Is the Palestinian refugee problem overblown?

The Trump administration in the last month has welcomed Israeli restraint with regard to settlement activity but called “unsustainable” the growing number of people who are officially considered Palestinian refugees.

The sudden sea change in rhetoric is seen as part of the administration’s preparation for the unveiling of the “deal of the century” in which it hopes to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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No details of the plan have been revealed. But the Trump administration, hardly noted for its subtlety, has in this case begun to slowly redefine the language around core negotiating issues.

When former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn 25 years ago, it was envisioned that a two-state resolution to the conflict would emerge following negotiations on core concepts.

Two of the key problems were territory – including the issue of Israeli sovereignty over parts of Area C of the West Bank – and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to sovereign Israel.

At the time, in 1993, there were less than 100,000 Israeli settlers and less than three million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Some 25 years later, there are more than 400,000 settlers in Area C and more than 5.2 million refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, east Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

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Former US president Barack Obama often emphasized the problem that the growing number of settlers posed to a territorial resolution to the conflict and highlighted settlement building as a “stumbling block.”

The Trump administration, in contrast, has refused to condemn Israel for settlement building and instead recently highlighted the issues around the “unsustainable number” of Palestinian refugees.

This began in late August, when it defunded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

While there were only 750,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948, the number has grown largely due to the United Nations General Assembly decision that UNRWA should include descendants when calculating Palestinian refugee status.

At issue is the Israeli fear that the return of a large number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to a sovereign Israel would undermine the very notion of an ethnic nationalist resolution to the conflict in which there would be two states for two peoples.

HOWEVER, A number of Israeli and US negotiators involved in the talks that stemmed from Oslo, including Camp David and Taba, have said that at no time did they calculate the granting of an absolute right of return, precisely because of the ethnic nature of the two-state solution.

Former justice minister Yossi Beilin said he held secret talks in 1995 with now-PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who actually signed the Oslo I Accord in 1993 instead of Arafat. It was understood in those talks, Beilin said, that only a small number of Palestinians could return.

Former US negotiator Dennis Ross said that during the Oslo years the Clinton administration operated under the “rule of reason,” in which it held that a Jewish state could not, and should not have to, absorb so many refugees. It also believed that only 10% would want to return. The presumption, which guided the policy, was that the Palestinians would return to a Palestinian state.

Attorney and author Gilead Sher, who was part of the Israeli delegation involved in the Oslo Accords and headed the negotiation team at the Camp David summit in 2000, also recalled how the issue was handled during the talks.

“This was not the first priority of the Palestinian negotiators,” Sher said, adding that it did have symbolic importance.

Sher – who heads the Center for Applied Negotiations, which he founded in 2013, and is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University – said the Palestinians “wanted Israel to admit that it was the one that created the refugee problem. It would express maybe not solidarity but maybe an apology for the suffering caused.”

There were several times in the past 25 years that the parties were close to an agreement on the wording for such a statement, he said.
There would also be a symbolic nod to the concept with Israel’s acceptance of a certain number of Palestinian refugees into its sovereign borders, Sher said. Some of the criteria for that was on the basis of humanitarian grounds or family reunification, he added.

Specifically, he said, this meant that “the right of return would be applied and implemented in the Palestinian state once [it was established], and that all the Palestinian refugees would be compensated and rehabilitated in that Palestinian state.

Alternatively, he said, an option for Canada, Australia and the US to host them was discussed.

When it came to actual numbers, he said, they used the UNRWA database. Once a permanent-status agreement was signed, he added, it was agreed that UNRWA would be phased out.

The understanding at the time was that the core issues could not be addressed separately, but had to be faced simultaneously.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Sher recalled.

“I believe that throughout the three major rounds of negotiations on permanent status, which took place in Camp David and subsequently in Taba in 2001, then in the Annapolis process in 2007 and 2008, and later on in 2013 and 2014 [talks brokered by former US secretary of state John Kerry], most of the problems were addressed in a way that could have been acceptable to both parties,” Sher said.

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