The Palestinian refugees are the world’s longest standing refugee community. Their plight forms the basis of the Palestinian problem, and has fuelled the conflict with Israel for over 62 years. The Palestinian dispossession that ensued on Israel’s establishment in 1948 has been addressed numerous times but never resolved.
UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in 1948, which called on Israel to repatriate the Palestinians displaced by its creation, has been regularly re-affirmed by the UN, without result. In 1948 the displaced Palestinians numbered about 750,000, but over the decades they have increased to several million (see below). They have never been repatriated or compensated for their losses. To the contrary, Israel has used every tactic to fight against what became known as ‘the Right of Return’ of refugees. It produced a new version of history, tried to erase all evidence of the Palestinian pre-1948 presence by demolishing villages, changing place names, and concealing or destroying historical archives. This was essential for a new state striving to gain legitimacy for its presence in another people’s land, to which the return of the refugees would have been a mortal threat, and not in itself surprising. Much more so has been the complicity of the international community in allowing Israel to block an internationally recognised right and in effect, to perpetuate the state of refugeehood for millions of people for decades. Various Israeli-Arab peace proposals have paid lip service to the refugee issue, aware of its importance, but more in the sense that it could not be formally omitted than with any intention of resolving it. This is extraordinary, given the causes and evolution of the conflict. The return of the refugees is integral to the issue of dispossession, which, as has been said, is at the heart of the problem between Israel and the Palestinians. Any solution to the conflict which does not cater for this fact is unlikely to endure. The Palestinian refugees – those in the camps and the millions of others who were displaced but are not officially so designated – will not evaporate, and needs a solution in line with international law and justice. Yet, since 1967 a succession of peace proposals have tried to avoid solving the issue in these terms. The Palestinian Refugees – facts and figures The problem of refugees is a global one. Millions of people all over the world have been repeatedly displaced through wars, famines, threats to the environment and political instability. What makes the Palestinian case unique is the manner of its creation -- due to the establishment of a new state, Israel -- its longevity, and the fact that the UN assigned it a special agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East UNRWA, outside the framework of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Even the term, ‘refugees’, is not strictly applicable to Palestinians. A refugee according to the international definition is someone unable to return to the country of origin owing to a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. In the Palestinian case, it is Israel’s refusal alone that prevents that return. The figures for the Palestinian refugee population, based on registrations with UNRWA in 2008, show a total of 4,618,141. The refugees are dispersed over the Occupied Territories, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 750,000 refugees live in the West Bank and the bulk of Gaza’s population, just over 1 million, are refugees. Jordan hosts the largest refugee community outside Palestine’s borders with close to 2 million; and Syria and Lebanon have about 450,000 refugees each. Smaller refugee communities exist in Egypt, and until recently, Iraq and Libya. The annual rate of increase of the refugee population for 2004-8 was between 2.3 and 2.8 per cent, swelling the numbers of those already crowding the camps. These statistics do not include the Palestinians displaced since 1948 not residing in camps or registered with UNRWA. BADIL estimates these to be 3 million people. Despite the tendency to associate the right of return with camp-dwelling refuges, it applies equally to these exiles. Thanks to UNRWA, we have more information on the demography of the refugees registered with it than has been available for the exiled Palestinians. According to UNRWA statistics, the majority of refugees are children or young adults. In 2000, those below the age of 25 formed 56 per cent of the total, and 32 per cent were aged between 26 and 55. . They rely predominantly on UNRWA services in education, health and social welfare, which have maintained them up till now. But, what does not appear in the UN statistics is the immaterial aspect of refugee life: the desire to return to the homeland. This desire has survived since 1948, handed on from one generation of refugees to the next. On a visit to Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut in 1998, I recall how kindergarten children recited the names of ‘their’ places of origin in Palestine. A large map of pre-1948 Palestine hung on the classroom wall with pins denoting these places. Refugees and the peace processThe tenacity with which the displaced Palestinians have clung to the right of return is remarkable. It has added vehemence to the legal character of this right, which has become an indispensable feature of the peace process since 1967. However much Israel has sought to ignore or sideline it, it has proved impossible to exclude the refugee issue from peace negotiations. UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 alluded to the refugees in an ambiguous clause that a ‘just solution’ must be found for the ‘Arab refugees’. The resolution was never implemented and, in any event, its stipulation about the refugees was too vague to be useful. The 1991Madrid peace conference set up a Multinational Working Group on refugees, in which Israel is said to have agreed to a return of 5000 per annum, although that was never confirmed. The Working Group talked fruitlessly for several years, but was superceded by the 1993 the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Oslo stipulated that the refugee issue would form one of the so-called Final Status Issues, to be resolved at the end of the process. Gradually the idea developed that the right of return would only apply, if at all, to the putative Palestinian state. This became the accepted line, despite there being no such state as yet, and the fact that repatriation meant a return to the place of origin (i.e. what is Israel now) and not another area. The Palestinian Authority and the World Bank discussed the logistics of a refugee return to the future state. Plans for building new towns and employment generation schemes were drawn up, with a gradual entry of refugees to take up the facilities as they became available. The World Bank estimated that an annual cost of $613 million would be required for repatriating just 500,000 refugees. By 1999 a raft of Western ideas for resolving the refugee problem in ways that excluded a return to Israel appeared. These included settlement in the host countries where the refugees currently lived, packages of compensation for them, emigration visas for Western countries, and, as pointed out above, a limited “return” to the Palestinian state. These plans do not bear close examination, since they assume a compliance on the part of refugees and host societies that does not currently exist. Even so, in the unlikely event of Jordan and Syria accepting the full integration of Palestinian refugees, Lebanon, where Palestinians are increasingly unwelcome, has made its opposition to any such move quite clear. The resettlement of refugees in third countries is likewise problematic. The numbers of emigration visas granted to refugees will be limited and make only a small dent in the overall refugee figures. As to compensation, no local or international fund has been established to date for this purpose. And most pertinently of all, these ideas take no account of international law or of the refugees’ own wishes. The refugee issue surfaced again in the Israeli-Palestinian Camp David talks of 2000. Here Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, was rumoured to have accepted a return to Israel ‘on humanitarian grounds’ of 100,000 refugees, again this was never officially confirmed. An improved offer was apparently made at the Taba talks in 2001 for a phased return of 125, 000 refugees to Israel to take place over fifteen years. The talks came to nothing, and in the Geneva Accords of 2004, the solution to the refugee issue was mainly to be through re-settlement. The Arab peace plan of 2002 spoke of a just solution for the refugees in line with UN resolutions, but this has come to nothing since Israel never accepted the plan. No further developments on this front have appeared since, and the later Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, initiated in Washington in 2010, stalled soon after over the issue of continued settlement building by Israel Future prospectsThe rights and needs of the displaced Palestinians are at the core of any meaningful long term peace settlement. Yet current orthodoxy dictates that the two-state solution must be the preferred option. However, such a solution is increasingly difficult to imagine in the light of Israel’s colonisation of the post-1967 territory supposed to form the Palestinian state. Currently, approximately 54 per cent of the West Bank is left to the Palestinians, in discontinuous segments, and without a connection to Gaza. Unless Israel withdraws its settlements totally, something no one believes will happen, this situation does not allow for the creation of a Palestinian state to satisfy even minimal Palestinian aspirations. Even then, such a solution could never have resolved the refugee problem, either logistically or legally. The only arrangement which can solve the refugee problem definitively is for the Israeli state to become a homeland for both Palestinians and Israelis, the one-state solution. Under these conditions, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state, but a state of its citizens. The obstacles in the way of this happening are legion, and beyond the remit of this article. But it will be the only way to resolve the refugee issue and definitively end the conflict. Ignoring this reality will not serve the refugees, who have suffered enough, and it will postpone a solution indefinitely. Dr Ghada Karmi is a research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, the University of Exeter. She is the author of ‘Married to another man: Israel’s dilemma in Palestine’.