Talking to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz last week, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas admitted that the refugees represent the main obstacle preventing a peace agreement with Israel. He said that matters are not yet clear; every issue has complicated details for those who would return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and those whom Israel would agree to return to their land which is today’s Israel. There are also the refugees who would remain in the Arab countries where they live at present and would become Egyptians, Yemenis, Saudis, Tunisians or Emirates citizens, and so forth, and whether Israel would agree to granting them dual nationality. In addition there is the issue of compensation. Would Israel pay compensation to all Palestinians in the diaspora or only those living in camps?
In brief, we are talking about a mountain of problems and a nation of five million refugees – a number far too big for the Palestinian territories [of 1967] to absorb and too difficult for any negotiator in the world to ignore, politically, economically, administratively, and from a humanitarian point of view.
It will be difficult for any negotiator to find acceptable solutions for these millions, or reassure Israel which is always worried by the issue of Palestinian demography. It would be difficult for Abu-Mazin [Mahmud Abbas] to convince the Palestinian organizations that pledged not to abandon the Palestinians’ right of return to their lands, or convince the host countries that have put up with so much and are awaiting a goodbye on the day of return. There are countries such as Lebanon which rejected the resettlement of Palestinians in its land; and there are some Arab countries that would only cooperate by way of giving residence to half the Palestinians in their countries.
The lucky ones who would be allowed to return might discover that the dream was more of a nightmare; it is half a century since they left their homes and they would find that maps and landscapes have changed. As for those who would stay in the host countries, their resettlement means that responsibility for them would be transferred from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency [UNRWA] to local governments that can hardly find enough resources to manage their own affairs. In this respect, I have in mind Jordan and Syria, as they seem to be the lesser complainants of the presence of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, not much is known about compensation and whether it would be paid to governments or to the refugees. But whatever might be the decision, we are talking of a change that might take ten years during which the Palestinian refugee would be transformed from a refugee into a citizen responsible for himself.
President Mahmud Abbas seems optimistic about his ability to return more than 100,000 Palestinians to Israel, but I think that would cause a crisis, and no Israeli Prime Minister would dare to take the plunge and carry it out.
President Abbas, fearing that his promises might be no more than fantasies, often reiterates that there is no solution yet, which is true to some extent. He says that the Israelis are prevaricating, and have withdrawn for no obvious reason; which has to be expected, because it is not in Israel’s interest to change the status quo. It is not in Israel’s interest that a Palestinian state be established, nor is it in its interest that a million Palestinian refugees return to the West Bank and Gaza, as this would have an impact on the demographic balance of power across its borders. Moreover, Israel hates to make concessions on the issues of water resources, borders and Jerusalem, and does not want to lose the state of war or conflict which has won Israel Jewish sympathy around the world, helped collect huge sums in donations and unites the Jews inside Israel itself against the Arab enemy. Israel should admit that it has managed to benefit from the ‘state of conflict’ due to Arab stupidity. The Palestinians and the Arabs in general have learned not to rely solely on the military option, and the parties to the conflict have no other choice but to agree to a final peaceful solution.