by Ziad AbuZayyad
The issue of Palestinian refugees is at the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and an agreement on this core issue is central to the survival of any political settlement to the conflict. Palestinian refugees lived for more than six decades after the 1948 war with the dream that one day they would go back home. Although realities on the ground are changing and the picture etched in their memory or inherited from their fathers and grandfathers has changed, for any Palestinian refugee what matters in essence is the right of return. It is highly probable that the Palestinian houses do not exist anymore, or are inhabited by Jewish families that were told that now they have become the owners of these houses; yet, in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian refugees, these houses are still there, exactly as they were when their owners were forced to leave them. The same applies to the fields and the orchards — the paradise of orange groves. Many Palestinian refugees still carry the heavy iron keys to their houses or the deeds to their properties, waiting for their restitution.
On one hand, the right of return remains the code that inflames the nationalist feelings of the refugees, and the accusation of anyone accepting concessions on this right is reason enough to discredit that person in the eyes of his or her own people. On the other hand, Israel’s position as affirmed by David Ben-Gurion in 1949, immediately after Israel was accepted as a member of the United Nations, is “Not one refugee will be allowed back and no single inch of land will be returned.” Israel’s explanation for its refusal to allow the return of the Arab refugees has always been that it would change the character of Israel and convert it into an Arab or bi-national state, whereas it should continue to be a “Jewish” state, a homeland for the Jews, in accordance with UN Resolution 181, known as the “Partition Plan.” This resolution, which called for the establishment of two states, a Jewish and an Arab state, in the area of Mandatory Palestine, is considered as the only reference to Israel’s international legitimacy. However, Israel accepts this resolution only as a principle; it rejects the borders as stipulated in the resolution and insists on keeping within its borders large areas from the part designated for the Arab state, in addition to the International Zone of Jerusalem.
In the face of this reality, upon which both sides insist, we may find ourselves with our backs to the wall. No settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be achieved without reaching a fair and just solution to the refugee problem. One side should relinquish its position, or both sides should take the necessary steps and meet somewhere along the spectrum between the two diametrically opposed positions.
In this issue, we will try to tackle this problem in its different aspects. Have any new positions emerged within the two communities? Can the two-state solution satisfy the ambitions, interests, and fears of both parties? Is there an alternative to the right of return? What about compensations? Can the refugees return to their homes without jeopardizing the Jewish character of the state of Israel? Could the right of return be exercised fully, partially or symbolically, facilitating an agreed-upon political solution to the conflict? What is the role of the international community in resolving this problem? And, finally, where are we headed if we do not adopt a realistic approach and try to resolve this conflict before it is too late?