The conventional wisdom is that the Middle East peace talks between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will go nowhere, as each side is engaged in an elaborate charade to please the Obama administration.
Netanyahu cannot move one hundred thousand Israelis off the West Bank, nor can he give up the strategic high ground in the Judean desert. Abbas cannot speak for the majority of the Palestinians, and his lack of legitimacy is underscored by his currently serving the sixth year of a four-year term. Like Yasser Arafat, Abbas has shown no desire to go down in history as the Palestinian who gave up the refugees’ “right of return.”
The refugee problem is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to peace. And it has taken on a life of its own, as the refugees have become a useful gimmick in the peace charade.
Depending upon whose estimate you read, there are some twenty or thirty thousand “refugees” in the Balata refugee camp outside of Nablus. Balata is simultaneously the most populous and smallest of the Palestinian refugee camps — its growing population is confined to one square kilometer, making it one of the most densely populated and miserable places on the planet.
Any regime with an ounce of compassion would have shut Balata down and integrated its people into the surrounding community. Balata is a place without hope, a quagmire of despair, where the day-to-day misery of its inhabitants is partially ameliorated by Western charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), while inadvertently building a culture of dependence.
Balata’s creation could ostensibly be laid at Israel’s doorstep, but its perpetuation cannot. The current residents of Balata are only refugees by a crude reworking of the meaning of the term. They themselves have fled from nothing, and sought refuge from nothing. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the people who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war.
If you want to use the term “apartheid” to characterize some aspect of Middle East politics, then Balata is a good place to apply it. It is the Palestinian Authority’s answer to Soweto.
The PA does not permit the children of Balata to go to local schools. It does not permit the people of Balata to build outside the one square kilometer. The people of Balata are prevented from voting in local elections, and the PA provides none of the funds for the necessary infrastructure of the camp — including sewers and roads.
Balata and the other refugee camps are showcases of contrived misery. They are Potemkin villages in reverse. Naïve peace activists and unsophisticated Western clergy are led through such camps to witness the refugee drama, with Israel conveniently and prominently cast in the role of villain.
Originally, there were about 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Because the Palestinians have rewritten the meaning of the term “refugee,” creating refugees that transcend generations; there are now 4.5 million Palestinian refugees.
The original number of Palestinian refugees is roughly equivalent to the number of Mizrahi Jews that were forcibly evicted from the Arab and Islamic world after the establishment of the state of Israel. Israel, and to a lesser degree the West, absorbed these refugees. Within three years, they ceased being refugees. Today, neither they nor their descendants inhabit dismal, overcrowded camps, living as a people apart and without hope.
The Arab world supposedly cares about the plight of the Palestinians. But the Arabs have done little to transform Palestinian refugees into citizens. With the exception of Jordan, Palestinian refugees have been treated throughout the Arab world as a people apart — people to be showcased, but not to be extended a modicum of civility and compassion.
In 2007, Amnesty International issued a report decrying the conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps. Yet there were no flotillas, no campus protests, and no UN resolutions condemning the role of Arab nations or the Palestinian Authority for bottling up Palestinians in refugee camps and condemning them to a life of despair.
In recent days, the Lebanese parliament — after six decades — finally passed legislation opening up to Palestinians those occupations that are permitted to other foreigners. The decision, upon closer inspection, falls short of its publicity value. In Lebanon, foreigners are barred from a long list of major professions. The amelioration of Palestinian suffering is limited, and the camps are still Casabas, self-governing enclaves, generally off-limits to Lebanese police and law.
As the latest round of peace talks inevitably moves in a continuous circle, here is an obstacle to peace that the Arabs themselves could eliminate within years, if not months, by shutting down the refugee camps and integrating their inhabitants into the surrounding communities. This would mean, of course, an end to the demand for Israel’s demographic destruction and an end to the culture of dependence created by UNRWA.
When the Palestinians and the Arab states solve their refugee problem as the Jews solved theirs, then the world will know that the Arabs are truly interested in achieving peace and that they have removed one of the most formidable impediments to its achievement.