April 17, 2007 - No issue in the Israel/Palestinian conflict is more controversial than the question of the Palestinian refugees. Each side considers the other's position to be a deal-breaker. The Palestinians demand a "just solution" to the refugee problem, which to them would take the form of compensation plus a "right of return" of all Palestinians to the homes they (or actually their ancestors) lost, which would now be situated within the State of Israel. Israel objects that such an arrangement would upset the demographic balance and turn Israel into a de facto Palestinian state. This would defeat the whole purpose of partition, which is to allow self-determination for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
I recently came across a proposed solution to the refugee dilemma that struck me as so sensible that I thought it worth quoting extensively. Here is how it begins:
It is patently obvious that uprooting the descendents of the refugees from their current homes in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and other countries, and returning them to Israel, to the West Bank, and to Gaza is a utopian ideal and [a recipe for] anarchy. More than that - it is an idea that cannot be implemented, not only because it will upset the demographic [balance] in a dangerous and destructive manner, and will have [far-reaching] political, economic and social ramifications in such a small and constrained geographical area, but [mainly] because the return [of the refugees] stands in blatant contradiction to Israel's right as a sovereign [state], while the Palestinian Authority lacks the infrastructure to absorb such a large number of immigrants as long as the peace process... is not at its peak.
The writer clearly recognizes the difficulties. The major population shift that the right of return would create would overwhelm both Israel and the new Palestinian state.
But what about the problem's origins?
Clearly, the refugee problem is mainly the result of cumulative mistakes made by the countries where [the refugees] live... such as Syria and Lebanon, which have isolated the refugees in poor and shabby camps lacking the most basic conditions for a dignified human existence. Instead of helping them to become fully integrated in their new society, they let them become victims of isolation and suffering... Later, the worst of all happened when Arab intelligence agencies used the Palestinian organizations as a tool for settling scores in internal Arab conflicts that probably have nothing to do with the Palestinians.
We can leave aside for now the fact that the refugee problem resulted from the war in 1948, which was initiated by the Palestinian Arabs themselves and the armies of five Arab states. The countries in which the refugees now live did not integrate them into their societies and make them citizens with equal rights. Instead they maintained them in refugee camps, where the living conditions are very poor.
The Jews also had a refugee problem, as the number of Jews expelled from Arab countries was roughly equal to the number of Palestinian refugees. Israel's response to the Jewish refugee crisis was very different:
The Israelis, on the other hand, were civilized and humane in their treatment of the thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their property, homes and businesses in the Arab countries, and who were forced to emigrate to Israel after the 1948 war. The Israeli government received them, helped them, and provided them with all the conditions [they needed] to become integrated in their new society.
Israel accepted the Jewish refugees and made them full citizens. Therefore the Jewish refugees do not demand a right of return.
So what should be done to solve the Palestinian refugee problem?
The Arab countries where the Palestinians live in refugee camps must pass the laws necessary to integrate the inhabitants of these camps into society. [In addition, they must] provide them with education and health services, and allow them freedom of occupation and movement and the right to own real estate, instead of [continuing] their policy of excluding [the refugees] and leaving the responsibility [of caring for them] to others, while marketing the impossible illusion of return [to Palestine].
It seems right and just that the host Arab countries do no less for the Arab refugees than Israel did for the Jewish ones. It is not right that those refugees be kept in substandard living conditions, exploited by their hosts for political purposes. Israel did not do that. Israel already shouldered its share of the burden. It is time for the Arab countries to do likewise. This is what justice demands:
There is a growing necessity for a realistic, unavoidable and bold decision that will provide a just solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees by naturalizing them in the host countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, and other countries.... By every conceivable and accepted criterion, naturalizing the refugees [in the Arab countries] is the inevitable solution to [this] chronic humanitarian problem.
The problem of the Palestinian refugees has been a major stumbling block in the peace process for many years. This plan to solve the refugee problem is fair and just. It deserves to be taken seriously. It deserves international backing.
The author of this plan? Saudi columnist Yousef Nasser Al-Sweidan, writing in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, March 5 and March 16, 2007.
"Saudi Columnist: 'The Right of Return Is an Illusion'." Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch No. 1540, April 12, 2007.
Peace with Realism