For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality (Washington , Post)
For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2001 ; Page A01
RASHIDIEH REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon -- The stamp of militancy is impressed
hard on this beachside refugee settlement. Banners back the Palestinian
uprising against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Armed
guards protect the local leadership. And the 17,000 Palestinians who live
here wait impatiently to reclaim homes that they, their parents or
grandparents abandoned when Israel was created in 1948.
Along with Palestinian officials from Yasser Arafat on down, and kings and
presidents throughout the Arab world, they insist that day will come or
Israel will never see peace -- language that has elevated the "right of
return" to a sacred cause. The long quest for that right was cited as one
of Arafat's main objections to proposals put forward by President Clinton
last month in a last-ditch effort to shepherd Israel and the Palestinians
into a final peace settlement.
Probe a little, however, and the cause loses its clarity. Even here at the
Rashidieh camp just south of Tyre, where displaced and dispossessed
families have languished for half a century, some of the most strident
leaders of the Palestinian diaspora concede that many of the refugees
scattered in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and beyond will likely never set foot
across the nearby border with Israel, much less move there.
More likely, they say, the bulk of the refugees will immigrate to Europe
and North America, get permanent residence from their Arab host
governments or move to a new Palestinian state when it is created on Gaza
and West Bank land. This painful reality is widely acknowledged by
diplomats, analysts and Palestinians themselves, even though rhetoric
surrounding the issue remains as absolutist as ever.
"Two-thirds of the Palestinians live outside their lands and homes. What
sensible person would reach a peace agreement that deprives two-thirds of
your people of their identity?" said a local Palestinian leader, Sultan
Abu Alaynen, reflecting the official negotiating position. However, he
acknowledged, "You can't really read people's minds" about where they will
eventually live after creation of a Palestinian state.
The fate of an estimated 8.6 million displaced Palestinians and their
descendants, including more than 3 million registered for humanitarian aid
in Gaza, the West Bank and nearby Arab countries, is among the central
issues to be resolved in any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. On its
face, it seems immune to compromise. The prospect of millions of
Palestinians flooding back to Israel has been portrayed as a threat to the
identity of the Jewish state, while anything short of that has been
characterized by the Palestinians as a sellout.
However, diplomats and analysts familiar with the issue say the outlines
of expected compromise are clear. In addition to resettlement in an
eventual Palestinian state or third countries, it would include financial
compensation. Moreover, they say, any deal will have to be phrased in
language that at least appears to redeem the rights of all refugees and
complies with U.N. resolutions supporting them.
"The expectation of many Palestinians and most Arabs is not that 3 million
refugees will go back," said Farid Khazen, a political science professor
at the American University of Beirut who has studied the politics and
history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. "But no one will say that. . .
. Arafat can't come out of the room saying 'no right of return.' "
The refugee problem has lain at the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict
since it began. When forces of the nascent Jewish state began seizing
control of what is now Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians who then lived on the land fled to neighboring countries.
Some remained, those now called Israeli Arabs. Those who left established
refugee settlements in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that 52 years later have
grown into semi-permanent villages and neighborhoods.
While refugee families held on to property deeds and farmhouse keys, and
Palestinian leaders rallied around them in the nationalist movement, the
process of resettlement has in some ways already begun, in an ad hoc
fashion and without any international coordination. About 40 percent of
the refugees and their descendants, for example, live in Jordan, the
country that has been most liberal with them, granting citizenship and
full economic rights. Palestinians form an important economic and cultural
force in Jordan -- the queen is Palestinian -- and it is not expected they
would leave in large numbers.
Approximately 1.4 million U.N.-registered refugees live in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, land that would form the core of a new Palestinian state
and where, unlike here in Lebanon, there would be no local imperative for
them to move back to the towns they left in what is now Israel. An
undetermined number of other refugees have already acquired immigration
status -- or at least long-term residence status -- in Persian Gulf
countries, Europe, Canada and the United States.
One Western diplomat here estimated that of the 3.6 million refugees
officially registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, as few as
500,000 and as many as 1 million will actually need to be resettled from
where they currently live. That is a sizable number, but far more
manageable than the mass movement envisioned in Palestinian rhetoric.
Aside from Israel, the issue is perhaps felt most acutely in Lebanon,
whose 3.2 million inhabitants are divided into rival and sometimes hostile
Christian and Muslim communities. Adding several hundred thousand
predominantly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees to the mix could prove
In addition, Lebanese remember well that Arafat's Palestine Liberation
Organization, particularly his Fatah faction, played a key role in the
civil war that broke out here in 1975 between Christians and Muslims.
Aside from their role within Lebanon, Palestinians' armed presence here
helped prompt countless Israeli raids, and in 1982 a full-scale invasion.
Israeli forces occupied Lebanon's southern border region for more than two
decades, pulling out only last spring.
Officially, 376,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon,
although up to another 100,000 Palestinians are estimated to live in the
country alongside Lebanese. Alaynen said the actual figure of refugee camp
residents is as low as 275,000. Others say it could be as low as 200,000,
because many people have made new lives for themselves here or in other
About 383,000 registered refugees are in Syria, where the main Palestinian
"camp" has grown into an extended suburb of Damascus. The refugees are
more tightly controlled than in Lebanon, however, and in a country of 16
million that is only 13 percent Christian, they do not constitute the same
Given its past and its delicate demographics, Lebanon is the most adamant
that all Palestinian refugees must leave. Most live in a dozen camps like
this one, warrenlike collections of concrete shacks surrounded by the
Lebanese army. They are barred from a long list of jobs and professions.
In 1990, the Lebanese constitution was even amended to make resettlement
of Palestinian refugees against the law.
Between concern that armed militants from the camps might again try to
launch raids against Israel from Lebanese territory and opposition from
Christians and Shiite Muslims about absorbing more Sunni Muslims, Lebanese
politicians are united on one score: The refugees must go elsewhere.
"It's related to our national security and internal peace," said Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri. "They can't stay."
This is a position that has hardened over time. It is an open secret in
Lebanon that after refugees began arriving in 1948, the state gave
citizenship to thousands of the Christians among them, a policy that
suited the Christian-dominated government by offsetting a decline in the
Lebanese Christian population.
There are few, if any, Christians left among the refugees now. But that
does not mean some Palestinians will not remain in Lebanon for the long
term. As in Jordan, some have built businesses and lives outside the
limited horizons of the refugee camps.
"It will be studied case by case," Hariri said, acknowledging that,
evaluated under the same rules applied to other foreigners, some
Palestinians will be permitted to live, work and raise their families in
"Including," he added, "my wife."
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