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Where can we put the Palestinians?

The reports are persuasive that the Lebanese who have been living for several years now under the military control of the PLO in southern Lebanon are grateful to the Israelis for driving those armed Palestinians farther north.

The Lebanese who live farther north in Lebanon do not like the idea of giving sanctuary to the PLO troops still besieged in west Beirut.

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So far the only Arab country that has offered to take any of the PLO soldiers from west Beirut is Egypt, and then only a limited number under controlled conditions. The Syrians are reluctant to have them, even in that part of Lebanon which is under their control. Jordan already has more Palestinians than it wants. It wants no more, particularly not those in military organizations.

The United States, which is busy trying to persuade Arab countries to provide a new home for the Palestinians, has not itself offered to invite them to its own shores.

But the government of the US has accepted the position of Israel that the armed Palestinians in west Beirut should leave that unhappy place and go elsewhere farther away from Israel.

The Israeli position is that there is ample space for the Palestinians in other Arab countries. Barbara Tuchman argues, for example, that the 21 members of the Arab League have 600 times the territory, but only 40 times the population of Israel; that the Arabs themselves are responsible for the intransigence of the PLO; and hence that the Arabs should solve the problem of the Palestinians.

It is easy to understand why Israel wants the Palestinians as far removed as possible from Israel. The territory which is now under Israel's military control is the native homeland of the Palestinians. Who are the Palestinians? They are Arabs. The older ones were born in the lands which Israel now controls. The younger ones have been brought up on memories of their ancestral past, but in refugee camps.

These are uprooted people. They have the common identity of knowing no homeland which they can call their own. The only homeland to them lies inside the military frontiers of Israel. They have become a tribe, and a culture. They yearn to get back to the only place which to them can mean homeland. Inevitably they feel hostility toward those, the Israelis, who keep them from returning to their homeland.

The above is one reason the other Arab countries do not want them. They would not assimilate easily if at all into the local population. Besides, the fact that the Arabs have 600 times the territory of Israel is misleading. Much of Israel is arable. Most of the Arab territories are desert. And what is not desert is usually overpopulated. Egypt is suffering from a population rising faster than resources. Most Egyptians live in what an American would consider squalor and hopeless poverty.

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It would not be easy for any Arab country, even the richest, to take in the bulk of the Palestinians. And if they did take them in the Palestinians would still remain an undigested and mostly indigestible alien population dragging the host country into conflict with Israel.

Wandering tribes of displaced people are seldom popular in their wanderings. These are not willing emigrants seeking a new land in which to settle and make permanent homes for themselves. These are people who want to go only in one direction, back toward the lands from which they fled to escape the military power of Israel.

But then where can they go?

The easiest answer for Israel would be to have the Palestinians disappear, taking with them into oblivion their yearning to return to Palestine.

The easiest answer for the Palestinians would be for the Jews to leave Palestine, opening the way for the return of the refugees.

But neither of these answers is available. Palestinians will not go away and disappear. Jews will not liquidate Israel and abandon their own new homeland.

Is there a middle way? I think there is. The Palestinians who came originally from what is now Israel proper cannot return to their original villages. Many of them do not even exist. But their kith and kin live in the West Bank and Gaza. They could be assimilated in the occupied territories. They could come to consider that part of Palestine as being ''home.''

If Israel would accept the terms of United Nations Resolution 242 and the intent of Camp David and withdraw from occupied territories (in return for adequate military security for Israel itself) the refugees could return to their native land. Peace could come that way - but not if Israel insists on annexing the occupied territories.

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