In 1867, Mark Twain visited the Holy Land and was dismayed at what he found, "a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds -- a silent, mournful expanse. ... A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. ... We never saw a human being on the whole route. ... There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." (From "The Innocents Abroad.")
The land to which Jews began to return in large numbers during the final two decades of the 19th century -- the land they transformed from desert to orange groves, cities and kibbutzim -- was largely empty, not the thriving "nation of Palestine," as the current myth has it.
One thinks of this because today's news brings fresh reports of the pitiless persecution of the Palestinians -- not by Jews, but by their fellow Arabs -- which is the true story of Palestinian oppression.
The Lebanese government, the New York Times reports, is considering revoking the citizenship it awarded to about 25,000 Palestinians in 1994, a move that will cost many of them their jobs, schools, homes and access to health care. "They are not welcomed," writes reporter Daniel J. Wakin, "by a government that declares its allegiance to the struggle for a Palestinian right to a homeland."
Lebanon, like Israel's other Arab neighbors, refused to absorb Arab refugees in 1948, placing them in camps instead. (Israel, by contrast, absorbed and made citizens of the 500,000 Jews who fled Arab lands at the same time.) Twelve refugee camps remain housing most of the 400,000 Palestinians who live in Lebanon. Lebanese law declares them to be stateless and, as such, forbidden to own land outside the refugee camps.
The camps are a disgrace -- far worse than anything in the Israeli-administered territories (and Israel surrendered the day-to-day running of civilian life to the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords). "Waste water runs through a trough in the alleys," reports the Times. "Human waste is disposed of in pits beneath homes. Some of the alleys have grown so jumbled that waste-removal trucks cannot get through, and filled-up pits are becoming a problem. ... Residents say the Lebanese army, which has a checkpoint at the camp's entrance, sometimes searches cars to make sure no unauthorized building materials enter, so the camp does not become more permanent.
Though the Palestinians are ethnically, culturally, religiously and linguistically indistinguishable from their neighbors in Lebanon, they are rejected and excluded from Lebanese society only to make a point about Lebanon's (read Syria's) total rejection of Israel's existence.
Arab governments deny this and claim that the camps will be closed just as soon as the "right of return" is recognized. But they of course know that the "right of return" would mean that up to 4,500,000 Palestinians living all over the world would have the right to settle in Israel. Israel could never accept nearly 5,000,000 implacably hostile Arabs. Israel is already home to 1,000,000 Arab citizens who can vote and even serve in the Knesset.
The Lebanese, or rather the Syrians, who invaded and control the country, certainly know that the Palestinians living in those camps will never "return" to Israel. So why keep them in such squalid conditions? As a breeding ground for terrorists, perhaps?
Following the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Kuwait simply clapped its hands and expelled up to 300,000 Palestinians. Why? Because Yasser Arafat had sided with Saddam Hussein in the war. The Palestinians had been integrated into Kuwaiti society, working at all kinds of jobs, from engineering to computer to menial work. Many had been born there. But the Kuwaiti royal family had no qualms about uprooting them. Ambassador Saud Nasir Sabah said, "They didn't represent a necessity to us." There was hardly a peep from the world community. Certainly there was no condemnation by the United Nations.
There is very little sincere concern around the world for the "plight" of the Palestinians. If there were, their situation in Arab countries would draw more attention. As it is, Palestinians are only useful as a club with which to beat Israel. It is disgusting that the Arabs are willing to do this to their own cousins, and equally dismaying that world opinion endorses it.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.