The case for resettling Palestinian refugees in the US

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The Biden administration recently floated the idea of resettling a limited number of Palestinian refugees from Gaza to the United States. As a nation, it’s the least we can do.

The reported proposal would bring Palestinians with immediate family ties in the U.S. to our shores. It is unclear how many Palestinians would qualify, but it would likely remain far below the need.

Sounds straightforward, right? Wrong. The history of the Palestinian refugee question is fraught, as Palestinians have called for the “right to return” for refugees to their homeland, which is now part of Israel or claimed by Israel. The Israelis have in various ways rejected this demand, or postponed it to the day when it might become part of an imagined comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.

This is, in part, why the world community has refrained from the resettlement of large numbers of Palestinian refugees to other nations, as it would signal that they may never return to their original homes. Six million Palestinian refugees live in the Middle East, mostly in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Many of them outside of the occupied territories live in squalid camps, hopeful that one day they can return to their homeland. Only a relatively small number have been resettled outside the region. The U.S., for example, has resettled only 600 Palestinians in the past 10 years.

Now, the Israeli-Hamas conflict roiling Gaza again raises the question of whether large scale Palestinian resettlement is politically viable. As of June 5, the United Nations reported that 35,050 Palestinians have died in the conflict. As of June 3, 1 million Palestinians had fled from the southern Gaza settlement of Rafah, with nowhere to go — and the death toll will likely rise.

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel was horrific, and Israel — which has lost 1,200 lives of their own in the conflict — has the right to root out the perpetrators, bring them to justice and rescue their hostages. The disproportionate Israeli response, however, has created a humanitarian crisis which they and the U.S., along with the world community, must address immediately before more innocent lives are lost.

The resettlement of some Palestinians in Gaza to the U.S. and other nations is part of the solution. If the U.S. resettles Palestinians, nearby countries such as Egypt and Jordan, not to mention the nations of the European Union, might agree to accept a certain number. Not only must the U.S. and the world community resettle family members, but they must also protect the most vulnerable Palestinians in Gaza, including the elderly, unaccompanied children, religious minorities (including Christians) and others who may be unable to survive.

Opponents, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, claim that Palestinians are a national security threat, and that the U.S. would be welcoming Hamas terrorists to the U.S. But refugees who arrive through the U.S. refugee program are perhaps the most vetted arrivals to the country, having gone through several interviews and security checks before boarding a plane to the U.S.

As several U.S. presidents, including President Biden, have stated, the path to peace in the Middle East is through a two-state solution, with Palestinians having their own homeland. Saving the lives of Palestinian refugees who otherwise could face starvation or extreme violence and death would not jeopardize the chance for peace but could enhance it.

The bottom line is that the U.S. and the global community have a moral obligation to alleviate the suffering that is occurring in Gaza. On a normal day, Gaza is, as many have argued, an open air prison. Now it is in ruins and practically unlivable. Thousands have perished, with the prospect of thousands more dying. This is the type of situation for which the U.S. refugee program was created and for which it should be used.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted for generations, with no end in sight. In order to have a chance for a real, not imagined, Middle East peace agreement at some point in the future, the priority for the U.S. right now is to save lives, not to continue to underwrite a conflict that destroys them.

J. Kevin Appleby is the former director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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