Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 17, 2018
Denying right to return to Palestinian refugees will not resolve the crisis 

On 11 December, 1948, the United Nations passed Resolution 194 and gave the Palestinians, who were forced to leave their homes, the right to return. That happened 70 years ago, this week.

There have been wars but no deal that could assure peace.  The Palestinians could never return and now their great grand children are languishing in refugee camps with little hope that they ever will.

Over the decades, many American Presidents have tried to resolve the intractable conflict. Even though the American Presidents have always backed the Israeli cause, it is current President Donald Trump’s decision to open the American embassy in Jerusalem that eroded America’s credibility as an honest arbiter to the conflict.

Nevertheless, Trump has announced that his administration will soon finalise the ‘deal of the century,’ his shot at lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. In September this year, Trump said, “Over the next two to three to four months,” the deal will be revealed.

Thus far, from what has been leaked to the press, the deal appears to tilt heavily towards Israel and its interests.

Among the three key issues integral to the West Asia peace process, the right to return has always been the most contentious. The Palestinians worry that the thinking in the current American administration on this issue -- as well as others -- is in sync with Israel and not in line with the international consensus. 

According to reports, Trump wants to cap the number of Palestinian refugees at half a million -- about a tenth of 5.5 million registered with the UN. Building up the framework for it, the American administration has gone on a war footing with the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency or UNRWA. The aid agency claims to help these five million plus Palestinian refugees by providing them with health and education services. UNRWA faced the brunt of American policy when Trump slashed earlier this year the American funding of a whopping $360 million.

After cutting the cash flow, the then US Ambassador to UN, Nicky Hailey, asked the aid agency to revise the number of refugees -- and bring it down -- if it wanted America to reverse the decision on funding.

With much difficulty, the UNRWA managed to keep its facilities running. It knocked on several doors and made up for the gap by donations from 40 countries, a chunk of which came from the European Union (EU) and the Gulf nations.

The bone of contention between the US and the UNRWA is the latter’s definition of who is a Palestinian refugee and how many are there. The Trump administration does not want to accept the UNRWA’s definition because it states that the refugee status is passed on from one generation to the next, a method that does not sit well with Israel, which is bound by the UN Resolution 194 which calls for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. However, if it were to honor this, millions of the refugees would descend on Israel, and threaten its Jewish state narrative.

Israeli officials provide a different understanding of Resolution 194 and say only those who left in 1948 be allowed to return and not their descendants.

The man working out Israel’s dream deal is Trump’s Middle East advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who comes with no previous experience of the social and political complexities of the region.

Reportedly, Kushner even pressured Jordan to cancel the refugee status of the 2 million Palestinian refugees residing in the country. Trump’s plan appears to be: buy out host countries by providing them with economic benefits and in turn ask them to adopt the refugees permanently. This is a flawed idea to begin with.

America’s relationship with Syria is at such a low that it is foolhardy to even entertain this possibility. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is in an alliance with Iran and its proxy in Lebanon, the Hizbollah. The ideology of these allies is to reclaim the Palestinian lands, and not permanently settle the Palestinians in Arab countries.

Lebanon, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, has other concerns as well. The Lebanese politicians fear that granting citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians, who are Sunni by sect, will alter the demographic balance and change Lebanon’s sect-based power sharing design.

To ensure the Palestinians in Lebanon don’t get comfortable, Beirut has isolated them in camps and denied them rights to own property. They live in crammed homes facing a severe lack of basic amenities and are banned from at least 30 vocations, all well paying, which could improve their social status drastically.

For obvious reasons, many of them would like to move to Europe or Canada. There has been some talk that the deal may ask western nations to resettle a number of Palestinians but are any of these nations, especially the European countries, ready to resettle these refugees?

Europe is in no rush, as it grapples with the aftermath of German Chancellor Merkel’s open door policy during the Syrian crisis that led to an upheaval in the continent’s politics, and resulted in the strengthening of the extreme right wing entities.

The Palestinians themselves seem unwilling to become pawns in any international game over their identity and rights. While they would like to live and work in Europe, they strongly depose of any ideas which would force them to trade their political rights and their sovereignty in exchange for economic stability in another country. Whatever deal President Trump announces, it will have to factor in the future of the descendants of the first Palestinians who were forced to flee. In whatever part of the world they may currently be living in, these millions identify themselves as Palestinians. Returning to their ancestral homes is the right of the Palestinian people, and if the world’s only super-power, the US, is going to deny them this right, it better have a feasible alternative in mind.

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Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra

Anchal Vohra was a Fellow at ORF. She writes on contemporary developments in West Asia and on foreign policy.

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