Following pressure from the United States, Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume direct negotiations for the first time in 20 months. The two sides will meet together in Washington on 2nd September and one of the key issues will be the resettlement of Palestinian refugees.
In the course of Israel’s creation in 1948 and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, more than half the Arabs living in pre-1948 Palestine were displaced, 1.5 million internally and around 4.3 million to other countries. Of the Palestinians who remain in exile, over 1.8 million live in Jordan, 1.7 million in the West Bank/Gaza, and over 400,000 in both Lebanon and Syria.
Israel believes that these external refugees could continue to live in their Arab host countries or return to any future Palestinian state, but not to areas which are now part of Israel. This position of not supported by the UN, because under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, refugees have the unconditional right of return to their old homes or to receive compensation. Since many exiled Palestinians continue to live in poverty and would want to return, this issue is thought to be the most divisive of the talks.
But some Palestinians are questioning the practicality of return and the impact it would have, particularly on children and young people. In Syria, when questioned on the issue, young third-generation Palestinians are unsure they would want to go back, having never seen their original homeland. Interviewed by the BBC, Bissan al-Sharif, a young teacher of drama in Damascus, said she would like to visit her family’s former village in Palestine, but wouldn’t want to leave Syria where she has friends and work, because it would mean starting “everything from scratch”.
Though publicly there is political pressure for Palestinian families to declare they would return to Palestine, privately many express their desire to stay in Syria. Given full rights, these Palestinian refugees are well-integrated, some even holding government positions. And though younger Palestinian refugees continue to assert they belong to two countries, Palestine and Syria, they also want the right to remain in the land where they were born, if they so choose.
Certainly the quality of life offered in Syria to these refugees continues to improve. In 2005, the Syrian government declared it was switching from a centrally planned economy to one based on market forces. There are an estimated 15 million Syrian citizens currently living abroad, while 22 million reside in Syria. But with a burgeoning economy and secular system of government (teachers were recently warned not to wear the niqab in Syria’s schools), many expatriates are being tempted to return.
It is little wonder then that young Palestinians would feel torn if talks between Israel and the Palestinians should ever prove successful and give them a right of return to their Palestinian homeland.