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Dream or Reality: Will Refugees in Arab Lands Move to Gaza Strip?

August 31, 2005
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On the surface, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip offers some Palestinian refugees a golden opportunity to achieve their long-awaited dream of return. For generations, Palestinians have emphasized U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, a non-binding document stating that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

Now, 57 years later, with Gaza soon to be completely under Palestinian control, the door to the coastal strip can open and refugees in the Palestinian Diaspora theoretically can return to Palestinian soil, though in most cases not to their original homes.

The conditions appear to be ripe: Israeli settlements are vacant and Gaza is flooded with development plans, as well as international pledges to cover the costs.

The official Palestinian policy of absorbing refugees is one of “ahalan w’sahalan,” Arabic terms of welcome.

But whether the refugees actually will be welcome in Gaza is unclear.

Earlier this month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Arab countries to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, saying the move would not undermine the “right of return” that the refugees their descendants claim to their former homes, many of which are in Israel.

In the past, Abbas has said Palestinians might settle for an Israeli statement accepting responsibility for the refugee problem, followed by the return of a limited number of refugees.

At the same time, he repeatedly has promised Palestinians over the past year that they would be able to return home one day.

But it’s one thing to address the millions of Palestinians living in the Diaspora with a traditional Arab welcome; it’s quite another thing to make it a reality.

First, any mass movement of people into Gaza will be subject to Israel’s discretion for the time being, as Israel still commands all entry points into the coastal strip — though plans are afoot to open an airport and seaport in Gaza that likely would be free of Israeli influence.

Palestinian statistics estimate the number of refugees at more than 6 million. Some 4.2 million are registered with UNRWA, the U.N. body for Palestinian refugees. Some advocates for Israel consider those numbers wildly inflated.

The fate of refugees still must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians during peace talks, but the dispute over the issue was one of the major reasons for the collapse of negotiations at the July 2000 Camp David summit and in subsequent talks in Taba.

While Israel does not oppose the return of refugees to areas under Palestinian Authority control, it’s adamant that there will be no mass return of refugees to Israel proper. Most Israelis see the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” as a veiled attempt to undermine the Jewish state through simple demographics.

The motive for return exists, not least because refugees’ conditions in the countries where they live generally are poor.

Some 3 million Palestinians live in refugee camps, according to UNRWA figures — though that includes areas under Palestinian control, where no effort has been made to settle the refugees in permanent housing.

In Lebanon, home to approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees, they’re not considered citizens and are deprived of political rights and employment opportunities.

The host countries, most of which have refused to naturalize the refugees in order to maintain the issue as a political lever against Israel, say they encourage them to leave. The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper reported last week that the Jordanian Parliament is exerting pressure on the government to send refugees whose families once lived in Gaza back to the coastal strip.

After meeting with Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran, Parliament Speaker Abdul Hadi Al-Majali said the government would do all it could to assist the refugees’ return.

But can Gaza accommodate them? It’s one of the most crowded places on earth, and its economy is weak.

Much depends on the economy. The G-8 group of industrialized countries has promised a grant of $3 billion, earmarked for the economic rehabilitation of Gaza.

If the Palestinian Authority can change the local landscape from shabby refugee camps to high-rise buildings and an export-oriented economy — and assuming it doesn’t squander the aid money as it did the billions of dollars that poured in over the past decade — it could open the door to the refugees.

As long as Gaza suffers from high unemployment, however, absorbing additional Palestinians would be difficult.

Employment depends on exports, and exports need open borders. If the situation remains relatively calm, Israeli officials have said they will try to facilitate the passage of Palestinian goods through Israel, particularly agricultural exports. Exports may be further enhanced if the Palestinians open a new seaport in Gaza.

Much, therefore, depends on the economic story. If the recent Israeli withdrawal and upcoming Palestinian elections lead to economic progress, Palestinian refugees might indeed move back to Gaza.

But if the internal Palestinian crisis continues, their brethren will stay where they are and continue to subsist on pipe dreams.

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