It strikes me as no coincidence that an article appears in today’s New York Times regarding the situation of Palestinian refugees. With Condoleeza Rice engaging in the first serious attempts at reviving significant peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab League just about to re-issue the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan, the question of the refugees is about to take center stage.
The Times article presents the refugee issue as difficult and divisive, but essentially resolvable. While I do believe that the refugee issue can be resolved in the long run, I also think the Times article paints far too rosy a picture.
Let’s be clear: the issue of Palestinian refugees is, ultimately, the very core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is the point at which the irresistible force of Palestinian nationalism confronts the immovable object of Zionism. It is the single issue that binds the Palestinian nation, wherever its members may be living. It is also the one issue that, however much any Israeli may care about Jerusalem or the settlements, unites Israelis in fear of the loss of their country.
A colleague of mine recently told me of a conversation he had just had with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni stands out in this government as being more capable and more rational than most of her current colleagues. But when the refugees came up, she was quite firm: Israel could not admit any responsibility, nor allow even a single refugee to come back behind the Green Line. For, she said, if Israel gives even an inch on this issue, the floodgates would be opened and Jews would quickly become a minority in Israel.
This attitude is a very common one among Israelis. The very mention of any claims of Palestinian refugees tends to produce panic, and in most cases, a very uncompromising attitude. Benny Morris, who has done more research on the specific circumstances of the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis than anyone, has repeatedly stated that Israel must never recognize the Palestinian right of return.
It is, of course, on the Palestinian side that the Times article focuses. While it’s nice that the article gives hope regarding the issue, I believe it severely understates the passion that still exists among Palestinian living outside the Occupied Territories for the right of return. Many Palestinian exiles still hold the keys to their old homes. True, most of those homes, and even the villages they were built in no longer exist. But those keys, or the deeds that others have, are a most meaningful symbol.
Look at the web site or on the mailing lists of Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition. The rhetoric is often harsh, but there is no mistaking the deep conviction on this point.
I confess that, sometimes when I have encountered Palestinians who are living comfortable, middle-class lives in Europe or the US and would oppose any sort of agreement with Israel that did not include the right of return, I have been disturbed. It seems to me that relieving the misery of Palestinians under occupation should come first. But I am not Palestinian, so I need to deal with the priorities they choose, not decide what they should be, as what I think on that matter has no impact.
A further complication of this matter is the inclusion in most plans for the resolution of the refugee issue the resettlement of Palestinians in the lands in which they currently reside. There are some countries where this would be exceedingly dangerous for Palestinians (Iraq being a significant example). Lebanon, in particular, which houses some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, will not accept such an arrangement.
bearing in mind that Gaza is one of the most over-crowded places on Earth and that the West Bank and Gaza are severely economically depressed, any major influx of refugees even just to those places is not a simple matter.
So is the Palestinian refugee problem ultimately unresolvable?
I don’t believe so, and not only because if it is then there really is no hope for a resolution of this vexing conflict. No, I believe there is a real possibility to resolve this conflict. I don’t claim to have some magic recipe for it, but I do see ways that a resolution can be achieved.
One thing that must be made clear is that the refugee problem cannot be resolved under current circumstances. It will not be resolved between an occupying power and an occupied people. Only the leadership of two free peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, can possibly come to the resolution of this issue.
I believe the Saudi plan has a kernel of this point embedded in it, where it calls for “an agreed upon resolution” to the refugee issue. This terminology acknowledges that there is no possibility of a resolution being forced on Israel, and that is quite correct. Sixty years of struggle have proven that the Palestinians as well cannot be forced into a solution of this issue.
If we understand the futility of trying to force a solution on either party, we then are left with the need to create an atmosphere where the two can come together and work out a solution. This happens when the Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza are freed and the issues of Jerusalem, borders, water rights, settlements and all the other questions of the occupation are solved.
Finally, the international community must be fully and tangibly committed to building a stable Palestinian economy and participating in the resolution of the refugee issue. Even if we set aside the abject Israeli terror at the idea of refugees flooding across their borders, there remains the fear that Israel alone will have to foot the bill for the refugees.
This would be neither practical nor morally correct. Many players besides Israel were complicit in the circumstances that created the Palestinian refugee crisis, including the UN, League of Nations, Great Britain, the fledgling Arab states, the US, the Soviet Union and others. A global effort will be required, both in order to make a better future happen and because it is right.
Yes, Israel will have to admit its responsibility for the refugee crisis. At this stage, the historical record on this point is clear, despite the constant denials from Israel. Benny Morris and others have laid bare the records of the Zionist militias and the early days of the israel Defense Forces to prove conclusively that transfers did occur. Furthermore, even regarding those Palestinians who did flee the fighting, Israel did not have the right to bar their return.
But the conditions have to be right for Israel to admit that culpability and to do its part to solve this problem. It will not be easy, and is only possible if the Jewish population receives international guarantees regarding its own security and sovereignty. Only this way can the refugee issue be resolved. That would be true even in a one-state scenario–any realistic one-state vision would have to allow for Jewish autonomy even in a single-state structure.
So, yes, I believe the refugee issue can be solved, but it’s the toughest one. Not Jerusalem, refugees. We should retain that positive outlook on it, but we do ourselves no favors if we kid ourselves about how difficult that resolution will be.