All Writings
April 9, 2010

Taking Responsibility for the Palestinian Refugees

President Barack Obama's meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians' President Mahmoud Abbas last September fuelled speculation that there would be palpable progress in the Middle East peace process. Yet so far all attempts at reconciliation have yet to be translated into action. Continuing Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank and in Jerusalem has kept George Mitchell and his colleagues in the American negotiating team shuttling back and forth to the region, but the historically contentious issue of the Palestinian refugee crisis remains. This has already disrupted numerous efforts toward a final agreement, and is likely to present the biggest hurdle for negotiators in the future.

Instead of waiting for final status talks to resume, the international community led by the European Union should now take steps to improve the political atmosphere surrounding the Palestinian refugee issue. There is only one realistic solution that could be envisaged as part of a two-state solution, and that means compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation in the West Bank and Gaza. The EU must therefore take the lead and use its formidable economic and political clout to help bring the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees to an end. By doing so, it would establish itself as an indispensable interlocutor in the Arab-Israeli peace process, thus enhancing its own strategic and economic interests in the Middle East.

Of all the issues that divide the Israelis and Palestinians, spanning as they do territorial claims, secure borders and the future of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugee problem continues to stymie all pragmatic solutions. The majority of Palestinians believe that the creation of Israel in 1948 precipitated the problem, so the solution lies in the Right of Return to the state of Israel as a matter of principle. Israel has hotly refuted this argument, and in every encounter with the Palestinians since 1988 has made it clear that to sustain its Jewish majority, which the Israelis consider a sine qua non for any agreement, the solution must be found through resettlement and rehabilitation in the West Bank and Gaza. This will fulfill the call for Palestinians to return to their homeland, albeit not to their original homes. Other refugees may opt to resettle in their present country of residence as long as these countries are prepared to accept the refugees as their own citizens.

Many Palestinian and Arab leaders have since 2000 conceded in private as well as in negotiations with Israel that apart from a symbolic 20-30,000 refugees returning to Israel proper as part of family reunification, the solution lies largely in resettlement and compensation in the new state of Palestine. Such a solution is based on the 1967 Resolution 242, of the UN Security Council, which calls for "achieving a just settlement to the refugee problem." This is opposed to the 1948 Resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly, where article 11 states that "the 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." It should be noted that in every final status negotiation between the two parties, a solution to the Palestinian refugees was discussed only in the context of resettlement and compensation. The understanding between the two parties was based on the premise of UN Resolution 242, which superseded the non-binding Resolution 194.

Considering the historical magnitude and the politicization of the Palestinian refugee issue, it is necessary at this point to change the political formula. Waiting for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be signed could take years, and as matters stand the refugee issue could collapse any final status agreement, as happened in Camp David. To change the political dynamics, the EU should take direct action to alleviate the crisis as a precursor to a future peace deal. Instead of seeking to change the political narrative about the need to resettle the Palestinians in their homeland, the EU should first create the means to make that possible.

The EU has championed the cause of Palestinian refugees since Israel's inception, and has been the largest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees. Considering, too, the natural alliance the Palestinians have with the EU as a possible balance to the close U.S.-Israeli relationship, the EU is in an ideal position to dramatically change the status of the 4.5m refugees registered by the UN. This is also an opportunity for Europe to solidify its role as an international mediator, with a vested interest in the success of the Middle East.

To have a substantial impact on the way this conflict has been framed, the EU will need to take a number of steps to change the entire structure in which the refugees exist. This would require capital of perhaps up to $10bn, far more than the €264m allotted for UNRWA¬, as well as a close relationship with the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where many of the refugee camps are located. Raising the funds to support the resettlement of refugees into the West Bank and Gaza would help to lay the foundation for the state of Palestine, but needs to be accompanied by a support system.

This would be in line with the plans of the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to establish a de facto state in the West Bank and Gaza. Fayyad's state-building vision has engendered Western enthusiasm along with financial and political support from the Obama Administration and the EU. Although Mr. Fayyad invokes Resolution 194 on the Palestinian refugee question, he also emphasizes that "the government will do all within its power and authority to bolster on the legal right and the living conditions of the refugees in the occupied territory, particularly in refugee camps, including the provision of all the resources it can afford to support and alleviate the suffering of the refugees in all aspects of their lives."

Every country that speaks of the need to find a solution to the Palestinian refugees must contribute to this effort, including the U.S., Russia, China, the oil-rich Arab states and Israel itself. Re-settlement of the refugees means large-scale investment in jobs, contracts for housing and schools and measures to ensure that existing Palestinian communities can absorb the influx. The EU needs to partner with the PA to create a ministry for resettling refugees. Improving the economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza will be key if Palestinians are to be motivated to leave the refugee camps.

This approach is fundamentally different to previous attempts, because it is based on finding a solution to the refugee crisis before any final status negotiations. The EU should not only adopt this idea but promote it publicly as an official position. Guaranteeing money for resettlement will lure many Palestinians into thinking practically about this issue, rather than using it as a political tool. Billions of dollars for resettlement will have the effect of changing the debate and forcing people to think about how to use the money constructively. The EU must also emphasize that this is not a controversial idea, as past negotiations have been based on the premise of UNSC 242 and the concept of re-settlement into the West Bank and Gaza.

There are those who argue that while the solution to the refugee problem is financial, with the right of return exercised inside the new Palestinian state, it is a solution that will be difficult to attain unless linked to a viable Palestinian state. If that is not achieved as part of a package, Palestinians and Arabs will feel they were "bought". This is why it is absolutely critical that the resettlement of refugees should facilitate rather than obstruct the creation of a Palestinian state.

Moving Palestinians out of refugee camps and into viable communities in their future state will also have a huge impact on the whole Arab community. Not only should the Arab world help the EU to fund this project, but they should give logistical and organizational support for a significant transfer of people. Arab states that have used the plight of the refugees to cover up for their own shortcomings can finally do something beneficial for the people who have been living in squalid conditions for decades. And Israel should welcome this development as it would help to mitigate the call for a return to Israel proper and ease some of the human rights claims against them. By taking the lead and raising money, the EU can assure the Israelis that all the money raised and the needed permits for construction will be for the sole purpose of moving Palestinians into their homeland in the West Bank and Gaza.

The goal must be to change the current situation of the refugees, not by giving them aid -which is a major role for the UN- but by establishing the funding and grounds where refugees can start returning to their homeland by the thousands and investing in their new communities. For the 60% of refugees already living in camps in the West Bank and Gaza, this will mean working with the PA to pull their families out of refugee status and into proper housing. There is absolutely no reason why refugees living in camps in the Palestinian territories under complete PA control -such as in Bethlehem- should continue to live in appalling conditions when they are already living in their own homeland under total control of the Palestinian Authority. Perpetuating their suffering for political reasons is unconscionable, especially when the lives of so many children are at stake.

Resolving the Palestinian refugee problem requires not only money from the EU, but above all political and organizational know-how to overcome the many detractors whose political fortunes depend on the continued plight of the refugees. What is now needed is a bold and visionary solution that is totally consistent with the right of return to the future Palestinian state.

The original version of this article was published by "Europe's World," and can be found at: