News Analysis: with Peace Talks, the Quiet Issue of Palestinian Refugees Makes Itself Heard

For more than 50 years, the Palestinian refugee problem has festered on the sidelines.

Throughout that period, Palestinian leaders focused their struggle on earning international recognition of their right to self-determination.

But now, with most world powers ready to accept Palestinian statehood — and with many Israelis also learning to live with the idea — the problem of almost 4 million Palestinians living in refugee camps throughout the Arab world is returning to the diplomatic agenda.

And, given the seemingly irreconcilable positions on the issue, it could well block the way to a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

“We have fought and have made sacrifices, we have seen our camps in Lebanon destroyed as part of our struggle to return to Palestine,” Suheil a-Natur, a Palestinian human rights activist from Lebanon, said recently. “But when the Palestinian leadership signed the first agreement with Israel, they totally neglected us.”

But did they? The Oslo accords left the refugee question — along with other “thorny” issues such as Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and final boundaries – - to final-status negotiations.

Those talks began last month, six years to the day after the historic Rabin- Arafat handshake on the White House lawn. They are expected to pick up momentum in the coming months and result in a framework agreement by February and a final agreement by September 2000.

As a result, the refugee issue will soon be back on the table.

In 1949, at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, the bulk of the Palestinian population — 726,000 according to figures from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — became refugees. Only 156,000 remained in Israel proper.

Fifty years later, the refugee problem has quintupled.

According to UNRWA there are now 3.5 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The total Palestinian diaspora comes to an estimated 5,350,000.

During the past five decades, all but one of the Arab host countries refused to turn the refugees into full citizens, nurturing the notion that the Palestinians would someday return to their homes — and in the process keeping the pressure on Israel to one day accept their right to return.

Jordan alone gave the refugees full citizenship rights. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states gave Palestinians employment opportunities, but none took the initiative to remove the refugees from the camps and integrate them into their respective societies.

As a result, the various refugee populations remained in abject poverty.

Israel initially agreed to absorb some 100,000 refugees, but nothing came of the proposal, except for 40,000 who were reunited with families already living in the Jewish state.

At a political address in the Knesset last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressed “sorrow” over suffering of the Palestinian people, but stressed that this was not the result of “guilt feelings or taking responsibility for creating the conflict or for its outcome.”

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported this week that Barak was seeking to solve the refugee problem within the permanent settlement’s framework agreement. According to the report, Barak rejects the return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. Israel will agree, though, to their return to the Palestinian self-rule areas.

The Palestinians have suggested that a future state would issue passports to all Palestinians wherever they are, thus ending the problem of stateless refugees.

The most acute problem exists in Lebanon, which has 368,000 Palestinian refugees.

Over the decades, Lebanon put strict limitations on the refugees, resulting in their inability to leave the squalid camps and improve their standard of living.

This is one issue on which the fractionalized Lebanese society is unanimous: No one wants the Palestinian refugees there.

The official line of the Lebanese government calls upon Israel to accept the refugees’ right of return.

“Our firm stance is that we insist on Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, the west Bekaa Valley and the Golan Heights, and a guarantee for the right of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to go back home,” Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said recently, setting out his country’s terms for peace with Israel.

Residents of the Rashidiya refugee camp near the Lebanese port city of Tyre recently complained that the Lebanese authorities have blockaded their camp, preventing the entrance of any supplies, except for food, water and medicine.

The refugees are “illegal aliens in Lebanon,” said human rights activist Natur.

“The Lebanese government does not want to grant us Lebanese citizenship, and the Palestinians do not want to become Lebanese citizens.”

Jordan, meanwhile, is concerned that if the refugee problem is not resolved, Lebanon will eventually deport its own refugee population — with Syrian help – - to Jordanian territory.

Seven years ago, a special multinational team was established to discuss the refugee problem. The committee met a number of times, but with no real progress. The Palestinians repeatedly raised the issue of the refugees’ right of return; the Israelis repeatedly rejected it.

Yosef Hadas, the head of the Israeli negotiating team, said at the time that he foresaw a “difficult confrontation with the Palestinians over their demand to implement their right of return.”

“The Palestinians will not agree to limit their right of return only to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” he added.

A proposal has been floated to by pass the question of returning refugees by compensating them for the property they left behind 50 years ago.

Recently revealed documents show that in 1951 Israel estimated the value of abandoned Arab property at $1 billion, equivalent to $6 billion in today’s dollars.

But there have been reports that Israeli officials are thinking of bringing to the table a demand that Jews be compensated for property they left behind in Arab lands before coming to Israel — a demand that could well offset any Palestinian compensation claims.

If a Palestinian state is established, will it be able to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees who will want to live in the West Bank and Gaza?

Ghassan al-Imam, a columnist for the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al- Awsat wrote recently: “Because of the terrible insistence of the Arabs to make peace with Israel in exchange for a piece of land which will not stand the flow of returnees, there is only one alternative: Resettlement.”

Resettlement, that is, of the Palestinian refugees in their current host countries.

But since none of the host countries — except for Jordan — is willing to accept what they consider unwanted guests, the problem will remain unsolved.

Which leads to al-Imam’s warning: “Thanks to the permanent policy of the Arab governments to feed their people with false and unrealistic hopes, the refugee issue will continue to tick like a time bomb about to explode any minute.”

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