The Middle East Channel

Palestinian Refugees and a Jewish State

Analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes make the distinction between "the 1967 issues" and "the 1948 issues." The 1967 issues are those having to do with Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the issues of settlements, borders, and security. The 1948 issues are those having to do with the Arab opposition to the very existence of a Jewish state, and with the Nakba, the expulsion or exodus of Palestinians refugees. Jerusalem is its own special category.

Efforts to resolve the conflict will likely fail if negotiators focus primarily on the 1967 issues, hoping to glide over the 1948 fundamentals. For instance, there is the problem of implementing the evacuation of a significant number of settlers from the West Bank. No Israeli government will have the political will and staying power to carry this out if the Israeli public, on both sides of the green line, believes that a peace agreement will not yield real peace because it does not include Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Or consider the issue of the claim to a right of return for the refugees. The stance of Tzipi Livni, the "moderate" chief Israeli negotiator, has been that no refugees will return to Israel. Suppose that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership actually accepted this. Is it not likely that PLO responsibility for betraying the refugees, when combined with the likely disappointments of independence, would give rise to a Hamas victory in the first or second free elections within the State of Palestine? 

The goal of the negotiations must extend beyond a peace agreement. A piece of paper that can neither be implemented nor sustained may be worse than no agreement at all. But can the 1948 issues be resolved? There is a way to win PLO recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and there are ways to significantly address the material and symbolic needs of the refugees without endangering Israel's Jewish character. The key, however, is that the two 1948 issues have to be taken up together.

Consider first the Jewish state issue. Some PLO leaders have said they will never accept this; and certainly it will not be easy to shift the current stance. However, this was not always the PLO position. Reviewing the history of the Palestinian national movement, there is a powerful vantage point from which to successfully engage the Jewish state question: the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, proclaimed at the Palestine National Council in Algiers in 1988. It was the highpoint of Yasir Arafat's legacy as a peacemaker.

The Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was written by Palestinian national poet and PLO Executive Committee member Mahmoud Darwish, was and remains, the most remarkable document of the Palestinian national movement. Unfortunately, it is largely unknown outside Palestine. This stands in sharp contrast to the other foundational document of Palestinian nationalism, the PLO Covenant, written in 1964. Over the years, the covenant was subjected to acute, even manic, analysis and interpretation, not just by the press and the U.S. Congress, but by leading figures within the Israeli intelligence community. The lack of attention to the declaration is very odd, given that it reversed the heart of the covenant, thereby redefining Palestinian nationalism.

Both the covenant and the declaration addressed the Partition Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947 (UNGA Res. 181), a document itself cited in the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a central basis in international law for the creation of Israel. The PLO Covenant stated, "The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time ... ." The covenant underscored this, stating, "Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit."

The declaration reversed the PLO position on partition. In 1988 the PLO revisited the 1947 Partition Resolution and asserted it as the basis in international law for the Palestinians' own proclamation of statehood:

Despite the historical injustice inflicted on the Palestinian Arab people resulting in their dispersion and depriving them of their right to self-determination, following upon UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, yet it is this Resolution that still provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty.

Here the Palestinians made a fundamental distinction between matters of morality and legality. As a matter of morality, they continued to view all of Palestine as rightfully theirs and creation of Israel as unjust. But regarding matters of "international legitimacy" they reversed the claim in the covenant that partition was illegal; instead they affirmed the continuing legal force of the 1947 Partition Resolution. And on this basis, the Palestinian national movement was transformed from one dedicated to reversing partition, to one that embraced the two-state solution.

Particularly relevant is that the declaration characterizes the newly legitimized Partition Resolution as having partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Remarkably, inside the foundational document of their future state, the Palestinians acknowledged that Israel was created, under international law, as a Jewish state. In doing so, they linked the international legitimacy of their state to that of the Jewish state.

The PLO has not abandoned the 1988 declaration. Indeed, in 2008 the PLO Central Council affirmed Mahmoud Abbas as President of the State of Palestine. In 2009, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan for building the institutions of statehood four times cited the declaration as the basis of the state. And in 2011, when the PLO submitted its application for the State of Palestine to be admitted to the United Nations, it affirmed that it was seeking admission for the state that had been proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence in 1988.

It is possible to draw on the declaration to achieve a negotiations breakthrough on the Jewish state issue, but whether this will actually happen depends primarily on the Israelis. In ways that were not operative in 1988, the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is today intermeshed with three other issues: the potential implications for the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, the validity of the Palestinian narrative, and the implications for the claims and rights of Palestinian refugees.

On the first, the PLO is simply not in a position to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Israel will not accept this, and it is inappropriate. The real grievances of Israeli-Palestinians will ultimately have to be addressed within Israeli society. In negotiations, some acceptable formula, such as recognition of Israel as both the state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens will have to be found.

With respect to the Palestinian narrative, much depends on what it means to agree that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Is this a moral right of the Jewish people to have brought Israel into existence or is it a legal right under international law for Israel to exist as a Jewish state? If the demand is that the Palestinians must agree that they were wrong in resisting the creation of Israel, or must deny that they suffered an injustice when a Jewish state was imposed on them, then this will not happen. But if what is sought is an acknowledgement that Israel was created as a Jewish state pursuant to international law, and that it retains a legal right to remain a Jewish state, then this is largely what the declaration affirmed.

The linkage of the Jewish state issue to the refugee issue is more problematic. Progress will not be made by calling on Palestinians to renounce the right of return as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands, nor by maintaining that zero refugees will return as Livni insists. Instead, in the context of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, what is needed is an authentic Israeli willingness to address the material and symbolic needs of the refugees, going as far as possible without threatening Israel's Jewishness. The stance should not be that the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own annihilates Palestinian refugee rights, rather that it limits the modalities of their implementation. Ideally such a change in direction would be motivated by a change of heart with respect to the history of the refugee issue, but it would suffice if it were motivated by the pragmatic realization that the more forthcoming Israel is with respect to refugees, the more likely it will be that a peace agreement will really bring lasting peace.

What can be done to seriously address the refugee issue, without threatening Israel's Jewish character? A first step would be for Israel to agree that all of the original 1948 refugees will be allowed to return to Israel. Of the original 1948 refugees, it is estimated that no more than 50,000 are still alive, with their average age close to 80 years. If they were all allowed to return, at most, a few thousand would actually do so.

There may be some situations in which there are elderly refugees who would only be able to relocate to Israel if they were accompanied by a younger relative. In those situations Israel should offer non-citizen residency status on a temporary basis to designated relatives. On this approach, the actual return of 1948 refugees to Israel would have almost no impact on Israeli demographics, but by giving a return option to the original refugees, the class of refugees that has the strongest claim, it is possible to make a powerful contribution.

Rather than focusing on numbers, Israel should consider extending options to other classes of refugees, and then regulating implementation to ensure that the actual number that returns in any time period is not excessive. For instance, priority might be given to the refugees still living in camps in Lebanon, taking the oldest first. Additionally, there are currently approximately 200,000 Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens, yet live in Israel. These are the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. If a peace agreement transfers Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, these Palestinians will be outside of Israel, and citizens of Palestine. This in itself, opens a substantial opportunity to admit refugees with no net impact on demographics. It could be linked to an approach suggested by Yossi Beilin, which would offer refugees non-citizen residential status in Israel that would match, in equal number, a similar status chosen by Israeli settlers who would be allowed to remain when Palestinian sovereignty is extended to settlements in the West Bank.

A second dimension of the refugee issue goes to the Palestinian need for some acknowledgement of the Nakba. In past negotiations Palestinians sought from Israel a statement of responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. Israel has resisted such demands, and it appears that little more than a statement of regret for the suffering of the refugees has been on offer. Needless to say, a limited statement of regret will contribute little to putting the issue to rest.

A more powerful way to address the needs of refugees for some form of moral and historical recognition can be obtained through deeds rather than words. In 1948 and 1949, Israel made a concerted effort to erase the remains of 418 villages that were depopulated. Almost all of these villages were bulldozed, and today, while perhaps half of these villages have not been built over, their remains can be difficult to find. To the extent physically possible, Israel should allow the descendents of the villagers to restore the village cemeteries to a semblance of decency. This can be done indirectly by refugees living outside Israel. For instance, they might raise money to hire an Israeli-Arab firm to carry out such services. It is unknown to what extent refugees would actually undertake such efforts, but by allowing restoration of the cemeteries, Israel would make it possible for refugees to maintain a physical link to their history and ancestors.

A third dimension has to do with compensation, which has long been seen as an alternative to return. Unfortunately the numbers do not work. With close to seven million refugees, the monetary levels of any realistic scheme would be so low that they would provoke only anger and outrage. For instance, even a fund of $20 billion would provide only $3,000 per refugee.

Rather than focusing on cash dispersals, other forms of compensation may be more meaningful. The land that Palestinians lost represented more than housing. This was an agrarian society; for most Palestinians land offered a source of employment and income, essentially a capital inheritance passed down through the generations as the key to assuring the family's continued ability to meet its core economic needs. In today's society, the closest functional equivalent is the transfer of human capital from one generation to the next, often through the intermediation of educational institutions. Seen in this light, a multigenerational guarantee that the descendents of Palestinian refugees will have access to the finest schools, can serve as a meaningful aspect of compensation. Fortunately this can be done non-quantitatively thus avoiding the specification of a price at which "the right of return was sold." 

One element might be a commitment of top universities around the world, including Israeli institutions, to provide cost-free access to qualified Palestinian students. Alternatively, governments could commit to the provision of a certain number of scholarships, or there could be a fund to which individuals could contribute. The result would be to provide future generations of Palestinian students with a unique guarantee of access to the world's finest institutions. This in turn would be linked to raising Palestinian institutions to world-class standards.

This is not a comprehensive plan, but it is a start. The main thing is that a good faith effort has to be made to truly respond to the refugees. If this is done, the way will be open for the Palestinian leadership to reaffirm that part of its Declaration of Independence which acknowledged that the Jewish people had a right under international law to bring Israel into existence as a Jewish state and further, to agree that Israel retains a legal right to remain so. This, in itself will not resolve the 1948 issues within the hearts and minds of the two peoples, but it may be enough to start the process of healing which true peace requires. Given the already dysfunctional exchanges, it is unlikely that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will accomplish this on their own. The challenge, if met at all, will need to be taken up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama.

Jerome M. Segal is a philosopher at the University of Maryland. He is currently writing a book about the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. In 1988, his writings served as a catalyst for the Declaration.

Thaer Ghanaim / PPO via Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Apparent U.S. Drone Strike Hits Wedding Convoy in Yemen

Air strikes hit a wedding convoy on Thursday in the remote Yemeni town of Radda, an al Qaeda stronghold in the southern al-Bayda province, killing around 13 people and injuring an estimated 22 others. Local residents said the air strikes came from a drone, which appeared to be the second U.S. drone strike within a week. According to one report, local tribal leaders said most of the people killed were suspected al Qaeda linked militants. However there were additional reports of several civilian causalities, and others saying a U.S. drone targeted the wedding convoy after intelligence reports mistakenly identified it as an al Qaeda convoy. According to one anonymous Yemeni national security official, "This was a tragic mistake ... None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government." With the increasing al Qaeda presence in Yemen and growing insecurity, the United States has stepped up its drone campaign targeting militants. However, some critics are saying the strikes and resulting civilian casualties are generating greater sympathy for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and increasing anti-Americanism.


The United Nations has released a report concluding that chemical weapons were used in five of seven attacks investigated by U.N. experts in Syria, including the well-documented attack on August 21 near Damascus. The report indicates chemical weapons were used in the Syrian areas of Ghouta, Khan al-Assal, Jobar, Saraqeb, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya. The investigators found that sarin gas was likely used in four cases, one on a large scale. The investigation did not determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, but found that in two incidents, the weapons affected government soldiers, and in a third, both soldiers and civilians were harmed. The report was compiled by chemical weapons experts and doctors after they conducted interviews and collected samples in Syria. Meanwhile, the United States has altered its account of events after saying that the Islamic Front's seizure of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) headquarters in northern Syria forced FSA commander General Salim Idris to flee the country. The United States said on Thursday it obtained information that Idris was in Turkey throughout the takeover. Idris denies he abandoned his post and claims he is in northern Syria overseeing military operations.


  • Iranian negotiators halted nuclear talks in Vienna after the Obama administration blacklisted about a dozen companies and individuals for violating sanctions on Iran.
  • After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected a U.S. plan for Israeli troops to remain in a future Palestinian state.
  • An estimated 25 Iraqi terrorism suspects escaped from a Baghdad prison Friday, after killing two security guards, and several of the inmates remain at large. 
  • An explosion, seemingly coming from a car bomb, hit outside a security forces camp in Egypt's Suez Canal city of Ismailia killing one policeman and injuring an estimated 18 people.
  • Israel has shelved a $2 billion plan to resettle 30,000 Bedouins in the Negev desert amid international outcry. 

Arguments and Analysis

'What's next for Bedouin in a post-Prawer Israel?' (Haggai Matar, +972 Magazine)

"Broadly speaking there are three possible outcomes to the end of Prawer. First, and in my mind most likely, the government may completely retreat from its visions of ‘cleansing' the Negev and settle for a continuation of the current state of affairs (with a possibility of yet another committee that could take years to reach any kind of decision). This is definitely better for Bedouin than the Prawer Plan itself, but it still means a life of poverty and fear, demolition orders, court appeals and the occasional destruction of homes -- as is the case in Al-Araqib and now Umm al-Hiran.

The second option is that the extreme hawks in power, rather than the Bedouin and leftists, will take credit for scrapping Prawer, and will try to push forward a new, more radical plan of uprooting with little or no compensation. However, such an initiative might be harder to promote among the more pragmatic people in the government, and would be much harder to explain to the High Court (which would already be aware of concessions made as part of Prawer). One can even imagine the media, now awake to the entire issue, being more critical of such a move.

The third and least likely option is for the government to start a process of dialogue with the Bedouin, review the plans made by local leaders and NGOs and consider recognizing villages and developing the Negev for all its inhabitants. While unrealistic under the current administration, this is what Bedouin and left-wing activists will continue fighting for. Maybe in the future it will not seem as absurd as it does now. After all, just two weeks ago no one would have believed Prawer would be scrapped."

'American and British aid to Syria's rebels: No more, for now' (Pomegranate Blog - Economist)

"The pickle policymakers now find themselves in was nothing short of predictable. For months Syrians, fighters and civilians, have been warning that the moderate rebels were being pushed aside. Gulf countries have sent arms to some rebel -- which ones remains unclear -- and Western backers have sent non-lethal assistance as well as helped to coordinate occasional weapons shipments and training. But the aid has been ill coordinated and too scattered, inconsistent and low-calibred to make a decisive impact. Syrian fighters have not helped themselves, either, by remaining fragmented and increasingly prone to internecine fights. 

The growing strength of extremist rebels has perversely reinforced the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat, told the New York Times on December 3rd that 'We need to start talking to the Assad regime again', despite the fact that it has used fighter jets, ballistic missiles and sarin against civilians in order to stay in power. The imbalance of power, coupled with the regime's intransigence and continued backing by Iran and Russia, bodes badly for peace talks in Geneva, scheduled to start on January 22nd. 

American and British officials say non-lethal assistance could flow again once they have determined the circumstances of last week's events. But few Syrians are holding their breath. Most accuse the West of offering too little, too late, abandoning them to a war that gets nastier by the day."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

-/AFP/Getty Images