The issue of "Arab refugees" has long been a matter of widespread consensus in Israel, with even left-wing parties declaring that allowing them into Israel would endanger its very existence as a Jewish state. Nevertheless, the subject does not appear to be going away. Reports are that Prime Minister Olmert has now agreed to allow 50,000 Arabs who left Israel in 1948 - or are descendants of those who did - to enter and live in Israel.
Channel Ten reported Thursday night that in a private meeting between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen, the two agreed that in the final-status agreement, Israel would withdraw from 92% of Judea and Samaria, including all the non-Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. It was also agreed that 50,000 "refugees from 1948" would enter and live in the State of Israel.
Staffers in Olmert's office did not deny the report, and even hinted that it was at least partially accurate.
Olmert Went Further than Bush
U.S. President George Bush summed up his three-day visit to Israel on Friday by saying that a new Palestinian state, together with financial compensation, would be the solution to the refugee problem. The implication is that the refugees need not enter Israel.
"There must be an end to Israel's occupation [sic] that began in 1967," Bush said. "Palestine must serve as a national home for the Palestinians, and Israel - for the Jews."
Israel liberated Judea and Samaria during the Six Day War in 1967, capturing it, essentially, from no one. No country in the world, other than Great Britain and Pakistan, recognized Jordan's control over Judea and Samaria between 1948 and 1967.
Lebanon: Return, Not Money
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Seniora does not accept Bush's position on the refugees. Seniora said that money alone is not enough, and that his country will continue to refuse to grant citizenship to the 400,000 refugees living within its borders. The number of Arabs who left Israel in 1948 has been estimated to be roughly a half-million, but millions now claim the 'right to return.'
Hamas, too, refuses to accept any solution other than the "return" to Israel of the millions of Arabs who claim that they themselves, or their ancestors, were forced to leave Israel in 1948. The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said that Bush will soon leave the political arena, while the Hamas demands will remain forever: "A Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, the destruction of all the settlements, the release of all the Palestinian prisoners, the 'right of return' of all the Palestinian refugees, and continued adherence to the strategy of not giving up on even one inch of all of Palestine."
Arabs Denied Refugee Problem
Oft-forgotten is the fact that the refugee problem was not caused by Israel, but by the Arab states. "The Arab States encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies," according to the Jordanian newspaper Filastin (February 19, 1949).
Joan Peters, in her classic work "From Time Immemorial," quotes (on page 13) an Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies finding that "the majority" of the Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled, and that 68% left without seeing an Israeli soldier.
On April 27, 1950, the Arab National Committee of Haifa informed the Arab States: "The removal of the Arab inhabitants... was voluntary and was carried out at our request... The Arab delegation proudly asked for the evacuation of the Arabs and their removal to the neighboring Arab countries."
Zuheir Muhsein, the late Military Department head of the PLO and member of its Executive Council, told the Dutch daily Trouw, March 1977, "The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity... Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people... to oppose Zionism."