December 31, 2000
JERUSALEM -- They are no longer just refugees, but the children and grandchildren of refugees. Still, in the narrow, muddy streets of Ein Hilweh in Lebanon, Balata on the West Bank and the 57 other camps, where cinder block homes are painted with Palestinian flags and images of rifles, they treasure keys to homes in the Galilee, where they once lived. Old, tattered land deeds with the tax stamps of the British mandate are passed down the generations with equal reverence.
Today, there are today nearly four million Palestinian refugees. For 52 years, since some 750,000 people fled the fighting that commenced with the Arab attack on the newly created state of Israel in 1948, they have cherished the "right of return" enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194, which was adopted that year.
Unlike other refugee groups that eventually dispersed, many of these people, at the direction of the Palestinian leadership, have remained clustered in the camps, which serve as incubators of irredentist nationalism. Here the schools teach about al-Nakba, the disaster, as the Arab world calls Israel's founding, and pass on wondrous tales of the beauty of their former olive groves and orange trees.
It is these people, with their myths and unassuaged grievances, who are emerging, in the wake of President Bill Clinton's last-ditch proposals for a comprehensive settlement, as perhaps the most difficult element in the Middle East peace puzzle.
Since the Camp David summit last summer, attention has been focused on the issue that broke it up: Jerusalem, and control over the site sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Harem al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
But now, under the peace plan put forward by President Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is being faced with one of the most difficult and dangerous decisions in his long career of successfully avoiding decisions.
Essentially, Mr. Clinton offered the Palestinians a swap: sovereignty over the part of the Temple Mount containing Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock ó which Mr. Arafat has made the primary symbol of Palestinian national aspirations ó in exchange for giving up the refugees' right of return to Israel.
But that right of return has, over the past half-century, been enshrined as the central tenet of Palestinian nationalism. And it is not merely symbolic, but practical, affecting lives and dreams. Indeed, giving up the right of return would put Mr. Arafat on a collision course with refugees here, in Lebanon and in Syria.
The right of return is the most complicated issue for us, and the most difficult," said Hussein al-Sheikh, one of a number of Fatah leaders on the West Bank adamantly opposed to Mr. Arafat accepting the American proposals. In any agreement, he insisted, Israel must accept "in principle that it is the right of every Palestinian to choose to return when they want."
For Israel, too, the issue is acute. With a population of 6.3 million ó some 1.1 million of them Arabs ó the influx of a large number of Palestinians would in the future doom it as a Jewish state.
This is an absolute "red line" for everyone, including Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo accords.
"There is only one issue that could, God forbid, make this fail, and that is the right of return," Yossi Sarid, head of the leftist Meretz party and a leading Israeli dove, said of the Clinton plan. "It is important for the Palestinians to understand and internalize this. Realization of the right of return means ó how should I put it? ó the suicide of Israel.
"If we open the gates to hundreds of thousands of refugees, that means the state of Israel as created by the Zionist dream will be bankrupt," he said. "There are all sorts of ideas on how to solve the refugee problem that have humanitarian and political elements. They are good proposals designed to ease the suffering and lighten the pain. The proposals should be accepted and implemented, but not within our borders."
But for such a difficult problem ó and one with potentially volatile implications for surrounding Arab states that are increasingly reluctant hosts to the refugees ó the proposed solution is vague.
There are 3,737,534 refugees currently registered with the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, the 50-year-old agency set up to deal with the Palestinians, living here and in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with an additional 90,000 in Iraq. Israelis insist there are fewer, Palestinians more, and there are others, some wealthy now, in the Gulf, Europe and America who fled or were driven out in 1948.
The Clinton plan has sparked several suggestions for how refugees would be dealt with. About 10,000 might be permitted to be reunited with their families in Israel proper as a humanitarian gesture. Others could return to the nascent state of Palestine, including the stretch of sand dunes in the Negev desert to be turned over to the Palestinians in exchange for Israel annexing three large West Bank settlement blocks. Others, presumably a large number, might be given financial recompense and relocated to third countries, such as Canada. And the rest would be "rehabilitated," a term being used without a precise definition, in the countries where they now live.
There are problems with these solutions, particularly in the neighboring Arab countries whose rulers fear angry Palestinians would be a destabilizing element. This is particularly true in Lebanon, where most of the more than 300,000 Palestinians are confined by the army inside refugee camps, banned from practicing some 67 professions, including law and medicine, and forbidden concrete lest they expand their shantytowns. The camps are filled with arms.
President Emil Lahoud of Lebanon vowed this week that the problem would not be solved at Lebanon's expense. Jordan, where more than half the population is of Palestinian origin, and 280,000 refugees live in 10 camps, is uneasy, too. Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb has said Jordan cannot take in any more Palestinians.
The would-be Palestinian state lacks the infrastructure to absorb refugees in any number and is plagued with economic challenges. And polls by Palestinian organizations say that only 9 percent of refugees would be willing to concede their right of return in exchange for compensation. This might change depending on the offer.
Or it might not. This spring, Palestinians, sometimes in groups organized in the camps, began coming by to take a look at their old homes in Israel. Often what they saw, amid a booming Israeli economy, was that their graceful old stone houses, renovated and gentrified, had become valuable real estate. Albeit for someone else.