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The Right of Return Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
January 29, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Anyone seriously interested in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute must confront the Arab refugee problem, but not like Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni would if she could.  Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she expanded her belief in the two-state scheme espoused by President Bush and his would-be successors, among them Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., NY), by saying the refugees could be resettled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This notion is politically unrealistic and economically impossible.  The displaced Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine who fled or were expelled during that year's War of Independence did not live in the part of this country designated by her as their rightful homeland.  They left their homes in Jaffa, Ashkelon, Lydda, Ramle, Yehudiye, Halsa as well as hundreds of other cities, towns and villages that now are within Israel's borders and it is to them that they refer in claiming their "Right of Return."

They do not want to be accommodated in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Gaza or any other West Bank or Gaza Strip location.  Each of those cities has had satellite refugee camps administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for the past 58 years and none have merged with their host municipalities.  Like their compatriots in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, they reject any substitute for their former homes.

A case in point: Two decades ago, when university-age residents of the giant Hussein refugee camp were asked by visiting American students and professors where they were born, the interviewees unanimously cited localities inside contemporary Israel, many of which no longer exist.  Reminded by the academic interviewers that they were too young to have been born in any of them, they said this was irrelevant -- that that is where they are from and that is where they intend to return.

When President Clinton brought the late head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, to the brink of a peace treaty with then-Prime Minster Ehud Barak, the projected deal collapsed due to the proviso that the "Right of Return" would have to be
discarded.  Arafat could not agree because this would have sealed a death warrant in his name.

Livni, who transformed herself from a Likud-type hawk to a self-styled Kadima dove, should have learned by now that the Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have enough trouble on their hands not to have to make room for embittered and irredentist kinsmen bent on going back to contemporary Israel.

When this possibility was mentioned three decades ago to a Palestinian colleague who writes for one of the United States' most-respected and influential publications and he was asked whether the refugees could be absorbed into the areas then under Israeli occupation, he replied unequivocally in the negative.  His assessment was buttressed by the fact that those who sympathize with the refugees' plight, including his publication, put their number (then) at more than four million.  By now the figure is approaching five million. 

"Our economy cannot support that kind of demographic input," he said.  As a high-rolling politician who aspires to become prime minister -- conceivably as a replacement for the unpopular and legally-encumbered incumbent, Ehud Olmert, Livni would
be wise to refrain from seeking solutions to other peoples' problems, especially those of the Palestinian Arabs.

That does not mean that the Arab refugee issue cannot be resolved.  The first step Israel should take is to acknowledge the fact that the 1948 war did dislodge nearly half of the Arab population of Palestine that existed here at the end of Great Britain's League of Nations mandate over the Holy Land. 
Since the accepted estimate of the country's Arab inhabitants then was one million (as against 600,000 Jews), this means that about 400,000 were displaced.  (400,000 remained in their pre-war homes when Jordan conquered and annexed the West Bank, 100,000 stayed in their Gaza Strip residences when that area was taken by Egypt and more than 200,000 remained in or returned to Israel as of 1949.)  It is difficult to comprehend how the 400,000 could have increased tenfold in the ensuing years.

Despite the glitter of the Davos conclave and the excitement of mingling with the world's movers and shakers, the foreign minister should have retained enough presence of mind to tell her listeners that there may have to be an alternative to the shopworn
two-state solution and that Israel might help lead the way. 
She could have expressed compassion for the Arab refugees' sense of national tragedy or 'naqba' as they say in Arabic --  a historical event which they brought upon themselves by refusing to agree to national independence and self-independence then so-desperately needed by the Jewish people.

She might even have dared to broach a constitutional initiative by means of which Israel would at least recognize the refugees' national, personal and emotional ties to their former homeland.
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