The issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries must be addressed in any final peace settlement, said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
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Speaking to journalists on Monday at the headquarters of MediaCentral in Jerusalem, Ayalon said Israel has a moral and legal obligation to demand that the 850,000 Jews who fled Arab lands after the War of Independence be given attention equal to that afforded Palestinian refugees.
Ayalon said that bringing this issue to the forefront now emphasized that if a Palestinian state is created, then that country, not Israel, must assume responsibility for the Palestinian refugees, he said.
“I do understand that at the end of the day we have to find a political
solution,” but that will come only when the Palestinians realize that
Israel was not responsible for the refugee problem, Ayalon said.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spotlighted the Jewish
refugees during his joint press conference at the White House with US
President Barack Obama on Friday.
“The Arab attack in 1948 on Israel resulted in two refugee problems:
[the] Palestinian refugee problem and Jewish refugees, roughly the same
number, who were expelled from Arab lands,” Netanyahu said. “Tiny Israel
absorbed the Jewish refugees but the vast Arab world refused to absorb
the Palestinian refugees.”
In April 2008, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution
recognizing the plight of the Jewish refugees. Last year, the Knesset
passed a law mandating that the issue of restitution for Jewish refugees
be addressed in any permanent status agreement with the Palestinians.
UN Security Council Resolution 242, which has been the basis for all
Israeli agreements with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, calls for
resolving “the refugee problem, full stop,” Ayalon said. “It talks about
refugees. It doesn’t specify and doesn’t discriminate among refugees.”
Ayalon also quoted former US Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur
Goldberg, who helped draft the resolution while serving as US ambassador
to the UN, as saying that the resolution’s reference to refugees
includes both Arab and Jewish refugees.
“A young nation reborn absorbed 850,000 refugees – it was a daunting
task but they did it,” Ayalon said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case
in the Arab world, where until today we have refugee camps for the
third and fourth generation. This is unprecedented in the annals of
Ayalon also spoke of the massive refugee problem in Europe following
World War II, when millions of Russians, Germans, Poles, Czechs and
others were displaced. Those refugees were eventually resettled and
today the world does not focus on their plight.
On the other hand, the Arab refugee population has grown from an
estimated 500,000 to 700,000 who left Israel in 1948 to four million
These refugees are being kept in poor conditions so they can be used “as political pawns against Israel,” Ayalon said.
While none of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries threatened the
existence or security of their native lands, some of the Arab refugees
became refugees because they joined the campaign to destroy Israel in
1948, Ayalon said.
The issue of the Jewish refugees must be addressed if Jews and Arabs are
to achieve true peace and reconciliation, said the deputy foreign
minister, who was born in Israel but whose family originates from
He noted that “some kind of redress may be appropriate,” and said former
prime minister Menachem Begin spoke about the Jewish refugees with
former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978.
Ayalon referred to Obama’s speech last Thursday as “very important” and
“very positive,” and he said it “attests to the great friendship between
us and the United States and all like-minded countries in the Western
The press briefing also included comments from Gina Bublil Waldman, who
was forced to flee from Libya with her family after the Six Day War in
Today, Waldman is chair of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North
Africa, a San Francisco-based organization which seeks recognition for
Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
Waldman recalled that her family’s home in Tripoli was surrounded after
the Six Day War by a mob that poured gasoline around the perimeter and
tried to burn it down with her family inside. If not for assistance from
a Muslim neighbor, she would have died.
Shortly thereafter, the Libyan government allowed the country’s Jews to
leave, but only with one suitcase and a small amount of money per
On the way to the airport, the driver of the bus carrying her family
tried to burn the bus with her family inside using the vehicle’s
gasoline supply. Two British men rescued them.
Eventually, Waldman’s family left for Italy. Two years later, when she was 21, Waldman made her way to the US.
She said that, while almost one million Jews lived in the Middle East
and North Africa outside of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1945,
today there are less than 7,000 Jews living in Arab countries.
“For peace to be enduring it must address the rights of all refugees,”
she said. “It would be unfair to address the issue of one refugee
population, the Palestinians, and not the Jewish refugees who were
displaced as a result of the same conflict and were similar in numbers.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post
after the press conference, Ayalon said he hopes Jews from all over the world, including Arab states, continue to make aliya.
“Of course we are very much concerned about the security and well-being
of these [Jewish] communities in Arab countries, and it is something we
are watching very carefully.”