This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
By Alon Ben-Mier
During a donor conference held in Cairo last week, the U.S., EU, and other countries pledged $2.7 billion for reconstruction in Gaza. It is undoubtedly necessary to make such a humanitarian effort to rebuild the shattered lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who suffered the most as a result of the last violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas. That said, regardless of how admirable this financial commitment may be, the fact that it was not linked in any way to the peace process, and in particular to solving the most acute and endemic problem of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, is another gross missed opportunity.
The Palestinian refugee problem, especially those who live in their homeland—the West Bank and Gaza—remains as one of the thorniest problems preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. A dignified solution is one in which the refugees restore their self-esteem—not a continued handout to perpetuate a life-long stigma.
It is nothing short of a travesty to allow another generation of Palestinians to grow up in a state of limbo, only so their corrupt leaders can ride on their backs and cry wolf about their plight while shamelessly enjoying the good life.
The statistics are startling—according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of registered refugees in Gaza is 1,240,082 out of a total population of 1.5 million, and 754,411 are registered in the West Bank out of a population of 2.4 million. It should be noted that regardless of UNRWA’s definition, the Palestinian “refugees” are not refugees at all, as more than 80 percent of them were born in their homeland—the West Bank and Gaza—and the rest are at best internally displaced. Only 30,000 are original refugees.
No efforts have been made to resolve the tragic refugee problem since 1948. Instead, it has been exploited only to feed the insatiable hunger for power of their misguided and self-absorbed leaders.
In what was initially a disastrous event, the 1948 exodus turned into a Greek tragedy, festering over time and engulfing innocent souls. Since then, the refugees have multiplied nearly sevenfold, with many living under subhuman conditions which serve as incubators for militancy and violence, and which Hamas in particular seeks to cultivate.
UNRWA in particular, with more than 25,000 workers, is guilty of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis. It was established by the UNGA in December 1949, and its mandate to care for the refugees was renewed every three years for more than six decades; the current extension runs until June 30, 2017.
Many countries have played a role in contributing to the prolongation of the Palestinian refugees’ plight. Out of the top 20 donors to UNRWA, 15 are Western countries or organizations. And Palestinian leaders have held the nearly two million refugees in the West Bank and Gaza as hostages; while they have insisted that the “right of return” of the refugees is sine qua non to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This flies in the face of the poll conducted in 2003 by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, which showed that only 10 percent of the refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza would opt to return to Israel (their original place of residence). Since then, the number has more than likely further decreased as the prospect of returning is increasingly diminishing. Successive Israeli governments refused to assume any responsibility and made no effort to galvanize international support to resolve the refugees’ plight. What they did do, especially right-wing Israeli governments, is use the refugee problem as a convenient impediment to the two-state solution.
Ironically, in every set of negotiations, both sides agreed that the right of return cannot be exercised literally, and only a few thousand could rejoin their extended families in Israel over a period of few years.
Those Palestinians who insist that they will never forsake the right of return will have to wait forever, and every Arab and Palestinian leader knows this fact only too well. Instead of trying to achieve a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has thus far proven to be elusive, a settlement of the refugee problem—resettlement and/or compensation—could pave the way for resolving in stages the other sticking issues.
However theoretical the right of return has become, it hangs over the Israelis’ heads and even a reference to it is viewed as a threat to their national identity—if not the very existence of the state. A resolution to the refugee problem would provide an opening for the U.S. and the EU to exert pressure on Israel to make important concessions on border issues, which the Palestinians rightfully insist upon to define the contours of the future Palestinian state.
The donor countries should have insisted (and still can) that their contribution to rebuild much of Gaza focuses on resettlement and compensation of the refugees, especially since 80 percent of Gaza’s residents are registered as refugees.
Prolonging the misery of the refugees does not offer a “just solution” as the Palestinians and Arab states advocate. A just solution is decades overdue and no Arab or Palestinian leaders can justify the decades-long despondency and despair of the refugees under the guise of the “right of return.”
The Palestinian people are creative, vibrant, resourceful, and proud people; they must not continue to live in a state of contrived conditions of misery, fed with empty slogans and offered false hope about their “right of return,” only to be crushed later with the truth.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
[Photo courtesy of UPI.com]