Although in need of a solution, the Palestinian refugee issue must be addressed as part of a comprehensive settlement that incorporates all regional refugee issues in a fair and honest manner. Moreover, a solution that addresses the rights of the Palestinian refugees cannot come at the expense of the rights and security of the people of Israel.
Some 650,000 Palestinians became refugees in the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli war. The Arabs base the demand for a “right of return” to Israel for these refugees (and their families) on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 1948). However, their interpretation of that resolution is flawed on several grounds:
– There is no legal concept of “right of return” in international law;
– The implementation of Res. 194 is premised on practicability. It states that “any refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so” or be offered compensation. The operative word is “permitted”;
– Like any sovereign state, Israel has the sole authority to determine its immigration policy;
– If implemented, the “right of return” of millions of Palestinian refugees and their families would destroy the Jewish state through demographic means;
– The initial displacement of Palestinians was the direct result of the Arab decision to reject the UN partition plan (Nov. 1947) and to wage war against Israel.
At Camp David (2000) Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s proposal for a “right of return” to a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state. (Israel’s plan also included limited repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel on humanitarian grounds, permanent resettlement in Arab countries, and Israel’s contribution to an international fund to compensate refugees for lost property). Instead, Arafat demanded the “right of return” of refugees to all of Israel.
Israelis support self-determination and statehood for the Palestinians as part of a two-state settlement. They cannot, however, support the achievement of a non-existent Palestinian “right of return” at the expense of the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood.
At the Annapolis Conference, Canada was asked to resume the leadership of the regional refugee issue it had begun in the Oslo years. To do so effectively, Canada should support and promote practical approaches such as permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. Canada should also encourage moderate Palestinians and Arab leaders to formally disavow the “right of return” – a demand which all Israelis view as code for the destruction of the Jewish state through demographic means.