On the day after ‘independence’

The Palestinian refugee problem was a bubbling lava for years could erupt after Israeli withdrawal to 1967 lines and establishment of a state.

December 2, 2010 00:15
Jonathan Halevi

Jonathan Halevi. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The right of return is considered sacrosanct among the Palestinian people and no one who disputes it. The representatives of the Palestinian people, including the PLO and Palestinian Authority, base their position on the question of resolving the conflict on “justice” rather than on “compromise.”

The meaning of “justice,” from the Palestinian perspective, is the realization of the rights of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with all the decisions of the international institutions, the foremost being UN Resolution 194 that they see as sanctifying the right of the refugees to return and receive compensation.

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The formula of “a just and agreed-upon solution in accordance with Resolution 194” does not convey an implied readiness for any hypothetical Palestinian compromise regarding the right of return. “Agreed” means that one should coerce Israel to agree to implement the Palestinian demands for “justice.”

The PLO and the Palestinian Authority continue to nurture in Palestinian society the idea of the return of the refugees. They prevent any option of resettlement of refugees outside the camps and preserve the role of UNRWA as a symbolic and practical expression of the demand for return.

The Palestinian concept, that receives support from Palestinian and even some Israeli human rights organizations, views the right of return as a private right of every single refugee, and this means that the Palestinian people’s representatives (as well as the United Nations) have no authority whatsoever to forgo this right in the name of the refugees.

Any Palestinian leader who would dare challenge the consensus and waive the right of return in negotiations with Israel will, in the best case, find himself blacklisted and removed from the stage, or in the worst case, be executed.

According to the Palestinian consensus, the non-implementation of the right of return will leave the gates of the conflict with Israel open, and this implies justification for a continued armed struggle against Israel even following the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The future Palestinian state to which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad aspire is prepared to absorb Palestinians, including refugees, within its boundaries, with the reservation that this will not be considered in any shape or form as a waiver of the right of return.

Once the Palestinian entity receives control over the international border crossings, irrespective of whether it is recognized as a state with full sovereignty or not, the gates will be opened for the transit of Palestinians, including those defined as refugees, to areas under Palestinian control. The Palestinian entity will not be able to prevent the entry/return of Palestinians to its borders, something that would be considered national treason and contravene Palestinian basic law and the Palestinian consensus.

ALL THE Arab states where the Palestinians defined as refugees reside support the right of return unreservedly. Syria and Lebanon have traditionally adopted a policy that clarifies unambiguously that the refugee camps in their territory are only temporary and the refugees must return to Palestine when the conditions for this mature. It is plausible to assume that the two countries will have an interest in promoting the transfer of their Palestinian populations to the areas of “Palestine” both for internal demographic reasons and also to influence by this measure the creation of a demographic reversal in the areas of historic Palestine, to influence the Palestinian regime and make use of the Palestinians in the framework of the continued struggle against Israel.

The Jordanian regime detached itself from the West Bank in 1988 and provided Jordanian passports to the refugees, but announced that following the establishment of the Palestinian state, the refugees will have to decide whether they choose to be Jordanian citizens or return to Palestine. The massive eviction of a Palestinian population has occurred a few times over the last three decades. Kuwait expelled 400,000 Palestinians after the First Gulf War due to PLO support for Iraq. Libya ordered the expulsion of 30,000 Palestinians (and later on agreed to accept them) following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Iraq expelled scores of thousands of Palestinians following the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

The refugee problem that was a bubbling lava for scores of years could erupt after an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state, and find expression in many areas: The infiltration of Palestinians into Israeli territory, and legal claims by refugees in Israel and in the international court in The Hague to provide the right of return, the restitution of property, and compensation. Focusing the Palestinian armed struggle on the right of return (a refugee intifada) could escalate the struggle in the international arena to coerce Israel into agreeing to the right of return (to avoid the boycott and anti-apartheid campaign).

The widespread phenomenon of Palestinians illegally residing in Israel and the infiltration of scores of thousands from African countries via the Egyptian border into Israeli territory exemplify the dimensions of the challenge that Israel will be forced to contend with in the form of a similar and much larger phenomenon in scope from the area of the West Bank. Likewise, Israel can expect to face challenges in the international and legal arenas, given the position of the human rights organizations in this context. Israel will find it difficult to prevent infiltration via its long border with the West Bank. Additionally, the expected economic distress in the Palestinian state, given the massive arrival of refugees, could invite international pressure upon Israel to absorb a larger number of refugees within its territory.

In the final analysis, the refugee problem is at the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and is considered by the Palestinians as a trump card, via which they can weaken the State of Israel. After the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians will be able to overcome Israel via demography, transforming the country in the long term into an entity that will be submerged in a Palestinian state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Since the Israeli consensus holds that the mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel means national suicide, Israel will require robust international support in negotiations for a final status agreement, in order to reach an accord on the basis of defensible borders, and to find a permanent solution to the refugee problem based primarily on the Palestinian refugees receiving citizenship in their host countries or their absorption into a Palestinian state.

The writer is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former adviser to the Policy Planning Division of the Foreign Ministry. Excerpted from an article that first appeared on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs website.

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