January/February 2001
Western Wall

More on the Palestinian Right of Return

By Ze'ev Schiff
January 3, 2001

Here is a riddle: The lives of how many families - out of a total of 420,000 residents of the Gaza Strip still living in refugee camps - have been improved with the large sums of money that the Palestinian Authority has received from donor states, since the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993? Answer: None.This fact proves that the Palestinian leadership is basically no different from the leaders of the Arab states who, for several generations, have placed at the top of their respective agendas the desire to perpetuate the plight of the Palestinian refugees, but not the desire to end or even alleviate their suffering. The only difference is that the refugees living in the PA are the Palestinian leaders' own flesh and blood, and are living under their regime.

However, the essentially indifferent attitude of the PA's leaders towards the plight of the Palestinian refugees does not, of course, stop Palestinian representatives at the multilateral conference on refugee affairs that was set up after the Madrid peace conference from demanding more and more contributions in order to "help improve the lives of the refugees."

Here is another riddle: What is the total amount that the Palestinians are demanding as an overall compensation payment for the refugee situation that was created by the War of 1948? Answer: Approximately $550 billion! This sum, which is targeted at a number of different issues, was arrived at by representatives of leading Western nations at a multilateral conference on the refugee question after they had calculated the Palestinians' claims. One Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen (a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas) is defined as one of the more "moderate" members of the Palestinian leadership. Abu Mazen, deputy to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, said after the last Camp David summit, that the compensation payments to the Palestinians should be made by Israel alone and should not come from any international compensation funds. In short, Israel must sell everything it possesses while other nations must set aside huge sums of money from their gross national capital in order to satisfy the Palestinian demands for compensation.

But the story does not end here. Recently, Arafat's economic adviser, Dr. Mahar Al-Kurd declared that, in addition to compensation for the refugees, the Palestinians would demand "compensation for damage incurred by the [Israeli] occupation since 1967." This separate "bill" even includes compensation for the "exploitation" of both the Palestinian beachfront on the Dead Sea and the underground water that Israel has pumped out, as well as the return of direct and indirect taxes, including those related to tourist activity, that Israel has collected from the Palestinians. Although this additional list of demands sounds like a joke, Al-Kurd claims that he and several of his colleagues heard Israeli experts give their indirect consent to it.

Regarding the matter of experts, one should beware of Israeli "experts" who make promises but have not been authorized by anyone to do so - because the problem of the Palestinian "right of return" is not really a problem. These experts rely on their own common sense, not on that of the Palestinians. It would be a good idea to compare what Palestinian leaders say today with what they said after the signing of the Oslo agreements. After the Oslo agreements had been signed, these leaders said that the refugees were not really interested in returning to Israel and that the issue was merely the granting of the right to return, and not the exercising of that right. Thus, the only demand Palestinian leaders made regarding the Palestinian refugee issue was that Israel issue a declaration recognizing its responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. No credence should be given to these ingratiating words. In private conversations, responsible Palestinian leaders say - off the record - that nobody really knows how many Palestinian refugees want to return to Israel. According to these responsible leaders, a very large percentage of the refugees in Lebanon, where successive governments have never been interested in their remaining there, will undoubtedly want to return to Israel's Galilee region.

The Palestinian position on this issue today is summed up in an official document that they submitted at Camp David. Until that document is rendered null and void, it must be taken very seriously. The document is so extreme that it could be regarded as a joke - were it not for the fact that it appears to be a formula for destroying Israel from within. Here are a few examples: Israel will also compensate states (such as Syria and Jordan) that have provided the refugees with asylum; the Palestine Liberation Organization will receive compensation for public Palestinian property that has remained in Israel; the refugees who will return to Israel must not be settled in areas that could endanger their lives or well-being, or that lack a suitable infrastructure; Israel must amend its laws in order to assist in the refugees' integration; the refugees returning to Israel will automatically be granted Israeli citizenship; the right of return will have no time limit, although the process of registering for return will extend over a period of five years; and an international committee will carry out monitoring work in Israel to ensure that the refugees are integrated and protected.

Admittedly, Israel's position on the return of the refugees to Israel proper has become tougher, in the wake of the riots in which Israeli Arabs participated. This "achievement" can be credited to Balad (National Democratic Alliance) Member of Knesset Dr. Azmi Bishara, whose supporters encouraged the riots. However, more needs to be done. Israel must clarify once more that, in relation to the right of return, there can be no compromise and that, if Israel must choose between making concessions on this issue and going to war, it would be preferable to risk the possibility of a violent confrontation. It is doubtful whether there is any room for significant concessions on other questions as well when the Palestinians are pushing towards a confrontation over the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper


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