Israel hits back over refugee campaign

In possible attempt to undermine moves to secure compensation for Palestinians who lost everything when Israel was created, Tel Aviv is spearheading a drive to highlight the Jews forced out of Arab countries.

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TEL AVIV // Levana Zamir, a 74-year-old Jew born in Egypt, bitterly recalls her experiences on the day in May 1948 when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, declared the country's independence.

Her Cairo home was ransacked by Egyptian soldiers, her uncle jailed and her father's printing business confiscated by the government before her family resolved to leave for Israel.

Gad Mimon-Abikasis, a 69-year-old Jew, says he slipped out of his native Morocco in the middle of a night in 1955, at age 12, with his parents after years of beatings by Arabs on his way to school and death threats warning his father against opening his store.

Their testimonies, posted on the social networking site Facebook, are part of a new Israeli government campaign to draw international attention to the hundreds of thousands of Jews it claims became refugees around the time of Israel's 1948 establishment, following persecution in their native Arab countries.

The campaign includes a two-week-old Facebook page called "I am a Refugee"; orders by Israel's foreign ministry to its diplomats worldwide to raise the issue whenever possible; and invitations for pro-Israel politicians from countries such as the US and Canada to attend a Jerusalem conference called "Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries".

Palestinian leaders have condemned the new push as a bid to counterbalance claims for compensation by Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled their homes during the war that created Israel.

"The two issues are totally separate - Israel is just trying to undermine the problem of the Palestinian refugees and their rights," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian peace negotiator.

Moreover, leading Israeli experts question whether Jewish emigrants from Arab countries should be considered refugees, saying that far from being expelled by their respective Arab authorities most were Zionists who wanted to leave.

They also say the campaign is timed to draw international sympathy for Israel amid growing criticism abroad of its hostile approach to the Palestinians.

Furthermore, they add, Israel also fears that it may have to pay high compensation to Palestinian refugees - a key issue of peace negotiations - should talks restart following November's election in the US. Washington mediates between Israelis and Palestinians and a newly-appointed president - whether the incumbent, Barack Obama, or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney - may apply more pressure on both sides to return to talks.

"Israel needs to prepare its weapons to fight because the Palestinian refugee issue is a core part of the conflict," said Yehouda Shenhav, a professor at Tel Aviv University who wrote a book about the so-called Arab Jews.

Israel says that more than 850,000 Jews emigrated from Arab countries, including Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, following its 1948 establishment, and that most had been expelled by their governments.

According to the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, a pro-Israel research institute, the value of the Jewish property confiscated by Arab governments during these expulsions is estimated to be more than US$6 billion (Dh22bn), at least 50 per cent higher than the value of property lost by Palestinian refugees.

Experts say the figures are exaggerated and that the number of Arab Jewish emigrants was about the same as that of Palestinian refugees - estimated to have been about 700,000 during the 1948 war.

They add that much of the emigration was spurred by Zionist activities within countries such as Iraq aimed at encouraging - often through manipulation - the Jews to move to the nascent Jewish state.

Mr Shenhav says one example of such encouragement was the Zionist movement's exaggeration of a 1941 attack in Iraq that left some 250 people, mostly Jews, dead or injured. Zionist activists spread news of the killings often by labelling it a massacre and a holocaust. Their aim was to spread fear among Iraqi Jews to prompt them to leave, he said.

Indeed, according to Mr Shenhav, much of the persecution against Jews in Arab countries began after - and not before - Zionist activists began operating underground in those states, angering the authorities.

He said that for decades, Israel kept a low profile on the issue of lost properties of Arab Jews to avoid facing demands that it grant restitution to Palestinian refugees. However, following the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, in which core disputes such as the Palestinian refugees were addressed, Israel initiated an on-again, off-again campaign to draw attention to the so-called Jewish refugees.

The Facebook page includes a video speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, saying "it's about time that the Jewish refugee issue be put back on the map" and charging that the refugee issue in the peace process is "only about the Palestinians".

Aside from videotaped interviews with elderly Arab Jews, there are also black-and-white photographs such as one from 1956 with the caption "Jewish exiles from Egypt", showing people lining up at Alexandria's port to undergo a "humiliating" physical search.

Ironically, Iran - viewed by Israel as its enemy - is not included in the campaign because there are currently some 25,000 Jews living in that country, down from around 80,000 at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but still the most of any Middle East country other than Israel.

The community in Iran does not feel persecuted by the authorities, Israeli experts said. Aside from Iran, some 3,000 Jews still live in Morocco, 1,000 in Tunisia and tiny communities of several dozen in countries such as Egypt and Yemen.