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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a novel Israeli approach to one of the prickliest issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, MK Benny Elon (NU-NRP) is proposing the establishment of an international body in lieu of UNRWA to deal with the resettlement of Palestinian refugees over the next decade.
The proposal, part of the hawkish parliamentarian's alternate peace plan known as "The Israeli Initiative," is meant to be "a first step" towards resolving one of the most difficult final status issues.
"Successive [Israeli] governments have chosen to stick their head in the sand when faced with the looming fear of the refugee issue," Elon writes in a newly-expanded chapter of his three-pronged plan.
"Needless to say, this policy has been ineffective. The Palestinian refugee problem has grown in size and, in effect, it has given birth to terror and Palestinian nationalism."
Elon notes that all Middle East peace processes have included elaborate calls for repatriation or resettlement programs for Palestinian refugees. Yet, he says, resolving the refugee problem has always been left until the end of any given process, with the issue remaining an open and festering sore that is exploited by extremist elements in the Islamic and Arab world and used as a political weapon against Israel.
Elon's unconventional proposal calls to establish an international body that would be comprised of Israel, Jordan, the US and other unspecified countries. This body would cooperate with representatives of the Palestinian refugees to work toward their resettlement in countries of refuge within a decade.
"The resolution of this problem deserves a concerted effort, considering its influence on the stability of the Middle East and the peace of the entire world," Elon writes.
He estimates that $25 billion would be needed to cover the cost of repatriating Palestinian refugees.
He conditions the establishment of such an authority, however, on the dismantlingt of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA deals exclusively with Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and, Elon charges, has helped perpetuate the suffering of Palestinian refugees by ensuring the continued existence of Palestinian refugee camps.
UNRWA's current mandate is scheduled to end on June 30, 2008.
Elon notes that even as a group of US congressmen began working last year to stop US funding to UNRWA, Israeli governments have feared dismantling the organization "as part of their continual avoidance of correctly dealing with the refugee problem."
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, estimated at anywhere from 400,000 to 750,000, left their homes in 1948 and 1949, and their fate - and that of their millions of descendants - represents one of the toughest issues in negotiating a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the same period, some 850,000 Jews fled Arab countries after Israel's founding in 1948 and were integrated and absorbed in Israeli society.
Elon's proposal for resolving the Palestinian refugee problem rules out allowing them to return to the State of Israel. His stance remains in keeping with longstanding government policy that an influx of refugees would demographically damage Israel's character as a Jewish state.
"The question that remains open is not whether they will return to their homes, just as Jews will not return to Poland, Iraq or Morocco - but rather, how to resettle them in spite of the fact that they have been uprooted from their homes," he said.
The other two central facets of Elon's plan, which has attracted US congressional interest, are maintaining Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and recognizing Jordan as the Palestinians' official representative instead of the Palestinian Authority.