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Source: speaking notes, International Development Research Center (Ottawa), 17 June 1997.

by Donna E. Arzt

I'm delighted to be here this morning, though I've been told repeatedly that I should have come in May, during the Tulip and Juniper Festivals. In some respects, this is one of the worst possible moments to give a presentation about the refugee aspects of the Arab-Israeli peace process, as the prospects for serious negotiations have never seemed dimmer. But in other respects it is the most crucial time, as over a year has gone by since the Final Status talks were to have begun, as the refugees in Lebanon are more desperate than ever, and as the pressure is on to get negotiations back on track before the process gives way to unending violence, demoralization and irreversible corruption.

What I thought I would do this morning is to give a short summary of my book and then throw out some ideas for some Track II-type projects that could help inject some new energy into the peace process generally and the refugee issue particularly. For the latter I'm particularly indebted to Rex Brynen and his cyberspace think tank, the FOFOGNET listserve and the Palestinian Refugee Research Net, for not only keeping us all up to date but for prodding us to keep the ball in the air.

My book starts from the premise that the refugee question is the key to permanent peace in the region, and that permanence requires individual and national dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis. Citizenship, which means rights and obligations, identity and inclusion, is the hallmark of that dignity. (This of course is no novel idea in Canada, where multiculturalism is not just an academic buzzword, as it is in the U.S., but a constitutional principle.) Only with citizenship will the refugees no longer serve as pawns and bargaining chips for the other parties to the conflict.

A derivative premise of the book is that no real peace is possible until the average Palestinian can see a resolution of her fate (a permanence of her status) through a sovereign state that can grant formal Palestinian citizenship, and concomitantly, the average Israeli can be assured that her home (and her own homeland) will not be taken away from her. That will require a commitment to principled yet pragmatic compromises on all sides, including the regional states who share an interest in, if not a responsibility for, the end of the conflict.

My book goes into three aspects of the background or framework: the historical, the demographic and the legal. My approach is to avoid relitigating old battles by separating out the historical and demographic facts that can be reasonably be agreed on from those that cannot and probably never will, such as who caused the refugees to flee in 1948 and how many were there. Moreover, the rhetorical discourse concerning legal-sounding terminology and authorities is often misused, misquoted or taken out of context. You are all quite familiar with all this and I understand that many of you have read Chapter Four, which is intended only to offer some suggested guidelines, targets and procedures, not because I think I have the definitive solution but simply to start the dialogue going on realistic terms. So instead of dwelling on the specifics of the regional absorption targets I propose (which are summarized in the hand-out), passports, compensation commissions and the like, let me talk about some of the basic principles that I believe are crucial to any meaningful dialogue on these topics, and then discuss the question of where do we go from here.

In order to achieve a practical yet equitable settlement of the refugee question, four basic principles must be adopted by negotiators:

  • As already mentioned, discussion of the issue must be forward, not backward-looking, so that age-old battles over fault and causes of dislocation of the Palestinians will not be relitigated for the upteenth time.
  • Wherever possible, obligations of the parties to the negotiations must be made reciprocal and regionally balanced.
  • International normalcy, that is, how responsible, peaceful states and their citizens are expected to behave and interact, should be the standard.
  • The parties must recognize that each people, both Palestinians and Israelis, has equal rights to land, statehood, security and survival.

So, what can be done now to facilitate the process of formal negotiation on these questions? I divide the work that needs to be done into three parts: data, dialogue and development.

DATA: Much work has been done already, in part due to the efforts of the Refugee Working Group and its database shepherd, Norway, to collect demographic information about the numbers, conditions and legal status of the refugees. What is needed now is some informed, unbiased, realistic and responsible projections of numbers concerning who wants to repatriate, to where, and whether they can fulfill a fair and practical set of criteria for doing so (e.g. security in Israel, economic viability in the West Bank and Gaza). Similarly, pragmatic estimates are needed of compensation and loans amounts, both to individual families and for community-wide absorption projects. Most importantly, these cannot be kept secret any longer. (Rex and I both know about the relevant tables and statistics that UNRWA, for instance, allowed me to see when I was researching my book, but refused to give me permission to publish.) The estimates -- and that's all they should be described as being -- must be put forward for public consumption, not only to bolster Palestinian hopes that the topic of return is indeed on the table, but also to ease Israeli fears that "return" implies the effective disappearance of their state.

DIALOGUE: Many conferences, lectures and workshops on the refugee question have occurred in the U.S., Canada, England, and other places outside of the Middle East, involving Palestinians and Israelis as well as other Arabs and Westerners. But what has been missing so far is dialogue that takes place between all these parties in the region itself. I propose that a three-day traveling workshop be held in Tel Aviv, Ramalleh and Amman [or as was suggested by a cybernaut, a simultaneous teleconference, but I'm not sure if the infrastructure is ready for that] that would involve not only presentations by academics, NGO and government speakers, but an audience made up of the public who would be split into dialogue groups composed of diverse representatives of different population and professional groups. It should be videotaped for wider dissemination.

Personally, I believe that one of the important topics to be discussed is what are the realistic possibilities that dual citizenship can be granted to Palestinians who do not return to the West Bank and Gaza as citizens of the state of Palestine. Dual citizenship, like bilingualism, is important to the maintenance of individual and group pride and to avoid the imposition of an assimilated identity. If the refugees are granted Palestinian passports, will Jordan and Israel, which already grants single citizenship to Palestinians, allow them to have dual passports? And will Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and other states where Palestinians now reside, and may reside in the future, do the same? Only when the public begins to feel comfortable talking about subjects such as this can the formal peace negotiators begin to put them on the table.

FINALLY, by DEVELOPMENT I mean much more of the material, on-the-ground projects that can immediately increase the tangible benefits to the refugees, so that they can know that the peace process is helping them and not just the entrepreneurial and bureaucratic elites who have benefited to date. I understand the difficulty of balancing projects which improve living and economic conditions without compromising the legal and political claim to return and compensation. But as the Refugee Working Group has already realized, one important objective of these projects is to demonstrate "doability" -- to show that absorption of refugees can be accomplished in a way that will result in stability, identity and dignity.

I've been speaking on this topic for about four years, and have done so in all sorts of audiences, some more or less supportive and many, more or less combative. So I'm willing to throw the floor open for comments, criticisms and hopefully dialogue.

Donna E. Arzt
Associate Professor of Law
Syracuse University College of Law
Syracuse, N.Y. 13244 USA
Tel. 315-443-2401
Fax 315-443-5394
"Justice, justice thou shalt pursue." - Deut. 16:20

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