Statehood Key to Refugee Solution
Source: Palestine Report 2,
46 (25 April 1997).
Refugees/interview by Rex
After a short item on refugees appeared in last week's Palestine
Report , we received a number of queries from
readers. In an effort to clarify the refugee issue,
we went to the experts: here, Rex Brynen, associate
professor of political science at McGill University
in Montreal, speaks with the Palestine Report's Stephanie
Nolen. Prof: Brynen has written widely on the refugee
issue, and is coordinator of Palestinian Refugee
Q. Are there confirmed figures for the number of Palestinian refugees
remaining in the Diaspora?
A. No. There are figures for UNRWA registered refugees within UNRWA's "area
of operations," a number which excludes refugees who didn't register or
were outside these areas at the time of registration. The UNRWA figures
also exclude those "non refugee" West Bank and Gaza residents who left
in or after 1967 and are unable to return. The question of numbers will
be a key one in any final status negotiations.
Q. Has there been any repatriation since Oslo to the West Bank and Gaza?
A. Between 45,000 and 50,000 persons have returned to the West Bank and
Gaza since Oslo. However, the vast bulk of these are either members of
the security forces or officials in the PA, together with their families.
Despite Israel's 1993 declaration that it would accelerate and expand "humanitarian" family
reunification, these pledges have not been met. Indeed, the process has
ground to a virtual halt under the Netanyahu government. Moreover, Israel
is now complaining about the number of "outside" Palestinians overstaying
their visitor's permits in PA controlled areas, which suggests that it
wants to further slow down the rate of repatriation.
Q. There have recently been reports in the Arabic press about Palestinian
refugees in Lebanon being offered citizenship in Iraq or Jordan in exchange
of various political deals Ñis there any truth to these reports?
And if not? where do these rumors originate?
A. It is clear that there have been no negotiations about relocating
Palestinians in Lebanon to Iraq or elsewhere. These "reports"--which are
really quite ludicrous--resurface with all the regularity, and believability,
of Elvis Presley sightings. They generate a great deal of unnecessary anxiety
among Palestinians in Lebanon, who already have to endure adverse social
and political conditions. As to where the reports originate, I suspect
that they--like the equally false rumor about UNRWA terminating in 1999--originate
with those hostile to the peace process, or from the wishful thinking of
those who would like to see Palestinians dispersed throughout the region.
Q. Is it realistic to think that refugees in Lebanon or the other host
countries may at some point be given citizenship of some kind?
A. I think most people would agree that not all Palestinians in the Diaspora
would choose to return to Palestinian soil even if that option were available.
If that is the case, what will their status be? In Jordan, of course, most
Palestinians already have citizenship. In Lebanon and the Gulf states,
however, there are serious political obstacles to the voluntary naturalization
of Palestinians residing there. Given this, it will be essential for Palestinians
in the Diaspora to gain Palestinian citizenship. And this requires the
establishment of a Palestinian state.
Q. Where do refugee talks stand now?
A. At the moment, no one is doing much talking, in either the postponed
final status talks, or the suspended multilaterals, or the "failed" quadripartite
committee. There are some moves behind the scenes, of course, to get these
various elements on track again.
Q. Has the issue of 1948 refugees been addressed at all? If not, do you
think it will be, and when?
A. The question of 1948 refugees has been addressed in the Refugee Working
Group, although to date the focus of the RWG has largely been humanitarian.
And many of the 1967 "displaced persons" discussed in the Quadripartite
Committee are also 1948 refugees, of course. But in terms of substantial
political negotiation, noÑthere hasn't been any real negotiation
on political issues (again, despite rumors to the contrary).
Technically, refugee negotiations will formally start whenever we get
around to starting final status negotiations. Meaningful refugee negotiations
will probably take longer than that. Unfortunately, the tendency of some
Palestinians to wave the "right of return" as a rhetorical battle-flag
tends to strengthen the position of Israeli hard-liners who oppose compromise
on the refugee issue. I agree with those Palestinians who suggest that
the right of return will have to be largely focused on repatriation to
national soil in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than return to the actual
1948 homes of refugees in what is now Israel. This doesn't exclude some
return of some refugees to 1948 territories, of course.
Q. Given the unsuccessful efforts at quadri/ multilateral talks, what
kind of outcome can be expected from final status talks between Israel
and the PLO? Do you think that forum could resolve the issue in and of
A. To be frank, I'm not optimistic about any substantial progress soon
on the refugee issue. Over the longer term--and no one ever suggested that
the peace process would be quick and easy--there is some room for optimism
in the apparently growing acceptance of eventual Palestinian statehood
within the ranks of the Labour Party, and among many Israeli academics.
The sorts of ideas floated by Yossi Beilin, or by [Israeli academics] Shlomo
Gazit or Mark Heller, are within '~negotiating distance" of Palestinian
Without agreement on Palestinian statehood, there will be no agreement
in the final status talks. And this is very important for the refugee issue
too. By definition, a sovereign Palestinian state would control its own
immigration policy, and this would enable Palestinians to return to their
national soil if they so wished. Moreover, statehood--and hence all that
it implies in terms of options for citizenship, a passport, political representation,
and so forth--is also essential for providing a degree of security and
recognized political identity to Palestinians who choose to remain in the
Q. What kind of priority has the PA given the refugee issue? Why? And
how will this affect the fate of refugees?
A. For the PA as a whole--and I don't mean those people who have worked
on the refugee file, who are generally highly dedicated--the refugee issue
has been a low priority. Immediate issues, such as territory, economic
assistance, security, internal politicsÑhave all received the bulk
of the PA' s attention. The PA is also at a practical disadvantage in any
negotiations, since it lacks some of the policy support mechanisms that
other regional parties have. The PA needs to address this.
Q. What is the attitude of the host countries and donor countries at
A. The Lebanese insist on repatriation, or for that matter anything else
that will remove the non-citizen Palestinian population there. This is
due both to sectarian politics and the legacies of past conflict: the Palestinians'
great contribution to Lebanese national reconciliation has been that they've
taken all the blame for the civil war, allowing the various Lebanese combatants
to ignore their own role in the slaughter. In Jordan, of course, the question
is a very sensitive one, and Jordanian policy is largely one of "wait and
see." It isn't clear what Syria expects, although in the meantime its Palestinian
population is treated much the same as Syrian citizens.
As for donors, they have proven unable to keep up with the growing demands
of the UNRWA budget. This isn't because of lack of interest, but rather
because UNRWA's needs continue to grow at a time when foreign aid budgets
are shrinking, and when Palestinian refugees must compete with refugees
elsewhere around the world for scarce donor resources. Obviously the implications
of this are not pleasant from the perspective of UNRWA services.
Politically, few in the international community have any clear vision
about the future of the refugee issue. The US, for example--which is often
accused of having one conspiratorial plan or another up its sleeve regarding
the refugees--clearly doesn't focus much attention on the issue, and would
probably be prepared to accept whatever the. PA and Israel might produce
in the way of an agreement.
Q. And what about your own country, Canada?
A. Canada serves as Ògavel-holderÓ of the Refugee Working
Group. But above and beyond that, the present "gavel," Andrew Robinson,
is remarkably committed to assisting the search for a just solution of
the refugee issue--as was his predecessor, Marc Perron. This isn't easy
at the moment, of course. To its credit, the Canadian government shows
no sign of letting current difficulties dissuade it from the task.
Q. What, if any, developments can refugees expect in the near future?
A. Not a great deal of dramatic political movement. However, there is
much that can be done in this unfortunate period of stalemate to strengthen
the future capacity for negotiations. There is, for example, important
research that can be undertaken on numbers, social conditions, attitudes,
compensation, and so forth. A number of local NGOsÑ Shaml, the Alternative
Information Center, and others-- have made very valuable contributions
in this regard.
It is also critical to begin an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, not among
officials but at the level of intellectuals, opinion-leaders and civil
society. On the Israeli side, there is a great deal of fear about any return
of refugees--fear that they will economically destabilize the West Bank
and Gaza, fear that they threaten the state of Israel. However exaggerated
Palestinians may feel these fears are, they are a real obstacle that must
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