Now that the Obama Administration is engaging in Middle East peacemaking, and saying that it strongly supports more aid for the Palestinians, we should start thinking seriously about what might actually have positive effects.
Hillary Clinton said that the United States is committed to aid people in Gaza, and has challenged Israel to increase its share. I think that this is all very well and good, although it does pose formidable problems of ensuring that the aid actually goes to people who need it, and not to Hamas apparatchiks to increase their leverage over the local population.
But there is more substantive step that the administration should take now: providing a home for thousands of Palestinian refugees.
The refugee issue is the most difficult one in the conflict: the refugee population’s irredentist claims of the right of return proved the toughest obstacle to the 2000 peace talks. But no Israeli government could accept such a claim, as it would destroy the Jewish state’s character.
Brave figures like Sari Nusseibeh have understood this, but they need help. This is where the US administration should come in.
The United States, Canada, and the EU should announce a major program of accepting Palestinian refugees who were displaced as a result of the 1948 war, and are not citizens of other countries. How many people would this be? Probably fewer than you think. UNRWA, using its own skewed defintion, says that there are 3.8 million refugees. But this is highly overstated. Palestinians living the West Bank and Gaza are not refugees according to interantional law, but rather “internally displaced persons.” Refugees who fled to Jordan have been given Jordanian citizenship.
While there are other groups, the largest group of the refugees I am talking about currently live in horrid conditions in Lebanon, where they have no legal status. Amnesty International places their number at about 300,000. If the United States accepted 100,000 of them, this would still be significantly fewer than the 135,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in 1975.
This would be a humanitarian step of the highest order. Stateless Palestinian refugees have a horrid existence. They are brutalized in Lebanon and will not be able to be absorbed by a new Palestinian state. But this policy could do far more.
The political benefits of such a plan could be important. Palestinian leaders in the territories face problems in giving up the actual right of return (although not compensation) because of the pressure from refugee communities, particularly in Lebanon. This could take substantial pressure off of them.
It would also enable the Saudis and other potentially moderate Arab states to advocate more strongly for the People’s Voice accord, because they could now answer the question, “what do you propose to do with the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?”
Finally, it would demonstrate a symbolic commitment on the part of the west to the Palestinian refugee issue. Quite literally, hundreds of millions of people around the world would come close to killing for something like this. No one could say (or at least no one could say truthfully) that the west doesn’t care about the plight of these refugees.
Could the Obama Administration do this on its own? Yes — sort of. The key is using Section 212(d)(5) of the Immigration Act, a provision known as “parole” This Section allows the Department of Homeland Security to admit people who do not otherwise qualify for admission into the United States for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” Both the humanitarian and public benefit aspects of this are clear.
President Eisenhower used parole in 1956 to admit 30,000 Hungarian refugees to the United States in the wake of the Soviet crackdown; Ronald Reagan did so for 125,000 Cubans in 1981.
There are legal complexities: parole does not guarantee permanent status. But it would create enormous political problems for any administration to massively deport parolees. Congressional action on the refugee issue would be preferable. But Obama can act now if he so chooses. Together with the EU and Canada, it could be a potentially positive step. He should take it.