The Palestinian Refugees: Ending Their Lingering Plight
16 October 2014
By Alon Ben-Meir
During the donor conference held in Cairo a few days
ago, the US, EU, and other countries pledged $2.7
billion for reconstruction in Gaza. It is undoubtedly
necessary to make such a humanitarian effort to
rebuild the shattered lives of hundreds of thousands
of Palestinians who suffered the most as a result of
the last violent confrontation between Israel and
Hamas. That said, regardless of how admirable this
financial commitment may be, the fact that it was not
linked in any way to the peace process, and in
particular to solving the most acute and endemic
problem of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, is
another gross missed opportunity.
The Palestinian refugee problem, especially those who
live in their homeland—the West Bank and Gaza—remains
as one of the thorniest problems preventing the
establishment of a Palestinian state. A dignified
solution is what the refugees deserve to restore their
self-esteem – not a continuing handout to perpetuate a
It is nothing short of a travesty to allow another
generation of Palestinians to grow up in a state of
limbo, only so their corrupt leaders can ride on their
backs and cry wolf about their plight while
shamelessly enjoying the good life.
The statistics are startling; according to the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees
in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of registered
refugees in Gaza is 1,240,082 out of a total
population of 1.5 million, and 754,411 are registered
in the West Bank (out of a population of 2.4 million).
Any Palestinian 50 years old or younger was born in
the West Bank and Gaza; this represents more than 80
percent of the population in these two areas. In the
refugee camps, over 50 percent of the inhabitants are
under the age of 25. Only 30,000 are original
No efforts have been made to resolve the tragic
refugee problem on its own since 1948. Instead, it has
been exploited at the expense of innocent men, women,
and children, who have been mislead, mistreated,
marginalized, and used as sacrificial lambs only to
feed the insatiable hunger for power of their
misguided and self-absorbed leaders.
In what was initially a disastrous event, the 1948
exodus turned into a Greek tragedy, festering over
time and engulfing innocent souls. Since then, the
refugees have multiplied nearly sevenfold, with many
living under subhuman conditions which serve as
incubators for militancy and violence, which Hamas in
particular seeks to cultivate.
Many countries have played a role in contributing to
the prolongation of the Palestinian refugees' plight.
UNRWA in particular is guilty of perpetuating the
Palestinian refugee crisis. It was established by the
UNGA in December 1949, and its mandate to care for the
refugees is renewed every three years; the current
extension runs until June 30th 2017.
The agency employs more than 25,000 workers and has
developed a vested interest in maintaining the status
quo of the refugees in order to remain relevant.
Moreover, since the vast majority of UN member states
do not want to appear as being unsupportive of the
refugees, UNRWA's mandate has consistently been
renewed for more than six decades.
Out of the top 20 donors to UNRWA, 15 are western
countries or organizations. Western European countries
keep providing monetary assistance for humanitarian
reasons, but this only protracts the refugees'
humanitarian plight instead of promoting their
The United States continues to acquiesce to the status
quo and became an enabler, which has inadvertently
prevented a humane solution to the refugees for
The Arab states continue to exploit and manipulate the
refugees for domestic consumption to distract their
own public from their terrible socio-economic
conditions and human rights violations.
Palestinian leaders have held the nearly two million
refugees in the West Bank and Gaza as hostages. For
nearly seven decades, they have insisted that the
"right of return" of the refugees is sine qua non to
the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This flies in the face of the poll conducted in 2003
by Dr. Khalil Shikaki, which showed that only 10
percent of the refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the
West Bank and Gaza would opt to return to Israel
(their original place of residence). Since then, the
number has more than likely further decreased as the
prospect of returning is increasingly diminishing.
Successive Israeli governments refused to assume any
responsibility and made no effort to galvanize
international support to resolve the plight of the
refugees. Right-wing Israeli governments who opposed a
two-state solution found the persisting refugee
problem to be a convenient impediment.
Ironically, in every set of negotiations in 2000 at
Camp David, in 2008/2009, and 2013-2014, both sides
agreed that the right of return cannot be exercised
literally, and only a few thousand could rejoin their
extended families in Israel over a period of few
It should be noted that regardless of UNRWA's or any
other entity's definition of who is a refugee, the
Palestinian "refugees" in the West Bank and Gaza are
not refugees, as more than 80 percent were born in
their homeland—the West Bank and Gaza—and the rest are
at best internally displaced.
Those Palestinians who insist that they will never
forsake the right of return will have to wait forever,
and every Arab and Palestinian leader knows this fact
only too well.
Instead of trying to achieve a comprehensive solution
to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has thus
far proven to be elusive, a settlement of the refugee
problem—for which there is only one solution,
resettlement and or compensation—could pave the way
for resolving in stages the other sticking issues.
However theoretical the right of return has become, it
hangs over the Israelis' heads and even a reference to
it in any future agreements will not be acceptable, as
they view it as a threat to their national identity,
if not the very existence of the state.
A resolution to the refugee problem would provide an
opening for the US and the EU to exert mounting
pressure on Israel to make important concessions in
return by starting the negotiations with borders,
which the Palestinians rightfully insist upon, to
define the contours of the future Palestinian state.
The donor countries should have insisted (and still
can) that their contribution to rebuild much of Gaza
focus on resettlement and compensation of the
refugees, especially since 80 percent of Gaza's
resident are registered as refugees. A similar effort
will have to be made to resettle the refugees in the
West Bank as well.
Prolonging the misery of the refugees does not offer a
"just solution" as the Palestinians and Arab states
advocate. A just solution is decades overdue and no
Arab or Palestinian leaders can justify the
decades-long despondency and despair of the refugees
under the guise of the "right of return."
The Palestinian people are creative, vibrant,
resourceful, and proud people; they must not continue
to live in a state of contrived conditions of misery,
fed with empty slogans and offered false hope about
their "right of return," only to be crushed later with