THE ISRAEL REPORTJanuary/February 2001
What of the Refugees ?January 6, 2001
At the heart of the U.S. peace plan now being considered by the Israelis and the Palestinians is a simple bargain. Israel surrenders control over the Temple Mount and most of Arab East Jerusalem. The Palestinians surrender the right of millions of refugees to return to their homes in Israel.
A good swap? The Arab League says no. At a meeting on Thursday, Arab foreign ministers insisted that the right of return is "sacred" and must never be bargained away.
The hypocrisy is staggering. One reason Palestinian refugees are there in the first place is that Arab countries attacked the nascent country of Israel in 1947 and 1948, rejecting a United Nations plan to peacefully divide the Holy Land into Jewish and Palestinian states. As the secretary-general of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, said of the attack at the time, "this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre."
In the event, the effort failed. The Israelis beat back the attackers and took control of most of what is now the state of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out in the process. Rather than take in these refugees, the surrounding Arab countries -- Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt -- left them to stew in refugee camps, where many remain to this day, an expense, a nuisance and a source of instability for their reluctant hosts.
The Arab countries have been happy to use the Palestinians for propaganda purposes all these years, holding them up as examples of Israeli malice and making sure they lived in appropriate misery. But now, as a peace agreement looms, Arab leaders fear they will be stuck with almost two million refugees who will no longer have even propaganda value once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over. Lebanon, for example, announced before Christmas that it would not allow the refugee issue to be solved "at the expense of the national rights of the Lebanese people." In other words, we want them out.
It would be convenient for the Arab countries if the refugees could simply return to Israel as part of a peace agreement. That, however, is simply impossible. Israel rightly argues that such an influx would change the nature of the Jewish state, which already contains a million Arabs. A far better solution is for the refugees to be absorbed over time in the new Palestinian state that, under any peace agreement, would rise on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After all, Israel absorbed the Jews who were expelled from Arab countries. Between 1948 and 1967, in a mirror image of the Palestinian flight from present-day Israel, more than 500,000 Jews fled Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Aden and Yemen. Most were accepted by Israel and resettled there with generous help from the Israeli government, a telling contrast to the treatment the Palestinians received from their Arab brethren. If the Arab League insists that Palestinians have a right to return to their former homes in Israel, will it offer the Jews who fled the Arab world the right to return to their former homes in Tunis and Baghdad and Cairo? Not likely.
The best solution to the refugee problem is to offer Palestinians the right of return to what is to be their new national homeland on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with internationally financed compensation for their losses and generous help in resettlement. If Palestinians are to have a right of return, the right should apply to Palestine, not Israel.
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