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Statehood Key to Refugee Solution

Source: Palestine Report 2, 46 (25 April 1997).

Refugees/interview by Rex Brynen

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 ResearchNet .

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 itself?

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 positions.

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 Diaspora.

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 this point?

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 be overcome.

PALESTINE REPORT is a weekly news digest published by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre (JMCC).

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