There are two starting points from which to address this artificially difficult question. You can disregard the fact that the Arab invasions were the primary cause of these refugees, that the U.N.’s refugee estimates were severely bloated and that the UNRWA overhauled the definition of who a refugee is so as to include millions of people who would otherwise be disqualified from that status. Or you can approach it realistically.
When seeking a solution, a clear and accurate problem needs to be the focus, free from the mountains of political nonsense that have accumulated over the years. Dr. Walter Pinner articulated the necessity of an accurate representation of the problem in 1966 when he points out “the rectification of UNRWA’s figures is of utmost importance. All political statements of the Arab countries refer to the Refugees as the principal reason why the state of war against Israel must be continued and a third war be prepared. Therefore, the first duty is to show that the UNRWA-figure for 1966 of 1,317,749 Refugees is based on misrepresentations by 3 of the Host countries (Syria, Jordan and Gaza Strip)”1 That was over 40 years ago and the inflated refugee counts have only grown worse, making it that much more urgent a matter to get right. Any discussion that includes the decades of complications appended to this issue makes a solution ever more difficult and unlikely to realize.
Dr. Pinner, again writing in 1966, calculated the total number of refugees to be addressed at 365,000 with the following logic: “In 1948 the number of Arabs who left Israeli territory as Refugees had not been one million but 539,000 of whom 40,000 emigrated to countries far away and 70,000 re-settled immediately in the 4 Host countries and did never claim Refugee status. The rest of the 420,000 Refugees of 1948 – in spite of calculated 55% natural increase over 18 years – has shrunk by resettlement to about 115,000 Old and Sick and 250,000 other unsettled Refugees."2
So over 40 years ago with a genuine refugee population of a mere 365,000, the relevant states couldn't work out a solution concerning them. Why? Because the relevant states weren't looking at 365,000, they were looking at the UNRWA's falsified number of over 1.3 million. So it goes today, when there are far fewer genuine refugees than there were in 1966, (again disregarding the UNRWA's faulty numbers) instead of looking at whatever small number still exists, the relevant states are looking at over 4.3 million. Do you see the inherently problematic pattern when the Palestinian refugees and only the Palestinian refugees are concerned? The fewer genuine refugees exist, the higher UNRWA's falsified refugee population grows. What makes anyone think a problem that had no solution over 40 years ago with but a fraction of the current UNRWA estimate will be solved today without abandoning the status quo?
U.N. Resolution 194 is frequently invoked to prove that Palestinian Arab refugees have what is called the “right of return” to the areas they left or were forced out of during the 1948 War. Further, the popular assumption is that Israel is the country expected to both allow all the Palestinian refugees back into its borders and pay those who choose to live elsewhere compensation. The relevant text is in article 11 which reads, “… the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;”3
"The Arabs, for their part, began to speak of a refugee return as a precondition to opening peace talks. The Arab leaders argued that elementary justice demanded that the refugees be allowed to return tot heir homes from which they had fled or been ejected. In pressing this demand, they were also aware of the political and military harm to Israel that would attend a mass refugee return; it wasn’t simply a matter of “justice.”29
Resolution 194 also established a Conciliation Commission for Palestine to deliver status reports to the Security Council regarding the progress of achieving a final settlement between the warring parties. The Palestinian refugees were a major focus of this commission. “The Commission considered that … the final solution of the problem would be found within the framework of the economic and social rehabilitation of all the countries of the Near East.”13
Notice Israel is not being singled out as they are today. Contrast this expectation against the current demands from the Palestinian Arabs, when as recently as the Taba negotiations held in January 2001, the Palestinian side of the bi-lateral talks put in writing the flat demand that “Israel shall bear responsibility for the resolution of the refugee problem.”14 This pronouncement is followed by all sorts of requirements upon Israel for living up to this lone acceptance of responsibility. Where did the rest of “all the countries of the Near East” go?
It was not always taboo to suggest the Arabs were directly responsible for the Palestinian refugees:
It is also noteworthy that despite the reliance upon Resolution 194 today by the Arab nations when the subject of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is debated over, the Palestinian Arab leadership widely opposed this resolution specifically as well as the repatriation of Arab refugees generally:
The bottom line is that the solution to the Palestinian Arab refugee problem has devolved from an expectation that “all countries of the Near East” participate, to placing all the blame on Israel alone. The above arguments are not made to suggest that Israel should play no role in solving the refugee problem, but to emphasize that the current demand Israel take responsibility for every dynamic of the solution is baseless.
“Though the loss was common to Jews and Palestinians, it was equally so to Hindus, Poles, Pakistanis, Germans, Koreans, and millions of others. Defeated Germany, with an infrastructure that had been bombed back into the Middle Ages, inundated by millions of refugees, picked up its pieces and moved forward. So did everyone else. This, it appears, is normal. The festering problem of the Palestinians is the exception, and great effort has been invested over decades to assure that it not be resolved except at Israel’s expense.”19
So what is the solution?
Israel from the very beginning agreed to play a role in the Palestinian refugee solution. In 1949 during the Lausanne Conference, "Israel offered to allow families that had been separated during the war to return; agreed to release refugee accounts frozen in Israeli banks (eventually released in 1953); offered to pay compensation for abandoned lands and, finally, agreed to repatriate 100,000 refugees."20 The Israeli compensation would have been paid into a common fund and only for cultivated land. In addition, the financial consequences of the war the Arab states launched would come out of this compensation fund as reparations for Israel. The Arab representatives refused to negotiate with Israel in terms of a final settlement, contrary to the text and spirit of the entire resolution (detailed in Paragraphs 5 and 6), all the while demanding that Israel unconditionally accept back all refugees and refusing to consider a peace agreement or so much as recognize the Jewish state. If the Arab states and/or the Conciliation Committee found Israel's offer to be lacking, perhaps the environment in which the offer was made wasn't conducive to goodwill. In any event, the Arabs rejected Israel's offer.
But Israel's offer couldn't have been considered lacking if the rest of “all the countries of the Near East” had agreed to contribute their share to the solution. An offer to repatriate over 1/6th of the refugees created in the war they were the victim of should have been more than sufficient. If the victim of the 1948 War was willing to repatriate that many, how many more should the aggressors have been responsible for? Although demographic figures indicated ample room for settlement existed in Syria, Damascus refused to consider accepting any refugees, except those who might refuse repatriation. Syria also declined to resettle 85,000 refugees in 1952-54, thought it had been offered international funds to pay for the project. Iraq was also expected to accept a large number of refugees, but proved unwilling. Lebanon insisted it had no room for the Palestinians. In 1950, the UN tried to resettle 150,000 refugees from Gaza in Libya, but was rebuffed by Egypt.21
On the other hand "... Israel passed a law that allowed Arab refugees to re-settle in Israel provided they would sign a form in which they renounced violence, swore allegiance to the state of Israel, and became peaceful productive citizens. During the decades of this law's tenure, more than 150,000 Arab refugees have taken advantage of it to resume productive lives in Israel. Jews do not have a similar option to become citizens of Arab states from which they are banned."22
"... Israel has since the 1950's allowed more than 50,000 refugees to return to Israel under a family reunification program, and between 1967 and 1993 allowed a further 75,000 to return to the West Bank or Gaza. Since the beginning of the Oslo process Israel has allowed another 90,000 Palestinians to gain residence in PA-controlled territory."23
These gestures do little toward a final solution, however. Addressing the situation as it stands today, a step back must be taken and a fair, common sense framework should be applied. These are the steps that in my opinion, must be taken to facilitate any serious solutions:
There is of course a good deal of detail left out of the solution I propose. My goal is not to draft a comprehensive proposal but to underscore the fundamental changes to the status quo that need to happen. Actually realizing any of the steps above will each be a tremendous difficulty, but they will collectively be less difficult to achieve than the solitary expectation that 4.3 million Arabs and counting, most of whom are hostile to the idea of a Jewish state, be allowed to drown out the Jewish population if they so choose.
1 Pinner, Walter. The Legend of the Arab Refugees; A Critical Study of UNRWA's Reports and Statistics. Tel Aviv: Economic and Social Research Institute, 1967. 54.
2 Pinner, Walter. The Legend of the Arab Refugees; A Critical Study of UNRWA's Reports and Statistics. Tel Aviv: Economic and Social Research Institute, 1967. 55-56.
3 United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 194 (A/RES/194). Dec 11, 1948
4 United Nations. General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine; General Assembly Official Records: Fifth Session Supplement No. 18 (A/1367/Rev.1)
5 Karsh, Efraim. Rights and Wrongs: History of the Palestinian 'Right of Return'. June 2001.
6 Bard, Mitchell. The Palestinian Refugees (Site accessed June 10, 2007)
7 Meir-Levi, David. Big Lies: Demolishing the Myths of the Propaganda War Against Israel. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Popular Culture, 2005. 11.
8 Gilbert, Martin, and Martin Gilbert. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2002. 54
9 Gilbert, Martin, and Martin Gilbert. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2002. 54
10 Karsh, Efraim. Rethinking the Middle East. Cass series--Israeli history, politics, and society. London: Frank Cass, 2003. 166.
11 United Nations. General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine; General Assembly Official Records: Fifth Session Supplement No. 18 (A/1367/Rev.1)
12 Bard, Mitchell. The Palestinian Refugees (Site accessed June 2, 2007)
13 United Nations. General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine; General Assembly Official Records: Fifth Session Supplement No. 18 (A/1367/Rev.1)
14 MidEast Web. The Taba Proposals and the Refugee Problem (Site accessed July 9, 2007)
15 Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations. Emil Ghory, Secretary of the Palestine Arab High Council: Statement Regarding the Arabs who Left Israel. Quoted in Lebanese daily Al-Telegraph, September 6, 1948.
16 The Peace FAQ. Refugees, The Palestinian Refugees [Citing the Soviet Delegation of the U.N. Security Council on March 4th, 1949.]
17 Gold, Dore. Tower of Babble: How the United Nations has Fueled Global Chaos. New York: Crown Forum, 2004. 54.
18 Fischbach, Michael R. Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. The Institute for Palestine Studies series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 8.
19 Lozowick, Yaacov. Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars. New York: Doubleday, 2003. 105-106
20 Bard, Mitchell. The Palestinian Refugees (Site accessed June 10, 2007)
21 Bard, Mitchell. The Palestinian Refugees (Site accessed June 10, 2007)
22 Meir-Levi, David. Big Lies: Demolishing the Myths of the Propaganda War Against Israel. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Popular Culture, 2005. 8-9.
23 Safian, Alex. The Professor's Truth Demolition. May 12, 2005
24 Schechtman, Joseph B. European Population Transfers, 1939-1945. Studies of the Institute of World Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946. 389.
25 Great Britain, and William Robert Wellesley Peel Peel. Palestine Royal Commission Report. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1937.
26 Abdullah. My Memoirs Completed (Al-Takmilah). Washington: American Council of Learned Societies, 1954. 82.
27 Zureik, Elia. "Palestinian Refugees and Peace". Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 24, No.
28 Amnesty International. Exiled and Suffering: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon 2007.
29 Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008. 299