EPPN Lenten Series Part 5: Spotlight on Refugees

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us…so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – Concluding Collect for Compline, Proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1928, Church of England

Dear Fellow Advocate,

The preceding collect, which appears in our present Prayer Book in a slightly different form, is one of the great treasures of the Anglican liturgical tradition. The older version, in particular, reminds us that everything about this life – indeed everything about the world in which we live – is fleeting, and that the changes and chances that define the world are deeply wearying to the human soul. The presence of God, and the various ways that God’s “eternal changelessness” breaks into our lives, are the only constants that redeem us from our weary hopelessness and press us to labor on in the work of reconciliation that is God’s defining work.

This week’s news has brought a new measure of change, chance, and uncertainty to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.In some ways, the fresh modicum of uncertainty is deeply wearying. It might seem to us that we’ve seen this sequence of events before: last-minute complications that throw the foundations of an emerging progress into confusion and doubt. Perhaps this is true.

But, in these moments, the eternally changeless God directs us gently but firmly to keep our gaze trained squarely on the end result to which he calls us; to remember that no one ever said that this would be easy (if it were it would have been solved seven decades ago); to remember that peace is not transacted among friends but among enemies; and to remind us again – as we discussed last week – that the nature of peacemaking through negotiation is that it always looks like it will yield failure until finally it doesn’t.

At this moment, let us draw hope from the fact that, by the end of the day yesterday, Israeli, Palestinian, and American representatives were back at the table in spite of new tensions. That table is the only place peace can happen. This week gave us some change and chance, and all remains fleeting. Indeed, there likely will be many more weeks like this one, and this is indeed wearying. But let our ultimate hope and commitment to the process come from remembering that peace is of God, and that God is eternal changelessness.

In that spirit, today we continue our process begun several weeks ago of examining the various facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are normally considered the major pressing issues for final-status negotiations between the parties. Next week, as is appropriate for the penultimate installment in a Lenten series, we will move to Jerusalem and consider some of the difficult issues related to the Holy City where Jesus’s earthly ministry found its climax. First, however, we look this week at the equally complex issue of Palestinian Refugees. Traditionally, this has been one of the issues most vexing to the parties as they have sought to negotiate with one another.


What is the central issue and why is it important?

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War that followed the creation of the State of Israel upended numerous historic Palestinian communities and left more than 600,000 displaced Palestinians. Today, these Palestinians (there are estimated to be about 50,000 living) and their descendants live all over the world, from 58 refugee camps in the region (including in the West Bank and Gaza) that have existed for decades, to other countries in the region, to communities in the United States and Europe. Many lack citizenship with any state. International law holds that all people have the right to return to their country of origin after a conflict, should conditions in that country allow for their peaceful return, but global opinion varies on how international law applies to the unique case of the Palestinians and the modern state of Israel. Nevertheless, nearly all parties acknowledge that a negotiated two-state solution must deal in a mutually agreeable way with the issue of Palestinian refugees.

What is the history?

Here again, the two narratives of two people present different stories. The basic history, unadorned by viewpoint, is this: At the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, the UN adopted a plan for the partition of the land into two states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. Arab nations rejected this UN resolution and, when the new State of Israel declared independence more-or-less along the partition lines adopted by the UN, the Arab States declared war. The 1948 conflict that ensued was extraordinarily bloody and uprooted hundreds of thousands of persons from their homes. At the conclusion, Israel held far more land than it would have under the original partition plan and Declaration of Independence. Additionally, the Palestinian people did not gain sovereignty over their own state, as the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan) occupied and annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt occupied and annexed the Gaza Strip.

During the fighting, at least 600,000 Palestinians left their land and in many cases abandoned property that had been in their families for generations. Israelis and Palestinians today disagree as to why these people were displaced, and historians continue to debate the matter. Palestinians traditionally have contended that Israeli soldiers, following an orchestrated plan from Israeli leaders, forced Palestinian families from their homes. Israelis traditionally have pointed to Arab leaders as a cause of the exodus, urging Palestinians to leave their homes until such time as Arab armies overtook the Israelis. Modern scholarship continues to evolve, but increasingly sees multiple causes (perhaps up to a dozen) for the exodus and recognizes some validity, as well as some critique, in both of the traditional absolutist views.

What is the Palestinian position on how to move forward?

Palestinians contend that, as Israelis are responsible for the refugee problem, Palestinian refugees and their descendants today (approximately seven million people around the world) have the right to return to their ancestral homes in the present-day state of Israel. In spite of this baseline position, Palestinians in past negotiations have been willing to entertain significant adaptations to this “right of return,” including financial compensation for the vast majority of present-day refugees and descendants of refugees as opposed to actual resettlement in the State of Israel. A 2003 poll of Palestinian public opinion conducted by a respected Palestinian public-opinion firm whose director is himself a refugee found that “the overwhelming majority [of Palestinian refugees] wanted to live in a Palestinian state; only a small minority [ten percent] wanted to live in the state of Israel….but, even in those ten percent, only ten percent wanted to have Israeli citizenship or passports; ninety percent of those who wanted to have Israel as a permanent place of residence said that they would rather have a Palestinian citizenship and a Palestinian passport.” The same survey found that 54% would accept financial compensation in lieu of the right of return.

What is the Israeli position on how to move forward?

Israelis deny responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and thus reject the notion of a right of return. They see the wholesale return of Palestinian refugees and their descendent as a de-facto one-state solution since Palestinians would then outnumber Israeli Jews. Moreover, Israelis point out that the State of Israel, at the time of its inception and following, already absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees in the form of Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing persecution from Arab states and other countries around the world. As complement to this, Israelis expect a future Palestinian state to take the same responsibility for absorbing the seven million Palestinian refugees worldwide. Nevertheless, Israelis in past negotiations have been willing to entertain offers of significant financial compensation for refugees and their descendants who may choose not to live in a future Palestinian state, as well as the resettlement of a limited number of refugees in the present State of Israel.

What is The Episcopal Church’s position on this issue?

The Episcopal Church has spoken about this issue and its various facets several times over the past three decades. It has said that Palestinian refugees have a right of return. It has also acknowledged the possibility of financial compensation for those who lost (or whose ancestors lost) their homes and property during the 1948 War. The Church also has said that the present-day state of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people (and, in saying so, specifically has pointed out that the Jewish people are, themselves, a displaced people), and has urged that the resolution of this issue be handled by negotiation between the parties. Moreover, it has said clearly that current “facts on the ground” like the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem should not prejudice the result that negotiations must bring about.

What might a possible solution look like?

First, it must be stressed that only the parties themselves can determine what a negotiated solution will entail for this or any other issue in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. That is why Secretary Kerry is working so hard for a negotiations framework that will support the two parties in trying to come to agreement.

Nevertheless, if past negotiations – such as those in 2000 and 2006-8 – tell us anything, it’s that the following components might be considered as parts of a negotiated solution:

  • The acceptance of a limited number of Palestinian refugees into the present State of Israel. (In the 2006-8 negotiations, for example, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly offered to accept 5,000 refugees, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly pressed for as many as 60,000).
  • The acceptance of any Palestinian refugee or descendent into a future state of Palestine.
  • Monetary compensation for those who choose not to return to a Palestinian state, possibly to be financed both by Israelis and Americans, as well as other international sponsors.
  • An international effort to resettle into permanent homes – in a variety of countries – all Palestinians still living in refugee camps.

Once again, it is vital to emphasize that – while it seems clear that some level of creative compromise will be necessary for the parties to agree on a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue – it is the parties themselves that must ultimately determine how that looks. Our role must be to support the efforts of Secretary Kerry and others who are working to support negotiations on this and other critical issues.