According to United Nations sources there are 13 Palestinian refugee camps and 499,189 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria. Since Syria erupted in civil war in early 2012, those Palestinian refugees have come under fire by the Syrian regime of the Alawite minority led by the Assad family.
Almost all of the Palestinian refugees in Syria are Sunni Muslims. Although left to live in poverty in refugee camps (since 1948) that grew into urban slums, the Palestinians living in Syria were loyal to the regime – what choice did they have in a dictatorship like Syria? Their loyalty to the regime pushed them into establishing and supporting Palestinian factions and political organizations that were always associated with the rejectionist fronts that since the 1980s have been in opposition to the PLO, including when it was led by Yasser Arafat. Those rejectionist Palestinian organizations were all part of the rejectionist strategy of the Assad regime itself.
Along with the Palestinian secular rejectionist organizations that were based in Syria like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP, founded by George Habbash, a Christian) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP, founded by Nayef Hawatmeh – also a Christian), the Palestinian Islamic organizations such as Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas were also based in Syria. When the Syrian regime began targeting the Palestinian refugee camps, 65 years of relative stability, economic life, and political struggle for the Palestinians in Syria came to an abrupt end. Even the Hamas leadership picked up and left Syria.
There is no question that the Syrian regime is engaged in crimes against its own people. These are crimes against humanity. Syria is in ruins and millions of people have become refugees outside of Syria and millions more displaced from their homes within Syria’s borders. Entire cities, towns and villages have been destroyed by massive bombings from the air by the Syrian air force. The people of Syria are living (and dying) through the world’s most disastrous humanitarian crisis at this time.
Many Syrian refugees have found temporary sanctuary in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The Palestinian refugees of Syria have probably suffered the most. There are reports of people dying of starvation in what is remaining of the refugee camps outside of Damascus. The world stands by and does almost nothing to help them.
There is one immediate solution which could be offered and would serve the interests of the State of Israel and would be viewed most positively around the world. That solution is to allow those people to come to Palestine – to the West Bank. Israel has full control over 62 percent of the West Bank – what is called area “C”.
Most of this area is empty. Most of this area will become part of the future Palestinian state. Allowing these people to come to Palestine would not only save their lives, it would also give a huge immediate boost to Palestinian economic development.
It can be assumed that the wealthy Arab Gulf States will provide the economic aid necessary to launch the construction of several new cities in the West Bank for them.
The funds would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The absorption of the new Palestinian immigrants to Palestine would give the Palestinians an immediate raison d’être fulfilling their most basic purpose of being a safe haven for Palestinians all over. The Palestinian diaspora would also be engaged in absorbing the Palestinian refugees from Syria.
The State of Israel could contribute its considerable successful experience in absorbing large numbers of new immigrants/refugees in a very short time frame. Israel’s image in the world as the only country responding to humanitarian disaster in Syria with a permanent outlook would greatly improve as Israel would truly be an exemplary state living by the prophetic values on which it was founded.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking to AIPAC last week in the US, spoke with great pride about the Israeli treatment of wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals in the north of Israel. This is truly an unusual and great thing that Israel does. It is most certainly a reason for pride and admiration.
The welcoming of Palestinian refugees from Syria to the West Bank – to come home to Palestine, would be even a greater cause for pride and admiration. But in addition to this, it would also serve Israel’s long-term interests by providing Palestinian refugees – the most needing Palestinian refugees – with a home in the future State of Palestine, next to Israel, and not inside of Israel. Almost all of the Palestinian refugees in Syria originate from what is today northern Israel. The likelihood of those refugees ever returning to their original homes is next to nil. They no longer have any future in Syria. They can and should go home to Palestine.
There will be the cynics and the resistance front people who will scream against this plan, saying that it relieves Israel of any responsibility for the right of return of those refugees. The issue of the right of return is being negotiated between the parties now. The most likely outcome will not enable any significant return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. The future for the Palestinian refugees living the most dreadful reality will be in the State of Palestine.
With people dying every day and living through unimaginable suffering, why not offer them a new life today? Why wait for tomorrow? Bring them home to Palestine now!
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.