FrontPage Magazine, when it’s not featuring thoughtful, reflective domestic policy articles that liken mosque construction in Manhattan to “construction of a shrine kamikazes at Pearl Harbor or of a statue of Hitler outside the Auschwitz gates,” also sometimes features equally thoughtful and reflective pieces on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. A recent piece by Martin Sherman entitled “The Palestinian Problem: A Real Solution,” is particularly noteworthy for its nuanced and sensitive treatment of a difficult issue. To resolve the plight of the Palestinians, he suggests, they should all be paid to leave.
The article starts by arguing that Palestinian refugees aren’t really refugees, and that “the persistence and scale of the Palestinian refugee problem is, to a large degree, an artificial construct” due to the existence of UNRWA. From that Sherman goes on to suggest that UNRWA be replaced by UNHCR, apparently believing that the latter doesn’t allow for multi-generational refugees.
Reality-check time here: UNHCR does allow for multi-generational refugees, of course—indeed roughly half of the Afghan refugees who returned from Pakistan and Iran after 2001 were second or third generation refugees). I’m always a bit puzzled why those who oppose the return of refugees to Israel, or even their repatriation to a future Palestinian state, believe that the issue would somehow vanish under UNHCR. Overwhelmingly, UNHCR repatriates refugees rather than resettles them (see UNHCR data at right)—indeed, some Palestinian refugee advocates have argued that UNHCR has a stronger mandate for protecting and pursuing refuge rights than does UNRWA. Moreover, Palestinian refugees outside of the WBG, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon already fall under UNHCR… and show no sign of somehow feeling less Palestinian for it. Certainly it is true that under UNHCR rules Palestinian refugees with other citizenships (such as in Jordan) wouldn’t count as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Living as they do only an hour’s drive from Palestine, however, its hard to believe they would somehow forget about all that messy forced displacement stuff in 1948, or the current Israeli occupation of the WBG. Most important of all, the refugee issue is not about whether local teachers are paid by the Ministry of Education or the UN, or whether particular individuals do or do not meet Convention definitions. Rather, it is a political issue that is fundamentally linked to Palestinian self-identity and national aspirations. It will similarly require a political solution.
Sherman goes on to express concern about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Arab host countries. This is indeed a legitimate concern, although oddly he doesn’t propose to remedy it by allowing refugees to repatriate to a Palestinian state where they would face no such restrictions. Instead, he manages to blame UNRWA for the situation, suggesting:
It is only the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that allows the Arab countries to continue to keep the Palestinians within their borders in their situation of suspended stateless animation. For while its mandate prevents finding a permanent solution for the Palestinian residents in these countries, it is the ongoing humanitarian aid that it provides for an ever-increasing client population that permits the host governments to sustain their discriminatory policy toward their Palestinian “guests,” to perpetuate their inferior status, and to allow their situation to languish and fester.
Really? How does that apply to, say, Egypt, Iraq, or the Gulf, where UNRWA doesn’t operate (but UNHCR does)? How does that explain the situation in Jordan, where the overwhelming majority of refugees enjoy full citizenship, and where (despite a degree of continued political discrimination) Palestinians have a standard of living similar to, or slightly higher than, “East Bank” Jordanians? How does receiving education in an UNRWA school cause refugees to “languish and fester”? Is he even aware that, in Syria and Jordan, refugees can also attend government schools? In Jordan (where only 17% of refugees still live in the camps) a majority of Palestinian students are in non-UNRWA schools. The same is true in the West Bank too.
Yet all of this is just a precursor for Sherman’s central policy proposal, which gives rise to the title of this blogpost: “Generous monetary compensation to aid the relocation and rehabilitation of the Palestinian residents in territories outside the confines of the 1967 “Green Line,” presumably — but not necessarily — in the Arab/Moslem world.” Yes, that’s right, Israel should pay Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to leave (he estimates the cost at $45-80 billion), and somehow convince reluctant Arab host countries (you know, those ones that discriminate against them) to accept them as citizens. Presumably then Israel would take over the Palestinian territories for itself, although he’s a bit fuzzy on why it wouldn’t be easier to just end the occupation in the first place.
There really are no words for how silly this is. Sadly, the internet being what it is, the article has started to pop up on various extremist websites, as if the idea had the slightest merit at all.
The refugee issue is a complex one. There are deep differences between Israelis and Palestinians on its origins, and a variety of thoughtful opinions on how it might best be resolved. The search for peace is hardly aided, however, by suggesting that the tragic effects of of occupation and forced displacement are best dealt with through permanent occupation, more displacement, and the fantastical creation of a Palestinian-free Palestine.