Revealed from archive: Israel's secret plan to resettle Arab refugees

Plans drawn up during the 1950s and ’60s had one overriding goal: to preserve the demographic status quo by resettling the 1948 Arab refugees far away from the country. By Arik Ariel Haaretz 19/12/13 Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Amid the flood of articles dealing with the traumatic impact of the event on American society, a modest place was devoted to Israeli-American relations during the Kennedy presidency − mostly in relation to Washington’s fears about Israel’s nuclear project. Little if anything was written about the deep anxiety that prevailed in Israel at the start of Kennedy’s term because of the president’s initiative to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. At the conclusion of the first meeting between Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Kennedy, held in New York in the autumn of 1961, there was no longer any doubt on the Israeli side that the White House was working on a new initiative concerning the Arab refugees called the “three-pronged approach.” Ben-Gurion did not like (to put it mildly) the idea presented to him by the president, which called for some of the refugees to be settled in Arab states, others overseas and some to return to Israel. However, in deference to the president, the Israeli leader did not reject the idea out of hand. Since the end of the fighting during the War of Independence in 1948, the question of what would become of the 650,000 to 700,000 refugees who had abandoned their homes and property within Israel’s borders had become a millstone around the country’s neck. Some of the refugees had fled, others had been encouraged to leave, some had been expelled. According to one estimate, the property left behind by the refugees included more than four million dunams of land (one million acres), 73,000 rooms, and 8,000 stores and offices. Some of the nascent state’s leaders viewed the country’s “voiding” of its Arab inhabitants − and thus the ability to establish a state possessing a Jewish majority − as the greatest achievement of the Zionist movement, transcending even the creation of the Jewish state as such. Accordingly, already in mid-1948, while the fighting raged, Israel formulated a policy under which the return of the refugees to its territory would not be permitted under any circumstances. Jerusalem sought to

During the conference. International pressure on Israel waned in the early 1950s. It was.000 refugees. At Lausanne. Israel came under great pressure from Washington. in fact. and Israel retracted it in July 1950.” In the wake of this. which stipulates.000 permanent residents. What provoked Congress to become involved was the burgeoning amount of aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Israel came under heavy pressure to repatriate some of the refugees. under the mistaken impression that only 150. it turned out that the population of the Gaza Strip at that time consisted of between 150. the skies above Jerusalem darkened when it emerged that the Kennedy administration was determined to find a solution for the approximately one million refugees who were crowded into camps from Syria and Lebanon in the north.000 refugees lived there. as far as Jordan. the idea that some of the refugees would return to Israel remained a central element of every proposed solution. In December 1948. and the question of who should be classified as a refugee. (The exact number of refugees. Burgeoning aid In the summer of 1961. to think that the catalyst for Washington’s new initiative was the refugees’ wretched and pitiful condition. remained a constant subject of controversy.000 and 200. Notable in this regard was the Lausanne Conference in May 1949. the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 (III). which was created upon the cessation of hostilities and the signing of the armistice agreements. Congress that set the initiative in motion by urging the State Department to find a solution for the problem. under certain conditions. Israel stated that. The refugee issue was raised every year during the deliberations of the General Assembly and in international conferences. in addition to 80. it would be ready to accept up to 100. that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. with President Harry Truman sending a strongly worded message in which he maintained that Israel’s refusal to accept refugees put the peace in danger and ignored UN resolutions. However. Afterward. in the form of food.000 refugees. though. the Middle East conflict or the Cold War. As the pressure mounted. the Arab states rejected this offer. the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the south. Still. Israel stated its willingness to take control of the Gaza Strip. as the international community’s efforts to find a solution for the refugee problem turned more toward regional economic possibilities and the integration of the majority of the refugees into the Arab states. education and health− and the fact that the American .) It would be a mistake. which was convened to advance a solution to the Middle East conflict.perpetuate the demographic status quo together with the geographic status quo. in Article 11.

concern grew in Jerusalem that this time Israel would have to “pay” in the currency of refugees. at the end of the 1950s. Golda Meir stated that Israel had been asked to accept elderly refugees. Eliyahu Sasson. Meir noted. The senior staff of the Foreign Ministry also considered the question of the price to be paid. as Ben-Gurion noted. Jerusalem was perturbed by the Kennedy administration’s new initiative and concerned about the upcoming 16th General Assembly session. The ministry’s director general. for the first time. while pursuing a policy akin to that of the rebels in Algeria. he wrote. allowed to address the General Assembly on behalf of the refugees. whom it would have no choice but to accept. Others . and she went on to ask how many refugees would have to be allowed in before the situation resembled that of Algeria. “Palestinian existence” was dredged up from the recesses of oblivion. Israel failed to discern the emergence of the process. but an accelerated process of heightened national identity set in among them. the ball started to roll in the opposite direction.taxpayer was underwriting 70 percent of UNRWA’s budget. or.000 refugees over a period of three or four years would not pose an excessive risk. Haim Yahil.000 to 40. Dr. the first chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization − dubbed “the savage” by Meir − was. than it understood the developments in the refugee camps adjacent to its borders. Ahmad Shukeiri. The overriding question was: How many refugees could Israel accept without putting its survival and existence as a Jewish state at risk? Appearing at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in June 1961. Time was working against Israel. issued a warning about it in a message to Foreign Minister Golda Meir at the end of 1961. for within a few years the refugees will establish an official body to represent them and speak in their name. Israel understood thoroughly the intricacies of American politics − far more so. As these developments unfolded. However. “The Arabs of Israel are out of the game” and “the resolution of November 29 is dead” − a reference to the General Assembly’s partition of Palestine resolution on November 29. Jerusalem thus believed that the refugee problem was gradually disappearing. indeed. particularly in light of the fact that Israel had suffered a setback the previous year in the General Assembly’s deliberations about the refugee question. in a series of meetings classified as top secret. Their desire to return to their former homes grew more intense. in tandem with the political institutionalization of that wish. though its ambassador to Rome. and not only did their ambition to return to their homeland not fade. The country’s Arab minority already constituted 10 percent of Israel’s population. Not only did the refugees not disappear.” The Arab and Muslim states submitted a resolution calling for the appointment of a custodian to protect the refugees’ property rights. thought that admitting 30. but the Foreign Ministry initially thought− wrongly − that this referred to “the refugees’ existing rights to their property. 1947.

In the midst of the War of Independence. Jerusalem started to look for demographic solutions to “balance out” this prospect. the government held two discussions about how Israel would present its position at the General Assembly. Finance Minister Levi Eshkol asked what constituted a decisive Jewish majority: 51. was appointed its chairman.1 million. (At the time. In addition. might have to allow some refugees to return began to sink in. including 252. Since the status-quo policy was not on the agenda. Weitz’s committee decreed that the number of Arabs in Israel should not exceed 15 percent of the total population. Secretly.000 Arabs in Israel.disagreed. a Jewish National Fund official who had been the driving force behind the committee’s establishment. One of its recommendations was that the Arabs’ abandonment of their homes should be considered an irrevocable fait accompli and that Israel should support their resettlement elsewhere. Some of the participants averred that an Arab minority constituting 25 percent of the population was a number Israel could live with.e. who liked to sum up things with pithy quips.” Striking a somewhat businesslike note. Yosef Weitz. Ben-Gurion said that if there would be 600. except for the expressed willingness to make some tactical compromises. a “transfer committee”− i.000 Arabs. including a ban on harvesting field crops and olive picking − this in the wake of attempts by refugees to cross back into Israel. Arab villages should be destroyed and Arabs should be prevented from working the land. they would be the majority within two generations. Encouraging emigration As the idea that Israel. but others argued that this was a dangerously high percentage. said. “The return of Arabs is not only an atomic bomb. Starting with the premise that the birthrate among the refugees and among the Arabs who had remained in Israel was higher than among the Jews. Interior Minister Yosef Burg. to the villages and fields they had left behind. With this in mind.. under international pressure. when more than 400. it is an anatomical bomb. the question the policymakers asked was how it would be possible to reduce the number of the country’s Arab population. 61 or 71 percent? He said that the last number certainly constituted a decisive majority. the ministers instead discussed the “price” Israel could live with. The . The committee also recommended that Arabs who had remained in the country should be encouraged to emigrate and that the state should buy the land of Arabs who were willing to leave. one dealing with population transfer − was established with a mandate from the government to recommend policy on the subject of the refugees. In July 1961.) No formal decisions were made. the highest levels in Jerusalem realized there would be no option but to take back some of the refugees. Israel’s population stood at 3.000 Arabs from then-nascent Israel had already become refugees.

who encouraged the plan. believed that at least some local Arabs would draw the “right conclusions” from the outcome of the War of Independence. For the Jewish population. The Christians among them would choose to move to Lebanon. he noted. the leaders of the ruling Mapai party (the precursor of Labor) and its coalition partner Ahdut Ha’avoda. they had the effect of reinforcing the government’s view that Israel had to be assertive in its effort to preserve the demographic status quo. Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon referred to migration among the country’s Arabs in a talk he gave in November 1953. he said. In 1950. even if we do not see emigration as a solution to the basic question. I hope that. In March 1952. He added that 35 families from the Galilee . submitted in written form. In June 1950 Israel Defense Forces’ GOC Southern Command Moshe Dayan said: “The 170. even though he was concerned about the Church’s response when it became apparent that a large portion of the leavers were Christians. Foreign Ministry documents from the early 1950s show that it was actually Sharett. Palmon wrote to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett that the majority of the propertied Arabs aspired to leave if they could also take their assets. and consider emigrating of their own volition. was given the secret codename “Operation Yohanan. and emigration could solve that issue. while the Muslims would opt for Egypt. known for his moderate views.” The largest and most comprehensive plan.” In the country’s first decade of existence. However. in which ways to encourage the country’s Arabs to leave were discussed.recommendations. Weitz forwarded to the Foreign Ministry a detailed report about the resettlement of Christian Arabs from Upper Galilee to Argentina and Brazil. Ben-Gurion and his adviser on Arab affairs. Yehoshua Palmon. The plan was devised in the utmost secrecy in backroom meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. For his part. “This is a vital matter. a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the first Jewish-Roman war. another possibility might arise to implement a transfer of those Arabs from the Land of Israel. took part in some of the committee’s meetings. were not adopted in a formal government resolution. The report pointed out that the Argentine authorities were abetting the migration of farmers to the country.” named for Yohanan from Gush Halav (John of Giscala).000 a year. in the years ahead. involving the transfer of thousands of Christian Arabs from Galilee to Argentina and Brazil. Palmon confirmed that he had examined possibilities of a property exchange between Arabs from Israel and Jews in Egypt and Lebanon.000 Arabs who remain in the country should be treated as though their fate has not yet been sealed. His conclusion was that an arrangement to that effect could be worked out. We have to remember that the natural growth rate among the Arabs is approximately 6. with Weitz’s aid. together with the senior officers of the Military Government (Israel’s Arab citizens were under military rule until 1966).

Palmon was involved in an attempt by Israel to purchase about 100. Codenamed “Uri. another plan was devised to acquire farms near Tripoli and bring in a core group of 50 to 70 refugee families. In the spring of 1950. apparently because the Argentine authorities balked. After Libya became independent. Its mission was to find places where the refugees could be settled. similar to the migration of Maronite Christians from Lebanon. put forward a secret proposal to settle Arabs from Israel − from among both the refugees and those who had remained in the country − in Libya. the director of the Foreign Ministry’s international institutions department. The elaborate plan was canceled after it. no concrete arrangement emerged from these talks.000 Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Cyrenaica and Tripoli. Yehezkel Gordon. to take the place of the 17. Sharett informed Weitz that the prime minister had authorized Operation Yohanan. In 1955.” the plan was to be carried out by a development and construction company which would be registered in Switzerland. from the Foreign Ministry. Sharett examined the possibility that Brazil would admit . Should the operation be discovered.000 dunams (25.000 acres) of land in the Ras al-Akhdar region of Libya. He added that the details of the plan must be kept strictly confidential. The overall proposal included the creation of a share-holding company to be held by non-Jews and for which the initial financing would come from Jewish National Fund capital in Argentina. Weitz traveled from Paris to Tunisia and Algeria in order to examine the possibility of settling Arabs from Israel and Arab refugees there. Adib Shishakli (who ruled in 1953-54). the project could be presented as an initiative of Israel’s Arab community.000 to 18. The idea was particularly appealing because the Jews who left Libya had not been allowed to remove their property from the country. if necessary. raise funds and obtain international support for settling the refugees abroad. was leaked to the press. Palmon was also sent to Paris to hold talks with the president of Syria. parallel to the immigration to Israel of Jews from those countries. suggested that Israel consider settling Arab refugees in Somalia and Libya. the foreign minister made it clear. In 19561957. which was then underway. in January 1952. In June 1955. about the possibility of resettling refugees in Arab countries. with its shares held by a Swiss bank. in order to settle refugees there. The plan went awry when it was leaked to the media and the Libyan ruler came under massive pressure not to allow the refugees to settle there. In November 1952.village of Jish (Gush Halav) had evinced an interest in the plan. too. However. with the property of the Libyan Jews to be restored to them within the framework of the exchange. the project was canceled at the beginning of 1953. Moshe Sasson. The Middle Eastern department in the Foreign Ministry dealt with the subject of resettling the refugees outside Israel from the day the department was created. Sharett added that. In any event. any connection to the government must be vehemently denied.

Israel’s efforts to find overseas locations in which to settle Arab refugees continued even after the Six-Day War of 1967. was appointed a special representative to tackle the problem and to work with the parties involved to come up with a solution. and. During 1962. Meir. Austria and Switzerland. Yahil. Israeli officials examined the possibility of finding employment for Palestinian refugee laborers in Germany. were kept completely under wraps. In the first half of the 1960s. particularly to France and Germany. But both Foreign Minister Meir and her director general. three local workers would be employed. Sharett. known as “Operation Worker. wielded all the influence at her command in Washington in order to ensure that the plan met a quick death. The .000 refugee families in Libya and employ them through a commercial development company. these efforts failed. the Foreign Ministry continued to examine plans to encourage the emigration of Arab refugees from the Middle East to Europe. as had ideas and proposals raised by others. as other Jewish communities in Arab countries were doing. Joseph Johnson.5 million (in the terms of that era) would be needed to execute this scheme. In February 1966. in any event. The plan he devised − to distribute questionnaires to the Palestinian refugees and permit those who wished to return to Israel. Meir was concerned that Germany would be flooded with Arab refugees.” and the correspondence involved. which was then in dire need of working hands. subject to security considerations− stirred deep fears in Jerusalem. Dr. yet another plan was devised. the possibility of settling refugees from Jordan in France was also examined. for every outside professional. objected to the Iraqi leader’s proposal to exchange the refugees for Iraq’s community of 140. for one. It was estimated that $11. The refugee issue was thus intertwined with the question of the property of the Jewish immigrants to Israel from the Arab states. In September 1959. Sharett and others were concerned about the lawsuits demanding compensation that Iraqi Jews were liable to file for their property. objected to these ideas.000 Jews. One option that was considered was to find them jobs in Germany. The initial checks done for this plan. The terms of the plan ensured that the refugees’ presence would not be a burden on the Libyan economy and would not reduce the income of local workers. though.000 refugees. including Syrian President Husni al-Zaim and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in 1949. ‘Quiet talks’ In late 1961. the whole scheme proved fruitless.” to settle 2. who was appalled by the idea. in the wake of President Kennedy’s initiative.100. In the end. Furthermore. from the Carnegie Endowment. codenamed “Theo. He also looked into the possible acquisition of land in Cyprus at a rock-bottom price in order to exchange it for property held in Israel by Arabs wishing to emigrate.

“payment” Israel would be required to make in return for the shelving of the plan became apparent in top-secret discussions − known as the “quiet talks’ − held between Jerusalem and Washington in 1962-63. But this initiative. Israel expressed its readiness to absorb up to 10 percent of the refugees as part of a comprehensive settlement. because the United States was unable to obtain the Arab states’ agreement to a comprehensive settlement. The establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a comprehensive settlement will take the edge off the demand for return. and agreement to take in 10 percent of the refugees within the framework of the “quiet talks. as it is illogical that a large proportion of the refugees will demand to return to this country rather than settle in their new state. Israel viewed the refugee problem through the prism of Washington.” which still underlies the ethos of the Palestinian refugees. the status-quo policy prevailed.000 refugees living in the Gaza Strip (together with the territory of the Strip). such as the founding of Fatah and the establishment of armed units. as the refugee problem gradually evolved from a humanitarian issue into the Palestinian national issue. the refugee population stood at approximately 1.100. the agreement of 1949 to absorb 150. To the extent that one can learn from past experience. At that time.” Israel was willing to accept refugees at a time when its demographic and geostrategic situation was far worse than it is today. the effort to preserve the status quo did not benefit Israel (as witnessed by the Yom Kippur War. . the processes by which the refugees consolidated themselves politically was of little if any interest. Israel displayed readiness to absorb a considerable number of refugees on three occasions. fell by the wayside. a proposal that same year to admit 100.000 refugees. The refugees appeared on Jerusalem’s agenda when the United States thought that measures should be taken or a new plan devised to resolve the problem. timetables and family situation (UNRWA now has five million refugees registered. In the absence of external pressure. it can be said that willingness to take in a small token number of refugees based on Israeli-determined criteria − including age. were followed closely in Israel. too. scattered in 58 camps) − could provide an important and symbolic response to the demand for “return. In them. Whereas security and military developments in the camps.. This is unlikely to change in the future. Israel found itself reacting to events. The fact that the “political compass” of Jerusalem’s decision makers repeatedly pointed to Washington and New York as the sources dictating their policy on the refugees explains in good measure Israel’s lack of attention to the social and political developments occurring in the refugee camps across the border until 1967. Thus. In retrospect. Israel would thus acknowledge its moral share in the creation of the problem. the first intifada and other events).000 souls.e. Under American pressure. even if by doing so it would cross the “15 percent line”− i. Between 1948 and 1967.

Arik Ariel. . an attorney. thesis at the University of Haifa. The article is based on his PhD. is a lecturer in intelligence and policy and in law and politics at the Emek Yezreel College.Dr.

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