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December 2010, Pages 14-17

Two Views

Peace Talks, Palestinian Refugees and Their Right of Return

Peace Talks or No, Lebanon's Palestinian Refugees in Limbo

By John Redwine

A Palestinian refugee in Lebanon holding an olive tree sapling and the Palestinian (r) and Lebanese flags flashes the victory sign during a memorial ceremonial commemorating the 28th anniversary of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, Sept. 16, 2010. (AFP photo /Anwar Amro)

As Israeli, Palestinian and Quartet negotiators work to salvage the rapidly sinking Middle East peace process in the face of stalled direct talks, they continue to consider all aspects of the file, including the five permanent status issues of Jerusalem, borders, water, settlements and refugees. Among these, it is certainly the Palestine refugee question that will prove the most difficult to resolve.

The fate of the 1948 refugees is the most difficult, because the traditional convictions of the two sides are at once mutually exclusive and integral to their identities. Palestinian refugees aspire to return to their homes, while Israel would lose its majority Jewish status should 4.7 million Sunni Muslim refugees flood into the country. While Palestine refugees hope to see their inalienable right to return implemented, Israeli nationalism sees that hope as an existential threat.

The majority of Palestinian refugees reside in the three regional host countries of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In Syria, the refugees have been well integrated into the society and have the same rights as Syrian citizens. They constitute less than 5 percent of the population, and it should be relatively straightforward to organize a permanent solution for these refugees. It is likely, however, that Damascus will use the refugees as a bargaining chip in order to regain the Golan Heights, so some painful concessions will be necessary.

Jordan's Palestinian refugees have had a troubled history in the country. Yet, ever since the 1970 clashes between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian army, their status has slowly improved. In this time the vast majority of refugees have obtained Jordanian citizenship. Furthermore, in previous peace negotiations King Abdullah II has offered to absorb all of Jordan's Palestinian refugees, so that country's refugee problem should be the least problematic for peace talks to solve.

For many reasons, Lebanon's 350,000 Palestinian refugees are the sticking point for a solution to the refugee issue. The reasons—historical, political and emotional—run broad and deep. The early presence of the PLO in south Lebanon was difficult for the region's inhabitants. Palestinian cross-border attacks elicited brutal Israeli reprisals with predictable consequences for the local population. Furthermore, many Lebanese correlate the Palestinian presence with the start of the Lebanese civil war. Most importantly, perhaps, the possibility of Palestinian refugee resettlement in Lebanon sparks fears for the country's precarious confession-based political system.

There are four ways for Lebanon's Palestine refugees to escape their status: return to their place of origin, emigrate to a third country, settle permanently in Lebanon, or repatriate to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The "right to return," as we know it today, is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the mid-1990s, "return" meant going back to Palestine upon the defeat of Israel. With widespread international acceptance of Israel as a legitimate nation, it is clear there will be no wholesale return of Palestinian refugees to their places of origin. Most of these refugees hail from areas that are now within Israel proper, and a large influx of overwhelmingly Muslim refugees would threaten the Jewish character of the state, as mentioned above. Although previous Israeli administrations have offered to accept up to 40,000 refugees over a five-year period (i.e., at the 2001 Taba conference), violent outbreaks since then mean that number will probably drop radically in this new round of talks.

Emigration to a third country represents another possible solution. Two major challenges exist here. First, perhaps even more so than the other three solutions, emigration represents a sell-out on the right of return for Palestine refugees. It is hard to imagine moving the entire family to Quebec and then expecting to return to Palestine. Most refugees oppose this solution, at least outwardly. The second challenge is finding welcoming host countries. In 2000 and 2001, some Western governments agreed to accept 50,000 to 100,000 refugees. Clearly this doesn't come close to the total number of refugees across the region needing accommodation. Furthermore, this number has likely dropped in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and Palestinian support for Saddam Hussain in the 1991 Gulf war. It is worth noting that Arab countries have been considerably less generous in offering to host emigrating refugees.

Repatriation to a newly formed state of Palestine may also help Lebanon's Palestinian refugees escape their plight. It is important to note, however, that repatriation does not mean "return." In fact, it means resettlement in a land the vast majority of refugees have never seen. This solution presents other dilemmas as well. For years the PLO was forced, by political necessity, to cater to the Palestinian refugees closest to Ramallah. Hence, refugees in Lebanon and Syria were often neglected in favor of refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, when PLO President Mahmoud Abbas came to Lebanon in December of last year he didn't even visit a refugee camp.

Additionally, any newly created Palestinian state will be physically small and likely incapable of hosting the entirety of the refugee Diaspora. Lebanon's Palestinian refugees are some of the least skilled and worst educated. It is clear where the priority will lie when the PLO decides who will be allowed to repatriate. Furthermore, Israel is not interested in seeing a few hundred thousand impoverished, angry refugees that much closer to its borders. It is easy to conclude that Lebanon's refugees will not be easily folded into a new Palestinian state.

Permanent resettlement in Lebanon represents the most contentious solution for the country's refugees. In fact, refusal to engage in tawteen (naturalization of Palestine refugees) may be the one issue all Lebanese political parties agree on, at least outwardly. When presented with resettlement, the Lebanese response usually falls into one of two camps. First, they argue that an influx of 350,000 Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees will unbalance the country's delicately balanced, confession-based political system. Yet what they don't consider is that the country's current political system does not reflect demographic reality. For example, there are more than twice as many voters per MP in the Muslim town of Sur than there are in the Christian town of Basharre. Furthermore, with the Lebanese civil war-ending Taif Accord's requirement to deconfessionalize the political system, it should theoretically be possible to naturalize immigrants to the country regardless of religion.

The second argument presented against tawteen is socio-economic: opponents point out there's just not enough room in Lebanon's labor market. Reliable studies have shown that the likely negative impact on the labor market would be minimal, however, and Lebanese politicians must believe this as they have recently loosened labor restrictions on refugees. Yet despite this recent thaw, Lebanon's deep-seated concerns about naturalizing Palestinian refugees remain. It would take a unique combination of international pressure, financial assistance and good will to make this solution workable.

If each of the above approaches is not feasible in itself, perhaps a compromise is in order. The solution to Lebanon's Palestinian refugee problem will probably be an amalgam of return, repatriation and resettlement. A small number of refugees will be allowed to "return" to Israel proper for family reunification purposes. While the exact number of refugees that will be able to return is not known, it inevitably will make just a tiny dent in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population.

What, then, is to be done with the remainder of the refugees? The most logical solution entails a deal in which the refugees are given citizenship by a newly created state of Palestine, which essentially means repatriation. Those Palestinian citizens would then be allowed to reside in Lebanon as foreign nationals. Furthermore, given the small size of the region, it is possible that those same Palestinian citizens could work in Israel. It would thus be possible for them to vote in one country, live in another, and work in a third. While this solution to Lebanon's Palestine refugee question may sound like a pipe dream, it is important to consider creative solutions to this decades-old dilemma.

While most analysts were pessimistic about the chances for obtaining peace with this currently stalled round of direct peace talks, it should serve as a reminder that there's much groundwork to be done on the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

First, the refugees themselves need to become part of the picture. Legally, they will have no obligation to go along with a peace deal on which they have not been consulted. This task will be made difficult by the lack of unified Palestinian representation in the country. The popular committees, which ostensibly represent the individual refugee communities, are heavily politicized and ineffective. It may be useful to explore alternative forms of representation such as public opinion polls and referenda.

Second, the government of Lebanon needs to organize itself. The intense fear of tawteen has so paralyzed the government that it has been unable even to discuss the issue, and has yet to come up with even rough amounts for reparation for the various naturalization scenarios.

Third, the Israelis will have to figure out what number of refugees it will allow to return. It will also have to craft a meaningful apology, taking credit for at least some of the historical acts perpetrated. An apology of this nature would do much to ease the harsh reality that most Palestinian refugees won't be returning home.

Fourth, the international community must make—and keep—massive financial and political commitments to all parties involved. Clearly the host countries will have to be compensated for their support of the refugees. Additionally, the refugees will need financial compensation, although some of this could come from the winding down of UNRWA. Finally, the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, will have to back Abbas and the PA politically as they move the process forward.

As most analysts predicted, this latest round of direct peace talks failed to gain traction. This is, however, no excuse for not getting some of the groundwork done in preparation for future deals. While the search for peace remains difficult, throwing in the towel before the process starts will make it impossible. 

John Redwine is a Beirut-based analyst and writer. He holds a master's degree from the American University of Beirut and recently completed a consultancy to the Lebanese Prime Minister's Office on the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Right of Return Is Inevitable

By Salman Abu Sitta

Map 1: Homes of the Palestinian Refugees (1948). (The Atlas of Palestine)Map 2: Palestinian Refugees in Exile. (The Atlas of Palestine)

In the Middle Ages, they burned books on science and astronomy. In the 19th century, colonial powers promoted the super-race theory. In 1948, the Zionist narrative of the destruction of Palestine and the building of Israel on its ruins was hailed as the fulfillment of Divine Will and a victory of civilization. In all these cases the truth was not allowed to emerge, with devastating results for humanity. Now with the age of the Internet, satellites and computers, there is no excuse for anyone to say: I did not know. We do not need an innocent boy to exclaim, "But the emperor has no clothes!"

The indisputable fact is that Palestine and Palestinians experienced the largest, longest planned and still continuous ethnic cleansing operation in modern history. With British collusion during the Mandate period, European Jews were allowed to immigrate to Palestine. Their number increased from 9 percent of the population to 30 percent when the British ended the Mandate on May 15, 1948. But their land holdings never exceeded 5 percent to 6 percent of the Palestine area.

Six weeks before the British departure, Zionists expelled half of the total Palestinian refugees and declared the state of Israel on 11 percent of Palestine on May 14, 1948. On that date, Arab regular forces came to defend the Palestinians, but they failed and the Zionists (now Israelis) conquered 78 percent of Palestine. They depopulated 675 towns, villages and hamlets by expulsion, massacres, harassment and fear (Map 1). Contrary to the case in all other war situations, the refugees were not allowed to return to their homes when hostilities ceased.

Today, two-thirds of the Palestinian people do not live in their homes. If we add those displaced in the 1967 Israel occupation of the West Bank, three-quarters of the Palestinians—the largest percentage of any people—are denied the basic human right to live in their homes. The number of refugees as of mid-2008 was 6,600,000. Of these only 4,618,000 were registered with UNRWA.

In spite of this calamity, 88 percent of Palestinians live in Palestine (under Israeli rule) and in exile in countries neighboring Palestine. (Map 2). Only 12 percent now reside in faraway Arab and foreign countries. The obvious conclusion is that Palestinians are here to stay.

Map 3: Densisty of Jewish Population. (The Atlas of Palestine)

The Israeli policy, from its date of establishment, has been to get rid of them. All the plans devised in the last 62 years by Israel and its supporters have been aimed at getting rid of Palestinians—by attacking and bombing their refugee camps (Jenin, Rafah, Sabra, Shatila and others) and by devising plans to relocate them as far as possible from Palestine.

United Nations Resolution 194, calling for the return of refugees, has been affirmed by the U.N. more than 110 times since its passage on Dec. 11, 1948. Neither it nor all the other international covenants of human rights have been implemented with regard to the Palestinians. On the other hand, none of the Israeli and Western plans to bring "peace" to the region comply with international law. Instead all aim to complete the unfinished ethnic cleansing (itself a war crime) by coercion, siege, starvation and financial promises and political pressure on Arab leaders.

Two weeks after the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Israel commissioned Dr. Joseph Schechtman, a Jewish expert in population movement and an associate of the extremist Vladimir Jabotinsky, to devise a plan for getting rid of the Palestinians. His plan essentially has served as the blueprint for Israeli policy since then. It was adopted by the Transfer Committee of 1948, repackaged by Gen. Shlomo Gazit of Israeli intelligence in 1994, and re-floated in President Bill Clinton's 2002 plan, and all those in between.

In brief, Schechtman's plan calls for: (1) the denial of refugees' right to return (done); (2) destruction of their villages (done); (3) settlement of Jews in Palestinian villages (largely failed); (4) dividing Palestinian war spoils—land and property—among Jews (done, but with no legal ownership deed); (5) extrication of Arab Jews to Israel (done); (6) launching of a propaganda campaign that it is "impossible" for the refugees to return (successful in the West); and (7) creating plans for the absorption of Palestinians in neighboring countries (relentlessly tried, but failed.)

So here we have a stalemate: the Palestinian refugees are not allowed to return, but they do not give up and they will not disappear. The Israelis continue until today, quite openly, the ethnic cleansing in Galilee, Beer Sheba and the West Bank. Their new leaders, like the Russian Avigdor Lieberman, declare plans to oust the remainder of Palestinians, including Israeli citizens, from Palestine altogether. The Nakba is still going on.

Palestinians believe that the right of return is sacred, legal and—as I will show—feasible. It is sacred because no force or miracle will convince the Palestinians that the land they and their ancestors lived on for centuries is not theirs. The right to live in your home in freedom is the most fundamental right which cannot be bartered for anything. It is of a higher order than the sovereignty over a territory which creates a state.

It is legal because of the myriad of international resolutions and covenants which support the right of return. It is an "inalienable right" which cannot be bargained away by any leader. In fact, Israel's admission to the U.N. was "conditional" upon its acceptance of Resolution 194.

Why must we prove it is feasible? If an armed robber attacks your house and throws out your family, why do you have to prove that the robber is not using all the house and there are two rooms in your house which you can use? The mentality in the West is such that it does not want to see "Jewish refugees" return to their homelands in Europe, but does not mind Palestinian refugees remaining in exile. On this immoral (and impractical) premise are Western plans based. Once again, however, facts do not validate this premise.

The first question to ask is: what did Israelis do with the Palestinian land, 93 percent of Israel's area (20,500 sq. km.)? As Map 3 clearly shows, 63 percent of Israeli Jews live in 7 percent of Israel and 84 percent live in 17 percent of Israel. The 17 percent is even a bit generous: Israeli figures cite 12 percent. In fact, the urban area is only 2.5 percent of the area. Israeli Jews congregate in urban areas in and around the territory they acquired during the Mandate.

Who then uses the remainder—which is essentially the land of the expelled Palestinians? Israeli figures, as computed by 250 Israeli experts who prepared the plan for Israel in 2020, show that the remainder (88 percent) is used as follows:

27 percent for the military, 24 percent open space and 37 percent vacant. The latter includes the agricultural area (around 4000 sq. km.) cultivated by the kibbutzim. The kibbutz movement is dying ideologically and economically. Israeli Jews today are not much impressed by the old Zionist slogan, "The Jew returns to cultivating the land with a rifle slung over his shoulder." Instead they reverted back to urban life and traditional occupations in trade and finance.

Not only is there little renewal of the kibbutz older generation, but its contribution to Israel's GDP is a mere 1.5 percent. Thus the symbolic welfare of some 200,000 kibbutzniks is pitted against the lives and livelihood of 6.5 million Palestinian refugees yearning to return home.

The vast Israeli military structure—including 55 airports, 3 dozen depots of WMD, military fields and factories, which gobbles up one-quarter of the country and has the authority to expand over half of it—would not be needed if peace prevails. In fact, the removal of this time-bomb, which can and did ignite wars in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, and could conceivably extend east to Iran and Pakistan and west to Austria and Germany, is a great gift to world peace.

Thus the return of the Palestinian refugees will not bring major displacement to Jews in Israel who wish to live in harmony with their erstwhile hosts when they landed on Palestine shores from a smuggler's ship.

The return is easily manageable. We have a huge database and we know who the refugees are, by name, by family, by village of origin, what they own, the limit of their land and where they are exiled today, in which camp or country Their return is much less awkward and expensive than bringing Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Many can walk to their homes, literally within sight. Most can take a one-or two-hour bus ride. They can rebuild their homes at the exact spot of their destroyed village. Ninety percent of the village sites are still vacant. There are enough Palestinian engineers and skilled workers to build the needed one million dwelling units.

Our studies have shown that the total return of refugees can be achieved in phases which would take at most 6 to 8 years to complete. An added advantage is that the cost of return is much cheaper than the compensation for stolen land and property, which could reach $500 billion. It is definitely cheaper than the subsidy paid by the U.S. for Israel's economy and military which runs into $110 billion and counting.

So what is the problem? Is it the Palestinian "demographic bomb"? How could any civilized person consider the natural growth of a people in their country a menace to be removed? Were this racist notion applied to other people it would rightly raise a hell of a protest and condemnation.

If this racist notion is applied to Palestinians, it means that Israel has the license to expel, destroy and annihilate Palestinians whenever it sees fit. Who will stand for this? Besides, this racist notion is bound to be futile, for the Palestinians will grow to about 60 million in 50 years, and no force on earth will eliminate them (alone).

The cure is not here. The permanent cure to the ills which inflicted this holy land, and which lasted for 100 years, is to remove all vestiges of racism, apartheid, occupation and oppression, just as the world community and international law constantly call for. Feeding the machine of destruction will turn it ultimately against the feeder. There is only one road to peace: The road of justice.

Salman Abu Sitta is president of the Palestine Land Society and author of The Atlas of Palestine.