Allow Syrians to settle in ‘Palestine’ as citizens, not refugees

Israel, for its part, should welcome a token amount of refugees into Israel as a gesture of goodwill and neighborliness in hopes of improving the poisoned relations with Arabs in the region.

September 28, 2015 21:37
3 minute read.
Syrian refugees are reflected in a puddle as they wait for their turn to enter Macedonia

Syrian refugees are reflected in a puddle as they wait for their turn to enter Macedonia at Greece's border. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The unraveling of Syria and the mass exodus of many of its citizens provides Israel with a historic diplomatic opportunity to realign the Palestinian refugee issue with humanitarian and economic rather than political and ideological concerns.

As of 2010, close to half a million people were registered in Syria as Palestinian refugees. These are the descendants, or in some rare cases the actual individuals, who were displaced from their homes as a result of the war following the United Nation’s fateful decision of 1947 to create “independent Arab and Jewish States” in the historic land of Palestine. Rather than resettling Palestinian refugees, which has been the primary solution to most other refugee crises during the 20th century, a vast majority of Palestinian refugees have been kept in refugee camps or maintained as second-class citizens throughout the Middle East in hopes that they will be able to return to the exact location within Israel from which they or their ancestors were displaced.

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Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas recently called on Israel to allow Palestinian refugees in Syria to be resettled in areas under Palestinian control. Israel would be wise to grant this request, with one important stipulation: that those Palestinian refugees who are relocated to the Palestinian territories be granted full Palestinian citizenship, relinquish their refugee status and thus their claim to “return” to Israel.

Predictably, Abbas would refuse this caveat as, until now, the Arab world has held the Palestinians’ “right of return” to be more important than humanitarian concerns. The very fact that the PA maintains refugee camps of Palestinians in what they themselves call Palestine is testament to this fact.

However, given the fact that current refugee crisis has literally landed on Europe’s doorstep, the international community will likely pressure Abbas to give in to Israel’s reasonable demand. How could it be that Syrian refugees resettled in Germany are granted full rights as German citizens, but Syrian refugees resettled in what many in Europe recognize as “Palestine” continue to be considered refugees? As countries in Europe struggle, both demographically and economically, to resettle Middle Eastern refugees flooding their borders today, it ought to raise the question of why refugees from a conflict more than half a century old continue to live in “camps” dependent on welfare distributed by a UN organization reliant on European donations.

Indeed, Europe continues to pays tens of millions of dollars a year to provide welfare to Palestinians living as refugees within the PA -controlled areas, in doing so giving in to a political demand rather than practical humanitarian and economic considerations.

If Europeans handled the Palestinian refugee issue with the same consideration as the current refugee crisis facing Europe – by permanently resettling refugees outside of their displaced homes and eventually giving them economic independence – it would give new hope to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Those in Israel who fantasize that the West Bank will somehow, someday, be part of Israel, will of course be against any measure that would deliberately increase the proportion of non-Jews living there. Their concerns and desires, however, are as impractical as the Palestinians’ desire to return to their ancestors’ land in Israel and should be dismissed as such.

Israel, for its part, should welcome a token amount of refugees into Israel as a gesture of goodwill and neighborliness in hopes, perhaps naively, of improving the poisoned relations with Arab citizens throughout the region and strengthening Israel’s diplomatic standing among its own allies.

The author worked in the Knesset as a foreign policy adviser and holds a master’s degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

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