Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.
The Syrian refugee crisis, on top of the continuing African asylum-seeker problem in Israel, has brought the Palestinian refugee issue into sharper focus. While the popular debate over whether Palestinian refugees should be granted mass return tends to be polarized, it doesn't have to be that way.
Among experts, the conversation is much more nuanced. Rex Brynen, a political scientist at McGill University who runs the Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet blog, points to a recent Rand Corporation report on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Prof. Brynen criticizes the report for "overestimat[ing] the amount of international financial assistance that would be forthcoming to support a [peace] agreement," while ignoring the Palestinian demand that Israel provide some financial compensation or reparation.
Megan Bradley is another political scientist and refugee expert at McGill University. Is it true, I asked her, that Palestinian refugees are really the "only refugee group" who claim refugee status for their children and grandchildren? It's a criticism one often hears from those trying to delegitimize the Palestinian experience.
The short answer is no, Prof. Bradley says. "In the early 1990s, the average refugee situation lasted around five years," she explained. But a decade later, the average situation lasted four times as long. She adds that the Syrian civil war will also likely result in an intergenerational refugee situation.
Since, for a variety of reasons, resettlement is less available to Palestinians, and because they actually desire to return – unlike many other groups who are relieved to be out of a war-torn or persecutory situation, Palestinian refugee numbers naturally increase as they have children.
These are difficult debates, but they are far from the all-or-nothing approach that characterizes activism around Israeli-Palestinian dynamics.
And what of the demand for return?
When the boycott activists make refugee demands, they call on UN Resolution 194 from 1948, which stated that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…."
There are various ways to enable return, including into a nascent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than into Israel proper. Prof. Brynen manages to show that these more moderate sentiments have even been adopted by some Palestinian officials and intellectuals.
Prof. Bradley has also laid out what a just refugee return process might entail, something her 2013 book, Refugee Repatriation: Justice, Responsibility and Redress, addressed. "The passage of time," Prof. Bradley insists, may change the nature of claims. "Large-scale return to original homes is unlikely to happen; it could potentially create new injustices." She points to the case of Bosnia, where because the conflict and resulting displacement was relatively short, property restitution was more practical. Regarding the Palestinians, she points to the West Bank and Gaza as being likely places for a more practical idea of return.
"There's a lot to be said for shared responsibility," Prof. Bradley said. In the case of a compensation fund, "many states" could contribute. But as in the case of Canada's culpability in its own residential-school system, Israel would need to participate in some "sizeable compensation" to signal some responsibility.
"What we've learned through reparations politics and transitional justice processes" is that the players have to "come to terms with culpability and past wrongs," Prof. Bradley says.
And what of the issue which those who advocate for Israel point to when debating the Palestinian refugee situation – namely the 850,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries following Israel's independence? "There can be a legitimate claim for redress there," Prof. Bradley says, "but I don't think we're going to get anywhere if it's used as a way to hold up responsibility for the Palestinian situation. On this, Prof. Brynen agrees, arguing how those claims might actually be addressed – hint: directly with the Arab states who were culpable, rather than with the Palestinians who themselves hold no responsibility for this additional injustice in Arab-Israeli history.
As for the current refugee crisis bubbling over on Israel's northern border, heated debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees has been playing out among lawmakers. Citing Israel's lack of "demographic and geographic depth," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes admitting them, while opposition leader Isaac Herzog took to Facebook to accuse the government of "forgetting what it means to be a Jew." To a compassionate ear, Herzog may sound morally correct. But his countrymen disagree, with 80 per cent of Israelis opposing admitting Syrian refugees. Whether consciously or not, Israelis may be frightened of opening the floodgates to Palestinian refugee return. (While there's no talk – yet – by Israeli officials of admitting Palestinian refugees from Syria, 60,000 of the Syrian refugees are indeed Palestinian. And in the course of this latest crisis, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called for Israel to allow some Palestinian refugees from Syria to enter the West Bank.) It's a fear that has echoes in the ongoing problem of some 60,000 asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea living in limbo as the Israeli government, dubbing them "infiltrators," refuses to seriously consider all but a few claims. It's a stark reminder of the urgency of negotiating a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue – solutions that clearly exist, if only the negotiators are willing to look.