What will happen when one million refugees have the right to return -- to the West Bank?
- By Steven J. RosenSteven J. Rosen served for 23 years as a senior official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is now the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.
One of the key arguments of Israel’s "peace camp" is that, without a two-state solution, the state faces a "demographic time-bomb." The contention is that perpetuating Israeli control over the growing Arab population of the West Bank will dilute Israel’s Jewish majority, until it is a de facto bi-national state. Therefore, proponents of this line of thinking argue, Secretary of State John Kerry’s push for a two-state solution is imperative if Israel hopes to remain both Jewish and democratic.
Some Israeli policymakers have bought into the threat of a ticking demographic time bomb. In 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned the Knesset of "a demographic battle" if a Palestinian state is not created. Similarly, the current government’s chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, argued that "time works to our disadvantage" because of "demographic numbers…[and] a higher Palestinian birth rate that could mean the end of a Jewish majority."
But Israelis on the right see a different demographic time bomb — one that Kerry’s plan will produce, rather than prevent. By opening the West Bank to a flood of refugees from the neighboring Arab countries, Kerry’s plan could throw the Palestinian territories into chaos and sow the seeds for the rise of further extremism and terrorism on Israel’s borders.
"Imagine an independent Palestinian state that does not need to ask our consent to absorb Palestinian refugees," Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Jan. 5. "Will the economy in Judea and Samaria, which is not the economy of Norway or Switzerland, be able to absorb 3 million additional Palestinians?…Where will they live?…Where will they work?"
The Palestinian Authority (P.A.), which was created following the Oslo Accords to be the core of a future Palestinian state, already faces enormous problems serving the current population of the West Bank. Since the P.A.’s establishment in 1994, according to the International Monetary Fund, there has been an 11-point rise in unemployment, to 23 percent in 2012. The unemployment rate in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip is even higher, according to U.N. statistics — over 45 percent, among the highest in the world. The World Bank, meanwhile, noted that the P.A. is "facing a grim fiscal situation," with ballooning budget deficits and shrinking foreign support.
Moreover, the refugees who are most likely to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza (or be forced to do so by Arab governments) are not the established families in Jordan who have citizenship and employable skills. The ones who are most likely to come are the legions who are kept wretched in Syria and Lebanon — the ones who Arab governments have deliberately left unemployed and stateless for decades, the ones who are economically desperate and politically extreme. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged this, telling his advisors that while refugees in Jordan may prefer to stay where they are, "for refugees in Lebanon there is a need" to relocate.
Worst of all, from Israel’s perspective, the refugees most likely to come are the ones who have decades of membership and training in the competing terrorist organizations that proliferate in the Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon. According to the State Department, at least nine designated terrorist organizations operate out of Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps: Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, Asbat al-Ansar, Fatah al-Islam, Fatah al-Intifada, Jund al-Sham, the Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
For example, Ain al-Helwe, Lebanon’s largest camp and what some writers have called "the capital of the Palestinian diaspora," is home to 17 different armed political factions. The State Department says the camp is the "primary base of operations" of, among others, Asbat al-Ansar, "[a] Sunni extremist group composed primarily of Palestinians with links to al-Qa’ida." Asbat al-Ansar has "assassinated Lebanese religious leaders and bombed nightclubs, theaters, and liquor stores," and one of its members plotted to assassinate then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Satterfield in 2000. Hamas also has a growing presence in the camps, where it spreads its ideology of struggle unto death with Israel.
If refugees raised in this environment are brought to the West Bank, will they consider it their final home, or see it as merely a step on the road toward their final struggle with Israel? Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum have refused to completely reject the possibility of a right of return to Israel proper: Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in November that "it is not possible for any person, regardless of who he is … to give up on Palestinian land or to give up the right of return to our homes," while even Abbas said in January that "neither the P.A., nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return."
Hamas won the last Palestinian Authority election in 2006, earning 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats. If the P.A. voter lists are doubled before the next election by bringing in a million new citizens from Lebanon and Syria, many of whom are steeped in fanatic ideologies, the results could be even less favorable to Abbas’s more moderate Fatah Party.
Abbas may understand that immigration of refugees from Lebanon and Syria will strengthen his opponents. But no Palestinian leader could oppose citizenship for any of the dispossessed, because that would violate cardinal principles of Palestinian ideology and the interests of the Arab states. Any effort to deny entry to a class of refugees would confront a daunting array of U.N. and Arab League resolutions and fierce opposition from all factions on the Palestinian spectrum. It would also violate one of the precepts of the Kerry initiative — that a comprehensive peace agreement must address the problem of the refugees in the Palestinian diaspora.
But bringing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into the tiny area of the West Bank, which lies a few miles from the heartland of the Jewish state, alarms many Israelis almost as much as bringing them to Tel Aviv. If the new Palestinian state in the West Bank descends into the anarchy and factional warfare that exists today in Syria and in camps like Ain al-Helwe, how can this bring peace to Israel? If Jerusalem becomes the capital of both states and a city undivided by walls, how will the swarms of jihadists that the agreement will import to the West Bank be stopped from bringing violence to Israeli towns and villages?
President Barack Obama said in June 2011 that a "lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people."
Now, John Kerry faces the tall task of implementing this well-intentioned principle without planting a Palestinian time bomb in the West Bank.