The Palestinian refugee problem has been a difficult social and humanitarian issue in the Middle East for over 50 years. The immediate cause of the problem was the Arabs' rejection in 1947 of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 - which would have partitioned the British Mandate area into an Arab state and a Jewish state - and the resulting war started by the Arabs in the hope of destroying the nascent Israeli state. Many Palestinian Arabs who lived in areas where the fighting took place abandoned their homes, either at the request of Arab leaders, or due to fear of the fighting or the uncertainty of living under Jewish rule. A refugee problem would not have been created had this war not been forced upon Israel by the Arab countries and the local Arab leadership.
The Arab countries, with the sole exception of Jordan, have perpetuated the refugee problem to serve as a weapon in their struggle against Israel. The refugees continue to live in crowded camps, in poverty and despair. No attempt was made to integrate them into the various countries and communities in the region. Hundreds of thousands of refugees remain today in a number of Arab countries with no political, economic or social rights.
The fate of the Palestinian refugees stands in sharp contrast to that of the many Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel, leaving behind a great deal of property for which they were not compensated. It should be remembered there was at least an equal number of Jewish refugees who left Arab countries as Palestinian refugees who fled Israel. These refugees were absorbed and rehabilitated as citizens with full rights within the State of Israel.
Sadly, during this period there were innumerable refugees fleeing wars and conflict in many parts of the world. Almost all of these were resettled and their lives rehabilitated. The sole exception remains the Palestinians, deliberately kept as refugees for political aims.
Israel does not bear responsibility for the creation or the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Thus it cannot declare, even as a gesture, responsibility for the problem.
Although the Arab states originally rejected UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, they now claim that this resolution offers the refugees a "right of return" to Israel. However, the relevant section of the resolution (paragraph 11) clearly does not recognize a right of return, but merely recommends that refugees should be permitted to return. Moreover, when referring to this resolution, a number of points should be remembered:
The resolution does not state that there is an unconditional "right" of return. On the contrary, it sets certain preconditions and limits for return, foremost among them that the refugees must be willing to live in peace with their neighbors.
The resolution specifically uses the general term "refugees" and not "Arab refugees", thereby indicating that the resolution is aimed at all refugees, both Jewish and Arab. It should be remembered that following the establishment of Israel in 1948, at least an equal number of Jewish residents of Arab states were forced to become refugees.
The resolution stipulates that compensation for refugees who chose not to return, or whose property was damaged or destroyed, should be provided "by the governments or authorities responsible". The demand for compensation does not specify Israel by name, and it is clear that the use of the plural (governments) precludes any Palestinian claim that implementation of the resolution should fall exclusively on Israel.
Resolution 194 aims at the achievement of a "final settlement of all questions outstanding" between the sides. Paragraph 11, which discusses the issue of return and compensation, is just one of 15 paragraphs in the resolution, and therefore cannot be implemented independently of the rest of the resolution, as the Arab states have always demanded.
General Assembly resolutions on political matters are not legally binding on the sides.
In summary, the Palestinians have selectively used elements of Resolution 194 that offer political and rhetorical benefits. At the same time, other material aspects of the issues involved have been ignored.
Under present demographic-geographic conditions, the influx of a large number of refugees into Israel is most certainly not practicable. Given that the present population of Israel is only 6.5 million (of whom approximately 20 percent are Arab Israelis), the influx of millions of Palestinians into the State of Israel would threaten the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Finally, in the course of the peace process, the Israelis and Palestinians themselves have agreed that the question of refugees, along with other issues, could be considered as part of a permanent settlement between the sides. Israel stands by this commitment. It is, thus, inappropriate for this issue to be raised in other forums.