The Palestinian Refugees: The real victims of Arab politics

Above the fray: Palestinian and Arab policymakers admit that perpetuating the refugees’ predicament makes it politically risky to offer alternate solutions unless they are part of an overall peace agreement.

Palestinians 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sharif Karim)
Palestinians 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sharif Karim)
With each passing day, the Palestinians and most Arab states make the problem of Palestinian refugees more difficult to resolve. Any solution lies in resettlement and/or compensation and must preclude the refugees’ return en masse to Israel. Regrettably the right of return remains the narrative on the Palestinian and Arab streets and continues to be exploited for political ends. In the process, it entrenches the Palestinians and the Arab states in an untenable position that pushes the establishment of a viable Palestinian state under the formula of a two-state solution further from reach.
Creating the false hope that the refugees will one day return to their homes in Israel has made the acceptance of compensation or resettlement politically risky to advocate and nearly impossible to implement in the current atmosphere, for both Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders. Palestinians designated as refugees throughout the Arab world have been prevented for decades from fully integrating into the societies in which they live (with the exception of Jordan, where the majority of them have been absorbed). Even those living in the West Bank and Gaza remain designated as refugees in their own homeland, for the sole purpose of maintaining their status and so making it the main focus of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Even before the establishment of the PA, Arab states pointed to the dilemma of Palestinian refugees as a symbol of the conflict, using it as a device to divert attention from their domestic shortcomings. The notion of a full return to their homes has been ingrained in the Palestinian psyche. Today, with the third generation of Palestinian refugees demanding a full return, the issue has been compounded. Whereas in 1950, there were just over 700,000 registered refugees, today the number is nearly five million.
THE PALESTINIAN resolve on the refugee issue has a particularly dramatic effect on the way Israelis view the conflict. For the Israelis, the return of Palestinian refugees represents an existential threat to the country as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.
Thus, when Palestinians today talk of a two-state solution, Israelis are skeptical. They largely believe that the Palestinians’ ultimate intention is to eliminate Israel in stages: first by establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and then by eradicating the Jewish state demographically through the right of return. From the Israeli perspective, this explains, at least in part, why the PA refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
If a full return were to happen, the refugees plus Israeli Palestinian citizens would exceed the number of Israeli Jews. Although in previous negotiations the Palestinians accepted the return of a token number of refugees under family reunification, they nevertheless demanded to maintain the principle of “right of return” in any peace agreement. Fearing that the Palestinians may someday revive the right-of-return issue, Israel continues to reject any reference to it to ensure a sustainable Jewish majority and thus the Jewish identity of the state.
Palestinian and Arab policymakers admit that perpetuating the refugees’ predicament makes it politically risky to offer alternative solutions unless they are part of an overall peace agreement. This approach has not worked, either. In 2000 at Camp David, Yasser Arafat, then the chairman of the PA, raised the question of the right of return at the 11th hour as a matter of principle, even after he and then-prime minister Ehud Barak had nearly reached an agreement on all issues, including the return of a limited number of refugees. The “Palestine Papers,” leaked earlier this year by Al Jazeera, demonstrated that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert were preparing to make a deal enabling 5,000 refugees to return to Israel proper over the course of five years, with the ultimate number for “symbolic” purposes to be several thousand more. Of course, the “Palestine Papers” revelation that Abbas had been willing to relinquish the full right of return hardened the Palestinian position further thereafter.
TODAY, FOR the Palestinians to conclude a two-state agreement with Israel and convince the Israelis of their intentions, a permanent peace based on a twostate solution would require a dramatically different approach to the refugees’ right of return. To avoid a serious Palestinian backlash, however, the new approach must be consistent with the political developments since 2000, including the introduction of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas in 2008, and Hamas’s moderated views since the IDF incursion into Gaza in 2008-2009.
First, the Palestinian leadership must begin to use a new public narrative regarding the right of return by adopting the language used in the Arab Peace Initiative to refer to the Palestinian refugees: “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” Although Israel rejects the reference to Resolution 194, which is non-binding but nevertheless affirms the refugees’ right of return to Israel proper, the emphasis should be placed on the concept of a “just solution... to be agreed upon [by the parties],” which is also consistent with the 1967 UN Resolution 242. The Palestinian public must begin to hear the narrative of a “just solution” that can be accomplished only through resettlement and compensation.
Second, think tanks, writers and academics should take the lead and begin to alter the refugee narrative from one of helplessness and despair to one of selfdetermination and renewed initiative. Doing so will have a profound effect on the Palestinian psyche, as well as on the Israeli public. Scholars should discuss the plight of Palestinian refugees in search of realistic, viable solutions to the dilemma in the context of a two-state solution. There is no doubt that this will anger many Palestinians, and some may resort to threats or even violence to silence such voices, but it takes courage and conviction to change the discourse on this vital issue for the sake of those who have been suffering the most.
Third, the new public narrative should center on the necessity of building the Palestinian “homeland” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sinѣᨁ}͔㬀�etermination and renewedarts of the original homeland (Palestine), the refugees will have the right of return to these areas, but not necessarily to their original homes in Israel proper. This is especially timely in light of the recent initiative to gain statehood recognition from the United Nations. Much like the pursuit of self-determination at the UN, the solution to the plight of the refugees would not be dependent on Israel; rather, it would be a Palestinian and Arab initiative as part of a broader effort to build their newly established state.
Fourth, there is absolutely no reason or justification for maintaining the refugee status of Palestinians already living in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead of depending on UNRWA for handouts, the refugees should seek international aid for resettlement in their homeland. The oil-rich Arab states, EU member states and the US should contribute financially to rehabilitate and settle these refugees, who are still languishing in camps in their homeland, the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, too, will have to contribute to the resettlement process by providing thousands of prefabricated homes, as well as by turning over scores of settlements that will eventually be evacuated under the terms of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The majority of these refugees do not seek to uproot themselves and go elsewhere, but merely want a better quality of life and the opportunity to raise their families with dignity, leaving behind the stigma of refugee status.
THE POLITICS surrounding the refugee issue, especially Israel’s concerns over the Palestinians’ ultimate intentions, has made it a serious impediment to negotiating a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. As a result, the issue can no longer be resolved at the negotiating table alone. Attitudes must be changed, and doing so in the absence of genuine discussion on the political level requires that solutions be found at the popular level.
Palestinian self-determination will remain untenable without a resolution to the refugee dilemma. It is time for Palestinian and Arab civil society to begin a new public discourse that their political leaders have long avoided.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.