Bernadotte's plan called for the right of Palestinian refugees to return. In particular he claimed that it was unreasonable that Jews with no previous connection with Palestine could enter the country, while Palestinians who had just been forced to flee could not return to their villages.
He was assassinated, along with UN observer Colonel André Serot, on September 17th in Jerusalem by members of Lehi,* a Zionist extremist group also known as the "Stern Gang", after its founder.
Lehi was founded by Stern in 1940 as an offshoot from Irgun. It was initially named Irgun Zvai Leumi be-Yisrael (National Military Organization in Israel). Following Stern's death in 1942, and the arrest of many of its members, the group went into eclipse until it was reformed as "Lehi" under a triumvirate of Israel Eldad, Natan Yellin-Mor, and Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir became the Prime Minister
January 2, 1895 - September 17, 1948
American Policy Towards the Palestinian Refugees Since 1948
A Special Report
The World’s oldest and most intractable refugee problem is that of the exiled Palestinians. Since 1948 more than half of the entire Palestinian population have lived outside of their ancestral land. The immediate cause of their dispersal was the 1947 UN decision to partition their land and grant 56% of it to Jewish immigrants mainly from Europe. Driven by an apparent sense of guilt for their own persecution of European Jews, the victorious allies led by the United States sought atonement by supporting large scale Jewish emigration to Palestine. When confronted with resistance from the indigenous people, the Zionist settlers in turn unleashed an unprecedented campaign of terror which triggered an exodus of Palestinians that is continues until this day.
Though essentially a political problem, the Palestinian refugee crisis soon developed into a major humanitarian disaster as an estimated 805,067 inhabitants streamed into camps in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. During the six months leading-up to Ben Gurian’s declaration of statehood on 14th May 1948, United States policy makers began to toy with the idea of replacing the Partition Plan with a UN trusteeship. Until 1947 the State Department had traditionally acknowledged Palestinian rights including that of self-determination. After the failure of the Partition Plan, however, the Americans were forced to devisee a new strategy towards Palestine. To begin with, they encouraged the Jordanian take over of all areas not occupied by the Jewish State and its absorption of the refugees. From the summer of 1948 all references to Palestinian rights, especially that of statehood disappeared from both internal and external records of the State Department. Throughout the subsequent decades the only Palestinian claims recognised by the US were those of the refugees.
The First Initiatives
Having recognised the Jewish State in Occupied Palestine, the United Nations itself adopted resolution 194 on 11th December 1948. That those ‘refugees wishing to return to their home and live in peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…’ The resolution also called for the creation of a UN council to prepare the way for the return of the refugees. The council began its work in March 1949 with visits first to Beirut and then Tel Aviv. While the Arab States insisted on immediate repatriation before any negotiations could begin, the Israelis demanded a comprehensive settlement before considering the return of the refugees.
The Truman administration was particularly perturbed by the Israeli intransigence. The Americans had themselves played a key role in drafting the final version of resolution 194 which they believed should form the legal basis of all policies toward the refugee problem. It was in this context, therefore, that President Truman on 6th September 1948 gave his unconditional support to the proposals of the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte ‘that the local government in Israel should take measures to relieve the suffering of the refugees’ by expediting their return at the fastest possible opportunity.
Barnadotte was, observably, no stranger to humanitarian crises. He had gained international acclaim in 1945 for his work on behalf of the International Red Cross to save thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps. One day before he was assassinated (16th September 1948) by Zionist terrorist in Jerusalem, Bernadotte wrote that there was absolutely no chance of reaching a just and comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian Question unless their right to return was recognised. The story of his killing has since remained a standing testimony of the betrayal and injustice that has always been a hall-mark of Zionism. For although the head of the Stern Gang, Nathan Friedman-Yellin was sentenced to five years imprisonment for the murder, he was quickly pardoned and elected to the Knesset in 1950.
Count Bernadotte’s plea for the restoration of Palestinian rights did not go unheeded. While addressing the UN General Assembly a few days after the assassination, US Secretary of State, George Marshall, urged the world body to adopt the mediator’s proposal which he believed constituted the ‘best possible basis for realising peace’. Several moths later President Truman went further and issued an ultimatum to the Israelis. In a letter dated 29th May 1949, he told Ben Gurion that the US was utterly dismayed with the Israeli violation of international law and warned that his administration may be forced to review its relationship with the Jewish State. When the Tel Aviv administration stood its ground, it was the Americans who had to humbly back down.
The Eisenhower Years
With the arrival of Eisenhower to the White House in January 1953, American interest in the refugee problem entered a new phase. A dual approach was adopted and remained in force until 1967. It entailed in the first instance, the provision of relief supplies and assistance to the refugees and secondly, a search for a practical political solution.
Shortly after taking office, the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles visited the region and recommended that some of the refugees should be allowed to return. At the time it appeared that the Congress was inclined to an economic rather than a political solution. It involved the exploitation of the waters of the Jordan river. Eisenhower was himself convinced that ‘the acceptance of a comprehensive plan to develop the Jordan valley would help immensely in ensuring stability in the Near East.’ It was envisioned that an estimated 300,000 refugees stood to benefit from Jordan Valley Development Programme. Arab rejection of the plan and Israel’s insistence on continuing with its own water-carrier project aborted the American plan. In September 1953 Eisenhower ordered the cancellation of all aid to Israel pending its cessation of attempts to divert the Jordan river. The American message was clear as well as effective and it took the Israelis a mere two months to climb down from their pedestal of belligerence.
While the 1953 suspension of aid was enough to force an Israeli retreat from the waters of the Jordan river, it was ostensibly, not enough to force the repatriation of the refugees. The Eisenhower administration therefore drifted toward the provision of material assistance while the search for a political solution continued. While unveiling the joint US-British ‘Operation Alpha’ on 26th August 1955, Secretary of State, Dulles called for Israeli compensation to the tune of 0 million to the refugees. Both the US and Britain agreed that Israel should raise 30% of the funds while the former two would provide the rest through long term, low interest loans. The onset of the Suez crisis the following year aborted the plan and effectively brought to an end to all efforts by President Eisenhower to solve the refugee crisis.
Enter the AIPAC
Where as the appearance of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Capital Hill in 1959 signalled the emergence of a new era of US policy toward the region, it did not spell good for the refugees. Being the most powerful special interest group in the US, AIPAC succeeded in those early days to convince Washington that Israel was worthy of being a strategic ally in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the US welcomed the notion of the regional ally to counter the growth of the Arab nationalist movement and the spread of Soviet influence in an area perceived as the soft under belly of NATO.
Following the visit of Senator Hubert Humphrey to the camps in 1956, the question of the refugees continued to haunt policy makers. Humphrey warned that further failures to resolve the crisis would lead to a spread of communist ideas among the refugees. Accordingly, the Kennedy administration adopted a plan developed by Joseph E Johnson, a former president of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Based essentially on UN resolution 194 the Johnson plan sought to apply the formula of repatriation or resettlement and compensation. The mere thought of considering repatriation was anathema to Prime Minister Ben Gurion. Thus in order to induce them the Kennedy administration offered the sale of major weapons to the Israelis with the hope that they would accept the Johnson plan. Although the Tel Aviv authorities accepted the American weapons, they categorically refused to reciprocate on the question of the refugees. Thus ended the last major US initiative towards the refugees.
The fact that 82% of the Jewish electorate had voted for Kennedy in 1960 was no doubt a telling factor which prompted him to lift the 1947 embargo on the sale of weapons to the Zionists. Both His immediate successor, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were considered even more supportive of Israel on major issues such as arms, territory and the refugees. The latter two’s belief that Israel was the ‘underdog’ made it possible not only for the capture of east Jerusalem in 1967, but also for the expulsion of another 500,000 from their homes.
Meanwhile, the gains and position of the Israeli lobby machine AIPAC was considerably strengthened after the arrival of Henry Kissinger at the helm of the State Department during the Nixon and Ford presidencies respectively. Himself a Jewish immigrant from Austria, Kissinger played a major role in convincing the US establishment that Arab-Israeli conflict was a by product of the Cold War. Yitzhak Rabin paid tribute in his memoirs to Kissinger recalling; ‘The story of Kissinger’s contribution to Israel’s security has yet to be told, and for the present suffice it to say that it was of prime importance.’
Abandonment Under Clinton
The acceleration of Zionist influence in the State Department after Kissinger coincided with a corresponding rapid decline in the fortunes of the refugees. Under the Clinton administration their plight degenerated significantly from bad to worse. Since his first inauguration in January 1993, President Clinton’s refugee policy has sifted from one of compromise to total abandonment. The current strategy pursued by Washington has been to dissolve the international nature of the refugee problem and confine it to bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. Toward this end the US has made several attempts to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA), the organisation that has, since 1949, looked after the affairs of the refugees.
Similarly on 8th December 1993 the Clinton administration took the unprecedented step of refusing to support the reaffirmation of UN resolution 194 in the General Assembly. This, quite astoundingly, was the first time in almost fifty years that the US had failed to support the very resolution that had been drafted by itself. According to White House officials, the September 1993 Israeli – PLO accords have made all previous resolutions ‘obsolete and anachronistic.’ Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up her governments position on the refugees in a letter to members of the General Assembly dated 8th August 1994; ‘We believe that resolution language referring the ‘final status’ issues should be droped… These include refugees.’ Thus in total violation of international law the US House of Representatives in June 1997 took the unprecedented step of recognising Jerusalem as the ‘undivided and eternal capital’ of Israel.
Having supported the Partition Plan, the US had, in the immediate years thereafter recognised its shared responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem. After making several tentative political efforts to find a solution within the framework of UN resolution 194, the Americans gradually succumbed to Zionist pressure and abandoned the refugees. Aided by a favourable uni-polar international system, they have further seized the opportunity to impose an Israeli status quo over Jerusalem contravening the Fourth Hague Convention (1907), the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) and UN Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 478 (1980).
For the handful of politicians and technocrats who wheel and deal in secret, international resolutions concerning the refugees and other final status issues may seem ‘obsolete’. Yet to the millions of Palestinians who continue to bear the burdens and share the memories of exile, their right to repatriation remains as ‘inalienable’ as the right of every American to life, liberty and justice. Being signatories to all the international conventions on humanitarian law, the democratic nations of Europe, must accordingly, take immediate steps, with or without American support, to honour their treaty, obligations and duties towards the Palestinian refugees.