US President George W. Bush returned from his Middle East trip confident that a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute will be found by the time he leaves office next January. The president’s optimism, however, is hardly shared by all.
While in Israel and the Palestinian territories the American president was able to see for himself just how complex the problem is, and that ultimately, it boils down to a question of land, or to be more precise, a question of lack of land. That is one of the fundamental obstacles to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Not only is real estate in the Holy Land at a premium, but who can own a piece of it is further complicated by religion and nationality.
Of the three prime issues in contention — the final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees — it is this last point which will likely hold up the peace process. There are multiple facets to the issue of the right of return, not least in that it involves more than the two principal protagonists.
First, it touches upon the question of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Open the immigration doors to over a million Arab Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of which are Muslims, and the Jews in Israel will overnight find themselves turning into a minority, placing into question the whole raison d’être of the state of Israel. No Israeli government will ever allow that to happen, not least that of a weak prime minister hanging on by a thread, as is the case of Ehud Olmert.
Aside from the political implications which already represent insurmountable obstacles, there are also economic and social aspects to this issue. And while politics guides the ship of state, at the end of the day it is the economy that ultimately decides on the well-being of the nation.
With that in mind, assuming, just assuming, for a brief moment that Israel did allow Palestinians who fled in 1948 to return, where would they return to? The homes they once owned have long since disappeared. And from a purely economic perspective it would be disastrous for the Jewish state. Among the generation of refugees who fled Palestine — not their children and grandchildren born in exile — the youngest returnee would be 60 years old, assuming he or she were just a few months old when they first became refugees. Think of the financial burden injecting such a large number of retirees would have on the state. Or the manner in which the country’s health care system would be taxed by the arrival of tens of thousands of elderly people.
So if the refugees are not allowed to “return,” what is to become of them? According to UNWRA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East — as of December 31, 2006, there were a total of nearly 4.5 million registered refugees spread across 58 camps in Jordan (1,858,362), Lebanon (408,438), Syria (442,363), the West Bank (722,302) and Gaza (1,016,964). If for no other reason, the question of the refugees alone demands the inclusion of other countries — namely Lebanon and Syria — in the final peace process.
Regardless of how you spin this issue, some of the refugee will have little choice but to remain in their host countries. On the other hand, the big debate will come over what to do with those 400,000-plus refugees in camps in Lebanon where, once the settlement of the Israeli dispute resolved and a new Palestinian state sees the day, technically, they cease being refugees, as they would become citizens of the new state.
Solving the issue of the right of return would require mass movement of refugees from their present locations. This is what Bush meant when he mentioned the word, “compensation.” In fact, a financial compensation package would be offered to the refugees not returning to Palestine, but who would opt to immigrate.
While in principle all 4.5 million refugees would be able to apply for — and obtain — citizenship of the future Palestinian state, not all would be authorized to reside in the new Palestinian state, or in Israel. There is a precedent for this: when in 1972 Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asian traders, many of them were in possession of “Type B” British passports.
These travel documents allowed them to travel anywhere in the world, including Great Britain, but did not give them the right of residence in the UK. The solution to the Palestinians right of return lies in finding a similar formula, which would give Palestinian refugees the following:
a) A passport, therefore giving them dignity and forever removing the status of refugee;
b) A financial compensation package that would allow them to restart their lives in a dignified manner in a country where they will be able to immigrate and integrate in that society, all while retaining their Palestinian identity and ties to the “old country.”
Bush’s optimism to see the creation of a Palestinian state within the year would necessitate the cooperation of all countries concerned. In this instance, it would certainly take more than two to tango. But when some of the parties concerned won’t even step onto the dance floor, it’s hard to share the president’s optimism.