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A Revised Take on Palestinian Refugees

Essay enhances indictment of post-’48 Arab governments

Marc Tracy
October 08, 2010

A fascinating scholarly essay crossed my transom, and I’d like to recommend it as a weekend read. It concerns the famous quotation, “Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.” As the right-of-return continues to be a central Palestinian demand, the issue remains resonant. The line is commonly attributed to one Ralph Galloway, a British U.N. official who tried to tackle the post-1948 Palestinian refugee crisis.

Except there was no Ralph Galloway. As authors Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky show, the statement was made by Lt. General Sir Alexander Galloway, a Scotsman who spent significant time in pre-Israel Palestine and, what’s more, had extensive experience dealing in refugee issues in post-World War II central Europe—where he served as nothing less than the commander-in-chief of British forces in Austria, where there were an estimated 138,000 refugees. In 1952, he was removed from his post at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency at Jordan’s request because he had so vocally agitated for Arab governments to assume a level of responsibility for Palestinian refugees commensurate with postwar European governments and displaced Germans, including Jews.

The authors conclude:

Misunderstanding the identity of Galloway blunts the importance of his 1952 statement. Galloway was no mere international civil servant or bureaucrat. His experience as a leader of complex organizations and administrator in highly political situations was second to none. Galloway was familiar with refugee crises far larger and more dire than the Palestinians, as well as related exigencies of conventional warfare and insurgencies. He had also contended with complex politics in colonies, occupied territories and between superpowers. What he had not encountered was a situation where nominally supportive states maintained refugees in that condition and where refugees themselves demanded to remain homeless pending an ever-receding chance for repatriation. …

The European experience Galloway brought to UNRWA, which must have seemed so fitting in prospect, developed in a wholly different context. When seen from the perspective of a British administrator like Galloway, who had helped facilitate the repatriation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees [in] the context of escalating political tensions, the Arab states’ response to the Palestinians and UNRWA was simply intolerable.

A Tale of Two Galloways [Middle Eastern Studies]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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