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Commentary :: Human Rights : International
Palestine, the Refugees, and the Right of Return
17 Jan 2008
The Palestinian refugee problem was precipitated by the creation of Israel, but exacerbated by refusal of neighboring Arab states to absorb those refugees.
Among the myriad problems that plague the Middle East region, one stands out that has seemed to defy solution for nearly six decades. I refer to the case of the Palestinians that fled the 1948 creation of the State of Israel and thus became refugees in neighboring countries. For those 650,000 Palestinian Arabs and their descendents, the "Right of Return" to their homeland is a right carved in stone. Any Palestinian, or fellow Arab, that renounces that right is regarded as a traitor to the Palestinian people. And for these Palestinian refugees and their supporters, "return" means to all locations from which they fled, including land along the Mediterranean coastline, in what is now the State of Israel, west of the old "Green Line" demarking the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

Israelis of virtually every political stripe are opposed to such a Palestinian "Right of Return", knowing full well that an influx of nearly four million Arab Palestinians into the State of Israel -- given the significantly higher Arab birth rate -- would result in the creation of an Arab majority within less than two decades, and thus the dissolution of the one and only Jewish state (worldwide) amidst an area where there already are twenty-two Arab states. It should not come as any great surprise then, that the Jewish Israeli population (80% of Israel's population) who comprise about one half of the world's Jewish population, and who have reestablished a Jewish state in the land west of the Jordan River after an 1800 year hiatus, are not prepared to negotiate the question of the continued existence of this Jewish state. By way of comparison, we might ask how many Americans would favor opening the southwestern border of the United States and saying: "Since the southwest once was Hispanic, all Hispanics are welcome to come and repopulate the area"?

It would seem then, at first glance, that we have an intractable problem -- one that cannot be solved, as a Palestinian "Right of Return" effectively means extinction for a Jewish state, and given the hostility that Jews have faced in most Moslem Arab countries, a return to refugee status for Jewish Israelis. No Israeli government will ever agree to such a situation, period! And Palestinians, disenfranchised for so long, are unlikely to forsake their dream of return. Given these two conflicting views, how can any solution ever be found? What can be done to realistically solve this conflict? How can this bloody battle for a piece of real estate the size of Delaware finally be brought to a peaceful conclusion?

Forgotten by most (conveniently or otherwise) is the fact that the creation of Israel in 1948 did not only produce a Palestinian Arab refugee population (650,000 individuals) but that the Arab and Moslem world's reaction to Israel's creation resulted in anti-Jewish pogroms in those lands that caused the creation of 750,000 Jewish refugees. Unlike the neighboring Arab lands that refused to grant citizenship to the Palestinian Arab refugees, Israel granted automatic citizenship to every one of the 750,000 Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms and persecution in Arab and Moslem countries. Indeed, today, the majority of Israel's Jewish population is comprised of these refugees from Arab/Moslem lands and their progeny.

It would seem then that what we have here is another case of population exchange, a political phenomenon that is well known from modern history. The Greeks and the Turks, the French and the Germans, the Germans and the Poles, even the Indians and the Pakistanis exchanged populations in order to accommodate changes in borders or the creation of modern nation-states needing and wanting more homogenous populations. Viewed in such a manner, the problem becomes more manageable. As President Bush recently suggested, the Palestinian refugee population should be enabled to resettle through the provision of funds for that purpose. The resettling of these refugees should include the possibility of citizenship in those Arab states where they took refuge (all part of the greater Arab umma (nation), as well as in the new Palestinian state to be created in the West Bank and Gaza. Having fled from the Mandate of Palestine*, the refugees would have the right to return to the newly created future State of Palestine, but not to the State of Israel.

The Palestinian refugee problem was precipitated by the creation of the State of Israel. But it was maintained and allowed to fester by the refusal of the neighboring Arab states to absorb those refugees (with the exception of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). It is thus incumbent upon the Arab world to help their fellows as much, if not more, than for Israel and the West to help solve the refugee problem. An immediate significant first step would include the Arab states offering their Palestinian residents citizenship in their states. A second crucial step is for the Arab states to inform their Palestinian brethren that such a solution is acceptable and fair, and that the Palestinians should not expect more than what has been proposed in the prior paragraph. Faced with reality, it is possible to learn to accommodate. The Palestinians deserve a chance to confront reality, and the Israelis deserve a chance to help make that reality livable for both peoples.

This work is in the public domain
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