A refugee is a person forced to flee that person’s country of origin for reasons of feared persecution or conflict. Palestinians are the only people in the world able to inherit refugee status. This unique advantage means that both the Palestinians uprooted by Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and all of their descendants from male parents are labelled refugees. As a result, the estimated number of Palestinian refugees has grown from about 700,000 in 1948 to over 7 million today.
Palestinians assert another unique privilege among refugees: a right of return. A right of return would allow Palestinians from anywhere in the world to move into homes and land inside Israel that either they or their ancestors occupied prior to 1948. No distinction would be made between descendants of Palestinians who were property owners or renters prior to 1948. Israeli Jews displaced by Palestinians who move into their homes would have to find other accommodations. A right of return is the core Palestinian demand, a prerequisite for the Palestinians to end their conflict with Israel. Schwartz and Wilf explain in a July 30 article in the Forward that Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians a right of return is the reason why, in July 2000, Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s generous offer of an independent Palestinian state consisting of most of the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem.
Israelis are proud of their Jewish state and its Zionist mission. Israel rejects a right of return for Palestinians because a right of return would destroy Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The Jewish people would face the prospect of becoming a minority in their own homeland. However, Israel will negotiate compensation for property lost by Palestinian refugees after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Unfortunately, the Palestinians reject compensation in lieu of a right of return.
If the Palestinians will not end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict without receiving a right of return, and Israel will not offer a right of return, how can peace be attained? Here is one suggestion for a brief and limited right of return. The key step would be for Israel to distinguish between those Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes following the 1948 war, and their descendants.
Palestinians who fled or were expelled are true refugees from Israel because Israel is presumed to be their country of origin. They were born on land which later, in 1948, became the state of Israel. However, their descendants are not refugees from Israel because Israel is not their country of origin. They were born outside of Israel, in Arab host countries or in other countries.
This distinction could motivate Israel to offer the oldest Palestinians, all those above age 70, born before 1950, the opportunity to return to Israel to spend their twilight years living comfortably inside long term care (LTC) facilities built especially for them. These lovely LTC retirement homes, to be located in sunny southern Israel close to the Gaza border, would be staffed by Palestinian caregivers and health care professionals. To shield residents from the impact and explosion of rockets playfully fired into Israel from Gaza, all LTC homes would have access to underground bomb shelters. As a bonus, family and friends would be allowed to visit every Sunday provided that no attacks against Israelis had been launched during the previous week.
The advantage of this suggestion to the Israelis is that the number of Palestinians above age 70 is a small fraction of their total population. In addition, this group of Palestinians becomes smaller every and will vanish by 2050. The longer the Palestinians wait to accept this offer, the fewer of them will be alive to enjoy its benefits. The Palestinians must realize that a limited right of return is better than no right of return. The advantage to the Palestinians is that they can focus on enlisting support for their goal of achieving an independent state of Palestine. If this arrangement is acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis, then the major obstacle to negotiating a two-state solution will have been removed.