On September 14, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas lamented the lack of recent progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, stating, “I cannot say that there has been an agreement on a single issue. The gap between the sides is very large. We presented our ideas and demands regarding the six issues, and have yet to receive any answer from the Israeli side.”
Abbas accuses the Israelis of stalling on the issue of the so-called “right of return.” He believes that the 800,000 Palestinians displaced during aggressive Arab wars against Israel have a “right” to return to their homes.
Abbas’ unrealistic demand for a “right of return” may represent the single greatest obstacle to Middle East peace. The demand is both unrealistic and antithetical to peace.
The term “refugee,” by definition, is a temporary condition. When one is displaced, one becomes a refugee. But when one resettles, that condition no longer applies.
Moreover, there is no such thing as a third-generation refugee. How can it be that there are an estimated five million “refugees” today, particularly when the number of refugees after the 1967 war, the last time Palestinians were displaced, was less than one million?
Year after year, the number of Palestinians claiming refugee status increases because the children and grandchildren of refugees “inherit” refugee status. Some Palestinians even “adopt” the status for reasons unknown. These miserable people, encouraged by their leadership, elect to live in poverty and squalor, clinging to the promise that one day they will return to their original homes.
It is inconceivable for Israel, with a population of five million Jews and one million Arabs, to absorb five million Palestinians. This would be the demise of the Jewish state. As such, Israel will never accept calls for the “right of return.” When Abbas and other Palestinian leaders call for this, it is essentially a battle cry for the destruction of Israel.
It should also be noted that there is no legal or historical precedent for a “right of return.” After World War II, many borders were changed and millions of people became refugees. The problem was particularly acute along the Polish-Russian and Polish-German borders. None of these people or their descendants claims refugee status.
Also, during the 1947 partition of India, 10 million Hindus and Muslims became displaced with the creation of Pakistan. None of them or their offspring claims to be a refugee.
Furthermore, the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East were expelled from their home countries after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Approximately 900,000 Jews indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East were stripped of their possessions and forced to leave their homes as punishment for Israel’s independence. They relocated and no longer claim refugee status.
Not one of the refugee populations from World War II clung to their refugee status. Of all the refugee problems ever created in the 20th century, only the Palestinians refuse to repatriate — even though they live on land commonly viewed as Palestinian.
Sadly, the problem has been perpetuated by international organizations that claim to want peace. The United Nations created the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to cater to the needs of Palestinians. All other displaced people fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). While the High Commission seeks to resettle refugees, UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian problem. As such, the UN bears responsibility for singling out the Palestinians as a unique case, while failing to address the vast human rights abuses reported worldwide.
Similarly, the Arab League has kept the refugee issue alive as a means to maintain a state of war against Israel and to avoid recognizing the Jewish state. These states also use the refugee problem to deflect anger from their own people away from grievances of failed economies and repressive societies.
It is cruel and unfair to encourage five million Palestinians to maintain the belief that they are refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. The “right of return” is a fantasy. Until Abbas and other Palestinians acknowledge this simple fact, peace will continue to be elusive.