Peace Talks, Palestinian Refugees and Their Right of Return

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Peace Talks or No, Lebanon's Palestinian Refugees in Limbo

By John Redwine

As Israeli, Palestinian and Quartet negotiators work to salvage the rapidly sinking Middle East peace process in the face of stalled direct talks, they continue to consider all aspects of the file, including the five permanent status issues of Jerusalem, borders, water, settlements and refugees. Among these, it is certainly the Palestine refugee question that will prove the most difficult to resolve.

The fate of the 1948 refugees is the most difficult, because the traditional convictions of the two sides are at once mutually exclusive and integral to their identities. Palestinian refugees aspire to return to their homes, while Israel would lose its majority Jewish status should 4.7 million Sunni Muslim refugees flood into the country. While Palestine refugees hope to see their inalienable right to return implemented, Israeli nationalism sees that hope as an existential threat.

The majority of Palestinian refugees reside in the three regional host countries of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In Syria, the refugees have been well integrated into the society and have the same rights as Syrian citizens. They constitute less than 5 percent of the population, and it should be relatively straightforward to organize a permanent solution for these refugees. It is likely, however, that Damascus will use the refugees as a bargaining chip in order to regain the Golan Heights, so some painful concessions will be necessary.

Jordan's Palestinian refugees have had a troubled history in the country. Yet, ever since the 1970 clashes between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian army, their status has slowly improved. In this time the vast majority of refugees have obtained Jordanian citizenship. Furthermore, in previous peace negotiations King Abdullah II has offered to absorb all of Jordan's Palestinian refugees, so that country's refugee problem should be the least problematic for peace talks to solve.

For many reasons, Lebanon's 350,000 Palestinian refugees are the sticking point for a solution to the refugee issue. The reasons-historical, political and emotional-run broad and deep. The early presence of the PLO in south Lebanon was difficult for the region's inhabitants. Palestinian cross-border attacks elicited brutal Israeli reprisals with predictable consequences for the local population. Furthermore, many Lebanese correlate the Palestinian presence with the start of the Lebanese civil war. Most importantly, perhaps, the possibility of Palestinian refugee resettlement in Lebanon sparks fears for the country's precarious confession-based political system.

There are four ways for Lebanon's Palestine refugees to escape their status: return to their place of origin, emigrate to a third country, settle permanently in Lebanon, or repatriate to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The "right to return," as we know it today, is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the mid-1990s, "return" meant going back to Palestine upon the defeat of Israel. With widespread international acceptance of Israel as a legitimate nation, it is clear there will be no wholesale return of Palestinian refugees to their places of origin. Most of these refugees hail from areas that are now within Israel proper, and a large influx of overwhelmingly Muslim refugees would threaten the Jewish character of the state, as mentioned above. Although previous Israeli administrations have offered to accept up to 40,000 refugees over a five-year period (i.e., at the 2001 Taba conference), violent outbreaks since then mean that number will probably drop radically in this new round of talks.

Emigration to a third country represents another possible solution. Two major challenges exist here. First, perhaps even more so than the other three solutions, emigration represents a sell-out on the right of return for Palestine refugees. …