The Palestinian refugee problem and the right of return

  • In discussing final status issues, Palestinians and Israelis approach the question of the refugees and the right of return from radically different perspectives. The Palestinian narrative maintains that the Zionists forcibly expelled the Arab refugees in 1948. The Palestinians insist on the right of the refugees to return to their homes or, for those who choose not to do so, to accept compensation. And they demand that Israel unilaterally acknowledge its complete moral responsibility for the injustice of the refugees’ expulsion. In contrast, the Israeli narrative rejects the refugees’ right of return. Israel argues that it was the Arabs who caused the Palestinian refugee problem, by rejecting the creation of the State of Israel and declaring war upon it—a war which, like most wars, created refugee problems, including a Jewish one. Israel sees the return of Palestinian refugees as an existential threat, insofar as it would undermine the Jewish character and the viability of the state. The two sides’ traditional solutions make no attempt to reconcile these opposing narratives. Yet such an attempt is vital if the issue is to be engaged. Hence the Joint Working Group on Israeli–Palestinian Relations developed two compromise solutions. They narrow the gap between the positions, but do not fully reconcile them. The compromise solution espoused by the Palestinian members of the Joint Working Group would insist that Israel acknowledge both its responsibility for creating the refugee problem and the individual moral right of Palestinian refugees to return. But it recognizes that, in view of the changed situation of the refugees over 50 years, and taking into account Israel’s constraints, the return of only a limited number would be feasible. Israel would pay both individual and collective compensation. The Palestinians’ case for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would be strengthened as a result of their willingness to absorb the refugees in the Palestinian state. Under the compromise solution proposed by the Israeli members of the Joint Working Group, Israel would acknowledge that it shares, with the other parties to the 1948 war, practical, but not moral, responsibility for the suffering of the refugees, and that rectification of their plight is a central goal of the peace process. Israel would accept repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees under its family reunification program. Israel would pay collective compensation to the Palestinian state, paralleled by Arab State compensation for Jewish refugees from 1948. In seeking to further reconcile these two compromise solutions, we note that they reflect a large measure of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis: that Israel had a historic role in the events that created the refugee issue; that a massive exercise of the right of return is unrealizable, and “return”/family reunification will be limited; that a larger number of Palestinians will “return” to the Palestinian state; that some resettlement will take place in host states, primarily Jordan; that Israel will pay some form of compensation; and that closing the file on the refugee issue means the dismantling of the entire international apparatus that has sustained the refugees—camps, UNRWA, etc. But there remain significant gaps between the two sides’ compromise proposals as well. These concern the nature of Israeli acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering and the responsibility for it; the nature and number of “return”/family reunification; the nature and size of compensation, and its linkage to compensation for Jewish refugees from 1948; and the size of “return” to the Palestinian state. In order to negotiate an agreed solution that bridges these remaining gaps, Israelis and Palestinians will have to develop the mutual trust required to further accommodate each other’s narratives. They will also, inevitably, have to factor the refugee/right of return issue into the broader fabric of tradeoffs and compromises that will characterize a comprehensive solution to the conflict. This will involve additional parties—primarily the refugee host countries—as well as related substantive issues, such as borders.

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Author:Joseph Alpher, Khalil Shikaki
Document Type:Book
Date of Publication (online):2005/07/18
Year of first Publication:1998
Publishing Institution:Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg
Release Date:2005/07/18
Dewey Decimal Classification:3 Sozialwissenschaften / 32 Politikwissenschaft / 320 Politikwissenschaft
Sammlungen:JudaicaDoc | Jüdische Studien und Israel-Studien / Israel
Licence (German):License LogoDeutsches Urheberrecht