The Al-Ayyam newspaper, a mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority, lambasted US peace negotiators last month for their "attempt to deny the centrality of the refugee problem," which it called "the most visible manifestation" of the Palestinian problem.
The mouthpiece of the P.A. was off base in its criticism of Washington, but its editorial was on target in one respect: The issue of the Palestinian refugees remains a stumbling block on the path to peace between Israel and the Arabs.
This issue has been around so long that many Americans no longer remember how and why the Palestinians fled in 1948 from what is today the State of Israel.
An understanding begins with events that took place over 50 years ago. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict between Jews and Arabs over what was then the British Mandate of Palestine by partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Palestinians' leaders rejected the notion of Jewish sovereignty over any part of the country. They wanted all of Palestine, and opted instead for war.
The newborn state of Israel defeated the scattered Palestinian-Arab guerrilla forces, and then turned back the invasion of the armies of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, which had launched their strikes on the day of Israel's independence.
But up to 500,000 Palestinian Arabs who had supported the Arab armies became refugees during the course of the fighting. These refugees wound up in refugee camps in Egyptian-controlled Gaza, and in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, where they were kept for decades without any attempt by their host countries to resettle or assimilate them.
To deal with this problem, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 194 in December 1948, stating that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so."
This resolution remains the cornerstone of all Palestinian refugee claims. At the same time, however, the phrase "at peace with their neighbors" presents an obstacle to the right of return, since few Palestinians have displayed a willingness to live in harmony with Israelis, even since the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords.
This has been made clear by the rocks, Molotov cocktails, sniper volleys and remote-control bombs that have become commonplace in the Palestinian territories since "Intifada al-Aqsa" began in late September 2000.
There is also the issue of numbers. Today, it is reported that there up to 3.5 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. The current Palestinian demand is for every one of them to have the right to return. For Israel, this would be nothing short of political and social suicide, since it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state. Even the Israeli politicians who are most inclined to accommodate Palestinian national aspirations, such as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Meretz Party head Yossi Sarid, oppose this scheme.
No one denies that Palestinians have suffered, but if Israel is to exist, the refugee issue cannot be solved at its expense.
The Palestinian refugee issue must also be understood within a larger historical perspective. The post-World War II era witnessed many large movements of refugees. But with the exception of the Palestinians, they have all been settled.
One such mass flight took place in the early 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries, which then seized their property. Most of the Jews ended up in Israel, where they were absorbed and became citizens of the new state.
In the late 1940s, there were several large population transfers involving India and Pakistan, Germans from Eastern Europe, and North and South Korea. While all these other peoples were long ago absorbed, only the Palestinians hang on as refugees, intended to serve as a dagger against Israel.
The Palestinian Authority would serve its constituency better by lobbying for the integration of refugees into Arab countries that have denied them citizenship, rather than unrealistically pushing Israel to consider the "right of return." Such a solution would allow Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, where plenty of other difficult issues await them.
Jonathan Schanzer is a research associate for the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia.