The Chinese Xinhua news agency reports that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proposed to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that Israel accept 80,000 “refugees” from the 1948 war as part of a final peace settlement. Kerry recently completed his tenth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a revamped effort by the Obama administration to secure a peace deal that had eluded both of his immediate predecessors.
The issue of refugees has long been one of the most difficult to resolve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the 1948 war–launched by the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states to prevent the Jewish state of Israel from taking root–there were roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes in present-day Israel. Many left voluntarily, after being encouraged to do so by Arab leaders, while others were forced out by Israeli troops.
A roughly equivalent number of Jews were expelled from Arab countries or fled persecution there, and were settled into Israel. Most Arab states, however, refused to admit the Palestinian refugees as permanent residents or citizens, hoping to use the plight of the refugees as political leverage against Israel. Today, generations later, the number of “refugees” is now in the several millions, though few of them were born in today’s Israel.
In addition, the official definition of a Palestinian “refugee” is far more lenient than the definition used in other conflicts, allowing many itinerant residents of the region to claim refugee status. Palestinian refugees also enjoy the services of a special UN agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), dedicated solely to their welfare while they languish in refugee camps throughout the region.
In previous rounds of negotiation, the Israeli government has insisted that any return of refugees must be to the future Palestinian state, not to Israel proper. There has been some suggestion that a token number of refugees might be allowed to return, and that some form of compensation might be offered to the rest. The Kerry offer goes far beyond anything previously contemplated, and it is not clear if the idea was presented to Israel first.