Peacemakers need a new way of negotiating the 'right of return'
Thursday, March 29, 2007
First person by Nihad Ghadry

The primary goal of the Arab-Israeli conflict - liberating Palestine and terminating Israel - has gradually changed over the years, and it has become enough just to liberate the land that was occupied on June 7, 1967.

Accordingly, all of the international and Arab initiatives and plans regard the two-state formula as the only possible solution. However, the dispute has continued over the exact location of the border, though the contested territory doesn't exceed a few square kilometers.

Yet it is no longer appropriate to manage the conflict on the same old basis, unless one or both parties have hidden intentions inconsistent with their announcements concerning peace conditions. In other words, if Israel rejects the concept of having a Palestinian state, and Palestinians and some or all Arabs refuse to recognize Israel as a state, we'll be back to the starting point and the conflict will continue.

However, the continuous talks on the need to find a solution consistent with two main pillars - the settlement of the border dispute and the "right of return" - make us believe that this is what the two parties are really seeking and all the states concerned have to present their views concerning the solution.

In principle, the border issue is not the main problem among all the other ones, despite its importance. The fundamental issue is what is called the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, who live in miserable refugee camps throughout the Middle East and other states that have not always embraced them with open arms.
Those refugees consist of three groups. The first group comprises emigrants were expelled from their land in 1948. Only a few of them are still alive and due to their age and numbers, their return won't really cause a vast demographic or political change. The second group comprises Palestinians who fled or migrated during the aftermath of the 1967 war, after which the United Nations Security Council convened and adopted Resolution 242, which requires Israel to withdraw from the land it occupied at that time. Those are also few in number and most of them are elderly people. The third group comprises new generations of Palestinians who were born outside Palestine to Palestinian parents. They constitute the highest percentage of living Palestinians.

Building on this background, international and regional decision-making bodies could opt to recognize only the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees born in Palestine. Such a decision might set the stage for a potential solution to be discussed by the two struggling parties, as it would limit the number of refugees that return to a number that can be easily absorbed.

On the other hand, the status of the Palestinian Diaspora could be viewed as similar to that of Lebanese emigrants, especially the Maronites, whose number exceeds 10 million. They live in their new homelands as regular citizens and are committed to their new countries, despite their nostalgic feelings for their native land and the visits that a few pay to it.

Thelaw in most countries worldwide states that any child born in a country acquires the citizenship of that country and the rights afforded to its citizens. Accordingly, the new generations of Palestinians could be considered citizens of the countries where they were born, except in Lebanon due to certain considerations that have to do with its religious, sectarian and political makeup. However, this won't represent an obstacle, since with a dose of wisdom and understanding, they can be absorbed into any other Arab community.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is draining energy and resources. I believe that if the Arabs had invested the money they currently spend on arms on various development issues - such as education, economy, health, construction and technology, just as Germany and Japan did during the aftermath of World War II - they would have overcome their miserable undeveloped status. They would have realized that the resources they are exploiting would provide their new generations with prosperity, well-being, and real strength. They would have understood that the manufactured disputes that they have embraced have given birth to systems justified only by imaginary disputes.

This is just an idea for those who really believe in peace, not for those who only talk about it while triggering struggles and igniting endless wars. It is not for those who use the conflict to legitimate their suppressive systems that rise up in the name of Palestine and remain in place so long as the conflict continues. Then the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes an objective to every system by itself for a purpose far removed from its Palestinian one. So it's better to be clear: Either we reject peace and bear all of the consequences of preserving suppressive systems in the name of liberation, but without achieving liberation, or we really negotiate peace on its feasible conditions.

***Nihad Ghadry is a Syrian politician and editor of Al-Mouharer al-Arabi, published in Beirut