Since the War of Independence, Israel has opposed what the Palestinians call “the right of return” – allowing all Palestinian refugees to come to Israel. The government has rejected the claim that it is Israel’s fault that there are Palestinian refugees, and pointed out that Israel absorbed more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than the number of Arabs who fled Israel in 1948. Israel’s position was that the fledgling state took care of the Jewish refugees, while the surrounding Arab countries chose to put Palestinian refugees in camps, not giving them the opportunity to lead normal lives.
Since then, Israel has, mostly, chosen to ignore the refugee issue. However, on occasion, governments have realized that although the refugee problem is not Israel’s fault, it still exists, and must be taken care of.
In 1952, Israel took care of 40,000 Palestinian refugees living in Israel and initiated a “family reunion” program, where 45,000 family members living in neighboring countries were brought to Israel. Israel also unfroze the bank accounts of the refugees.
Many years later, In the 1980s, Israel built housing complexes for Palestinian refugees in Nablus and Gaza. However, the refugees, facing threats from the PLO, refused to live in the new homes.
In addition, in 1983, a Committee to Rehabilitate the Palestinian Refugees was formed in then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet. The head of the committee, Minister Without Portfolio Mordechai Ben-Porat, being himself a refugee from Iraq, visited many refugee camps and did extensive research, leading to the publication of a report in 1984. The report recommended that Israel will improve the state of the refugees in her territory, and demand from Arab countries to compensate the Jewish refugees for their lost property.
This plan was never executed, mostly because Arab leaders such as Arafat or King Hussein preferred to leave the refugees in camps, claiming that Ben Porat’s plan would destroy the Palestinian people.
For the next 24 years, Israel was mostly silent on the refugee issue. Even the Oslo Accords pushed taking care of the problem until after a Palestinian state would rise. The only plan which dealt with the refugee issue was Benny Elon’s “The Right Road to Peace” plan, published in its first version in 2003. However, in took till 2008, that MKs Benny Elon and Amira Dotan founded a Parliamentary Lobby to Solve the Palestinian Refugee Problem. The lobby included MKs from five different parties: Likud, Labor, Kadima, National Union and Shas, and was the first in the history of Israeli parliament to touch this delicate issue. Less than a year after the lobby’s inception, elections were held, and thus the group was dissolved.
We in the Israeli Initiative hope that Netanyahu’s government will follow Begin’s legacy, and launch a new policy, aimed to solve the problem rather than ignore it.
Yoav Sorek is manager of The Israeli Initiative. Find out more: www.israelinitiative.com