The Palestinian Refugee Problem: A Possible Solution
I only wish that I could provide "The Solution" to a problem which, for nearly half a century, has bedeviled the Palestinian people, and at the same time has been one of the major motive forces of development in and around Palestine. I do not have any such presumption. What I propose to do, instead, is to make some observations on the prerequisites for a solu¬tion, as I see them, and to set forth some elements of a fair and just solu¬tion. Before going any further, let me say that when I speak of a just solu¬tion, I am not talking of absolute justice, which I believe is unattainable in this world. What I am referring to is a nebulous concept which I suppose might be termed attainable justice, or justice within the realm of the possi¬ble, in other words, justice within the limits of what is realistically attain¬able in current and future circumstances.

The Historic Responsibility

Having registered this caveat, let me begin by saying that the refugee issue cannot be addressed as many other issues have been dealt with in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to date. In much of what has been done so far, history has been tossed out the window, and efforts to achieve a solu¬tion of a given problem have begun as if the two sides were operating on a tabula rasa, as if there were no past which had to be accounted for and dealt with. For example, after 27 years of intensive efforts to smash every possible element of the internal and external Palestinian infrastructure ¬through air, land and sea attacks on institutions and installations, inva¬sions, and assassinations of leaders in Lebanon and elsewhere, and through imprisonment and exile of leaders and attrition of the entire soci¬ety and economy inside Palestine - Israel recently handed over responsi¬bility for governance in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and in certain spheres to a Palestinian authority.
On the refugee issue, there can be no such cavalier treatment of history. We have begun to learn about the historic responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. Indeed, almost every year there is a larger body of impeccable scholarship which establishes the actual course of events in the creation of this problem, most of this fine scholarship by Israeli scholars, it must be said. But it is not only because the facts are becoming known that history must be an element in the solution. Rather, it is because this issue is so central to the national narrative and the self-view of the Palestinian people that any approach which tries to sweep history under the rug will fail utterly. The Palestinians might put up with humiliating and unequal agreements based on ignoring history in the economic sphere, in the area of security, and in other domains. But it is hard to visualize them standing for an attempt to pretend that the refugee issue does not have specific his¬toric roots, and can be resolved accordingly.
This means that, whenever negotiations reach what are called the final status talks, Israel will have to take responsibility for its conduct in the past, and accept that the deliberate actions of the state's founding fathers have played the major role in making more than half of the Palestinian peo¬ple refugees between 1947 and 1949. This will not be easy for any Israeli leader to do, particularly since some of them can be counted among those founding fathers.
Israelis will be asked to accept a proposition which in effect means that their country was born in original sin in 1948. As if this were not hard enough, this proposition moreover flies in the face of decades of efforts at denial of any responsibility by the Israeli state, efforts which have power¬fully shaped the Israeli national consciousness on this issue. We have seen in other contexts how hard it can be for public opinion to accept such propositions, especially where they relate to national founding myths.
Accepting unlimited liability for this problem will inevitably be seen as the first step towards the wholesale return of all Palestinians, once made refugees, to their original homes. This in turn would lead to the dissolution of the demographic balance favorable to Israel created by the events of 1948, which many Israelis would regard as tantamount to national suicide. This is obviously politically unacceptable for any Israeli government, and to argue seriously for Israeli acceptance of unlimited responsibility means, in my opinion, to argue against the possibility of any real solution to this issue.
Some would go further to argue that one cannot expect an Israeli gov¬ernment to accept any responsibility for what was done to the Palestinians in 1948, and that in any case, if a relatively equitable solution can be worked out, it does not matter whether Israel atones for its actions. I dis¬agree for two reasons. The first is that real reconciliation, real healing, can only begin when such steps have been taken. The fact that they have not yet been taken is part of the reason that such reconciliation has not yet real¬ly started in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Symbolic Resistance

The second reason why such a hard path is necessary in regard to the refugee question is a much more prosaic one: in my opinion, it is incon¬ceivable that most refugees or their descendants will be allowed to exercise their right of return to their original homes in what is now Israel for the foreseeable future, or perhaps ever. This being the case, and even were there to be the most generous reparations for the losses involved, it is essential that the existential hurt that was done to the majority of the Palestinian people be acknowledged by those who caused that hurt, or their successors in power. This is a mainly symbolic response to a real grievance, but in a situation where, in most cases, there can probably be no fundamental redress of that grievance - beyond the possibility of com¬pensation - the symbolic response is all the more important. Given that, in some sense, the war is over, and Israel is clearly the victor, one might expect a little more generosity on this and other issues that we have seen so far, but even this symbolic response will clearly not come easily. This is why it is essential that the concept of reparations be established as one basic element of any solution.
In international law, and according to U.N. General Assembly resolu¬tions, the Palestinians made refugees in 1948 have the right to return to their homes, or to be compensated for their property, should they choose not to return, and all have the right to compensation for property lost or damaged. In the Palestinian view, and in my reading of international law - not to speak of higher, moral law - that is an inalienable right. The only limitation placed on that right in Resolution 194 in 1948 was that they be willing to live in peace with their neighbors. Today, however, in practice that right is limited by other factors. The refugees and their descendants can be compared to people forced to flee their homes by a flood which has permanently inundated their original communities, and who have a right to return which they simply cannot exercise by reason of force majeure.
I would argue that a number of them, perhaps those with families still located in their home villages inside Israel, could and should still be allowed to return to their homes, but for most Palestinians, whether we like it or not, it is as if their homes and villages have been submerged for these villages have been obliterated. However, there is one vital difference between the two cases: unlike a flood, the State of Israel is not a force of nature; and because it is not a force of nature, it can and must be held responsible for its actions. This is why the term "reparations" is so important, for it denotes clearly this responsibility, and indicates that this is not simply compensation granted automatically and impartially by some anonymous government body, as would be the case for unfortunates whose homes were lost in raging floods.

Attainable Justice

Given all of the above, what can those made refugees in 1948 and their descendants look forward to? The following are some elements of a solu¬tion which embodies at least a modicum of what may be attainable justice. This is not by any means an exhaustive list of these elements.
Firstly, there must be some symbolic recognition by Israel of the hurt that was done to the Palestinians made refugees in 1948. This is essential if the bitter pill of the loss of most of the Palestinian homeland is finally swal¬lowed, and if the page is finally to be turned on the harsh injustice done to the Palestinian people. This must go beyond mere statements by politi¬cians, and extend to the powerful means of socialization under the direct control of the Israeli state, like history textbooks and indoctrination within the military.
Secondly, it must be accepted that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in principle, although it is equally accepted that in practice, force majeure will prevent most of them from being able to exercise this right - whether as a result of Israel's refusal to allow them to do so, or of the disappearance of their homes and villages many decades ago. In exercise of this right, however, at least some Palestinians should be allowed to return to what is now Israel, even if this is done under the guise of family reunification for those whose home vil¬lages still exist, have family living there, and are willing to become citizens of the State of Israel, with all that entails, and even if this means a regulat¬ed entry of only a few thousand or tens of thousands of people over many years. It is particularly galling that Palestinians who may be suffering per¬secution as close to their ancestral homes as South Lebanon or as far away as Libya cannot return to Palestine, while Jewish victims of persecution from much farther afield are welcome.
A third element is reparations for all those who will not be allowed to return, and compensation for those who lost property in 1948. Given that most refugees will not be able to return, the sums involved are large indeed, according to the most recent estimate of property losses alone. Depending on the criteria used, they range from $92 billion to $147 billion at 1984 prices. Even if one uses an entirely different approach, $20,000 per person for an arbitrarily chosen figure of two million eligible refugees and their descendants, yields a figure of $40 billion. However, lest this seem like a great deal of money, it should be recalled that it amounts to little more than a decade's worth of U.S. aid to Israel.
It might be mentioned here that if compensation for property lost is the basis for part of these reparations, as it was for part of the German repara¬tions to Israel, then Jews who left or were forced to leave Arab countries in and after 1948, similarly have a perfectly legitimate claim, one which might conceivably be resoled in tandem with reparations to the Palestinians.
A fourth element is the right to live in the Palestinian-state-to-be, and to carry its passport, a right already putatively extended to all Palestinians by the 1988 Declaration of Independence, which stated that the State of Palestine was the state of all Palestinians. The right to live in this state ¬the collective right of return to Palestine, as it were - will necessarily be restricted by the new country's absorptive capacity, which is limited, but which could be increased by determined efforts by the Palestinian public and private sectors. Whether such efforts will be exerted will be one of the great tests of the Palestinian National Authority, and should be a primary concern of Palestinians in holding this Authority to account for its actions. However, lest we be subjected to some historical comparisons with Israel, which nearly doubled its Jewish population within one year of its estab¬lishment by taking in over 600,000 Jewish refugees, it must be remembered that in 1948-49 Israel had the benefit of the huge stock of housing, agricul¬tural, industrial and other forms of capital left behind by the 750,000 Palestinians whom the state had just made refugees. The Palestinian National Authority, in contrast, starts its life with an economy drained of capital by 28 years of Occupation.

Special Situations

Fifthly, there remain two groups whose situation requires special atten¬tion: the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and those in Lebanon (some points pertaining to those in Lebanon apply to those in Syria as well). Palestinians in Jordan, beyond any of those who choose to return to the areas under control of the Palestinian National Authority today, or the Palestinian state tomorrow, and beyond any reparations they may receive, deserve a final and equitable resolution of their legal status. One solution which might be envisaged in Jordan would involve most Palestinians staying in the country with a choice of either full rights of citizenship as Jordanians, or alternatively somewhat more limited rights as citizens of the Palestinian component of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Such an arrangement, or another acceptable to a majority of both Palestinians and Jordanians, will hopefully be possible in the not-too-distant future, when the resolution of questions at issue between the two peoples will have been addressed deliberately and rationally.
As far as Lebanon is concerned, a resolution of the status of Palestinians is urgent, since it impacts directly on the internal Lebanese equilibrium, and is once again today on the country's political agenda. In Lebanon, there is no option for a constitutional arrangement as might be envisaged in Jordan, since there is no likelihood of Lebanon granting most Palestinians full rights of citizenship, an option unacceptable to all of the country's major political forces, and probably to most Palestinians. If the other provisions I have mentioned come into force, some Palestinians in Lebanon (and Syria) may leave for the Palestinian state with their newly acquired rights, a few others may choose to return to their original home villages in Galilee as Israeli citizens, and many will use their new Palestinian passports to travel abroad in search of work, but most in both Lebanon and Syria will probably have to stay where they are indefinitely. However, the status of those who will remain in Lebanon is in urgent need of revision, which will at the very least involve their receiving Palestinian passports and nationality and being granted permanent resident status with special rights in Lebanon. This will involve long and difficult negotiations.
Compared to the plight of virtually all other Palestinian communities, that of those in Lebanon is perhaps the most cruel. These people have sac¬rificed prodigiously for the Palestinian cause since the 1960s, have lived in harsh conditions between 1948 and 1968, and again since 1982, and have far fewer possibilities of integration into the host society than Palestinians in Jordan and Syria. While important aspects of this problem will have to be resolved in negotiations with Israel, and via Israel's acceptance of some share of its responsibility for a solution, in a significant sense, this is a prob¬lem for the Palestinians and the Lebanese to solve.
In conclusion, I can only say that there is no simple solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, and that the elements I have put forward, mod¬est though they may seem to many, will be exceedingly hard to achieve. Together with Jerusalem and settlements, the refugee issue is the major remaining one between Palestinians and Israelis. Negotiating a solution based on what I have called attainable justice will mean that the conflict is finally over: this cannot be done on the unequal basis which has prevailed so far in the negotiations, and which has resulted in interim agreements which are, by and large, neither fair nor equitable. A permanent settlement, and real peace, will have to be based on more than the overwhelming strength of one side and the weakness of the other. That is something for which both sides, not just one, should be willing to sacrifice, and it is some¬thing which will require of the Palestinian side, in particular, a level of per¬formance which has often been lacking in the past. But a just resolution of the refugee issue, the issue which, in a sense, is at the heart of the Palestine question, will require no less than this.