Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

Palestinian Refugees: A TIME BOMB RUNNING OUT OF TIME

by Henry Levy

3.6 million people who are Palestinian refugees are an important component to a workable solution of the Middle East Peace Process. To understand this issue, Lew and Barbara Meltzer, founders of BIPAC the Bi-County Political Action Committee (dedicated to elect pro-Israel members of Congress) and Todd Richman, L.I. Director of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), hosted an informative discussion on Middle East Refugees - Final Status Negotiations of the law offices of Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Schlisul in Mineola.

The speakers addressing how the Palestinian refugees impacted on critical issues affecting prospects for peace in the area were William Lee, Chief of the NY Liaison Office of UNRWA (the United National Relief and Works Agency) and Donna Artz, an author and professor of Law at Syracuse University. UNRWA was established 50 years ago replacing the efforts of the International Red Cross and the Quakers to ease the problems of the refugees. It answers directly to the general assembly of the United Nations.

A refugee is considered a person whose place of residence was Palestine for 2 years prior to 1948, who lost his home and registered with the U.N. According to UNRWA there are 1,487,449 Palestinian refugees in Jordan, 367,610 in Lebanon, 370,035 in Syria, 562,737 in West Bank, 785,551 in Gaza, for a total of 3,573,382. Approximately 1/3 of this number live in camps.

Mr. Lee says that they are given special status where their needs are provided by the UN. He indicated that whatever reasons led to the problems we can't deny the Palestinian refugees have rights that must be addressed and they have great expectations - not necessarily optimism - as the peace process inches forward.

Since 1951, refugees wanted education for their children more so than handouts. UNRWA operates 650 elementary and junior high schools up to the tenth grade for 1/2 million pupils. One of the rabbis attending this meeting questioned who wrote the textbooks used in the schools. They are prescribed by the prevailing national authorities so the education material used in Jordan is determined by the Jordanians, etc. Most of these books have been banned by Israel due to content. With 1.8 million refugees being 15 years old or younger, the educational material available is only one concern for how they would view themselves and their Jewish neighbors. The refugees were also an unwanted presence by their host countries as refugees or citizens (except for Jordan). In addition, all the help the UN could provide would not be enough nor would the refugees accept it as a final solution to their dilemma.

Mr. Lee outlines the following options for them: 1) Continue as is with help from UNRWA. The US donates $80 million a year out of a $300 million budget. This includes funds for teaching trade courses, family health care (which was better than found in the host country), help for the needy, social programs to empower Arab women (including legal literacy programs even though this was not generally allowed in the host country where women were often abused and not allowed to own property either).

Most recently, new programs of income generation have started which includes micro credit lending for their informal economy. UNRWA also has family planning programs however, they are not geared at reducing family size but spacing out babies and providing better health care. This will lead, in the case of Gaza alone, to the population doubling by the year 2017.

Donna Artz views the refugee situation as the core issue of the Arab / Israeli conflict (along with Jerusalem). She believes that while history is relevant to the issue in order to have a peace agreement, there must be a forward looking view. There are multiple views of this history: Israel forced the Arabs to leave; Israel urged them to stay; the Arabs left because they feared a massacre...too many views for there to ever be a resolution to the causation issue. Of more immediate concern is how to deal with so many refugees. Artz says that over the years there have been over 100 proposals regarding Jerusalem but very few on the refugee problem. Also, this is not focused on by the Palestinian Authority which is active in building structure in the West Bank and Gaza.

Over 70% of the Palestinians live outside the West Bank and Gaza. In order to achieve a final peace, an agreement must be acceptable to this 70%. Some form of Palestinian State will be in the West Bank and Gaza - so what happens to those outside. They must accept the fact that they won't get their original homes back, says Artz.

To accept this they must look at the broader issues:

  1. Where will they live?
  2. What compensation will they receive for lost property?
  3. Will they be citizens of a new state? Already some are citizens of Jordan and Israel. Of the 950,000 inside the Green Line, maybe 45% were displaced from their original homes. As for the Palestinians in Syria, they can work and live but cannot be citizens, and while some will remain in Syria they will still have a need for citizenship somewhere.
  4. What about truth and reconciliation? Palestinians want acknowledgment from Israel for their rights and of Israel's role in their status.

One fear of Israel's is that a portion of the 3.6 million refugees (some say the number can be as high as 8 million) wanting to return to their original homes have documents describing their original property. While public rhetoric of refugees includes the right of return, on an academic level it is not realistic that they will, instead they will come to a Palestinian State. There must be some state for them to go to in order to remove the right of return from the table, Artz believes. Most refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza never lived there and don't want to return there.

What we have is a regional problem that must be resolved regionally. In 1950, Ben-Gurion accepted 100,000 refugees to Israel. How many more will have to be repatriated today?

Artz feels possible scenarios include a symbolic number returning to their original homes or a large portion going to the West Bank becoming citizens of the Palestinian Authority or many returning to Jordan. Also, the international community must act in reference to those living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, etc.

The track record of most Arab countries towards the plight of the refugees have been abysmal. Even as recently as the Gulf War, Kuwait expelled most of its 300,000 Palestinians.

In terms of possible compensation, claims are currently on the table with more to follow regarding property owned. The refugees are looking for decisions from the International Courts of Human Rights. They can be litigated or dealt with through negotiations. The Israeli government knows and anticipates this.

Some issues here are: How much money? Who pays? What about Jews who fled from Arab lands - will this be discussed as well? While most property owners have relocated to Amman or the US, those with the greatest needs today may never have owned property at all. September 13, 2000 is likely to be the key date when either plans for peace are on course or the PA may declare it own state. The refugee issues to be dealt with by then will also have to address the question of borders, security and water issues. According to AIPAC's Oct. 4, 1999 Near East Report on the status of Palestinian Refugees, what follows are some key points they raise.

The Palestinian refugees are a tragic result of the Arab rejection of Israel 50 years ago. It is up to the Arab states to bring them home. Prime Minister Barak, in one of his first addresses on the peace process since taking office, balanced the long-standing Israeli view that Arab rejection of Israel's existence caused - and perpetuated - the refugee problem, with compassion for the plight of individual Palestinians. "The State of Israel was not empty when we returned here. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs were living here. They refused to accept the establishment of the Jewish state. Our just struggle and victory created a harsh reality on the Palestinian side. ...Many continue to live as refugees."

Arab rejection of partition caused refugee problem. In fact, the Palestinian refugee problem is a tragic outcome of the Arab refusal to accept the State of Israel. Had the Arab states joined the Jewish community in accepting the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine, there would not have been any Palestinian state far larger than the West Bank and Gaza would have been created and recognized by Israel.

Instead, the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states chose war, setting in motion a process that led approximately 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. While there were a few instances of expulsion by Israeli forces, the vast majority of Palestinians fled because of the deteriorating security situation that accompanied the fighting. The tragic irony of the Palestinian refugee problem is that it was created by the Arabs themselves. Palestinians were not the only people uprooted as a result of Arab rejection of the U.N. partition plan. Conditions of Jews in the Arab world, already tenuous in the aftermath of World War II, further deteriorated following the 1948 war. Brutal pressure, sometimes accompanied by organized violence, led more than 800,000 Jews to flee Arab countries after 1948. Most went to Israel, but not before forfeiting their property - valued in the billions - as the price of emigration.

Perpetuation of the refugee problem - and the spurious idea that Israel is the cause of Palestinian despair - has been a key Arab political weapon against Israel. Indeed, the Arab states have kept the refugee issue alive to maintain international pressure on Israel to accept an unwarranted and untenable Palestinian "right of return."

In the end, as in the beginning, Israel is neither responsible for creating nor solving the Palestinian refugee problem Nonetheless, Israel has a clear, abiding interest in seeing that it is resolved in a manner that protects its security while finally ending this painful human tragedy.


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