British Conservative MP Theresa Villiers blundered into a debate on Israel and Palestine last week. In doing so, the former Northern Ireland Secretary rehashed discredited myths the function of which has historically been to shield Israel from taking responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees. During deliberations in the House of Commons on “Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa”, Villiers spoke of the “untold story” of the “ethnic cleansing” of 856,000 Arab Jews from Arab countries.
According to the member of Conservative Friends of Israel, ignoring the plight of these Jewish refugees and concentrating only on the Palestinians “gives the international community a distorted view of the Middle East dispute.” Villiers added that, “A fair settlement needs to take into account the injustice suffered by Jewish refugees as well as the plight of the Palestinians.”
The MP for Chipping Barnet claimed that, “The historic UN Resolution 242 states that a comprehensive peace agreement should include ‘a just settlement of the refugee problem’; the language is inclusive of both Palestinian and Jewish refugees.”
Villiers-who often speaks in support of Israel and has even used a Commons debate about terrorism on the streets of London to appeal for “sympathy and solidarity” for the Zionist state- mimicked discredited claims made by Israeli officials since the 1950s to absolve the country from its obligations under international law to the 750,000 Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed in 1947-8.
As others have pointed out, “The analogy between Palestinian displacement and the Jewish ‘exodus’ from Arab countries is misleading.” The claims of the two communities are very different; the history and circumstance of their displacement bears no resemblance to each other, which makes any attempt to use the plight of one group to dismiss the other, as though it were a kind of population transfer reminiscent of countries split apart by civil war, totally fanciful.
Contrary to what Villiers suggested, there was no forced mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries, in the way that there was a deliberate, forced expulsion of Palestinians from their own land. If we look at Iraq, for example, Arab Jews left due to a combination of factors, of which a hostile environment following the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine was certainly one. Other push factors, according to Abbas Shiblak, author of The Lure of Zion: Case of the Iraqi Jews, include laws that were enacted to facilitate the Jewish exodus. One such law is 1/1950, known as the denaturalisation law, which empowered the Iraqi government to “divest any Iraqi who wished of his own free will and choice to leave Iraq for good, of his Iraqi nationality.” Shiblak points out that this law was welcomed by Israel, as well as Britain and the US, both of which were applying pressure on Iraq to agree to a population transfer deal involving 100,000 Iraqi Jews. It was indeed a driving factor in the flight of Iraqi Jews.
Other factors, though mired in controversy, also played a part. The 1950s saw a number of Israeli false flag operations. One that grabbed global attention was the failed covert operation, known as the “Lavon Affair”. Egyptian Jews were recruited by Israeli military intelligence to plant bombs inside British and American civilian targets, including churches and libraries. The attacks were to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian communists in order to induce the British government to maintain its occupation army in the Suez Canal zone.
While that operation was not intended to create a hostile environment for Jews in Egypt with the hope of persuading them to go to Israel — that result was an arguably unintended consequence — similar plots in Iraq were designed with exactly that in mind. From 1950 through to 1951 Israeli spy agency Mossad orchestrated five bomb attacks on Jewish targets in an operation known as Ali Baba, to drum up fear amongst and hostility towards Iraqi Jews. As the mood darkened, more than 120,000 Jews — 95 per cent of the Jewish population in Iraq — left for Israel via an airlift known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
In addition to the anti-Jewish feelings that took root in Arab cities following the creation of the State of Israel and prompted Jewish flight, there was also a powerful pull factor that had nothing to do with hostility in Arab countries. The very creation of Israel was based on the idea of “the ingathering of the exiles”, which assumed that the self-styled “Jewish State” would attract as a matter of course Jews from around the world to make “aliyah” and migrate there. This was not only intended to fulfil the secular dream of a Jewish “national home” (as the Balfour Declaration put it, not a “state”) but also to bring about what fundamentalist Evangelical Christians believe is a Biblical prerequisite for the long-awaited return of Jesus Christ, Armageddon and the end days; what they refer to as the “rapture”. If the whole purpose of the State of Israel was and remains to attract Jewish migration from across the world — Arab states included, presumably — then to claim that those who make the move are “refugees” is totally inaccurate and a false representation of reality.
In stark contrast, the ethnic cleansing (a term applied by Israeli historians) of three-quarters of the Palestinian population of historic Palestine, and the subsequent further expulsions of the native population that followed the June 1967 war, was premeditated in order to create a Jewish majority in the land. This is not only an indisputable historical fact, but is also reflected in various UN resolutions.
Israel’s membership of the UN was conditional upon the nascent Zionist state taking responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees and allowing them to return to their homes. It’s worth noting that Israel first applied to join the UN on 15 May, 1948, the day after it declared its independence; the application was rejected. A second application on 17 December the same year was also turned down on the grounds that the fighting was ongoing in Palestine and that Israel had failed to establish a demilitarised zone in the Negev Desert. It was only at its third attempt a year later that the international community allowed Israel to become a member of the organisation with the aforesaid condition.
UN General Assembly Resolution 273 of 11 May, 1949 admitted the state as a member, but required Israel to comply with Resolution 194 of 11 December, 1948 which “resolves that the [Palestinian] 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.” The Israeli government agreed to this condition. In pursuit of this goal, the UN ordered the creation of a commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation.
However, Israel has never shown any inclination to fulfil that condition of its UN membership, despite agreeing to do so. Palestinians who were expelled from their land, and their descendants, still live in refugee camps across the occupied Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries, with many others in the wider diaspora around the world.
The international community recognises no such moral and legal claims for Arab Jews who moved to Israel, though it should also be pointed out that many chose to settle elsewhere. Villiers cited UN Resolution 242 when she claimed that such an obligation does indeed exist. However, the strongest interpretation of this resolution given its context in being adopted by the Security Council in 1967 after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during a war that led to the displacement of a further 400,000 Palestinians, is that UN Resolution 242 refers only to Palestinian refugees. The resolution also required Israel to withdraw from the territories that it occupied during the war; it hasn’t done that yet, either.
One could of course make a case for Arab Jews to be compensated for the suffering that they endured and the property they left behind, but that should not in any way be at the expense of Palestinian refugees. Such a move would have no basis in international humanitarian law, and would thus be baseless. Human rights are not interchangeable: you cannot simply exchange the rights of one person with those of another as though it were some kind of commodity to be bartered. The rights and claims of Palestinian refugees on the state of Israel cannot be wiped away by rights that Jews may or may not have over Arab states. The simple truth is that there is not, and never has been, any parity between the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians since 1947, and the exodus of Jews from Arab states. As a lawyer, Theresa Villiers should know that but, as a strong supporter of the State of Israel, like many others she chooses to ignore it as she tries to deny Palestinians of their legitimate rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.