Refugee return a poser for Israel


Adam Frey

Canberra Times – 7 May 2008

(View published article)

Conventional wisdom holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now is primarily a matter of borders and “occupation”. But as Israelis celebrate their Independence Day and Palestinians’ prepare to mourn their naqba (“catastrophe”), it’s clear that the shadow of 1948 looms as large as that from 1967.

While it is understandable that Palestinians focus on the suffering of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, the truth is more complicated. Moreover, the international community’s handling of the issue has only exacerbated the conflict with Israel and made it harder to solve.

In 1947, consistent with decades of international support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in “Palestine”, the new United Nations recommended dividing the land into two states – one for the Jewish majority areas and one for the Arab majority areas. The Jewish leadership accepted the UN plan; the Arab population and neighbouring Arab states did not.

The day after Israel declared its independence, five of its much larger and stronger Arab neighbours attacked with the aid of Palestinian militias. Their declared goal was to snuff out the Jewish state in its infancy. They failed.

As a consequence of the war, approximately 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. Many now-refugees fled, often in response to misinformation spread by the Arab states about supposed Israeli atrocities (ironically, the misinformation was meant to encourage the Palestinians to fight). Others were encouraged to leave with the expectation they could soon return to a land without Jews. It’s also true that some were forced out in the course of war by the Jewish military defending Jewish communities from attack or siege by Palestinian militias. In the years immediately following, a near equal number of Jews were forced from their homes in Arab countries.

Had the Arab states not launched a war to destroy Israel, there would be no refugee situation at the heart of the conflict. It is not just ironic but sad that, after more than six decades of violence, the international community is back to the same solution proposed in 1947 – and accepted then as now by Israel: two states for two people. Yet to the extent that the Palestinians’ “catastrophe” refers to the very establishment of Israel rather than the refugees, that resolution remains just as elusive.

Unlike every other refugee population that has fled a war zone, there has been almost no effort to find a better life for Palestinian refugees in their host countries. To the contrary, the Palestinian leadership and Arab states have kept the refugees living in squalid “camps” – which more resemble towns and cities – to be used as a political tool with which to bludgeon Israel.  Even after the Palestinian Authority governed 90 percent of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the mid-1990s on, the refugee camps there remained. Outside of Palestinian-controlled territory, refugees often face official discrimination from their Arab host country, for example being denied citizenship and only being allowed to hold certain jobs.

Inexplicably, Palestinian refugees are treated differently from every other refugee population in the world. Shortly before establishing the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose mission is to protect refugees and resolve refugee crises, the UN also created a separate agency devoted solely to Palestinian refugees.

The imbalance between the two UN agencies is telling. The UNHCR has a staff of about 6,300 people spread out over 110 countries to help 32.9 million refugees. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) employs over 27,000 people (almost 99% of whom are refugees) in 11 offices in support of less than 4.5 million Palestinians. This number includes the descendants of the 1948 refugees – the only situation in which successive generations are classified and counted as refugees themselves.

UNRWA’s budget is also outsized compared to that of UNHCR, and is funded entirely by government and UN contributions. Despite the oft-claimed centrality of the issue to Arab governments, the top five donors to UNRWA in 2006 and 2007 were all Western countries, including the US.

The Palestinian refugees also wield more political clout than the rest of the world’s refugees. There are several standing committees in the UN bureaucracy devoted solely to the Palestinian issue; the Division for Palestinian Rights within the UN’s Department of Political Affairs is on par with other divisions responsible for regions as vast as “Asia and Pacific”.

The inordinate amount of attention and resources devoted to a single refugee population is often justified by a claim that Palestinian refugees have a “right of return” to Israel. But this is a legally unprecedented and unsupportable assertion.

As noted expert Ruth Lapidoth has concluded, “neither under the general international conventions, nor under the major [relevant] UN resolutions, nor under the relevant agreements between the parties, do the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to Israel.”

There are also practical obstacles. Foremost among them, the unlimited “right of return” to Israel – as opposed to the new Palestinian state – would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. That would negate the principle of “two states for two peoples”.

A true two-state solution to the conflict requires compromise on this issue. Yet by elevating the refugee issue above all others, the international community has encouraged a mind-set among Palestinians that they need settle for nothing less than an unlimited right of return. That approach will only further prolong the conflict.

Adam Frey is a Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.