One the most remarkable news items I’ve read lately is Haaretz’s report on a conversation between an Israeli and “a well-known Egyptian statesman…who held top positions in the past and still has great influence on the generals in Cairo.” The Israeli raised the issue of the Palestinian refugees, and the Egyptian exploded:
“What refugees are you talking about?” the Egyptian scolded his Israeli interlocutor. The region is flooded with millions of new refugees living under impossible conditions and desperately needing help. These people fled the terrors of war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, rotting in the desert in the summer and freezing in the winter.
He went on. The tents they get from neighboring states and international relief agencies are insufficient. Giant tent cities have sprouted up everywhere in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey…
There was more. Against this backdrop, the Palestinians’ insistence on portraying third-generation refugees, the grandchildren of those who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war, is groundless. Many of these refugees live in stone dwellings with proper infrastructure, continuing to benefit from handouts from the UN Relief and Works Agency. Their leaders use them to perpetuate the Palestinian problem.
As the journalist Amos Harel noted drily, “Such candid words are very rarely uttered by Arab statesmen.” Which is a pity, and not only because these fake Palestinian refugees divert desperately needed money and services away from real refugees–a point I’ve made here before. No less significant is what a candid discussion of the refugee issue would reveal about the Palestinian statehood project.
Earlier this month, the reporter Khaled Abu Toameh published an article on the growing unrest, which has already led to violence, in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. “A quick chat with young Palestinians, including Fatah members, in any refugee camp in the West Bank will reveal a driving sense of betrayal,” he wrote. “They speak of the PA as a corrupt and incompetent body that is managed by ‘mafia leaders’… The feeling is that the PA leadership has done virtually nothing to improve their living conditions and that the real money is going to big cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron.”
Nor is this sense of betrayal unjustified. In the 22 years since its establishment, the Palestinian Authority has received billions of dollars of international aid each year, making it the biggest per capita aid recipient in the world, by a very large margin. But it hasn’t used any of this money either to move the refugees out of their squalid “camps”–which aren’t actually camps, but slum neighborhoods of nearby cities—or to improve conditions in these neighborhoods.
Moreover, this isn’t only, or even primarily, because the PA is corrupt and incompetent, though it’s undoubtedly both. It’s because the PA’s consistent position, throughout those 22 years, has been that the Palestinian state-to-be has no responsibility for Palestinian refugees, who constitute over 40 percent of its total population. They are merely unwanted guests in their putative homeland, whose ultimate fate is to be driven out of the places where they have lived for decades and relocated to Israel—a plan euphemistically known as the “right of return.”
Nobody has explained this more clearly than Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s political committee and a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, one of the ruling Fatah party’s main governing organs. In 2011, while serving as the PLO’s ambassador to Lebanon, he discussed the refugees in an interview with the Lebanese Daily Star:
The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state…
This would not only apply to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan or the other 132 countries where Abdullah says Palestinians reside. Abdullah said that “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”
Moreover, Abdullah continued, the United States would be responsible for their education, healthcare and welfare.
In short, not only will the Palestinian state not recognize the refugees as citizens, but it also won’t provide them with the basic services states normally give their citizens–even if they live in its territory and have done so for generations. Nor will it allow Palestinian refugees in other countries to become citizens of their putative homeland.
Two decades of failed peace talks cannot be understood without understanding this simple fact: Whereas the Palestinian leadership talks constantly about the refugees’ sufferings to drum up sympathy for its quest for statehood, it has no intention of actually doing anything to help them. And therefore, it sees no urgency in actually acquiring a state that would enable it to do so; it can afford to keep saying no to every Israeli offer.
In fact, far from wanting the refugee problem solved, Palestinian leaders would prefer that it continue to fester, in order to keep international attention on “the Palestinian problem,” as the Egyptian statesman accurately said. That’s also why they keep insisting the only acceptable solution is one that’s completely unfeasible: a mass “return” of refugees to Israel, which would eradicate the Jewish state demographically. Were they instead to say “yes” to a statehood offer, not only would it deprive them of the ability to keep exploiting the refugees as cannon fodder in their diplomatic war on Israel, but it would require them to actually start caring for their people–which is the last thing they want.
That’s precisely why more such “candid words” about the Palestinian refugees are so badly needed. It’s long past time to admit, as the Egyptian statesman did, that they aren’t actually refugees and shouldn’t be treated as such; this would free up money and manpower to help the real refugees who need it so desperately. And it’s also past time to admit that as long as Palestinian leaders show no interest in caring for their so-called refugees, it’s a sure sign that they have no interest in actually saying “yes” to a Palestinian state.
Originally published in Commentary on June 30, 2016