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Return, Resettlement, Repatriation:
The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations

Source: FOFOGNET Digest, 22 April 1996

by Salim Tamari, Institute of Jerusalem Studies

Final Status Strategic Studies
Institute for Palestine Studies
Beirut, Washington, and Jerusalem

February 1996

VIII. The Question of Aid to Refugees: Prelude to Liquidation?
In the course of seven meetings of the Refugee Working Group a noticeable trend has emerged in which the political themes surrounding the refugee issue (UN resolutions, right of return)have been supplanted by programs of assistance to refugees. This occurred gradually and was reinforced by fundraising efforts taking place in the multilaterals in favour of the seven themes of assistance to Palestinians. The Palestinians (and several Arab states) agreed to this process as a balancing act which allowed humanitarian aid to improve the conditions of refugee livelihood without 'prejudice to the final status agreements on the political future of refugees'--a statement which was reiterated in each plenary at the summation of the meetings.

Muhammad Hallaj, former head of the Palestinian team to the RWG,described this equation as a 'corruption of the process' of resolving he refugee issue. The bulk of refugee negotiations, he stated "has centred on ways to assist the refugees rather than on confronting the issue of displacement and statelessness which makes the refugee question the volatile issue that it has been for more than forty years". The insistence on the application of UN resolutions has become marginalized by making it a Palestinian and Arab concern rather than an international component of the RWG.The negotiations, Hallaj concludes, have

corrupted the process by denying the moral and legal standards accepted by the international community for more than four decades. By shelving the United Nations resolutions, it put the future of Palestinian refugees at the mercy of the balance of power and confined refugee rights to what Israel is willing to concede.

This imbalance can be observed clearly in the position adopted by the European Union, the shepherd in charge of economic development programs for refugees, to the RWG, and arguably the bloc with the highest degree of autonomy from American, and Israeli, positions on the future of refugees. The Bristol report (July 1994), as it became known, is the most comprehensive document issued by any group in the RWG on the status of refugees. It also underlies both the assumptions and--to some extent--intentions of the main shepherds to the refugee negotiations. For this reason we will dwell on this document in some detail.

The report is based on four assumptions: (1) Refugee aid in Palestine (ie West Bank and Gaza) should transcend legal status of refugees; (2) improving the conditions of living of refugees in the host countries does not invalidate their legal status, nor (in the words of the report) "prejudice their right to return to their homes or receive compensation for their losses"; (3) no single framework of assistance is suitable for all refugees given the diversity of their status and living conditions: and (4) those refugees who are most vulnerable (presumably in Lebanon) are not being served by the current aid programs. (see page 4 of the report).

The most controversial of these assumptions is the first. The second assumption, in part, is meant to qualify changes in the character of aid provided in the autonomous region of the West Bank and Gaza. The focus here is the inappropriateness of aid to refugees exclusively where "assistance should transcend legal status and concentrate on socio-economic development and rehabilitation for the whole area".

This assumption became increasingly pressing as aid packages to refugee areas (particularly in Gaza) could not have been implemented without substantial coordination with municipal and regional bodies whose domain was the 'resident' (ie non-refugee)population. For example, in matters of infrastructure, such as sewage, electric grids, and road networks, it is virtually impossible to serve refugee camps, or refugee areas only without linking these systems with existing or projected grids for neighboring, 'non-refugee' areas. In other forms of development,such as the extension of health services and schools, aid can be exclusively geared to refugee populations but would be more feasible and efficient if integrated with similar services to residents. This issue of integrating aid to refugees and non-refugees has become increasingly obvious as the Palestinian national authority began to plan development aid in highly congested areas in the occupied territories.

However to claim that such aid shall not prejudice the future status of refugees (as it is often stated in the multilateral negotiations) is not very accurate since refugees with improved social and economic status are likely to move out of camps, to migrate to other countries, and in general to relegate their refugee condition to an abstract political commitment. Those who remain in camps inside Palestine tend to be the urban poor, and consequently the status of camps has increasingly acquired the form and 'normal' urban slums in recent years.

While the Palestinian strategy in this regard has been to support aid packages to refugees that will improve the conditions of daily life (with the exception of housing aid which was seen as promoting resettlement), such support was always conditional on progress in the political sphere in the direction of solving the legitimate aspirations of refugees. Since these forms of aid are discussed in the context of the political forums of the multilateral talks, it is essential that these political conditions be now raised concurrently with planning for aid assistance. The political conditions relevant here are enhancing procedures for family reunification, expediting the application of refugees who lost their residencies in the occupied territories, and the implementation of those terms in the Oslo agreement that call for the relocation of displaced persons to the autonomous regions.Unless progress occurs in these spheres, the second assumption in this report, referring to the non-prejudicing of the rights of refugees will become a formula for covering up schemes of relocation and resettlement of refugees, without satisfying their needs or aspirations.

Refugees as an underclass in the host communities
The social, economic, and legal interaction between Palestinian refugees and the host communities, is treated with a reference to refugees "as urban poor" (pp 8-10). The Bristol report tends sometimes to extrapolate the isolation of refugees in Lebanon and Syria to those of Jordan and the occupied territories. In the latter the report confuses refugees in the camps of the West Bank with refugees outside camps whose social status is highly integrated with the host communities, despite contrary claims of the report. For example claims indicating that a refugee has no chance of becoming a mayor or head of the chamber of commerce in the West Bank (p. 8) are factually incorrect. The FAFO study has demonstrated that the standards of living on non-camp refugees is on par with, and sometimes surpasses that of resident non-refugees.In urban areas like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Bireh, and Ramallah there is virtual total integration between non-camp refugees and residents, if class and religious factors are controlled for. These variable of exclusion (class and religion) also operate for resident communities. Thus if we accept these premises then the non-integration of refugees in the host communities become a factor of social status and not of refugee affiliation.

Refugee Definition is not Satisfactory
UNRWA definition of refugee status ('those persons whose normal residence was Palestine during the period June 1 1946 to May 151948 and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the conflict') is contested by this report because of its inclusions and exclusions:

  1. It excludes those refugees who did not register with UNRWA as refugees, those who lost their registration as a result of their changed status (particularly in Lebanon), and thousands of rural refugees in Gaza and the West Bank who lost their land and sources of livelihood but who did not lose their residence. The latter include also people who lost access to coastal markets and work sites in pre-48 Palestine.

  2. The UNRWA definition is wasteful, according to the report,because it includes many refugees who otherwise do not need the assistance and maintain the registration cards to maintain their status as refugees.

This discussion is somewhat pedantic, and takes UNRWA refugee criteria out of context, since the UNRWA definition was meant as a working definition for purposes of establishing assistance procedures, and not for determining the status of refugees. The discussion is fruitful nevertheless because it forces us to look for more comprehensive definition of refugee status that has to deal with (negatively or positively) with the following categories:

  1. Descendants of refugees (how many generations and to what degree of relationship)?

  2. Border villages: loss of land only or loss of livelihood?

  3. Loss of livelihood: to what extent does loss of livelihood in the war of 1948 impute a refugee status to the victim?

  4. Absent\Present: there are tens of thousands of refugees inside Israel who lost their properties and residence while remaining in Israel and becoming citizens. What is their status?

  5. Documentation: What is the necessary minimal documents that are needed to establish the refugee's claims for properties, losses,and compensations?

Refugee Status and UNRWA's Role
The bulk of the report's critical edge is directed at the what it calls 'status centred assistance' (page 23ff). For administrative reasons refugee aid was established, and continues to be governed by perceptions established in the 1950s.

  1. Because of centralization of planning, administration and control by UNRWA assistance programs are standardized and do not take into account the regional variations, which are substantial even within the same country of residence.

  2. NGO aid in the 1980s is well meaning but economically unsustainable (probably because of lack of expertise, and the excessive factional considerations governing Palestinian NGO assistance. Much of this aid is described as "shots of morphine [in which] the self-reliance programs proved to be an unmitigated disaster and a haunting example of the dangers of over-enthusiastic embracing of projects without due attention to their validity,usefulness and sustainability" (page 26)

  3. Because of the multiplicity of aid groups in recent years (even before the intifada) there is currently lack of coordination,whether sectoral or regional to situate these forms of aid in an overall plan, caused so far by the dictate of international aid agencies on how the money should be spent (echoes of the World Bank and the IMF).

  4. Because of the changing status of refugees, particularly because of the move towards the establishment of autonomy, the report puts forth the view that status-centred assistance (ie aid governed by the old UNRWA definition of refugee) should be replaced by need-centred aid, which is governed by the notion of vulnerability.

In general, while much of this critique is accurate, it tends to be over-generalizing and holier than thou when discussing the role of UNRWA and local NGOs. One can accuse the authors of doing to the institutions of assistance what they criticize about aid programs;i.e. it is too generalized and does not take into account the specificities of each region and sector of operation. Specifically while the report is correct in pointing to the need for changing the older basis for providing aid, chooses to ignore the political implication for adopting a non-legalistic notion of what a refugee is.

After all this is exactly what is called for when many international NGOs, and certain European government, call for treating the refugee issue from the perspective of local need towards integrating the refugees in the host countries, without addressing their political status. With all its shortcomings, the UNRWA definition continues to capture a combination of need (though outmoded) with the basic requirements for a political resolution of refugee status, and one which does take the refugee aspirations into account.

Priorities for Action and Need Identification
In the section dealing with action priorities the report achieves a certain degree of specificity which was lacking when discussing modes of aid and 'status centred aid'. The report suggests a number of initiatives which are positive, constructive and fruitful.

In the occupied territories (the report optimistically calls them 'former OTs') as well as in the host regions the authors call for the establishment of a consensus on priorities for the established of assistance on the part of host governments, UNRWA, and national and international NGOs. Given the present emerging conflict between NGOs and the Palestinian NGOs such a consensus might be desirable but far from being achieved on a voluntary basis.

A 'Basic Human Rights Strategy' is suggested to deal with structural and socio-economic vulnerability of the poorest Palestinian refugees...targeting both refugees and host communities. (page 37). It enunciates the component of this approach through physical infrastructure, health and vocational training.

How Resistant Are Refugees to integration?
This theme is discussed in the Bristol Report in the context of reactions of refugees to improving their housing conditions and the possibility of movement to more 'permanent' habitat. The following observation is made for refugee camps in Syria:

    "...the improvement of the material conditions of the camp has been equated with resettlement (tawteen). However there is increasing evidence that the latest generation of Palestinians does not regard better housing as a surrender of its identity. in al-Nairab camp in Syria, a housing project proposal was denounced by Palestinian political groups as an indication of permanent settlement.Nevertheless 100% of the refugees registered to obtain a new shelter." (p. 39)

The evidence for this observation is not attributed, but it conforms to similar observations made by Jarrar in the Nablus study referred to above which indicates that camp refugees are much more flexible in their attitudes to issues concerning improvement of shelter and living amenities, than the political rhetoric against resettlement may imply. On the other hand the reader should be weary about conclusions from the above case about the willingness of refugees to reduce their political demands, based on the assumption that they have pragmatic attitudes towards housing.

In this respect the study signifies that the most common indicator of improved material status is the tendency of refugees to move out of the camp altogether--a solution that is available to refugees in Palestine, and Jordan but very difficult in Lebanon and Syria.

The report points out that the most difficult situation faced by Palestinian refugees exists in Lebanon, where housing, work, and amenities are acutely lacking. A recent survey (carried by Qutaishat and Mahmoud, 1993) is quoted indicating that 75% of refugee families in Lebanon have been displaced more than once, and 19% displaced more than three times during the civil war. An UNRWA survey (unquoted) indicates that 50.4% of displaced families are living in the Sidon area, and 28.1% living in the Beirut area.

Refugees and the New Palestinian Authority
Anticipating the current debate between the World Bank (and donor agencies) and the PNA the report stresses the need for transparency and accountability. "Coupled with the need for accountability of donor assistance is the ongoing necessity of constant monitoring and evaluation of projects. This monitoring will not only produce more detailed information of benefit to external funding sources but will also provide the authorities with an indication of project progress, enabling them to identify problems of project implementation at an early stage." The report consequently recommends that new special units be formed to perform these monitoring functions.

One major omission in the report is the absence of any substantial discussion on the future of refugees in the context of the current political settlement. The section on 'Repatriation, Resettlement,and Restitution' (page 133) is focussed on the history of the Palestine Reconciliation Commission and on Israeli offers to absorb 100,000 refugees in the early 1950. Here one would have expected some assessment of some of the following contemporary issues:

  • The number and needs of Palestinian refugees who are likely to be repatriated in preparation of convening the quadripartite commission on displaced persons.

  • The absorptive capacity of the Palestinian Self-Governing Authority in the next five or ten year in terms of finding housing and employment for returning refugees.

  • The current debate in Lebanon about resettlement vs repatriation of Palestinian refugees, and the de facto expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Lebanon leading to 'voluntary migration'.

On these issues and similar ones that are impending in final status negotiations the European Union has opted not to take a position.For this reason the analysis of refugee aid without tackling the explosive political conditions that surround the daily existence of refugees in the host countries tend to reinforce Hallaj's fears,quoted above, about the role of aid packages in marginalizing and possibly excluding the political issues relevant to their future.

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