|A Palestinian refugee in the Dehaishe refugee camp holds the original key and title deeds to
the home his family abandoned during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence [GALLO/GETTY]
According to some analysts, there are at least four-and-a-half million reasons why peace continues to elude the Middle East.
That is how many Palestinians have become refugees since the creation of Israel in 1948. And until their plight is addressed, there can be no resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, say aid groups, political leaders and Palestinian officials.
Christopher Gunner of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is charged with Palestinian refugee care, told Al Jazeera: "They are an absolute integral part of the search for peace because it is quite clear having 4.5 million homeless and stateless refugees in this region makes it inherently unstable."
Right of return
Though the right of return has not been a focus of recent talks, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians believe that refugee rights must be fulfilled for any peace initiative with Israel to endure.
According to an August 2007 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, nearly 70 per cent believe that refugees should be allowed to return to "their original land".
This belief is based on a right of return clause found in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which declares that "Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country."
But because flooding Israel with millions of Muslim Arabs would change the country's demographics, Israeli officials across the political spectrum warn that the "right of return" is code for the destruction of the Jewish state.
|Many leaders blamed Yasser Arafat for
Camp David's failure in 2001 [AFP]
"I don't think you can wish them away and I don't think you can pretend they don't exist," Dennis Ross, former US peace envoy, said of the refugees.
"What I think they don't have the option to do is return to Israel because that's a one-state solution and not a two-state solution," Ross, who led Middle East peace negotiations in the 1990s, told Al Jazeera.
In his book The Missing Peace, Ross blamed Yasser Arafat, then Palestinian Authority chairman, for the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit.
It is believed that the talks fell apart because of disagreement over the right of return issue.
"When we were looking at the choices, we looked at the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, third countries as being one of the possibilities for resettlement and we were talking about creating a $30 billion fund for compensation or for support and repatriation and settlement," Ross said.
But the proposed compromise offer ultimately proved unsatisfactory.
Igniting the war
The Palestinian refugee problem came into being in 1947, when Britain handed the increasingly vexing issue of a Zionist claim to Palestine over to the UN.
The UN plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states was, not surprisingly, met with opposition by the Palestinians but warmly received by many of the nation's Jewish residents.
The November 29, 1947 vote of partition, backed by the US and the Soviet Union while Britain abstained, ignited the war for Palestine.
Arab opposition to the partition erupted into war between Palestine's Arab and Jewish inhabitants, which spread as the surrounding Arab countries attempted to defeat the newly established state of Israel following Britain's departure from the country in 1948.
When the mandate expired, the Jews declared a state in accordance with the partition resolution, and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded Palestine.
The subsequent defeat of the Arab armies led to the exodus of 700,000 Palestinian and Arab forces. Palestinians refer to the 1948 events as al Nakba, meaning disaster. Most migrated to Gaza, which was under Egyptian occupation; to the West Bank, then part of the Hashemite Emirate of Transjordan (later the Kingdom of Jordan); to Syria; and to Lebanon.
Speaking on their behalf
|Many Israeli scholars argue that a right of return
would destroy the Jewish state [GALLO/GETTY]
On May 14, 1948, a Jewish state was declared. The pattern of Palestinian flight continued during the Six-Day War in 1967 and through today.
Those who left are not allowed to return and are now classified as "displaced" persons.
Attempts were made to resolve the problem through political discussions between Israel and its Arab neighbors during the spring and summer of 1949 and during the fall and winter of 1951, but they proved futile.
At that time, the Arab states were the principal guardians of Palestinian interests - the Palestinians themselves were not a party to these talks as official participants.
Various delegations of refugees tried to raise their concerns at the time, but were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the number of refugees continued to grow, as did the funds UNRWA needed to take care of them.
Since partition, the UN has accepted responsibility for care and maintenance of the Palestinian refugees. Today, UNRWA operates with a biennial cash and in-kind regular budget of more than $600 million.
The agency's annual expenditure per refugee, however, has dropped from $200 to $70 because of rising costs of living and providing services, and the high growth rate of the refugee population.
Out of focus
In recent years, with attention focused on the question of a Palestinian state or other political entity, less emphasis has been placed on long-term prospects of resolving the refugee problem.
But some observers, like Julie Peteet, an expert in refugee studies and Palestine at Louisville University in Kentucky, believe that the establishment of a two-state solution will lead to no resolution at all.
"I think the only solution is a one-state solution," she told Al Jazeera.
"Do I think it's possible? Almost impossible – but if only to resolve the issue with justice, it's to have one state, the state of its citizens, and that would include all the Muslims, Jews and Christians, all the Palestinians as well as the Israelis."