The Palestinian refugee problem is often cited as one of the main obstacles to peace between Israel and the Arab world, if not the main obstacle. Careful examination of the facts, however, indicates that it should not be.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), there are over 5 million Palestinians who hold the official status of refugees, which is more than half the total population of Israel (9 million Israelis), not including the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) who do not hold the status of refugees. Based on these numbers, the idea of settling the Palestinian refugees in what could become a Palestinian state, seems impossible. Reality, however, is quite different.
First, it does not make sense to assume that all Palestinian refugees would move to a new Palestinian state. There are several possibilities for these refugees:
- Remain where they are. Of the UNRWA’s official count of refugees, about 2.2 million already live in Gaza and the West Bank. If a Palestinian state is created in Gaza and the West Bank, they need not move elsewhere. Another 1.5 million live in Jordan as citizens. These refugees can continue to live in Jordan. Out of the remaining Palestinian refugees, only a small number is likely to remain where they are. For example, in Lebanon, all political parties are united against giving the Palestinian refugees permanent status in Lebanon. However, it is possible that a small number of Palestinian refugees may be kept as part of an Israeli/Arab peace agreement.
- Be granted permanent residency in another Arab country or elsewhere in the world. Again, as part of an Israeli/Arab peace agreement, there could be provision for some Palestinian refugees to be moved to some countries who may want to contribute to the solution. The number of Palestinians living outside the Middle East is already estimated at 0.7 million.
- Move to Israel. This number is likely to be small, but Israel has in the past offered to take a small number of Palestinian refugees as part of a peace agreement. In 2000, “Israel proposed to absorb 15,000 people within the family reunification scheme”. It is possible that Israel may do so again.
- Move to the new Palestinian state. If we subtract the above counts, this leaves an official count of somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million Palestinian refugees who would need to be settled in a Palestinian state. Even that range, however, is likely to be an overestimate since in Lebanon, a census by the Lebanese government in 2017 counted only 174,422 Palestinian refugees compared to the UNRWA’s count of 450,000. If the counts in Jordan and Syria are equally inaccurate, the actual number of stateless refugees could be as low as 0.5 million, but even if we assume that the UNRWA numbers in Jordan and Syria are more accurate than in Lebanon, the real count is likely to be in the range of 0.5 to 1 million.
That 0.5 to 1 million would have to be added to the Palestinians already in Gaza and the West Bank, who currently total around 4.2 million. It is a large increase in population, but not nearly as daunting as the official count of 5 million. Such an increase in population can be accommodated over a period of time given proper planning and adequate funding.
The stateless Palestinian refugees live in often dreadful conditions with very limited rights, they are subject to the whims of their host countries, and they are more vulnerable to wars and other conflicts than other residents are. Leaving their situation unresolved is not a humanitarian option.
The main obstacle to this resolution, however, is not the number of refugees. It is the mindset of the parties involved.
Palestinians who have official refugee status, even those already living Gaza or the West Bank, even those with full Jordanian citizenship, and even those living outside the Middle East, have been conditioned to believe that they will all one day return to a Palestine that includes what is now Israel, which is of course not possible. If the situation of the Palestinian refugees who truly need a home is to ever be resolved, the fiction of an unlimited “right of return” for 5 million Palestinian refugees has to be abandoned.
Israel too has to accept reality. It has to accept the necessity of creating a viable Palestinian state that is capable of welcoming a reasonable number of refugees. The right-wing fiction that Judea and Samaria can never be given up by Israel, and that the Palestinians of the West Bank can be expected to live forever under Israeli occupation, has to be abandoned.
The resettling of stateless Palestinian refugees should be a top priority for any peace process, together with the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Any attempt to resolve the conflict without achieving these two objectives is pointless and bound to fail.