The demonstrations in the Gaza Strip over the last four weeks, under the banner of the “return of the refugees,” have stirred confusion and resentment among many Israelis. No question about it: The Palestinian refugee issue is a complex one, on both the technical and symbolic levels. But this does not justify historical distortions and inaccuracies about refugees from other wars in the world, as put forward by Moshe Arens (“Palestinian refugees – war by other means,” Haaretz, 23 April 2018).
Like many before him, Arens claims that only the Palestinian refugees have been used “to serve as a festering sore that would prevent peace.” For years, if not decades, Israelis have insisted that “no one else does this.” In other conflicts, writes Arens, war refugees were resettled. He is right about this to some extent, however the refugees were not resettled as he describes.
Arens says that after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “millions were displaced from their homes by the subsequent fighting in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Most have been resettled.” The basis for this assertion is unclear. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, by 2004, 1,000,473 refugees had returned to Bosnia from abroad – i.e., less than a decade after the war’s end, about half (more than a million out of more than two million refugees) returned to their country and were resettled there.
The Kosovo war in the spring of 1999 made refugees out of a million Kosovars, both inside and outside Kosovo. But by August 1999, about two months after the war ended, the UNHRC reported the return of about 750,000 refugees; at the end of that month, the UNHRC stated that 95 percent of the refugees had returned. Since then, most efforts have focused on integrating minorities, including Serbs, who also returned to their homes in Kosovo and Croatia, despite the difficulty of living alongside one’s enemies after a bloody war in the notat-all-distant past.
The return of refugees to Kosovo is still considered a success story: A recent assessment by the UNHRC found that the refugee situation was handled well, and that the return was especially quick, at the initiative of the refugees themselves and with the support of the international community. And Kosovo is the example that Arens chooses to cite?
One reason the international community moved so quickly to effect the return of refugees to Kosovo was the reluctance of neighboring countries to resettle those people within their borders. These Western countries were wary of absorbing a large number of refugees from the same continent – and yet Arens does not accuse them of political exploitation or manipulation for the purpose of preventing peace. He finds it more convenient to completely forget that Europe not only allowed a massive return of refugees to Yugoslavia: It encouraged it. The UNHRC’s report even says that certain countries feared that the Kosovo refugees would become the “new Palestinians.”
The argument that only in the Palestinian case do countries in which the refugees reside refuse to resettle them, so as to influence a future final status accord, is incorrect as well. In the early 1990s, in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a million people lost their homes.
Three-quarters were Azeris who fled from the Karabakh province in Azerbaijan and from Armenia; the rest were mainly Armenians who fled Azerbaijan. Until recently, nearly 600,000 Azeris had not been permanently resettled, even while residing in Azerbaijan, because the latter does not recognize the independence of Karabakh but considers it Azeri territory under Armenian occupation. They are “internally displaced people.”
To support this political stance and ensure that in any future agreements the Azeri refugees’ right of return is recognized, the government refuses to permanently resettle these hundreds of thousands. Until not long ago, some lived in genuine refugee camps; many currently live in designated locales that lack infrastructure and are poorly served by welfare services.
The general outlines for a resolution of this conflict are accepted by the international community, and they include the principle of the return of refugees. None of this in any way justifies the poor treatment of refugees. But the notion that the demand for the right of return is exclusive to the Palestinians is patently false.
Adherents of Arens’ approach argue that the Sudeten Germans moved to Germany. Arens and others who make similar arguments should need no reminding that the Palestinians refugees as yet have no Palestinian state to which to return. Many of the Palestinian refugees have been stateless for as long as 70 years now because, unlike refugees in all the other places Arens mentioned, they have no country that they can call home.
It is time to bury the myth that everywhere else in the world, refugees whose situation resembles that of the Palestinians come to grips with their fate and the Palestinians alone refuse to do likewise. Advocates of this fallacy seek to dismiss the Palestinians’ need for solutions, and prefer to keep them as eternal enemies.
Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute, researching comparative conflict dynamics. She is also a public opinion expert and an international political consultant.