The invention of eternal ‘refugeeism,’ which is passed on from one generation to another, aims to serve as one of the tools for Israel’s destruction. The Palestinian leadership cannot say it wants peace with Israel while supporting the return of refugees.
When it comes to the legal and moral side of the refugee issue, Israel has decisive answers. The Jews who remained alive in the lands conquered by the Arabs in the War of independence—like Jerusalem’s Old City and Gush Etzion—were forced to leave, and those areas remained “Jew-free.” At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported from Arab states. Most of them were taken in by Israel and did not become eternal refugees.
Furthermore, after World War II, Eastern European countries deported residents of German descent. The number of people expelled exceeded the number of Arab refugees by far. The exiled were absorbed as immigrants in their new country and did not become refugees. The same thing happened when, following the Indo-Pakistani war, millions of people became refugees and were absorbed as immigrants in the places they arrived at within years.
The Arab refugees from the War of Independence are a unique phenomenon. The Arab states they arrived in (apart from Jordan) refused to take them in, held them in refugee camps, which still exist, and convinced the United Nations to create a special agency for those refugees (UNRWA). That led to the creation of a system in which the “refugee” status is passed on from one generation to the next, producing “refugees” who are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original refugees, and there are millions of them now. They were all raised on hatred to Israel and on their “right” to return to their homes (most of which no longer exist). That is also how the Palestinian refugee diaspora became an inexhaustible source for recruiting fighters to terror organizations.
The invention of eternal “refugeeism,” which is passed on from one generation to another, was aimed of course at provoking Israel and serving as one of the tools for its destruction. These millions of “refugees,” who have learned from their early days that they are “entitled” to return to Israel and are expecting that to happen, have naturally become an obstacle to peace.
As far as Israel is concerned, this is an existential problem. If these “refugees” return into its boundaries, it will lead to Israel’s destruction as a Jewish state. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, this is a basic demand they are unwilling to give up. This creates, however, an internal contradiction: The Palestinian leadership says it wants peace (which means recognizing Israel’s right to exist), yet it keeps supporting the right of return (which will lead to Israel’s destruction). In short, peace with Israel and the right of return cannot live under the same roof.
The “refugee” issue remained unresolved in the Oslo Agreements. The Israeli side must have deluded itself that the Palestinians would give up the right of return. That didn’t happen. We have often wondered how Yasser Arafat turned down Ehud Barak’s peace proposal and why Ehud Olmert’s proposal was met with a similar refusal from Mahmoud Abbas. In my opinion, the refugee issue was their main consideration. They were unwilling to sign a peace agreement, as generous as it may be, which would require them to waive the right of return.
People are now talking about a regional peace agreement, which will include the Sunni states. This kind of peace must involve a solution to the refugee problem and a concession of the “right of return.” In this gradual process, we will have to insist on an initial settlement of the “refugees” in Arab countries, where they will receive all the rights granted to the rest of the residents. This will require economic incentives both for the “refugees” themselves and for the countries that take them in. Trust-building steps in this direction, in addition to trust-building steps on the Israeli side, will create real progress towards peace.
Prof. Daniel Friedmann served as Israel’s justice minister from 2007 to 2009.