Resolving the Palestinian Refugee Issue

If you’ve read my entire series on the history of the Palestinian refugees, you now know about as much as anyone about the issue. The question is, Now what?

Today there are 3.7 million Palestinian refugees according to the United Nations. The Palestinians insist that they have the right to return to their homes. Let’s be clear about what they mean by this. The Palestinians say that the refugees should be permitted to return to the exact homes they lived in before they left or were expelled. There’s a small technicality. Those homes no longer exist or house other people who are not going to leave.

Remember, even if one accepts the Palestinians’ exaggerated claims that one million Palestinians became refugees in 1947-1949 (the actual figure according to the UN was less than half that number), today the number of refugees is nearly four times that figure. Thus, most refugees never lived in the part of Palestine that is now Israel. Their parents or grandparents may have once lived there, but the majority of refugees were born in Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan.

Another fact that no one mentions is that nearly half of all the Palestinian refugees, approximately 1.6 million, live in Jordan. Historically and geographically that is part of Palestine, so those people are already “home.” Add to that the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Palestinian Authority (including more than 500,000 “refugees”) and one can accurately say that the majority of Palestinians live in Palestine.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Israel accepted the Palestinian right of return and accepted all the refugees. The total population of Israel today is about six million, five million of whom are Jews. Overnight, the population would balloon to ten million and the proportion of Jews would shrink from more than 80 percent to less than 60 percent. Given the higher birth rate of Arabs, Israel would almost instantly cease to be a Jewish state and the Arabs would quickly become the majority and take control of the government. Israelis on the left and right have unanimously opposed the Palestinian right of return since 1948 because they recognize that it would be a formula for suicide.

If you look at the issue from the Palestinian perspective, the demand that the refugees return to their homes makes no real sense. Fredelle Spiegel put it succinctly in the Jerusalem Report (March 26, 2001):

...if there were a Palestinian state, why would its leaders want their potential citizens to be repatriated to another state? From a nation-building perspective it makes no sense. In fact, the original discussions about repatriation took place at a time that there was no hope of a Palestinian state. With the possibility of that state emerging, the Palestinians must decide if they want to view themselves as a legitimate state or if it is more important for them to keep their self-defined status as oppressed, stateless refugees. They really can't be both.

When you think about it, the Palestinian demand would be similar to Israel telling Jews they should live in the diaspora.

Even respected Palestinian leaders have begun to acknowledge that it is unreasonable to insist that millions of refugees return to Israel. The Palestinian representative in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, for example, said the refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state, "not in a way that would undermine the existence of the State of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state. Otherwise, what does a two-state solution mean?" (AP, October 22, 2001).

In the context of a peace settlement, Israel could be expected to accept some refugees, as Ben-Gurion said he would do more than 50 years ago. In fact, Israel has consistently offered to accept as many as 100,000 Palestinians under family reunification, and on a humanitarian basis. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post disclosed the shocking news that 140,000 Palestinian refugees had already been accepted since the Oslo agreements were signed in 1993. Thus, Israel has actually unilaterally gone beyond all its previous offers without getting the Palestinians to resolve the issue.

If and when a Palestinian state is created, many of the refugees should be allowed to move there, though it is hard to imagine how the territory envisioned for that state could accommodate so many people, and the Palestinian leadership has expressed no great interest in absorbing their brothers and sisters. Given that unemployment is already around 50 percent and the West Bank and Gaza Strip have no natural resources, infrastructure, or industry to speak of, it will be an impossible task to absorb all the refugees in Palestine even with the undoubted flow of foreign aid that will follow the establishment of the Palestinian state.

The only solution for the refugee issue is what the UN envisioned from the outset; that is, the resettlement of a large number in other Arab states. Population exchanges have historically been the method by which refugee problems have been solved. For example, another partition occurred in 1947, the one creating India and Pakistan. The eight million Hindus who fled Pakistan and the six million Muslims who left India were afraid of becoming a minority in their respective countries. Like the Palestinians, these people wanted to avoid being caught in the middle of the violence that engulfed their nations. In contrast to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, the exchange of populations was considered the best solution to the problem of communal relations within the two states. As I documented in the earlier articles, however, the other Arab states don’t want the Palestinians and may well deport them to Palestine when the state is declared.

The refugee problem is a difficult one, but it is not Israel’s responsiblity to solve it alone. Moreover, no discussion of the refugee issue should ignore the 820,000 Jewish refugees who have never received compensation from the Arab governments who confiscated their possessions.