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
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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
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:
- Descendants of refugees (how many generations
and to what degree of relationship)?
- Border villages: loss of land only or loss of
- Loss of livelihood: to what extent does loss of
livelihood in the war of 1948 impute a refugee status
to the victim?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
- 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"
- 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).
- 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
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
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
- 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.