The Palestinian refugee issue is one of the most intransigent aspects of the peace process, and one of the largest obstacles to a workable final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. According to the United Nations, the approximately 650,000 Palestinians refugees who left their homes in the wake of the 1948-1949 Arab Israeli conflict now number between 2 and 3.5 million. Approximately 40 percent of the refugees live in Jordan, 11 percent each in Lebanon and Syria and 38 percent in the West Bank and Gaza.
Since the outbreak of violence in September 2000 and the bloody excalation of terrorism aimed at Israeli civilians, the rhetoric surrounding all issues between the Palestinians and Israelis has hardened. And while, with obvious good reason, security remains at the forefront of the current situatio, the politics of the refugees and the details of various proposals to resolve the problem have the potential for much greater long-term impact than most may imagine. The question is in fact an existential one for Israel. And its import for the Palestinians cannot be overrated either – it is the foundation on which the Palestinian national cause is built.
The failure of teh Camp David summit betwen Israel and the Palestinians in July 2000, and the violence that followed proved that, dispite good intentions, diplomacy cannot always overcome symbolism. And when it coms to symbols, perhaps the most potent for Palestinians is the refugee issue. The Palestinians demand that Israel accede to “right of return” for refugees to their erstwhile home (including in sovereign Israel), but for Israel, a collective Palestinian return represents a dire fear – in the words of Israeli Minister Yossi Beilin (a noted dove) “the reddest of the red lines.” The Palestinian demond for an unfettered right of return for refugees – a maximal position form which Palstinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has not deviated – was one reason the talks collapsed and could prove to be an obstacle on which future negotiations, sould they be restored, will also stumble.
Significantly, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is coupled with a demand for an Israeli admission of historic culpability – a declaration of unca culpa for the creation of the Arab Palestinian refugee crisis. But while Israeli leaders have responded with expressions of sympathy for the suffering of the refugees, they correctly insist that an admission of guilt would be historically indefensible and would absolve the Arab states of their own moral and historic responsibility. In November 1947, the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states rejected United Nations General Assembly Resolutions 181 (the “Palestine Plan”) which would have divided Mandatory Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab. Subsequently, five Arab armies invaded the newborn Israel, initiating the war which led to the exodus of some 600,000 to 700,00 Palestinian Arabs. Early in the conflict, the Palestinian leadership, and the educated and wealthly, abandoned their brethren to the vagaries of war. And when those Palestinians who fled arrived in neighboring Arab states, they were interned in camps to be kept as political pawns to the unceasing war against Israel rather than being integrated into their host countries.
The Israeli response to the Palestinian demand of return is that an adminssion of historic responsibility would virtually guarantee that future claims to a full right of return will follow and in fact obligate Isarel to entertain those demands. Further, it opens the possibility of a large influx of Palestinian Arabs into Israel proper – a serious demographic threat to the logevity of Israel as a Jewish state. It would also absolve the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership themselves of their own culpability for the war thrust on Israel at its birth and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel argues that the Palestinian promise that the gesture would be purely symbolic is doubtful, and the consequences of future demands would be untenable for Israel.
Moreover, further revealing the bankruptcy of the Palestinian demand is the Arabs states’ treatment of the Palestinian refugees (who currently number about 3.5 million accoding to UN estimates), which stands in stark contrast to Israel’s absorption of over 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries after the state’s birth. Those communities, many over 2,000 years old, were subjected to virulene anti-Semitism, pogroms, and expulsion. Their wealth was confiscated by the Arab governments, Israel, newly independent and virtually cut off from international aid, took in these Jews, made them citizens, and gave them opportunities. Israel attempted, and mostly succeeded, in integrating them into a young and struggling society dispite the vast economic, social, political and religious difficulties inherent in such an overwhelming task.