Is There a Way to Resolve the Palestinian Right to Return?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Israel’s accords with Arab states could yield solutions to an intractable problem—if the new relationships survive the Gaza war. 

The escalating Israel-Hamas conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands in the Gaza Strip, an area the size of Las Vegas but home to over two million people. Those fleeing the incessant violence have looked south to Egypt, the only border that isn’t shared with Israel, but Cairo’s government has so far refused to allow the flow of refugees in. Similarly, Jordan, a longtime host of Palestinians from the occupied territories, is denying entry, with King Abdullah II adamant in his rejection: “no refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt.” 

Palestinians are fully justified in their concerns that once they have left the territory, they will not be allowed back in and will have an even more arduous path toward statehood. After wars in 1948 and 1967, around a million people fled and were not accorded the right to return. Today, more than six million refugees are registered with the United Nations. 

Israel has declared that it will destroy Hamas, but governments and analysts are dubious about the “day after”: Who will govern Gaza, and how will this set the Palestinians on a path to statehood in a way that will improve Israeli security? 

The two-state solution envisioned in the Oslo accords already faced long odds, given US disinterest and Israel’s interest in annexing the Jordan Valley, either formally or informally. But one of the most intractable issues has been the question of whether the Palestinian refugees and their descendants should have the right to return to their homes. 

An article in Middle East Policy contends that the solution could lie in Israel’s normalization with Arab governments. These agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, “will produce, in the long run, a new political vision of the Middle East and may contribute to a solution to this complex issue” of Palestinian refugees, argues Rami Goldstein. 

The initial deals were signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with Morocco and Sudan soon joining. However, Saudi Arabia—the white whale of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision for regional detente without granting Palestinian sovereignty—held out for a security guarantee from the United States and what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman terms “concessions to the Palestinians that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.” 

After the Hamas massacres of October 7, analysts have seen conflicting signals from the Saudi leadership. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initially signaled that he would put consideration of a deal on hold, though he may be holding out for an opportunity to restart comprehensive peace talks. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen questions whether Saudi Arabia, before or since the attacks, understands its own interests and preferences

Past attempts at getting Israel to commit to a solution—in word and in deed—have failed, from the Lausanne Conference in 1949 to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 in 1967 to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Complex “international and regional constraints (especially the geopolitical constraints) and various demographic and psychological barriers” are the major impediments, argues Goldstein, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. The deep and fundamental “mistrust between the parties is rife…making any resolution even more distant.” 

However, Goldstein argues in his Middle East Policy article, the Abraham Accords could influence change through “taking normalization between governments as a route to normalization between peoples.” The deals are not just about diplomacy but also economic integration, security coordination, and cooperation on innovation and trade. The resulting projects include an oil transportation route that will connect Israel’s port of Eilat to the UAE, a land pipeline to Saudi Arabia, and railways between the Gulf and Israel’s Mediterranean coast.  

But the most notable development, Goldstein contends, is the paradigm shift from “land for peace” to “peace for peace.” The concept of land concessions to Palestinians comes from UNSCR 242, which states that peace will be established through the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territory and cessation of hostilities. It became the foundation of Arab-Israeli talks for decades. 

Goldstein believes this could change with the Abraham Accords. Reducing tensions between Israel and the Arab world provides “an opportunity to bridge the gaps between the [two] parties on the core issue of refugees,” he writes. 

Though the normalization deals were not intended to solve the refugee question, Goldstein concludes, they “can offer a new vision” for a resolution. The economic incentives and political normalization “can promote a future international mechanism or an international fund to compensate and help rehabilitate the Palestinian refugees,” the scholar argues. “Israel could promote aid and investment from the Emirates and other Arab states in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus improving their economic situation and creating a suitable platform for a future peace agreement, based on a two-state solution.” 

But how Israel treats Palestinian civilians, tackles urban warfare, and allows for Palestinian governance will determine whether the Abraham Accords survive and provide the basis for a lasting two-state solution. 

Among the takeaways readers can find in Goldstein’s Middle East Policy article, “The Palestinian Refugees in Light of the 2020 Abraham Accords”

  • Resolving the issue of the “right of return” for the six million Palestinian refugees is essential for achieving a long-lasting peace in the conflict.  

  • All attempts at peace since the creation of Israel in 1948 have failed. However, the advancements of Arab-Israeli relations in the region, such as the 2020 Abraham agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have started a paradigm shift that can indirectly address the issue of Palestinian refugees.  

  • There have been many peace efforts since the founding of the state of Israel:  

    • No peace initiative before the Six Day War reached discussion at any international conference.  

    • There have been many proposed UN resolutions since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, such as 338, which proposed a ceasefire and termination of military activity.  

    • The Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978 aimed to promote negotiations between Israelis, Palestinians, and their regional neighbors. 

    • The Oslo Accords of 1993 provided a first step that was meant to be followed, but ultimately broke down. 

      • Goldstein argues that the Oslo process failed due to PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s failure to implement the agreement’s policies within the Palestinian Authority. 

  • The Abraham Accords established the normalization of diplomatic relations and commitments to promote stability, increase economic integration, enhance security coordination, and cooperate in innovation, trade, and further economic realms. 

  • The deals arguably sparked a paradigm shift in the conflict, from seeking solutions based on “land for peace” to those based on “peace for peace.” 

    • The increase in trade, investment, and business opportunities in the region.  

    • The oil transportation route planned to connect the UAE and the Israeli port of Eilat can increase economic output.  

  • Though not intended as a path toward the two-state solution or addressing the refugee issue, the Accords can help create an international mechanism that is able to help mediate the issue of return and help financially rehabilitate the Palestinian diaspora. 

You can read “The Palestinian Refugees in Light of the 2020 Abraham Accords” by Rami Goldstein in Middle East Policy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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