The Shadow of the Palestinian Refugees

One of the main issues that Israelis and Palestinians are struggling with in the ongoing negotiations is the Palestinian refugee problem. Although in previous negotiations both sides agreed on permitting a small number of refugees to return to Israel, the agreement failed as it was encumbered by other conflicting issues, especially Israel's national security concerns. Since then Israel's insistence on maintaining the Jewish identity of the state makes the return of any significant number of refugees or even the principle of the right of return simply impossible.

The problem of the Palestinian refugees has generally been discussed in context of the moral imperative of the "right of return" and is based on subjective judgment of right and wrong.

The circumstances that precipitated the problem, as seen from the Israelis' and Palestinians' vantage points, weighed heavily in shaping two opposing perceptions between the two sides.

From the Palestinians' perspective, immediately following the establishment of Israel in May 1948, it embarked on a forceful and systematic expulsion of nearly 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland (Palestine). They recall these events as "the catastrophe" (Al Nakba).

This scenario has been embedded in the Palestinian psyche and reinforced consistently through public narratives by Palestinian leaders to perpetuate their plight, and by the Arab states that used the refugees for domestic consumption to cover up their own internal shortcomings.

What has further aggravated the problem is the subsequent and frequent violence between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war which created another wave of refugees.

Moreover, the Israeli settlements are seen as a deliberate plan to deny the refugees the prospect of returning to part of the land.

Sixty-five years later, the Palestinians still see the right of return as a moral imperative that must trump all other considerations, regardless of any changes on the ground.

Israel disputes the circumstances that precipitated the refuge problem. From its vantage point, the UN Partition Plan called for the establishment of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. The Israelis accepted the plan, the Palestinians rejected it and seven Arab states invaded the nascent country and were subsequently defeated.

The Israelis further argue that the Arab states called on the Palestinians to abandon their homes during the 1948 war and return for the spoils after the defeat of the Israelis.

The Israeli position is generally predicated on the fact that in wartime many people end up displaced and settle elsewhere, especially when conditions in their country of origin have changed dramatically.

Moreover, Israel insists that the return of any significant number of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper would obliterate the Jewish identity of the state. At any rate, the claim of the right of return is based on the non-binding UNGA Resolution 194.

In the search for a solution there are several other critical factors that must be carefully considered.

First, both Israelis and Palestinians have created a biased historical account that corresponds to their claims as to what precipitated the Palestinian exodus. While Israel claims that the Palestinians were encouraged to leave by the Arab states, the Palestinians insist they were forced to leave by Israel.

Second, whereas over 700,000 Palestinians fled Palestine in 1948, their "number," according to UNRWA, has swelled to nearly five million since 1948. A Palestinian refugee's legal status is therefore inherited, which both UNRWA and the Arab states have continuing interests in maintaining.

Thos who claim that there was a de facto exchange of population between Jews and Palestinians are mistaken. By definition, the Jews who left the Arab states were not refugees, but rather emigrants who left their various countries of origin to settle in Israel, and were quickly absorbed into the nascent state. No Jews were expelled or persecuted in any systematic way in any of the Arab states.

Third, while the Palestinians understand that Israel will never accept the return of any significant number of Palestinian refugees, they continue to foster the perception that the refugees have a birthright impervious to time.

Fourth, in peace talks in 2000 and 2008/2009, the Palestinians agreed to repatriate 20,000-25,000 refugees under family reunification while insisting that the "principle" of the right of return be enshrined in any peace agreement. Israel rejected that on the grounds that such a clause would leave it vulnerable to future claims. Thus, self-preservation must trump the moral imperative of the right of return, however just it may be.

Political philosopher Leo Strauss observed that in such situations where "the very existence or independence of a society is at stake... there may be conflicts between what the self-preservation of society requires and the requirements of commutative and distributive justice. In such situations... it can justly be said that the public  safety is the highest law" [emphasis added] (Natural Right and History, p. 160).

The right of return will continue to be a major obstacle in peace negotiations unless Israelis and Palestinians accept the changing realities which in fact lend themselves to find a solution.

Framework for a Solution

The humanitarian crisis of the Palestinian refugees should come to an end; their rights ought to be addressed justly through resettlement and compensation. All parties involved need to facilitate a solution not only for the refugees' sake but because a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves their national interests.

First, for Israel, reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is becoming increasingly more urgent. Israel's growing isolation, its concern about Iran's nuclear weapons program, the fear over the explosive situation in Syria and the rapidly changing demographics in favor of the Palestinians have convinced many Israelis that the time to end the conflict has come.

As previously agreed, Israel should allow between 20,000-25,000 Palestinians to settle in Israel over a period of 4-5 years under the framework of family reunification.

In addition, as a gesture of good will, Israel should leave intact many of the settlements that they will eventually evacuate (through a mutual agreement with the PA) for some of the refugees to inhabit and offer technical and logistical support to assist the Palestinians.

Nothing will demonstrate a greater humanitarian overture by Israel than making such a direct contribution to help the Palestinians in this herculean task.

Unlike the withdrawal from Gaza which was unilateral and done without collaboration with the Palestinian Authority (and contributed directly to the takeover by Hamas), any future withdrawal from the West Bank must be done in stages to allow for confidence-building.

Second, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians want an end to the occupation. The PA as well as Hamas' leadership know only too well the public sentiment in this regard, but for too long held onto extreme positions which run contrary to the wishes of ordinary Palestinians.

The PA and Hamas know that time is running out in this untenable situation, and that they must provide the refugees the prospect of a better future, give them hope and opportunities, and above all restore their human dignity.

The PA must now begin to change its public rhetoric and emphasize that Palestinian refugees can exercise their right of return to their homeland -- in the independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Third, nearly all Arab states have come to the conclusion that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines their national interests, and they no longer see Israel as the enemy.

Moreover, weary of the rise of Islamic extremism and Iran's ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, they now consider settling the conflict and achieving rapprochement with Israel as central to regional stability. This further explains their support of Obama's efforts to resume the negotiations.

Such a solution must be consistent with the 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the Arab Peace Initiative, which both call for achieving a "just" settlement to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The Arab states should also provide logistical and organizational support while promoting a new narrative regarding the "right of return" to a future Palestinian state.

Fourth, the EU has a special interest in seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come to an end. The EU imports much of its oil from the Middle East and because of its proximity has a vested interest in the region's stability.
The EU has played a significant role in aiding the Palestinian refugees and contributed the largest sum of money for their rehabilitation, health care and education. The EU is uniquely suited to utilize its economic resources to take the lead in raising the funds needed for resettlement and compensation.

Fifth, America's strategic interest in the Middle East is extremely important and successive administrations have been relentless in persuading both the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement.

Due to its prominence and influence, both sides look at the US as the ultimate arbiter who can contribute appreciably to a solution, and will continue to play a pivotal role in their resettlement and compensation in the context of a comprehensive peace.

At this juncture in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, little is left to the imagination. The bitter or sweet reality of coexistence is here to stay. It is time to put an end to the Palestinian refugees' plight and restore their human dignity.