Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) — Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat heads to Washington next week, with two issues foremost in his mind: the future of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Arafat has said of both issues, “there is no concession.”
Arafat is scheduled to meet with President Clinton in an effort to advance the peace process to the point where a three-way summit between Clinton, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak can be arranged.
“The Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homeland and [for] compensation,” Walid Awad from the PA Ministry of Information said at a recent seminar on the topic, hosted by the Israel Resource News Agency at the Beit Agron Press Center in Jerusalem.
Solving the problem, Awad said, will be an “awesome task” and “very, very complicated.”
The PA is demanding that all Palestinians who fled and their descendants be allowed to return to Israel according to U.N. resolution 194 or that compensation be paid to those who do not wish to return.
Israeli Prime Minister Barak has said that he will not allow any refugees to return to Israel, but recent media reports have indicated that Barak’s resolve may be weakening and they say he may be willing to allow a limited number of refugees to return.
The situation is complex, partly because the Palestinian refugee question is a factor in negotiations between Israel and virtually every other Middle Eastern player.
Two-thirds of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, and the camps in Lebanon recently gained attention as a possible breeding ground for anti-Israel terror attacks, given Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon two weeks ago.
More than 3.6 million Palestinians are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief Works Agency. According to UNRWA, there are 1,541,405 Palestinian refugees in Jordan, 373,440 in Lebanon, 378,382 in Syria, 576,160 in the disputed West Bank and 808,495 in the Gaza Strip as of last November.
A Palestinian refugee is defined as a person who lived in British Mandatory Palestine for two years, “who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict,” and who took refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The descendants of those people also are considered refugees.
Although, more than 1,384,000 so-called Palestinian refugees now live under Palestinian Authority control, they are still considered to be refugees.
UNRWA originally recorded 700,000 Palestinians who lived in the area under British rule for at least two years. Over the years, from those 700,000 people, the number of defined refugees has grown five-fold, to 3.6 million refugees today.
According to Awad, the 50 year-old problem will be solved only if two conditions are met: the establishment of a Palestinian state on all land that was controlled by Jordan until the 1967 Six-Day war; and the right of Palestinians from all over the world to freely live there.
“The Israeli government must assume responsibility for what happened to the Palestinian refugees,” Awad said. Then a “pragmatic solution” can be found.
Israel has long argued that the situation of the Palestinian refugees was artificially induced for political reasons. In fact, the number of Arabs who fled Israel was roughly equivalent to the number of Jews forced to flee Arab lands as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Fledgling Israel managed to absorb the Jewish refugees within 10 years, Israel contends, but 50 years later, one third of Palestinian refugees and their descendants still languish in 59 camps.
“[Many] stay for political as well as symbolic reasons,” Sami Mshmsha, Spokesman for UNRWA in Jerusalem said.
Any refugee who can secure “economic improvement” is free to leave the camps, Mshmsha said, but those who live in the camps are on the lowest rung of the ladder economically.
Ironically, he added, there is a high literacy rate in the camps. Palestinian refugees are often highly educated and among the most highly educated in the Palestinian population, while Palestinians in general are among the most highly educated in the Arab world.
“They are astute politically. No one can tell them what to do,” he said. However, “they don’t use education as passports to a better life” but rather to further their national interests and ideology. Those who are not highly educated often become activists, joining the PLO and its cadre, he said.
“I’m sorry to see the third generation of refugees rotting in camps,” Prof. Rafi Israeli, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said. But he said it is a disaster that they brought upon themselves by refusing to accept the original 1947 U.N. partition plan of British controlled Palestine, which proposed to divide the area into separate Jewish and Arab states.
“Too bad for them they lost the war,” Israeli said. “If you start a war and lose it, you pay the price,” he said, referring to the all-out war waged against the pre-state and new state of Israel by the Arab world in 1947-48 and subsequent wars.
The problem with allowing Arab Palestinians to return in mass to sovereign Israel, Israeli said, is that it will do away with the Jewish state altogether.
Two-thirds of the Jordanian population is Palestinian – originally, Jordan was to be the Arab State divided from Palestine.
A second Palestinian State is in the process of being established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If as many as 3.6 Palestinians are allowed back into Israel, combined with the one million Israeli Arabs in a country of just six million, they will tip the balance toward an Arab state, he said.
“There will be no more Jewish State,” Israeli said. “There will be three Palestinian States.” Israeli suggests instead that Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the PA each absorb the refugees who are living there.
The issue of Palestinian refugees is one of several due to be solved by the September 13 deadline for reaching a final understanding between Israel and the PA.
It should be noted that President Clinton endorsed the in principle “right of return” for Palestinian refugees last July 2, 1999, five days before Prime Minister Barak was sworn in as Israel’s Prime Minister. On June 14, 2000, on the eve of Arafat’s meeting with Clinto to discuss the refugee issue, Barak gave a speech to the Israel Council for Peace and Security in which he declared that Israel would indeed assume the moral responsibiltiy for the Arab refugee problem.