On this day in 1949, President Harry S. Truman signs a U.S. resolution authorizing $16 million in aid for Palestinian refugees displaced and facing starvation as a result of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Truman’s resolution contributed U.S. funds to a $32 million United Nations (U.N) aid package. At the signing, the president stated his hope that before the relief money ran out, the means will be devised for the permanent solution of the refugee problem. Truman argued that U.S. aid would contribute to the long-term stability of the Middle East through integrating Palestinian refugees into the economic life of the underdeveloped area.
The 1949 aid plan capped several years of heated conflict between pro- and anti-Zionist factions in U.S. politics and within Truman’s administration. In 1945, as Roosevelt’s vice president, and then early in his own presidency, Truman vigorously supported the immigration of Jews displaced by the Holocaust to the historically contested area of Palestine, but initially resisted the idea of establishing a purely Jewish state there. In a letter written at the time, Truman acknowledged that "It is a very explosive situation we are facing. What I am trying to do is make the whole world safe for the Jews." Truman also wanted to maintain good relations with Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, upon whom the U.S. was becoming increasingly dependent for oil.
At home, Truman faced an election year. At the time, the opposition Republican Party favored dividing or partitioning Palestine to create a separate Jewish state and had the support of a majority of the populace, who preferred to create a Jewish state rather than absorb post-war Jewish refugees into the U.S. On the other hand, key members of Truman’s administration feared U.S. support for a Jewish state would threaten relations with oil-rich Arab nations who viewed Palestine as holy Arab land.
Lobbyists on both sides courted Truman, sometimes infuriating him. When an impassioned visiting rabbi pounded on Truman’s desk with his fist, Truman yelled No one, but no one, comes into the office of the president of the United States and shouts at him, or pounds on his desk! If anyone is going to do any shouting or pounding in here, it will be me!” When the State Department and the U.N. ambassador made unauthorized and incorrect announcements implying that the president opposed partition, Truman called them “striped pants conspirators” who had “completely balled up the Palestine situation.” Truman eventually decided to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell, supporting a U.N. trusteeship of a Jewish area in Palestine with gradual transition to partition as the ultimate goal.
When the U.N. agreed to partition in November 1947, the Arabs and Israelis almost immediately went to war over the contested area. In October 1948, Truman announced his support for victorious Israel and turned his attention to containing communism in Eastern Europe and Korea. Since then, Palestinian refugees, Arab oil and the state of Israel have become continuous sources of conflict in the Middle East.
In January 1950, Truman followed up the 1949 aid resolution by asking Congress to grant another $27 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). UNRWA continues its work on behalf of Palestinian refugees today.