The Israeli Position
Multilateral Working Group on Refugees Opening Remarks for Israel

by Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami
Ottawa, November 11, 1992

The Multilateral Conference on Refugees in the Middle East is a historic endeavor. It is the vindication of an old aspiration expressed by successive Israeli governments. Indeed, a central chapter in the Israeli peace initiative of May 1989 has explicitly called for such an international effort to solve the refugee problem. Based on a deep moral conviction that a nation of refugees like ours must be actively involved in the search for humane solu¬tions to the plight of refugees and on the persuasion that the peace we are now negotiating in the bilateral track needs to be accompanied and sustained by an international effort of human improvement and social rehabilitation, we have come to this conference with many illusions, much good will and, we believe, creative ideas. Hence, our peace policy today is inspired by a dream that there must be a way to reconcile peace with justice and security.

Arab and Jewish Refugees

The wave of refugees in the Middle East, which started towards the end of 1947, was the direct result of the Arab effort to prevent by force the imple¬mentation of the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947, to parti¬tion Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Following upon the decla¬ration of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948, Arab armies launched an all-out war against reborn Israel with the purpose of establishing exclusive Arab control in the whole of Palestine. The war, as is tragically the case in most wars in recorded history, swept in its wake large segments of the civilian population. The Arab exodus was initiated by the wealthy and the powerful Arab families who left the masses insecure and leaderless. The mass escape that ensued was inflamed by the horrors of war and by the hope of a speedy return to an Arab Palestine once the victorious Arab armies had completed their task. The escape affected not only those Palestinians who lived in the land for generations but also tens of thou¬sands of very recent legal and illegal Arab immigrants to Palestine from neighboring countries. A land of contention, Palestine had attracted both Jewish and Arab immigrants. The latter flocked into the country especially during periods of prosperity. Indeed, in recognition of the very recent ori¬gin of many of the refugees - inaccurately represented as part of a "mil¬lenarian" Palestinian population - the United Nations was later moved to describe as eligible for refugees status any Arab who had lived in Palestine for a minimum of two years.
It is a travesty of historical truth to present the Palestinian refugee prob¬lem as the result of mass expulsion. There is no denying, however, that once the Jews, who for thousands of years waited with humility for their redemption, made their reencounter with history as a sovereign nation, they had to assume the inherent immorality of war. The suffering of the civilian population will always be a burden on the conscience of any nation at war. The Arab-Israeli conflict has no monopoly on this maxim. Clearly, the Palestinians were a major victim of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian refugee problem was born as the land was bisected by the sword, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely the inevitable by¬product of Arab and Jewish fears and the protracted bitter fighting.
On the other hand, the Middle East witnessed a virtual exchange of pop¬ulation as hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were forced to evacu¬ate their places of residence and find a haven in Israel. The 1948 War of Independence climaxed centuries of discrimination against, and even repression of, the defenseless Jewish minorities in some Arab countries. The war bequeathed a refugee problem to both parties as the Jewish com¬munities of the Arab world were virtually liquidated during the period 1948-1952 and their property was all but lost. Indeed, when we reach a stage where peace may require the termination of Jewish and Arab claims, Israel will present the case for due compensation for all the havoc, destruc¬tion, the loss of life and properties of the Jews in the Arab lands. Ideally, one would expect that a system be devised of mutual compensation with the full participation of the international community.
While Jewish refugees were warmly integrated into Israel, Arab refugees were subjected to an abuse of their plight. Since World War II, over 100 million people have become refugees, virtually all of whom have been integrated into the host societies. In the case of the Palestinian refugees, pawn politics and indifference were the two foci of a problem of tragic and human dimensions. Their fate was to be denied resettlement and be consigned to camps in dismal conditions of hopelessness and destitu¬tion. The notion that nothing should be done to rehabilitate the refugees as long as a political settlement has not been achieved is morally wrong.
The Government of Israel views an agreed-upon solution of the refugee problem as an essential component of the historical reconciliation between the Palestinian people and Israel.

A New Approach - Rehabilitation

The philosophy of welfare and relief, important as it certainly is, must give way to one of rehabilitation. More than once in the past the need was voiced for large-scale productive investments in the host Arab countries in order to create sources of employment for the refugees and facilitate their rehabilitation. But the Arab countries nipped in the bud this approach and continued to insist on the most unrealistic solution possible: repatriation.
It is our endeavor, together with others, to join efforts in order to resolve the refugee and displaced persons problems. It is also our posi¬tion that this noble enterprise should avoid references to cumulative one-¬sided U.N. resolutions adopted hitherto, for we would then run the risk of converting this working group into a replica of the U.N. General Assembly. I trust that this was not exactly the intention of the initiators of this conference.
Israel has always maintained that a multinational effort to dignify living conditions in the refugee camps does not have to await a political solution or indeed to substitute for it. The treatment of the humanitarian problem is not aimed at prejudging the bilateral discussions and the future political settlement. It is doubtful whether the existence of refugees makes the case for Palestinian political rights any stronger. Palestinian refugees can live in better conditions while the search for peace continues. The rewards of peace can be shared by all while we build its political foundations.
Israel is fully aware not only of the necessity to redeem the plight of the refugees of 1948 but also of those who were displaced by the 1967 war. As early as 1949, Israel initiated a Family Reunification Scheme, which made possible the return to Israel by 1967 of about 50,000 and to the territories by 1991 of an additional 93,000. The Family Reunification Scheme is an ongoing system inspired by humanitarian considerations; it is not an instrument for radical demographic move¬ments. It is our contention that this working group was not convened to decide about the movement of people; it is rather a historic attempt to bring about a movement of resources and ideas in order to improve the living conditions of people.

An Agreed Database

The need for an agreed database on refugees in the Middle East is clear. It is obviously not only a question of figures - some of the statistics and def¬initions may be in discrepancy with socioeconomic realities - but also, or perhaps mainly, of living conditions. An agreed and reliable database is an essential instrument of socioeconomic policy. Israel would be willing to join any group of experts that might be formed to prepare by consensus a reliable system of categorizing and cataloguing the data and of finding methods to increase data accessibility.

Projects for the Refugees

Israel is ready to participate in the implementation of projects ranging from global designs of total reintegration in the host countries and in the admin¬istered territories, leading eventually to the dismantlement of all the refugee camps throughout the region, down to more specific and modest enterprises of improving health services, child welfare, development of human resources, vocational training and job creation and the develop¬ment of a social and economic infrastructure. A comprehensive plan that would demonstrate that the fruits of peace exceed the spoils of war should ideally replace funds which have prolonged the refugee status of the Arab refugees by aid in conjunction with development, in a way that would ensure self-support and respect. The program should be offered without prejudice to the political negotiations. If the idea of a Reintegration Fund sounds revolutionary to some of us, I should recall that precisely such an approach was endorsed in the early 1950s by UNRWA (the Blandford Plan) only to be later undermined by the Arab countries. Forty-five years of mass deprivation and fatalistic frustration of two entire generations of refugees on the one hand, and the promising prospects of an Arab-Israeli peace on the other, should hopefully lead us to inaugurate a new phase in refugee rehabilitation.
Israel is willing to participate in, and to facilitate, any partial solution that would lead to an alleviation of the plight of the refugees and improve the quality of life in the camps. We are ready to work with each Arab country on a bilateral basis and with other concerned parties on a multilateral basis.
Israel is ready to propose a program of housing, infrastructure and basic services for the refugee camps in the territories and in the refugee camps in Arab countries as well. Based on the experience and conclusions drawn from the ongoing rehabilitation program implemented in the Gaza District that has already housed 12,000 families of refugees comprised of about 100,000 persons, all of whom were given an opportunity to acquire land and build their houses as they wished, in the camps or adjacent to them, our proposal is designed for a time span of five to eight years, and will affect 45,000 families.
If such a comprehensive program sounds too ambitious, we are ready to submit detailed project proposals for the improvement of living conditions in each and every refugee camp throughout the territories with the under¬standing that similar projects would be applied to refugee camps in Arab countries as well. Israel would collaborate in carrying out the program whether it is endorsed in its totality or only on one of several of its com¬ponents, however modest they may be.
Simultaneously, or alternatively, we would consider submitting a pilot project for the rehabilitation of one particular refugee camp in the territo¬ries and one in an Arab country. Sharing problems and experience that could turn such a project into an instrument of regional cooperation.
A Regional Research Center
All the nations of the Middle East share common problems of refugees and mass dislocation. To better understand and share our respective experience in this field and in order to work out better solutions to the problems, we pro¬pose that a Regional Research Center be established to conduct applied inves¬tigation into the human and material problems of refugees. Such an institute could act as a regional think tank that would serve the peace process in the field of refugee rehabilitation. It may even be instrumental in facilitating a policy consensus on a regional basis. The Center should employ experts from Israel, Arab countries, Palestinians and experts from outside the region.
Israel is ready to join an initiative of developing human resources through vocational training, and submit its own proposals. The experience in this field - about 85,000 young men and women have so far acquired new professions in the territories - should be expanded; the lessons of its achievements and shortcomings can be shared in the context of regional cooperation. A program in this particular field should start, we believe, with the survey of the pressing needs in terms of skills, vocation and the needs of the different economies of the region. The project could be elabo¬rated and led by a steering committee of experts that would also coordinate its implementation with the countries hosting the refugee camps, monitor its developments and evaluate its results.

A Time for Peace

Israel is not a homogeneous society; it is one of the richest ethnic mosaics possible, adding to that the fact that 20 percent of our population consists of an Arab minority enjoying full citizenship. These are the same Palestinian Arabs who remained on their land during the exodus of 1948 that condemned their brethren to a hopeless life of destitution and despair in refugee camps throughout the region. Our society is fully aware of the vital necessity to reach a historic compromise with the Palestinian people while recognizing its legitimate rights for a life of freedom and dignity. The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from discrepant historical rhythms. The history of our modem national movement has been charac¬terized by realistic responses to objective historical circumstances; the Palestinians have consistently fought for the solutions of yesterday, those they had rejected a generation or two earlier. This persistent attempt to turn back the clock of history lies at the root of many of the misfortunes that have befallen the peoples of the region. Now it is time for all of us to overcome dire memories and look forward. Neither the physical nor the rhetorical war of images will bring us any closer to peace and reconcilia¬tion. No one has a monopoly on the mythology of suffering and atrocities. In this tragic dispute, we have all committed acts of violence that we ought not to be proud of. To the Palestinians we say: we are excited to be sitting with you for the first time in the troubled history of our relations in order to shape our dreams of peace. Let us then join hands in asking the world which has been watching, perplexed at, and sometimes even fueling our wars to mobilize its resources for the benefit of our peoples.
We are all entangled in a seemingly insoluble conundrum. We know that unless your and our wounds are healed, peace - not only the politi¬cal peace but also that of the mind and the conscience - would not be com¬plete. Yet, at the same time we realize that the total satisfaction of our respective dreams or presumed rights will lead us to perdition. Hence, it is incumbent upon us to devise realistic ways that would heal without open¬ing new wounds, that would dignify our existence as free peoples without putting into jeopardy the collective existence of each other. I believe that at the end of the road we shall find such an ideal compromise, while banish¬ing the sword from this Land of God.