THE Middle East peace conference has finally gotten around to a key issue of substance: how to solve the Palestinian refugee problem.
Today less than 1 in 5 Palestinians lives in a refugee camp, as against over half in the years from 1948 to 1967. One-half of the Gazan and one-quarter of the West Bank Palestinian refugees live in camps. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are 450,000 refugees in Gaza and 370,000 in the West Bank.
According to the United Nations' definition, one does not have to be resident of a camp to be considered a refugee. Nor does leaving a camp disqualify a resident from receiving UNRWA benefits such as free education until the end of junior high school and health care, but income above a certain level does.
Most camp dwellers get up every morning and go to work, usually in Israel. Some even enjoy a higher standard of living than the residents of some of the neighboring villages. For instance, 95 percent of the population in refugee camps in Gaza have electricity around the clock, slightly more than the surrounding villages and towns.
Numerous efforts have been made to resettle these refugees, but all have failed. In 1950, long before the territories came under Israeli control, UNRWA suggested moving 150,000 of them to Libya, but Egypt objected. In 1951, UNRWA vetoed a plan to move 50,000 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip to Northern Sinai when Egypt refused permission to use the Nile waters to irrigate proposed agricultural settlements. In 1952, Syria rejected UNRWA's initiative to resettle 85,000 refugees in camps in that cou ntry. In 1959, UNRWA reported that of the $250 million fund for rehabilitation created in 1950 to provide homes and jobs for the refugees outside of the camps, only $7 million had been spent.
In the early 1970s, Israel initiated what it called the "build your own home" program. A half a dunam of land outside the camps (equal to about an eighth of an acre) was given to Palestinians who then financed the purchase of building materials and, usually with friends, erected a home. Israel provided the infrastructure: sewers, schools, etc. More than 11,000 camp dwellers were resettled into 10 different neighborhoods before the PLO, using intimidation tactics, ended the program.
Israeli authorities say that if people were able to stand up to the PLO and if it had the funds to invest in the infrastructure, within eight years every camp resident could own a single-dwelling home in a clean and uncongested neighborhood.
There is ample living space even in the camps to build three- or four-story apartment blocks. Improving the quality of the existing homes inside the camps is a much cheaper undertaking than building entire new neighborhoods.
If the political climate was right, how much would it cost to solve the Palestinian refugee problem?
It has been estimated that just to build enough homes, without any additional investment in infrastructure or job creation, to resettle those refugees residing in the West Bank and Gaza would cost more than $2 billion.
If UNRWA changed its charter to include investments in infrastructure and not strictly in health and education, then much of its $230 million operating budget could be used to begin solving the refugee resettlement problem.
The inability of the Palestinians to get themselves out of refugee camps and into permanent dwellings is their current No. 1 problem. The continued existence of the refugee camps should serve as a reminder to anyone who believes the Palestinians' problems will be solved the moment Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza. In addition to rehabilitating the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, the new state could face the problem of feeding, resettling, and finding jobs for refugees from Syria, Lebanon,
and Jordan who act on their long-asserted "right of return."
The rate of population increase in the territories is very high, about 3.5 percent a year, with 50 percent of the population under 15 years of age. More than 15,000 new workers enter the labor force each year. This could place impossible economic and political pressures on any new regime.
Unlike Israel, which began the process of absorbing refugees at least two decades before its establishment as a state, the Palestinians have had no such experience. Entire infrastructures will have to be built and expertise obtained, almost immediately.
The Palestinians will also have another problem the Jews did not face: changing the mindset of refugees who have been living in refugee camps for more than four decades nurturing a hatred for Israel.
The Palestinians may never enjoy any type of political independence or autonomy unless they first address their most basic socio-economic problem. This issue must be seriously discussed at the current Middle East peace conferences.