This essay was published by Sol Stern at Jewish Ideas Daily
While the world’s headlines focus with exaggerated alarm on Israel’s lifting of its ten-month building freeze within Jewish West Bank settlements, an issue of far greater moment for the prospects of peace in the Middle East goes determinedly unaddressed. This is the matter of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees—a subject on which the Obama administration, a fierce promoter of the building freeze, has been strikingly silent.
In Cairo a little over a year ago, President Obama proclaimed “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” After reminding his Arab audience that “six million Jews were killed” by the Nazis, he added immediately that, for their part, the Palestinians too “have endured the pain of dislocation” and many still “wait in refugee camps . . . for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.” At the time, a number of commentators objected to the President’s seeming equation of the abundantly funded refugee camps run by the United Nations with Nazi death camps. Few, however, pointed out that his explanation of the plight of the Palestinian refugees was false, confusing historical cause and effect.
For it is not the absence of peace that keeps Palestinians “waiting” in refugee camps. Rather, most Arab leaders since 1948, including the current Palestinian leadership itself, insist that the refugees—originally numbering between 500,000 and 750,000 but now swollen through natural increase to over four million—must remain in those camps until allowed to return en masse to Israel. This insistence in turn makes it impossible to achieve any resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, let alone a “new beginning” in the Middle East.
A few years ago I briefly visited the Balata refugee camp with its 20,000 residents. The camp is inside the West Bank city of Nablus—that is, within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It is where many of the Arabs of Jaffa settled when they fled the armed conflict that flared up immediately after the November 1947 UN partition resolution dividing Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Most of Balata’s current residents are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original refugees. Thus, a new baby born in Balata today is still designated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as a refugee dislocated by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and hence entitled to substantial material benefits for life, or at least until the conflict is settled. That infant will grow up and attend a segregated school run by UNRWA. In UN schools and cultural clubs financed by American tax dollars, Balata’s children, like the children in similar camps in Gaza and neighboring Arab countries, are nurtured on the myth that someday soon they will return in triumph to their ancestors’ homes by the Mediterranean Sea.