Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR)


ACPR Research Summary


The Palestinian Refugee Issue
and the Demographic Aspect

Atalia Ben-Meir

Policy Paper No. 90,
In the book
Israel and a Palestinian State: Zero Sum Game?, 2001


The problem of the Palestinian refugees will overshadow the next stage in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Substantial pressure will be exerted on Israel to comply with the Palestinian demand for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, the consensus being that peace in the Middle East will not endure without resolving the refugee question.

For 50 years the Arabs have set the ground rules for the discourse on the Palestinian refugees. They have taken control of nearly all the international "playing fields", arrogating the right to fabricate the facts. Their contentions have become axiomatic in every debate on the resolution of the problem, thus constituting the framework within which diplomats, politicians and academics operate. They have made the plight of the refugees a potent weapon in their arsenal to delegitimize the State of Israel. In contrast, the world has been impervious to the trauma undergone by the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

This was evident in the proceedings of the Regional Work Group, set up within the parameters of the Madrid conference. In the course of the deliberations of the Second Plenary (in Ottawa November 1992), the Israelis proposed treating the problem of final status of the Palestinian refugee problem in the context of population exchange: the Palestinian refugees had been replaced by the influx of Jewish refugees from the Arab countries. The Palestinian delegation countered this notion of "exchange" by contending that the Jewish immigrants to Israel had come voluntarily, while the Palestinians were forcibly expelled from the homes.

However, in dealing with the "right of return" it should never be forgotten that the bulk of the Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine were "new immigrants" whereas the Jews had resided in the Arab countries for millennia. (Between 1922-1939 Arab immigration swelled, attracted by the prosperity of the "Zionist" economy. The Arab population during these 17 years increased by 216% in Haifa, by 134% in Jaffa and 97% in Jerusalem.) Whereas the Palestinians were relegated to the margins of society, Jewish refugees underwent a long and difficult process of adaptation and integration into Israeli society.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the preamble to the Madrid Declaration mentions UN Resolutions 242 and 338, both of which refrain from making a direct reference to Palestinian refugees but rather refer to refugees as a generic term.

The parameters of the debate on resolving the problem of the Palestinian refugees should not revolve around the refugees; this transforms the means to an end. The axis around which the debate should revolve is the imperative of an enduring peace. Peace will endure only if the security of Israel is guaranteed throughout the peace process and afterwards. This begs the question of whether, in the pursuit of peace, concessions will be made that could compromise the Jewish state.

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