What the Refugees Want


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CMichael
July 22, 2003, 10:33 AM
From the WSJ

What the Refugees Want
A poll on the "right of return" sparks a riot by Palestinian radicals.

Sunday, July 20, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT

The world is watching to see if new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas can stop Palestinian violence against Israelis. An equally good question is whether he can curtail Palestinian violence against Palestinians.

The news here is not promising. A mob of 200 Palestinian refugee activists attacked a research center in Ramallah last Sunday, ransacking the center's offices and injuring staffers. The center's crime? It had just released a report showing that one obstacle to peace much-trumpeted by Palestinian radicals--the issue of Palestinian refugees--may not be as complicated as many people think.





The status of the refugees has been a sticking point in all past negotiations. Arab leaders have constantly demanded that Israel accept the families of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948. No Israeli leader could ever accept these refugees--who now number three million to five million--a move that would effectively turn Israel into a predominantly Arab state.
But a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggests that settling in Israel isn't what the refugees themselves want. The survey of 4,500 refugee families in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan found that although 95% of refugees questioned demand that Israel recognize their right to return to Israel, the majority would not actually choose to return.

More than half--54%--said they would accept compensation and homes in the West Bank and Gaza; 17% said they would like to stay in Lebanon and Jordan; and 2% said they would like to immigrate to a third country. Only 10% demanded to live in Israel, and this figure dropped further once they factored in the fact that their original homes no longer existed and that they would have to become Israeli citizens.

The choices offered by pollsters were based on the options considered by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in January 2001. Since 1948 Israel has consistently offered resolutions along these lines, which Yasser Arafat and Arab leaders have repeatedly rejected, saying their publics would never accept such an "injustice." The study suggests that the people on whose behalf they speak don't necessarily agree.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this poll is that it is the first time that refugees were formally asked what they actually wanted. That suited many Arab leaders just fine. They are happy to see the refugees kept in the squalor of the camps where they can be used as a political tool against Israel, serving to distract Arab leaders' populations from their own failings. Where better to train and recruit suicide bombers than the no-man's-land of the refugee camps?





The center's director, Khalil Shikaki, is himself an example of the path the majority of refugees would like to follow. Although he was born in a refugee camp in Gaza, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University and now directs the polling organization. He rejects violence and, like most Palestinian moderates, has been threatened by Arafat and Hamas for his independent views. Mr. Shikaki's brother Fathi is a perhaps more familiar example of the opposite path. He founded the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad and was killed in 1995.
If Palestinians are ever going to break free of the tyranny of violence, political moderates are going to have to be allowed to express themselves, and live to tell about it. Mr. Shikaki's poll--its results, but even the mere act of conducting it--shows that those moderate sentiments are widely shared. But that silent Palestinian majority has be protected from the radicals who ransacked Mr. Shikaki's office.

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