The Corner

How to Help Palestinians Leave Their Camps

Recently announced plans for a new, upscale Palestinian settlement in the West Bank are impressive. The projected town, some six miles north of Ramallah, will one day house some 40,000 people, making it the same size as the Israeli settlement towns of Beitar and Modiin. The settlement is named Rawabi, and Qatar is a primary investor. Details are being negotiated with Israeli authorities on issues such as free access across Israeli-controlled areas.

Rawabi’s slick website promises that the town’s

commercial activity will be launched from a hub of high-tech and research-related businesses in a variety of sectors. These local and international activities will provide rewarding jobs for Palestinians. Rawabi’s commercial components will be seamlessly integrated with modern, comfortable and affordable housing as well as high-quality public services designed for Palestine’s rapidly growing class of young professionals.

Meanwhile, in a pro-peace op-ed in the Washington Post this summer, Crown Prince Khalifa of Bahrain lamented that “far too many [Palestinians] live in refugee camps in deplorable conditions.” Such camps exist in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon, but Khalifa’s contention is particularly true for those living in areas under Hamas and Palestinian Authority control. Why are these Palestinians stuck in teeming refugee camps when new towns like Rawabi could be built for them?

With the help of Gulf countries, led by Qatar and Bahrain, any number of affordable and suitable communities and productive industrial zones could be built on land controlled by the PA and Hamas. Ten Rawabis should be built, including some on the scorched earth in Gaza where Jewish communities once existed. These towns could provide construction jobs and low-cost housing for both local Palestinians and refugee families, many of whom have been on the UNRWA dole for 60 years. In many cases their new homes would be just a few miles from homesteads where their grandparents claimed to have lived.

There are two problems with this plan. First, has any part of Rawabi been set aside for refugees? It’s unlikely; reading between the lines of the marketing spiel, it is apparent that Rawabi was built to serve the housing and employment needs of the grown children of the Palestinian bourgeois and the yuppie offspring of Palestinian Authority officials on the West Bank.

Why is there so little concern among the elite of Palestine for the poorest of their fellow citizens? Because “Palestinian” is an artificial category, and a very weakly felt one. The track record dating back to 1947 provides little evidence that the Palestinians’ new-found national identity trumps their clan, religious, political, or class differences. In Israel, we shuddered at the barbarism of the Fatah-Hamas fratricide in Gaza in 2006 — the Palestinian “wakseh” or humiliation — when Palestinian families were gunned down by other Palestinians and political opponents were thrown from tall buildings.

During the waves of immigration to Israel of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry in the 1980s and 1990s, I recall dozens of my neighbors donating furniture to the new immigrants and assigning companions to help settle them in the neighborhood and maneuver through the absorption bureaucracy. Children were happy to tithe from their toys for the new kids on the block who arrived with nothing. If only such a spirit were evident among the Palestinians.

Beyond the Palestinians’ lack of community feeling lies the so-called “right of return.” Palestinian leaders claim that each family has a right to reoccupy the land it held before Israel’s war for independence. Settling refugees comfortably in other areas would weaken their claim to this “right,” while keeping them in camps is a harsh but effective way to maintain pressure against Israel from the international community. What stands in the way of prosperity for Palestinian-controlled areas is the deep brainwashing of Palestinian children that there must be an actual physical return to their ancestral homes, along with an international and Israeli recognition of the “injustice” done to them.

The “right of return” frightens almost every Israeli. Not only would Jewish towns and communities in the West Bank’s “settlement blocs” become targets for a flood of four generations’ worth of refugees, but so would major Israeli cities and towns inside the 1949 armistice line (the “Green Line”). The city of Ashkelon (Majdal, to the Arabs) and the tony neighborhoods of north Tel Aviv (Sheikh Munis), for example, are built on the sites of Palestinian villages, according to both Palestinian and Israeli historians. Neighborhoods in Haifa and Ramla, to name but two, are coveted and claimed by the descendents of Palestinians who left in 1947 and 1948.

Sheikh Khalifa’s column considered the “dilemma of justice for Palestine without injustice to Israel.” How can this be resolved? Here’s a proposal, one sure to ignite opposition on both sides: When new communities for the Palestinian refugees are established within the PA- and Hamas-controlled areas — and not before — “Palestinian Heritage Houses” will also be constructed inside a number of Israeli communities or regions.

The Heritage Houses would preserve documents, photos, and recorded memories of Palestinians from that area. Supervised and security-assured visits by Palestinian families and school classes could be arranged with Israeli security agencies. The Heritage Houses would also be centers for teaching Israelis and Palestinians about each other and for promoting coexistence between the two peoples. The cost for such Palestinian Heritage Houses could be borne by Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, or foreign sources, as well as U.S. and European NGOs and governments. The massive funds contributed to UNRWA, the UN agency that perpetuates the refugee camps and their anti-Israel culture, could be diverted to the new Palestinian communities and to the Heritage Houses.

The Qatari investors in Rawabi, and Bahrain’s Shaikh Khalifa, deserve credit for kick-starting the imaginations of those who seek a realistic and pragmatic end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the perpetuation of a 62-year-old grudge. 

– Lenny Ben-David served as a senior diplomat in Israel’s embassy in Washington. Today he is a public-affairs consultant and blogs at www.lennybendavid.com.

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