Thursday, September 08, 2011

Sixty-Three Years and Counting: Palestinian Refugees

This month, Palestinian diplomats hope to submit a bid to the UN Security Council that would have their territories formally recognized as a Palestinian state. The US promises a veto, but the Palestinians hope that a favorable vote in the General Assembly could still increase the diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Students of refugee law will find a highly complex and controversial case in this situation.  Due to a strange definition by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) tasked to the situation, not only the Palestinians who fled in the 1948 war are classified as refugees, but also their descendents. This means that the half a million refugees from 1948 have ballooned to a current total of nearly five million. Israel, fearful of losing its Jewish demography through a wave of immigrants, refuses to contemplate offering any “Right of Return” to these refugees. Meanwhile, more and more Palestinians are born stateless, having neither Israeli citizenship nor citizenship in the nonexistent Palestinian state. Instead, they merely get refugee status cards from UNRWA (and none are automatically eligible for asylum in the US because they do not have a “well-founded fear of persecution”; a life of poverty does not qualify).

These refugees do not live in the worst of conditions: the refugee slums I saw in the West Bank city of Nablus did have concrete buildings and narrow roads. These are not the tattered tents one would see in Darfur, for example. But existing without rights, having only a hostile Israeli government and a nascent Palestinian one, these people see little hope of ever gaining justice. Accordingly, many turn to violence. I saw many posters idolizing armed teenage boys, “martyrs” against the occupation. (“Idiots,” commented one Palestinian, "This kid was throwing rocks at a tank.”)
Palestinian Refugee Camp in Nablus, West Bank. Note the banner honoring "martyrs" who had died fighting the Israeli occupation. 
What is the answer to the Palestinian refugee problem? I believe that it is impossible to return these refugees to their family hometowns in Israel. It’s been over sixty years and the landscape has been completely changed. Moreover, I know Israel will not grant citizenship status to Palestinians for fear that they would become an electoral majority and take over the “Jewish” state. Thus, I think the only fair thing to do would be to permit the Palestinians to form a state, placing the responsibilities of rectifying the refugees’ social justice claims in the hands of their own people.

Thus, I believe the US should not veto the Palestinian’s bid for statehood. Instead, it should vote in favor of it and immediately begin working with Israel to craft safe, secure borders between the two states. 


Andrew B. said...

Here's another interesting article addressing the Palestinian refugee issue:

chartran said...

Great post, Andrew - and I couldn't agree more. The American resistance to a Palestinian state seems rooted, unfortunately, in our domestic politics which demands unquestioned support for Israel, but the international community (and common sense) offers a strong argument in favor of allowing the Palestinians to go forward with their plan at the United Nations. It would benefit their people tremendously, as you write about, and also provide some long-awaited certainty and stability to a region that badly needs it.