Middle East Roundtable /
Edition 4 Volume 1
Right of return:
Why are Palestinian refugees different?
by Yossi Alpher
The Palestinian refugees who abandoned their homes in
1948 were casualties of a war started by the Arab world with the objective
of preventing the creation of a Jewish state. Some of the refugees fled at
their own initiative; others were, in modern parlance, ethnically cleansed.
The nascent State of Israel was fighting a war of existential survival. It
owes no apologies for its behavior in 1948.
UNGAR 194 was adopted in 1949 with the aim of ending the new refugee problem
quickly by means of return and compensation. When you go back and read it,
it invokes a degree of moderation: if refugees agree to "live at peace with
their [Israeli] neighbors", then they "should be permitted to do so at the
earliest practicable date". There is plenty of qualifying language here that
has enabled Israel, over the years, to insist that UNGAR 194 is not feasible
because we are still effectively at war.
The Palestinian national movement, for its part, has turned 194 into a
blatant demand that Israel accept the refugees' "right of return"--a phrase
neither mentioned nor implied in that resolution--as a condition for peace.
Hardline Palestinians argue that Israel must allow millions of refugees to
inundate the country, thereby in effect compromising its status as a Jewish
state and negating UNGAR 181, which explicitly created "Jewish and Arab
states" in Mandatory Palestine. Moderate Palestinians insist that ways can
be found to reassure Israel that only a small portion of the refugees would
actually return. But they too are very insistent that Israel at least
recognize the "right" of all refugees to return.
In other words, for moderate Palestinians an acceptable final status peace
agreement would involve a relatively symbolic return of, say, tens of
thousands of refugees, coupled with agreed language regarding UNGAR 194 that
could be understood by the Palestinian national movement as Israeli
acknowledgement of guilt, or blame, or shame, for having created the refugee
problem in the first place. Many Israelis understand this as a demand that
Palestinians be awarded psychological compensation in the form of an Israeli
admission that Israel was "born in sin"--that Palestinians were "right" and
Israel "wrong" in 1948. That is not what UNGAR 194 is all about. That is not
what Israel is all about. This cannot and must not be the basis for peace.
This set of Palestinian demands relies on a remarkable Arab achievement
regarding the Palestinian refugees over the past 50 years. Not only has
UNGAR 194 been distorted beyond recognition in the Arab narrative, but
Palestinian refugees have been awarded their own unique UN agency, UNRWA
(United Nations Relief Works Agency), while all the rest of the world's
refugees make do with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Further,
statutes have been promulgated by UNRWA to ensure that refugee status is
passed on from generation to generation, to eternity. Thus the Palestinian
refugee problem grows exponentially with every passing year. With a fifth
generation of Palestinian refugees upon us, and factoring in intermarriage
between refugee and non-refugee Palestinians, we are seemingly guaranteed
that this problem will never be resolved because virtually all Palestinians
will soon be able to claim refugee and "return" status. Nowhere else in the
world has a refugee problem been treated, or mistreated, this way.
There are a few Palestinians who recognize the absurdity of the Palestinian
right of return demands. But in the Palestinian mainstream, generations of
Palestinians have been educated on the concept that Israel will indeed
eventually recognize the right of return and repatriate those refugees who
so desire. Thus the refugee issue has become perhaps the single most
difficult obstacle to peace.
I can conceive of one possible compromise position that might somehow, at
some point, be useful in reaching agreement on the refugee issue. Israel
would reiterate categorically that it rejects the right of return. But in
the spirit of UNGAR 194, it would offer to repatriate those original
refugees, i.e., Palestinians who themselves left the country in 1948, who
wish to spend their last years in Israel and are prepared to do so in a
spirit of peace. No extended families-only the original refugees themselves,
all at least 56 years old, who would number between a few thousand and a few
tens of thousands.
Palestinians could, and hopefully would, interpret this as a humanitarian
gesture that goes to the core of their grievance. Israelis could claim to be
faithful to the original intent of UNGAR 194, without in any way validating
the Palestinian narrative regarding 1948 or the Palestinian interpretation
of UNGAR 194, both of which are antithetical to the spirit of a genuine two
state solution and to reconciliation between the two peoples.
If we cannot invoke a compromise of this nature regarding UNGAR 194 and the
right of return, I fear we will remain far from an agreed end to this
conflict.- Published 27/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons.org
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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at