A 1961 article gives fascinating, forgotten truths about Palestinian refugees, UNRWA

by Mitchell Bard

(JNS) — Every once in a while, I stumble onto an old article that offers interesting insights on today’s political situation. One example is an article from The Atlantic published in 1961 about the Palestinian refugees written by Martha Gellhorn.

Unlike most people who write about the subject, Gellhorn correctly noted, “It is forgotten that Jews are also victims in the same manner, of the same moment. The Arab-Israel war and its continuous aftermath produced a two-way flight of peoples. Nearly half a million Jews, leaving behind everything they owned, escaped from the Arab countries where they lived to start life again as refugees in Israel.”

She noted that every other refugee population in the world was recognized as people rather than pawns. At the time, it was estimated that 39 million non-Arab men, women and children had become refugees and that “all but some six million … have made a place for themselves, found work and another chance for the future.” Being a refugee is only a life sentence for Palestinians, who are treated by their fellow Arabs as weapons rather than humans.

The world showed more concern for Palestinians, however, than for those other refugees, establishing a U.N. agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), devoted to their welfare. No country has been more committed to aiding the Palestinians than the United States. In its first 11 years, noted Gellhorn, UNRWA spent about $360 million contributed by 61 states, including Israel. The U.S. share was more than $238 million, two-thirds of the total budget.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew funding from UNRWA for two years, but the Biden administration has restored it and contributed nearly $340 million (compared to $177 million from Germany, the second-largest donor) of the agency’s nearly $1.2 billion in income (28%). Since 1950, the United States has provided some $6.2 billion to care for Palestinian refugees, who have repaid us with terror and scorn.

Gellhorn was discussing roughly 1 million Palestinians who were then considered refugees. Even in 1961, it was well-known that the UNRWA refugee figures were bogus. “UNRWA has never yet been allowed to make a total proper census of its refugee population,” observed Gellhorn. By sheer invention, the United Nations has subsequently turned that number into 5.7 million.

Of course, the refugees did have children. A UNRWA official explained to Gellhorn, “If we start teaching them birth control, we will be accused of trying to wipe out the people too. Besides, the men would never allow it. They want to have a lot of sons; it is a matter of pride with them. And politics enters too, as into everything; I’ve heard them say it. We need to have many children and grow and increase so that the world will never forget us.”

UNRWA also knew they were being scammed. In one camp, 80% of the men had jobs, but they didn’t tell UNRWA. “If they earn too much, they are taken off the ration lists,” the official said. “If they earn above a certain amount, they aren’t eligible for the services. Free medicine and doctoring and schooling. So, obviously, they don’t want us to know.”

Long before most people began to talk about the need for reforming UNRWA, Gellhorn said the organization should stay out of politics and not be subject to Arab supervision, or used for propaganda purposes. She believed that it should “primarily be an educational institution … an admirable training school for young Palestinians and a kindly old folks’ home for aged Palestinians.”

UNRWA was only part of the problem. Here’s Gellhorn writing about the Egyptian occupation of the Gaza Strip: “The Egyptian government is the jailer. For reasons of its own, it does not allow the refugees to move from this narrow strip of land.”

Gellhorn said refugees were constantly exposed to Egyptian propaganda. “No wonder that Gaza was the home base of the trained paramilitary bands called commandos by the Egyptians and Palestinians, and gangsters by the Israelis—the fedayin, whose job was to cross unnoticed into Israel and commit acts of patriotic sabotage and murder. And having been so devastatingly beaten by Israel again, in 1956, has not improved the trapped, bitter Gaza mentality; it only makes the orators more bloodthirsty.”

And what about the claim that the Palestinians were all expelled?

After speaking to a refugee from Jaffa, she related, “No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight.”

A Muslim schoolteacher living near Akko told Gellhorn that in 1948, “No one here shot at Jews; and no Jews shot at us.” She also said that 900 refugees lived in the village.

Gellhorn found it incredulous that Palestinians living in Palestine were thought of as refugees.

“There was no fighting near here,” the teacher said, “but the people are frightened, so they fled to the Druse villages, where they know they will be safe, because the Druses were always friendly with the Jews, and after, they came here. The Israeli government will not let them go back to their villages. The government offered them other land, but they will not take it.”

The teacher said some Palestinians fled in fear after hearing there had been a massacre in Deir Yassin. “According to their own ethical code and practice of war,” noted Gellhorn, “Deir Yassin must have seemed a natural portent of the future to the Arabs. They intended to massacre the Jews; if the Jews were victorious, obviously they would massacre the Arabs.”

Some of Gellhorn’s conversations were surreal. For example, the camp leader she spoke to in Gaza was a Holocaust denier who said the Jews were worse than Hitler. He believed the Jews had conspired with Hitler, arranging for him to kill 36,000 old, weak Jews to “make the others [immigrate] to Palestine.”

She also spoke to Israeli Arabs. A Christian school teacher living in a village near the Lebanon border told her, “The English gave weapons to the Arab countries, and they gave weapons to us. In this village we were all armed; we all fired at the Jews, every one of us. But our bullets were no good; the English gave bad bullets to the Arabs. Four out of five of the bullets were no good. When we saw this, we ran away to Lebanon for two weeks and then we came back.”

Gellhorn asked the teacher: “If the position were reversed, if the Jews had started the war and lost it, if you had won the war, would you now accept partition? Would you give up part of the country and allow the 650,000 Jewish residents of Palestine—who had fled from the war—to come back?”

“Certainly not,” he answered immediately. “But there would have been no Jewish refugees. They had no place to go. They would all be dead or in the sea.”

Long before wokeness and intersectionality, she noted that the Western public saw the refugee issue as “a call to conscience.”

The teacher, however, helped Gellhorn understand why the Palestinians were undeserving of her empathy. “It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. To wring the heart past all doubt, those who cry aloud for justice must be innocent. They cannot have wished for a victorious rewarding war, blame everyone else for their defeat, and remain guiltless.”

“No one, after listening to Israeli Arabs,” she concluded, “could believe that Palestinian refugees would be either contented or loyal citizens of Israel.” Israel, she added, should not be bullied “to commit suicide by the admission of a fatal locust swarm of enemies.”

Gellhorn could draft a similar article today, though it is hard to imagine The Atlantic editors allowing her to write:

Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?

She would also have to change her conclusion if she updated her article as her original one proved naive: “Within one generation, if civilization lasts, Palestinian refugees will merge into the Arab nations, because the young will insist on real lives instead of endless waiting. If we can keep the peace, however troubled, the children of Palestinian refugees will make themselves at home among their own kind, in their ancestral lands.”

Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”