The basic assumption agreed upon by all is that there can be no final, comprehensive or peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict that does not include a solution to the refugee problem acceptable to Palestinians and Israelis alike.
The refugee problem is at the core of the Palestinian problem. In the course of the establishment of Israel, roughly 800,000 Palestinians became refugees and their fate is more or less what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about. Two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees, meaning that the fate of the refugees engages the hearts and minds of most of the Palestinian public. Finally, this is the component of the conflict that most involves the Arab states. Large numbers of these refugees have been hosted in refugee camps in neighboring Arab states, a fact that has created a whole host of ongoing political, social and economic difficulties.
There are different schools of thought within Palestinian society on how to deal politically with the refugee issue. There is one school that believes in the absolute right of return of every single refugee to his or her original home or land, town or village. It is possible that the underlying logic behind this school of thought is that this solution is one way to prevent the relinquishing of Palestinian rights in the larger part of Palestine, where those homes were and which later became Israel.
But those who want to preserve Palestinian rights inside what is now Israel make up a minority in Palestinian society. That view is largely promoted by the same political and religious groups and individuals who still believe that any political solution must regain the historical rights of the Palestinian people in all of Palestine.
There is another minority among the Palestinian people who believe that from a practical point of view there is no possible way for the refugee problem to be solved incorporating the right of return. These individuals advocate that, since the Palestinians are very eager to end this conflict, they must simply forgo this right. Some members of this group believe that the right of return can be conceded in return for a relatively good deal on other components of the conflict–such as the status of Jerusalem and the borders of a Palestinian state. That viewpoint has been strengthened by the very successful Israeli media campaign portraying any Palestinian position calling for the right of return as a challenge to Israel’s right to exist and any Palestinian insistence on the right of return as a “non-solution.”
The majority of Palestinians, however, believe strongly that the Palestinian conflict can never be settled conclusively (meaning that comprehensive and lasting peace cannot happen) as long as the refugee problem is not settled in a way acceptable to them. In turn, the majority will never accept a solution to the refugee problem that does not include return as a right and a practice as two major components.
Many approaches have been taken as to how the right of return might be implemented–ranging from a return to original Palestinian towns and villages to a return to the future Palestinian state–as well as compensation, absorption and resettlement. None of these components alone will produce a satisfactory final agreement. Only a basket of solutions that includes all of the above components would constitute a practical and sufficient end to the problem. That is true because we still do not know how many refugees wish to return to their original homes, how many wish to return to the future independent Palestinian state and how many would like to be compensated, either remaining where they are or acquiring an attractive passport to a third country.
Denying the Palestinian people the right of return in principle means that in practice, any return will always result in an increasing and deepening desire and struggle to achieve that right. One can say this with confidence, not only because this is what has been happening for the last five decades but because this is a right guaranteed by international humanitarian law and United Nations Resolution 194. It is worth noting that over the passage of time, people throughout the world have become increasingly sensitive to the norms of international legality.
The way to reassure Israelis that resolution of this problem will not contradict Israel’s right to continue to exist is by agreeing that this problem should be solved practically (i.e., agreement on the number of refugees to return and the number not to return) in a way that will not infringe upon the human or basic rights of others, including those of Israelis in Israel. In this regard, Palestinians should make sure not to repeat the mistakes of the Israelis who achieved their objective of creating the state of Israel at the expense of the basic national, political and human rights of the Palestinian people. In other words, the Palestinians should negotiate resolution of the refugee problem and the implementation of the right of return in a way that takes into consideration the other side’s rights whenever these rights are guaranteed by international law.
But what makes Palestinians truly suspicious of the Israeli refusal to acknowledge the Palestinian right of return, even suspecting that it is racism that keeps Israelis from acknowledging this right, is the fact that Israel is still allowing Jews and sometimes non-Jews to “return” to this tiny piece of land based on the claim that Jews had rights to Palestine 2,000 years ago and that those rights are still valid. These claims are made at the exact same time that Israelis deny Palestinians– kicked out of their homes only 50 years ago–this same right to return.
What Israelis need to learn is that since they decided to establish their state on land that was and will remain inhabited by “others,” there is no way for them to maintain a state that is purely Jewish. They must also realize what should be obvious: that the presence of large numbers of Palestinians inside Israel in the context of a final peace settlement guarantees infinitely more security and safety than the presence of fewer Palestinians inside Israel in the context of war with those Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.