of the State, must retain full responsibility for deciding at which point the return of refugees would prejudice the prospect of Arabs and Jews living in peace with each other, and at which point such return would raise insurmountable practical difficulties at any time. It may be added that recent developments in the Middle East have aggravated our fear that any measure of Arab repatriation is liable to prove gravely prejudicial to Israel’s security."

Israel seemed to be relenting on its offer to resettle 100,000 Arabs, which the UNCCP thought was unacceptable in any event, as they wanted Israel to readmit 250,000. On 15 November, in his reply to Eban, Yalçin wrote: 

"… in the light of the statement made in your letter that ‘recent developments in the Middle East have aggravated our fear that any measure of Arab repatriation is liable to prove gravely prejudicial to Israel’s security’ it is not clear that the Government of Israel is still prepared to accept within its borders a total Arab population of 250,000, in accordance with its offer made to the Commission in Lausanne. The Commission assumes that the terms of this offer remain unchanged."

On the general question of the right of refugees to return, the Commission would again point out that the Israeli position does not conform to the terms of paragraph 11 of the resolution of 11 December 1948 which was passed by the General Assembly after listening to the several interested parties.

Talks between the Arab states and Israel broke down as Israel refused to relent from its position of barring a refugee return. As mentioned already, the US State Department threatened Israel with financial sanctions, but they were forced to back down, due to possible opposition from Congress where continued funding for the Economic Survey Mission was being made dependent on the progress of peace talks at Lausanne.[xxxvii] It may, however, be questioned whether Israel’s uncompromising position at the Lausanne talks did itself any good as it could have ended the conflict then and there had it been more willing to compromise. The US delegate at Lausanne was certainly upset:

"If there is to be any assessment of blame for stalemate at Lausanne, Israel must accept primary responsibility … Israel’s refusal to abide by the GA assembly resolution, providing those refugees who desire to return to their homes, etc., has been the primary factor in the stalemate. Israel has failed even to stipulate under what conditions refugees wishing to return might return; she has given no definition of what she regards as peaceful co-existence of Arabs and Jews in Israel and she consistently returns to the idea that her security would be endangered; that she cannot bear the economic burden and that she has no responsibility for refugees because of Arab attacks upon her. I have never accepted the latter viewpoint. Aside from her general responsibility for those who have been driven out by terrorism, repression and forcible rejection."

He continued: 

"Israel was a state created upon an ethical concept and should rest upon an ethical base. Her attitude toward refugees is morally reprehensible and politically short-sighted. She has no security that does not rest in friendliness with her neighbours. She has no security that does not rest upon the basis of peace in the Middle East. Her position as conqueror demanding more does not make for peace. It makes for more trouble."

In his memoirs, the UN Mediator Bernadotte recorded his recollections of a meeting he had in August 1948 with Moshe Sharett (in Hebrew, Shertok), the Provisional Government of Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he told him that he could not understand why the Zionists were so hostile to the UN and to the Palestinian Arab refugees. His account of the meeting, when he tried to persuade Sharett to ask his government to review its policies, which he dictated to his secretary, Miss Barbro Wessel, and which were published posthumously in Sweden were as follows: 

"In the first place [the Provisional Government of Israel] must surely realize that there could be no longer any doubt as to the continued existence of the Jewish state in Palestine. In the second, it must also recognize that what mattered most for the Jews was to increase their good-will in the world at large, and that they ought to set themselves forthwith to counteract the prevailing hatred between Arabs and Jews – whatever happened, the Jews must always reckon to have Arabs for their neighbours. To take one example: the Israeli Government had had a very great opportunity in connection with the Arab refugee question. It had missed that opportunity. It had shown nothing but hardness and obduracy towards those refugees. If instead of that it had shown a magnanimous spirit, if it had declared that the Jewish people, which itself had suffered so much, understood the feelings of the refugees and did not with to treat them in the same way as it itself had been treated, its prestige in the world at large would have been immeasurably increased."

Alas, Bernadotte’s advice was ignored. The refugees were prevented from returning to their homes and the UN Mediator was assassinated by a Lehi hit squad allegedly dispatched on the orders of Yitzhak Shamir, who was elected Israel’s Prime Minister in 1983. As is clear from the records of the negotiations in Israel’s own archives, some of which have been reproduced in the text above, the Jordanians and the Syrians were prepared to resettle a substantial number of Palestinian refugees in their territories in the interests of peace. However, they also desired a refugee return, especially for those Palestinians who had families remaining in the territories occupied by Israel in 1948.

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