Israel-Palestine: solving the refugee question

David Gardner
18 August 2009

The increasingly ill-tempered standoff between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu over illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem is a vivid reminder of the formidable obstacles in the way of middle-east peace. Clearly, there can be no negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and probably not even any negotiations - so long as Israel's colonisation of Arab land continues.

David Gardner is chief leader writer and associate editor at the Financial Times. He was the paper's middle-east editor from 1995-99. In 2003 he won the David Watt prize for political journalism for his writing on the Arab world. He is the author of Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance (IB Tauris, 2009)

This article was first published on the website of the Norsk Ressurssenter for Fredsbygging (Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre / NOREF)

Yet, it is at moments of incipient crisis like this that it is worth insisting this conflict is soluble. There are some Arab-Israeli minefields that can still be traversed with a pragmatic compass: including the fate of the roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees - used by rejectionists on both sides to argue that no reconciliation of this tragic history will ever be possible.

The Palestinian refugees, who were driven out by or fled the 1948 and 1967 wars, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), insist on their right of return. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) responsible for their welfare, the number of refugees now totals around 4.5m. These refugees of war - the shattat, or diaspora - are to be distinguished from earlier waves of emigration, beginning under Ottoman rule in the 19th century. Israel opposes the right of return for any part of the Palestinian diaspora, arguing that this would irreversibly change the demographic balance of the Jewish state, which would then cease to be Jewish.

This is a real concern that has to be addressed. So it would be as well to begin with its threefold reality.

The real dimensions

First, the UNRWA numbers, though juridically correct, are not, in reality, accurate. In Lebanon, for example, the UN had 374,000 refugees on its books in 2002, spread out in twelve camps. Lebanon, fearful of its delicate confessional balance, denies Palestinians not only citizenship, but the right to own property or work in seventy-one specified professions (see Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's Palestinian shame", 19 June 2007). Many Palestinians able to leave, using UNRWA-acquired educations as their passport, have therefore left. The actual number remaining in Lebanon in 2002, UN officials say privately, was 192,000. It is now thought to be smaller. This is doubly important because Israeli officials often point to the Lebanon Palestinians, who are mostly from the Galilee, as among those most likely to swarm back into northern Israel if they were to agree to the right of return.

Second, how many among them, sixty and more years on, would exercise their right to return? Khalil Shikaki, a reputable Palestinian pollster who runs the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, in 2003 asked refugees in Jordan and Lebanon if, given the choice, they would return to Israel, or accept compensation. In Jordan, which hosts the biggest concentration of about 2.8m refugees who, unlike in Lebanon, enjoy Jordanian citizenship, only 5% opted for return; in Lebanon, predictably given the inhospitality of the host country, it was 23%.

Taken together, these two indicative magnitudes give some idea of the real dimensions of the problem. Furthermore, UNRWA's overall regional tally is almost certainly a good deal higher than the actual number of refugees in the Arab states neighbouring Israel.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the UN agency is obliged to safeguard the legal rights of all the refugees, wherever they are, against compensation they may eventually receive in the event of a settlement of the conflict. This leads to the third element in the reality of the problem: compensation.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former Israeli foreign minister, stated that the outline deal issued to the parties in December 2000 by the then US president Bill Clinton gave the refugees the right of return to "historical Palestine", but "no explicit right of return to the state of Israel", which could limit the numbers it admitted. A multi-billion-dollar compensation-and-resettlement programme would cover the rest of the refugees. The Arab League peace-offer agreed at Beirut in March 2002, moreover, proposes "a just solution" to the right of return that quite obviously foresees compensation for the majority of refugees. That offer remains on the table.

Israeli officials complain the Clinton parameters and the Beirut plan are too nebulous. This position is, at best, disingenuous. Israel is in control of its frontiers, its internal as well as its external borders; it has had little problem, for instance, in excluding Arab citizens of Jerusalem, in open defiance of international law. Most of all, however, Israeli officials know full well they negotiated just such a deal in 2000, with Syria, under US mediation. That package fell apart because, although Israel was prepared to return the Golan heights, it refused to allow Syria back onto the last metres of land down to the water's edge of Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee.

But there was agreement in principle, Israeli and American officials say privately, on an overall, internationally funded package, then worth up to $17 billion, covering such items as early-warning stations on the Golan but mostly to compensate the registered 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria.

The cost of security

The right-of-return conundrum, in other words, is pragmatically soluble. Israel knows this because it has already been down that path - and the path is still open. It will stay open, for a time, so long as it is clearly understood that no Palestinian leader - certainly not President Mahmoud Abbas, who has lost Gaza to Hamas, has nothing concrete to show for his peacemaking efforts, and is in danger of being branded a traitor to the Palestinian cause - can possibly yield on the rights of the refugees, as opposed to negotiating how those rights are honoured.

The cost of overall compensation, benchmarked against the Syrian package, could exceed $100bn, most probably financed by the United States, the European Union and the Gulf states. Expensive? That rather depends on the alternatives. Apart from the question of justice, of righting a wrong which is not just historical but actual, the idea that Israelis can enjoy security inside a ring of dozens of refugee camps - not just in neighbouring states but inside the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem - is delusional. Already the phenomenon of al-Qaida-style jihadism has begun to surface in the camps (for example, in Nahr al-Bared in Lebanon, in Jordan, and in Gaza - where Hamas crushed a jihadist group on 15 August 2009 after an eruption of fighting). Their upsurge is in part owed to the collapse of the refugees' own institutions as a result of the implosion of the PLO, which led and policed the camps (see Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon [Harvard University Press, 2007]).

The amount of money suggested, in other words, will prove a lot cheaper than the alternative: a beleaguered Israel ringed by dozens of camps, desperate huddles of misery so cut off from any hope of a decent future they will become the new universities of jihad. No Israeli wall will be proof against that.

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (20 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Faisal al Yafai, "What makes the Arabs a people?" (25 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Karim Kasim & Zaid Al-Ali, "The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Binyamin Netanyahu's mirage" (15 June 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

Hazem Sagheh, "Israeli settlement, Arab movement" (28 July 2009)


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