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Return or Permanent Exile?

Palestinian Refugees and the Ends of Oslo

By Joseph Massad

Whereas, until the "peace process" begun in Madrid in 1991 and the Oslo process inaugurated in 1993, all the representatives of the Palestinians inside and outside the PLO agreed that the varied interests of the Palestinian people were inherently compatible, the new process has altered this equation radically. Following the various agreements signed with Israel by the PLO and subsequently by the PA, the interests of the different sections of the Palestinian people were effectively separated and made to be incompatible if not outright contradictory with each other. Israeli Palestinians, through their elected leadership, are challenging Israel to shed its Jewish character and become a democratic state of all its citizens, while West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, through their elected leadership, are said to be preparing for the eventuality of a "sovereign and independent" Palestinian state that lacks all the basic elements of sovereignty. To realize this eventuality, the leadership of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians is heeding the "pragmatic" and "realist" advice of the necessity to concede the rights of refugee and diaspora Palestinians to return and be compensated. The diaspora and the refugees, since Oslo began, have in turn been rendered without leadership and with no identifiable goals.

By separating the interests of the inside and the outside and forcing the PLO to accept that separation officially, Israel effectively laid down the groundwork for the Oslo Process. It was at Madrid peace conference that the issue of refugees was separated from the bilateral tracks and relegated to what was called the "multilateral track" which set up a "Refugee Working Group" (RWG) chaired by Canada. The purpose of the RWG is not to negotiate over the status of the refugees, but rather to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, particularly those outside the West Bank and Gaza. Protecting Israeli Interests as Pragmatism. In anticipation of the final status negotiations, much literature has appeared on the question of the refugees. In this section, I will review the two most recent proposals which express semi-official positions. These will most likely be used as a reference for the final-status negotiations.

Before proceeding to review these proposals, however, a presentation of the human dimension of this question is in order, namely the numbers of refugees from 1948 and 1967. In 1995, according to the figures of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the 1948 refugees living in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan numbered 3,093,174 people. As for 1948 refugees who remained in Israel proper (and are referred to by the Israeli government as "present absentees"), they number between 120,000 and 150,000. The 1967 refugees (termed displaced persons), numbered in 1994 1,132,326 people, half of them are 1948 refugees, i.e. those who were displaced for the second time. These numbers do not include Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, North Africa and the Gulf countries, nor do they include Palestinian Bedouins who were no longer allowed to return to their grazing lands within Israel, nor the middle class Palestinian refugees who did not register with UNRWA, nor the children of Palestinian women who married non-refugee Palestinians or non-Palestinians, as UNRWA no longer considers these as refugees. Those belonging to these four categories number around 300,000 people [for more detailed information on numbers see Elia Zureik, Palestinian refugees and the Peace Process, (Washington D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1996), pp. 18-19].

What is striking about most of the proposals advancing solutions to the refugee question is the rhetoric of "pragmatism" and "realism" which they deploy. The definition of pragmatism in this rhetoric is one wherein everything Israel rejects is "not pragmatic," while everything it accepts is "pragmatic." What this means is that the Palestinians are the only party being asked to be "pragmatic," as Israeli positions function as base referents and are therefore deployed as "pragmatic" a priori. Examples of the use of this rhetoric include the two most recent projects that have been advanced to resolve the refugee problem: Donna Arzt's Refugees Into Citizens, Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997) and the proposal advanced by Harvard University's Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, which was debated by a group of Palestinians and Israelis and written by Khalil Shikaki and Joseph Alpher (The Palestinian Refugee Problem and the Right of Return, Working Paper Series, May 1998) . Both are important as they are being touted as starting points for the most likely scenario for refugee negotiations.

Arzt's proposal, considered "objective" by mainstream Western, Israeli and some PA-supported circles, foresees the settlement of Palestinian refugees mostly in neighboring Arab countries and in the West Bank with the multi-conditioned possibility of returning a mere 75,000 refugees to Israel. The premise of the book is that no one can establish who was responsible for the Palestinian exodus in 1948 and therefore everyone must share in the responsibility of resolving the plight of the refugees--not only in terms of resettlement but also in terms of compensation. Some of the possible explanations for the exodus that Arzt lists include Israeli expulsion as well as the now discredited Israeli propagandistic claim that Arab leaders called on the Palestinians to leave in order to clear the way for the descending Arab armies. Even if one were to accept Arzt's questionable claims that we cannot establish who was responsible for the exodus of every Palestinian in 1948 and 1967, we can easily establish (and many Israeli and Palestinian scholars already have) with existing Israeli evidence that Palestinians in Lydda and Ramla were expelled by Israeli army units led by none other than Yitzhak Rabin, that thousands were expelled from the Galilee area, and that thousands (12,500 between 1967 and 1994) of Palestinians have been deported individually by the Israeli government. Moreover, even if we agreed with Arzt's and the Israeli government's propaganda that Israel should not compensate the refugees because it did not expel them, should not the compensation for stolen property be the responsibility of the thief? Even if Martians had expelled the Palestinians in 1948, it is an established fact that Israeli Jews and the Israeli government are the party which took over the abandoned property and which refuse to return it to its rightful owners! Arzt suggests that Israel's "contribution to the compensation pool could, appropriately, come from the 'rents' it collected in the 1940s and early 1950s from the Jewish users of 'absentee' Arab property." As for returning refugees, Israel could take 75,000 refugees whom it should have the right to carefully screen for a variety of sins and crimes. Arzt is careful to add that such a returning group will most likely include non-reproductive Palestinians: "A population subgroup very likely to seek return...would be...the oldest living generation of Palestinians, the ones who retain personal memories of life before 1948." Indeed a young population of 75,000 refugees might reproduce in ways detrimental to Jewish supremacy in Israel!

As for the Harvard group, they propose four solutions, the two "traditional" Palestinian and Israeli solutions and two "compromise" solutions, one Palestinian and one Israeli. A conclusion is presented which includes commonalties between the Palestinian and the Israeli compromise solutions. The Palestinian compromise position "seeks to provide an acceptable, honorable --though not necessarily just--resolution of the refugee issue while accommodating the realities on the ground and Israeli security concerns." Whereas this solution calls on Israel to "fully acknowledge" the "individual moral right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property in Palestine," the proposal writers insist that "[n]o return en masse of the Palestinian refugees is envisaged...[rather] a return of only a limited number is seen as feasible." The writers assert that most refugees will opt for compensation and concede to Israel the right "to have a say to the number of refugees allowed to return." They do, however, assert that Palestinians who want to return should have the right to return to a Palestinian state-to-be with Israel having no say in that matter. The compromise is stated succinctly by the authors: "In this final settlement, the Palestinians make a strategic trade-off. They demand a return to the 1967 border, in order to absorb the largest possible number of refugees, in return for foregoing the full exercise of the right of return. "The remaining refugees should be settled in host countries. Israel should be responsible to find the funds and to pay both individual compensation as well as collective compensation, the latter to be paid to the Palestinian state-to-be. This solution, the authors tell us, "provides realistic and reasonable justice by granting a moral/political right while acknowledging realities on the ground [emphases added]." Whereas the Israeli government has officially refused to make the 1948 refugees part of the negotiation agenda, and consistently makes statements that only few of the 1967 refugees will be allowed to return, some Israelis are advancing informed proposals about what the Israeli government might be agreeable to in the future.

While, on the one hand, Yitzhak Rabin insisted after the DoP that Israel would not allow more than a few thousand 1967 refugees to return, adding that if the PLO "expect[s] tens of thousands [of refugees to return,] they live in a dream, an illusion" (New York Times, October 27, 1993, p. A3), on the other hand, the Israeli compromise position, as the Harvard group of Israeli politicians and pundits see it, insists that Israel can share "practical (but not moral) responsibility, together with the other parties to the process that culminated in the 1948 war, for the plight [but not the flight] and suffering of the refugees." Note that the fact that half of the 1948 Palestinian refugees "left" Palestine before May 14, 1948 is not relevant to the exegetical eye of these authors. These Israeli authors assert that in their compromise "Israel also accepts the right of return to the Palestinian State, but not to Israel proper. Israel also may accept repatriation of 'tens of thousands' of Palestinian refugees as part of its family reunification program." On the question of compensation, Israel would compensate Palestinians on a "collective basis" in tandem with the "relevant Arab countries creat[ing] a similar mechanism for Arab collective compensation of Jewish refugees," in reference to Arab Jews who immigrated to Israel between 1949 and 1953. Also the Palestinian state must limit the number of returning Palestinians to its own territory, otherwise the Israelis will curtail their obligations of compensation. The combined authors believe that the ultimate solution would be somewhere in between their two compromise solutions, it being understood that these solutions will not apply to Israeli Palestinian internal refugees. Is Return Pragmatic?

Unlike most proposals dealing with refugees, which look at what is practical from the viewpoint of Israeli leaders and which aim to resolve the Israeli part of this problem at the expense of Palestinians, Salman Abu Sitta proposes what he simply calls "The Feasibility of the Right of Return" (ICJ and CIMEL paper, June 1997, available from He begins by affirming that the "return of the refugees is practically feasible, and even desirable for permanent peace to prevail." The elements of Abu-Sitta's proposal are as follows: The majority of refugees whether they live inside or outside Palestine are within a 100 mile radius of their former homes. Although most of their houses are destroyed, "a return would be to the same land, most frequently the same site, with reconstruction of villages and repairing long-neglected Palestinian cities. With the exception of the Central District, relatively few village sites are occupied by modern construction. Most Kibbutz and prefab units are installed away from old village remains." Also, "it is claimed that boundaries have disappeared and are impossible to determine. Available Palestine and Israel maps, assisted by modern technology, now used by Israel to lease refugee's land, are sufficient to determine old and new boundaries. It can be demonstrated that all boundaries and ownerships are well recorded. Not only the villages are kept [sic] in the memory of the refugees and their children, but their images are kept for posterity through the British aerial survey of 1945-46."

To the ostensible horror of Israelis, Abu-Sitta dares to divide Israel into Areas A, B, and C. Area A includes 8% of the land in Israel and is occupied by 68% of the Israeli Jewish population. Area B encompasses 7% of the land and is inhabited by 10% of the Jewish population. Thus 78% of Jews in Israel live on 15 % of the land. Area C encompassing 85% of the land area in Israel "is remarkably similar, but not exactly identical, to the Palestinian land from which they were driven." The inhabitants of Area C include 800,000 urban Jews living in urban centers, 154,000 rural Jews and 465,000 Israeli Palestinians. "Thus 154,000 Jews cultivate the land of 4,476,000 refugees who are prevented from returning to it." Since most of the rural Jews are leasing the land, once the lease is up, the land can be given back to the Palestinians. Even with the return of the refugees, overall population density in Israel would be 482-persons/sq. km., instead of the present 261. "The new overall density of 482 p/sq. km., is a far cry from the congested miserable conditions which the refugees have to endure while their land is the playground of the privileged Kibbutz." Abu-Sitta adds that even in the most congested but unlikely scenario, wherein all the refugees choose to return, "only 154,000 Jews may choose to relocate elsewhere in Israel to allow 4, 476,000 refugees to return to their homes and end half a century of destitution and suffering. This is a very cheap price[that] Israel should pay for what it inflicted upon the Palestinians and still cheaper price to pay for a secure future for both peoples." What Abu Sitta's proposal offers is a challenge to the pervasive rhetoric of pragmatism and realism and the capitulationist stance of the PA and its supporters. Separating Palestinian Political Interests

Native West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are reaping the benefits of a phantasmatic state-to-be by forsaking refugee rights. The premise that diaspora and refugee Palestinians are part of the final settlement of the "peace process" presupposes that they are one with native West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, yet all proposed resolutions by PA elements and its coterie of supporters sacrifice most of their rights in favor of separating them from native West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who are the ultimate beneficiaries of whatever Israeli largesse the PA and its cronies are able to extract.

If the Palestinian diaspora, which is composed of a majority of refugees is not the beneficiary of this "peace process," why must it acquiesce in it by conceding all its rights? To ask the diaspora and the refugees to sacrifice their rights, hopes, and dreams, so that some meager political benefits can accrue to native West Bank and Gaza Palestinians is to ask the diaspora and refugees more generally, to commit national suicide. Since those who are now conceding Palestinian diaspora and refugee rights have never been elected to their positions nor were they ever given a mandate by diaspora and refugee Palestinians to concede their rights, then they perforce have no authority to negotiate on behalf of the diaspora and the refugees. The refugees' and the diaspora's conflict with Israel is different from that of the PA and those who support it. Although the Palestinian people remain one spiritually, their material interests are different. The "peace process" from Madrid to the present has not only deepened the differences between these material interests, it rendered them contradictory in an Israeli-dictated and PA-accepted zero-sum game, wherein so-called gains for native West Bank and Gaza Palestinians must be attained at the expense of real losses on the part of the refugees and the diaspora.

Joseph Massad
is assistant professor of modern Arab intellectual history at Columbia University.

A longer version of the paper was published in Critique, Spring 1999, pp. 5-23.

Joseph Massad MEALAC Columbia University 602 Kent Hall New York, N.Y. 10027
Phone: (212) 854-4722 Fax: (212) 854-5517

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