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The REFUGEE WORKING GROUP of the Middle East
Multilateral Peace Negotiations

Source: Israel-Palestine Journal 2, 4 (Autumn 1995)

by Rex Brynen and Jill Tansley

The multilateral track of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) was launched in January 1992, a few months following the start of bilateral talks in Madrid. The purposes of the multilateral negotiations were three-fold: to complement and support the bilateral process by engaging the international community in addressing issues that extended beyond any two parties; to promote greater contact, trust and confidence-building among the regional parties; and to accommodate views of the parties as to both negotiating frameworks (bilateral vs. multilateral) and the issues to be discussed.

Of the five working tracks of the multilateral negotiations of the MEPP, the Refugee Working Group (RWG) has been perhaps the most difficult to manage. The other working groups (water, environment, regional economic development, and arms control and regional security) deal with technical issues on which progress is less dependent on the bilateral negotiations. The refugee issue, however, is at the core of the conflict and is the most politically- and emotionally-laden question of the multilaterals. Yet, without a solution to this issue, true peace in the region is unattainable.

The RWG is not the only or even the principal forum where refugee issues are discussed. The Declaration of Principles (DOP) signed between the PLO and Israel on September 13, 1993 reserves the 1948 refugee issue for final status negotiations which are scheduled to begin in May 1996. The Quadripartite Committee, comprised of Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian representatives, is charged with deciding the modalities for the admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Nevertheless, Article 8 of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty recognizes the RWG as one forum outside of the bilateral arena where progress on the refugee problem can be realized.

Canada was requested to assume the chairmanship or "gavel" of the RWG in part due to its impartiality with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict and refugees. It was actively involved in UN deliberations which led to resolution 181 and the admission of Israel into the UN. Equally sensitive to the rights and needs of Palestinians, it has been a major donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since the beginning, and has explicitly upheld the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Canada's peacekeeping experience in every UN peacekeeping force in the Middle East is another factor which enhances its credibility as gavel for the RWG. In 1986, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) granted Canada the Nansen medal in recognition of its work on behalf of refugees and displaced persons. Finally, it might also be noted that the close relationship between Canada and the United States may have played a role too, with the latter concerned that the sensitive refugee portfolio be entrusted to a judicious and reliable third party.

In supporting the efforts of the bilateral negotiations on the refugee issue, the role of the RWG is to improve the current living conditions of refugees and displaced persons without "prejudice to their rights and future status; to ease and extend access to family reunification and to support the process of achieving a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue". The RWG has defined refugees as those displaced as a result of the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbours, with overwhelming bulk of its attention paid in fact to the question of Palestinian refugees.

Aims and Achievements of the RWG
At the first full meeting of the RWG in Ottawa in May 1992, it was decided to organize work on a thematic basis. Lead countries or "shepherds" were identified to lead each theme: databases (Norway); family reunification (France); human resources development, job creation and vocational training (the United States); economic and social infrastructure (the European Union); public health (Italy) and child welfare (Sweden). The role of the shepherds is to define the needs of each sector and to mobilize an appropriate response.

Across all of these themes, the RWG has identified a number of key imperatives in its work. The first of these is defining the problem: members of the RWG recognized a need for a common understanding of the scope of the refugee problem and how to deal with it. The Working Group has sponsored basic data collection and analysis to define the scope of the refugee issue, establish priorities and assess the impact of choices. This work has included two surveys of living conditions of the West Bank and Gaza; needs assessments to identify refugee needs in public health, child welfare and economic and social infrastructure and; an inventory of ongoing assistance programs. The RWG is also sponsoring a living conditions survey of Jordan which will include a study of Palestinians living inside and outside the camps.

A second priority has been promoting dialogue: the Canadian gavel sees the RWG as a forum for regional parties to state positions, develop and test options and generally build confidence among the members. As gavel-holder, Canada led an international mission in April 1994 to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The subsequent report identified a number of immediate pressing needs for refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza, which the Working Group has since attempted to carry out. Another key focus in this area has been the question of policies and procedures for family reunification. France has worked to bridge differences between the parties, and although the number of individuals benefiting from family reunification have tripled since it began these efforts, there are still major stumbling blocks.

Finally, the RWG has worked to mobilize resources for refugees. The Working Group has worked with UNRWA to raise funds for UNRWA's Peace Implementation Plan (PIP) for the West Bank and Gaza, an initiative to improve infrastructure and create jobs. It has also supported individual PIP projects, sponsored education and training of Palestinian refugees; implemented credit schemes and job creation programmes; and tried to address the urgent health needs of refugees by providing medical supplies. One particularly noteworthy project has been the reunification of Palestinian families living in the Rafah area of Egypt (“Canada Camp”) with their relatives in Tel El Sultan in Gaza. Canadian funds sponsored the transfer of 70 refugee families (800 individuals) in July 1994. There are plans to relocate a larger group of families, with assistance from Kuwait.

Obstacles and Challenges
In the seven plenary meetings of the RWG (with an eighth to be held in December 1995), significant achievements have been registered. Nevertheless the Working Group faces a number of stumbling blocks. One set of these is financial: there is still a serious shortage of resources to meet the pressing humanitarian needs of refugees, particularly for those outside the West Bank and Gaza. This comes at a time when UNRWA's future is uncertain, and the Palestinian Authority is not yet in a position to take over. Moreover, the RWG’s efforts to mobilize resources substantially overlap with those of others, notably UNRWA itself as well as the international donor group for the West Bank and Gaza. Consequently, it is not always clear how much new funding for refugees is actually generated by the RWG.

A second set of problems facing the working group are structural in character. The RWG does not operate as a cohesive group, but rather assembles periodically for plenary meetings or intersessional activities. Consequently, the Gavel-holder remains unsuccessful in wielding influence outside of the working group structure, and has not obtained a seat on the Quadripartite Committee. The RWG itself must necessarily function on a consensual basis, making progress slow. The RWG is also forced to operate within the context of the peace process as a whole, and consequently is affected by the ups and downs of the process and by developments in the region.

The refugees of the Middle East diaspora-notably, the large concentration of Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan-have yet to be addressed in peace agreements. Efforts of the RWG to alleviate this situation have been frustrated by the decision of Syria and Lebanon not to participate in the multilateral process until they deem that satisfactory progress has been made in the bilateral negotiations. In turn, Syrian and Lebanese non-participation in the RWG has hampered the working group’s efforts to target resources at refugee communities in those countries. This problem is particularly acute in Lebanon, where much of the refugee population endures extremely adverse socio-economic conditions.

Finally, the RWG faces formidable political obstacles in its work. There remains a large gap between the publicly-articulated positions of Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee issue, with the former insisting on the “resettlement” and “rehabilitation” of refugees, while the latter emphasizes the Palestinians’ right to compensation and “return”. These sorts of differences have been manifest in discussions on family reunification, which have met with the most controversy and resistance from Israel. The Israeli delegation is willing to consider family reunification as a discretionary humanitarian issue, but not as a political right for Palestinians.

Ironically, the consensual format of the RWG, coupled with the political differences evident within it, can also generate an unfortunate degree of depoliticization in Working Group activities-that is to say, a focus by default on less controversial humanitarian issues. Indeed-and despite some press reports-it is striking that, with the exception of family reunification and the proforma declaratory statements of the parties during plenary sessions, the RWG has not discussed or addressed the core political arrangements and compromises that must characterize any ultimate resolution of the refugee issue. Israel insists that such questions are appropriately dealt with in bilateral final status negotiations or (in the case of 1967 displaced persons) the Quadripartite Committee. Other participants in the RWG have also often shied away from controversial areas. Past database activities, for example, have largely focussed on social indicators, rather those that might have greater significance for political outcomes.

Palestinian participants have lamented the depoliticization of the RWG. However-with the senior Palestinian leadership focussed on more immediate concerns in the West Bank and Gaza-the Palestinian side has also shown little sustained effort to use the RWG to explore or prenegotiate such issues at this time. Compounding this, Palestinian delegations generally lack the diplomatic, administrative, policy research and other supports enjoyed by their Israeli counterparts, further limiting their ability to advance an effective political agenda.

Looking Ahead
In assessing the overall role and potential future contribution of the RWG, it is important to recognize the constraints under which it operates: substantial political differences, consensual procedures, and subordination to the broader dynamics of the peace process. The RWGÊhas done important work in mobilizing resources for refugee communities at a crucial time for them, and for the region. It has also provided a valuable forum for the regional parties to meet, and discuss, refugee-related issues.

In the future, as the Quadripartite negotiations continue and the parties move closer to final status negotiations, there is even more in these areas that the RWG might do. Resource mobilization will continue to be important, to address the social needs of refugees, build support for the peace process, and facilitate the transition to a settlement of the refugee issue. The RWG might expand its dialogue function, not only facilitating official and semi-official contacts but also encouraging the production of new and innovative thinking about the refugee issue by scholars, non-governmental organizations, and others within civil society. Its database and research functions might also be focussed on more strategic refugee-related research, in areas ranging from the absorptive capacity of the West Bank and Gaza, to compensation, repatriation, refugee camp rehabilitation, residency rights, and so forth. In short, the Refugee Working Group cannot, by its very nature, be in advance of the Middle East peace process. It can, however-by addressing both the humanitarian and core political dimensions of the refugee issue-play an important role in advancing progress toward peace.

"Canada and the MEPP: Gavelling the Refugee Working Group", delivered by Marc Perron, to a conference sponsored by Medical Aid for Palestine, "Development and Nation-Building. Canadian Initiatives in the New Palestinian Context", 8 February 1995.

Remarks by Andrew Robinson, to Middle East Working Group Symposium, 5 October 1995. Middle East Peace Process.

Refugee Working Group. Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, August 1995.

Rosemary Sayigh, “Palestinians in Lebanon: Harsh Present, Uncertain Future.” Journal of Palestine Studies 25, 1 (Autumn 1995).

Rex Brynen is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University in Montréal. Jill Tansley is a researcher based in Ottawa.

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