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CLS/RIIA Project: Palestinian Refugees in the Quest for Middle East Peace - Summary of Points Raised

Source: Minster Lovell Workshop April 2004

The CLS/RIIA refugee project was designed to address the absence of an inclusive framework for discussion of the refugee issue in the quest for Middle East Peace. The activities help raise awareness of the regional dimension of the Palestinian refugee issue in the Middle East; facilitate contact, communication and information exchange between the Arab stakeholders in the refugee issue, notably the refugee communities around the region and the Arab host countries (including the PA), and members of the international community concerned with the issue; and gather and circulate expert opinion on refugee rights and host country rights and responsibilities.

The activities of the project occur at three levels: (1) at the regional level, bringing together members of the refugee communities, advocacy groups and Arab host country nationals; (2) at the international level, bringing together members of the international donor community and others concerned with the Palestinian refugee issue with refugees and host country nationals; and (3) at the expert technical level, bringing together legal specialists and others with relevant expertise with members of the refugee community and Arab host country nationals.

At the international level consultation workshops are held approximately twice a year, usually at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. The following summary highlights substantive points raised and discussed in the workshop held in Minster Lovell in April 2004.

The Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Dr Rantisi just before the workshop was to take place meant that some prospective participants sent their apologies in order to pay condolences.

The following is a summary of the main points raised and discussed at the workshop.

I. US Policy and Pronouncements: the implications

The exchange of letters between US President George W Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delineated four facets to the Sharon ‘unilateral disengagement initiative’.

(1) Unilateral Disengagement
By definition, the initiative involved no negotiations with the Palestinians. Instead, it involved negotiation between the Israeli leadership and the Bush administration, resulting in the exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon.

(2) Withdrawal from Gaza
On the surface, any Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory should be welcome. However, as envisaged in Sharon’s unilateral initiative the proposal poses significant dangers for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

As proposed, the withdrawal portends isolation of the community in Gaza behind Israeli security barriers around the Strip, with the Israelis in control of access and egress. How will the Palestinians conduct essential trade and communications under these circumstances? How viable will be economic and social life in the Gaza Strip?

By withdrawing the Israelis will divest themselves of the responsibilities incumbent upon an occupying power, but who will fill the vacuum? The international donor community may not succeed in marshalling new funds to facilitate sustainable development within the Strip. A community dependent on emergency support is not a viable or sustainable prospect.

(3) Settlements on the West Bank
Again, any withdrawal from settlements on the West Bank should be welcome. Again, however, the nature of the proposal, portends dangers if, as indicated by Bush, the Israelis are able to consolidate their major settlement blocks along the Green Line as part of the arrangement.

Consolidation of these settlement blocks, along with completion of the barrier currently under construction portends a further confiscation of Palestinian land, leaving the bulk of Palestinian population centres in isolated enclaves. Assuming movement between and beyond these enclaves remains restricted and under Israeli control, it is impossible to see how the result can constitute a viable prospect.

(4) Trading the Right of Return
While President Bush may, as he said, envisage the Right of Return being exercised only within the context of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has no legal authority in this matter. His statements also represent a departure from long standing US policy and legal precedent. The Right of Return is an individual right which cannot be traded away by third parties.

In pronouncing as he did, Bush dashed the hopes and prospects of all refugees. Critically, he helped Sharon to draw a line under the issue and declare that it is now closed, thereby preventing any further progress in the foreseeable future and removing it from the minds of most Israelis as an issue for the final negotiations. And by supporting Sharon’s announcement, Bush has succeeded in erasing years of work by the international community to develop a comprehensive, multidimensional understanding of the rights and issues involved in returning refugees.

Presumably, Israeli thinking and strategy is the result of calculations about the implications of demographic trends and ambitions to consolidate the Israeli state and its Jewishness. Seemingly, US calculations are more about short term considerations, not least election politics and preoccupation with Iraq.

Policy Implications
The Bush-Sharon pronouncements represented a major departure from approaches to the peace process to date.
• In Taba, the discussion centred around the agreement of territorial adjustments on the basis of reciprocal territorial exchanges. No such exchanges were mentioned by Bush and Sharon, implying that they are not necessary.
• Acceptance of the permanence of some settlement blocks translates into rewarding Israel’s creation of facts on the ground.
• Bush and Sharon acted as though they could negotiate over Palestinian rights without consulting them. So the United States can no longer pose as an impartial mediator.
• A deal that excludes the Palestinians from its formulation is not a peace deal.
• Were the Bush-Sharon pronouncements to come to fruition there would be nothing left for the Palestinians to negotiate.

All these considerations run counter to the argument that Bush has done everyone a favour by saying the unsayable and declaring what is realistic. So even if the Palestinians end up with what Bush envisages, they cannot agree to it and so the conflict cannot be formally resolved on the basis outlined by Bush.

However, what Bush said is not legally binding, even on the United States, and so it may be possible to regroup and, with concerted effort, reconnect with the requirements of the Road Map and the principles of a negotiated peace. Much trust has been lost, however, among the parties and will take time and work to rebuild. It is not only the position of the Palestinians which has been undermined, but that of Syria too.

Rescue Strategies
In their statement of 26 March, the EU Heads of Government clarified that while they support the withdrawal from Gaza, things should be agreed by negotiations. They have five requirements or proposals:

1) the initiative must be part of a wider plan, not just Gaza;
2) the initiative must operate within the framework of the Roadmap;
3) no settlements/settlers should be transferred to the West Bank;
4) any handover of power should be to the PA and
5) Israel has to positively contribute to the regeneration and redevelopment of the Gaza Strip.

The EU was expected to take forward these requirements at its meeting (with the Quartet) on 28 April. The position of the British government is to capitalize on the Gaza withdrawal proposal and work with the Palestinian community to make it work for them.

Meanwhile, for the donor community in general there is a concern that any actions they may take now to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians could be interpreted as facilitating implementation of the Bush-Sharon proposals.

II. Iraq and Regional Fallout
To accurately review the Palestinian-Israeli situation it is important to look at developments in the wider region, notably Iraq.

Iraq – Developments and Possibilities
Three alternative scenarios for Iraq can be envisaged.
1) Fragmentation – with internal fissures between various elements (urban, rural, professional, tribal, secular, religious, ethnic, sectarian) undermining social and national cohesion;
2) Centralisation – the state/society hold together, maybe within a weak federal system, and with outside help, notably from the UN, such that the country does not fall apart;
3) Regionalisation – Trans-state forces, triggered by the war, unleash new regional forces, such as Shia assertiveness, a Sunni backlash, interference in Iraq by neighbouring countries, anti-Americanism and US selectivity in its dealings with different states, could all combine to shift the regional landscape and potentially undermine the existing Arab state system.

Much depends on US capacity to rescue the security situation in Iraq. (The revelations about abuse of Iraqi prisoners in detention in Iraq had not entered the scene at the time of the workshop.) For the bulk of the Shia population there is more to be gained than lost from the political transition in Iraq envisaged by the United States. However, the US is now definitely wearing out their welcome and risks alienating more and more of the Iraqi population. Furthermore, they are in danger of failing in their objective of creating a strong, viable state and politically stable region through their mismanagement of the situation on the ground. It is also not evident that following the June 30th handover to an Iraqi Administration that the situation will be any more viable for the US. This is partly because it will be difficult for them to only have a security role, and not meddle in other affairs. Also, their position in Iraq will not have the legitimacy they would like because they have been unable to secure a ‘Status of Forces’ agreement which would facilitate their transition from occupying forces to invited guests.

There have been several losers following the invasion of Iraq, not least Iraq’s neighbours. Many of them want to have a stake in the emerging Iraqi state, because they have so much at stake and because, for them the issue of Iraq’s future is very political. For now the United States won’t countenance working in partnership with the neighbours. But none of them stand to benefit from a total collapse in Iraq, even if they do not relish a strong, resurgent Iraq of whatever character.

Regional Reactions and Implications for the Palestinians
Iraq was a significant source of financial support to the Palestinians and that has now been lost. But with the spread of opposition to the US-led occupation of Iraq, the perception among many Palestinians is that they and the Iraqis are two communities fighting against a US and/or US/Israeli oppressor. There are some illustrations of how the links are being made, for example Jenin will be twinned with Fallujah and a group called the Sheikh Yassin brigade has surfaced in opposition to the US occupation in Iraq.

For many Palestinians a US failure in Iraq would represent a blow to Israel and its US-backers. It would be a victory for the Arabs and Muslims and thence the Palestinians. Others warn that a US failure in Iraq could be very damaging for the Palestinian cause because it will result in increased US support to Israel in the face of Arab hostility. Meanwhile, linkages between the Palestinians and Iraqis may support Sharon’s assertion that there is a link between Palestinian terrorists and Iraqi terrorists and Al Qaeda.

Across the region, a resurgence of both pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism, together with a weakening or fragmentation of some state structures can be discerned. Many tribes are now trying to gather their support and coordinate their efforts in an attempt to deal with the current realities in the region, for example support to the people of Fallujah. However, there are also many examples of the state strengthening its role, for example in Lebanon.

III. Aid, Diplomacy and Insecurity
Before considering what is to be done in the current circumstances, a review of past experiences would seem in order. A disconnect is apparent between developments on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza (continued conflict and confrontation, settlement consolidation and expansion, construction of the barrier, economic deprivation, humanitarian crises and lawlessness), the activities and intentions of the donor community and the official policy positions of concerned governments.

This disconnect will be the subject of a separate project, but some discussion of the issues was thought useful in the context of this workshop. The disconnect is cause for bewilderment. The conditions in the Occupied Territories, particularly in Gaza, are dire, and while there have been efforts by international donors to try and improve things, instead there is ‘accelerated de-development’ and a deterioration of the realities on the ground. In part recognition of this, the international donor community has acknowledged the change in circumstances and the majority of aid to the Territories is now humanitarian and emergency assistance, rather than development aid.

However, at the policy level donors continue to support the idea of a two-state solution, even through this goal now appears increasingly unreachable. The question, therefore, is this – in what sense has international assistance made a positive contribution towards peace? More specifically, to what extent has the provision of funds to the PA relieved the Israelis from having to provide financial support and shoulder other obligations? Has the diplomatic community been kept sufficiently informed of the changing circumstances on the ground? Are there lessons to be drawn from and for other conflict situations?

Has aid been effective?
Since Oslo, the PA has received approximately $15 billion in aid (while Israel has been in receipt of approximately $60 billion including military aid), of which around 90% has gone to the PA and the remainder to NGOs. Of the money the PA received, over half paid for government salaries, therefore supporting their families or around 600,000 Palestinians. While donors may have preferred to directly support more NGOs in the Occupied Territories, post-Oslo the PA was seen as the most appropriate mechanism to filter money through to agencies in the West Bank & Gaza. Indeed for many, there were few other legal ways of disbursing money.

The intention was to build a viable Palestinian entity capable of pursuing the peace process and realising the goal of statehood. However the aid disbursed has failed to support the evolution of a sustainable development process for the Palestinians. Part of the explanation is that much of the technical assistance that was provided was simply not effective. While donors may prefer to provide capacity-building support, because this is a longer-term commitment, they are more likely to find themselves opting for short term results and so undertaking much of the work themselves. Also, while the international community has poured considerable resources and finance into the West Bank & Gaza, this has not had a positive, long-term effect because a large percentage of the goods and equipment which was purchased has been destroyed by repeated Israeli incursions and attacks.

In addition, the international aid which has supported the PA and Palestinian communities since Oslo, has succeeded, up until recently, in keeping the situation just below boiling point in the West Bank and Gaza, and thus it has, in effect, perpetuated the status quo.

How ‘fussy’ were the donors?
In their eagerness to support the fledgling Palestinian entity, donors may also have overlooked the details of how their funds were used. In this connection it is important to distinguish between the levels at which various decisions were made. For example, at a local level donor representatives may well have been asking the right questions about the nature and implications of any aid package, but back in their home capitals, there were other international political issues to take into account when determining an aid package. In the initial stages of the Oslo process, the US made it very clear that the PA should be kept alive regardless, and as such, it did not welcome questions from any members of the international community about the appropriateness of aid provision. Similarly, if donors had felt that in many cases it should have been Israel providing key support services, rather than the international community, again this would not have been well received by the US.

With hindsight it might have been more beneficial in the long term for the PA to have disbanded itself once the second intifada was established, rather than continuing with the pretence that it was able to manage the Occupied Territories. Such a move would have had to have come from the Palestinians, because the donor community was not permitted to make such a suggestion even if it had been in the best interests of Palestinians in general.

Context of aid
The context in which much of the aid was agreed post-Oslo is also important. Up until 1996, when corruption within the PA became a more pressing issue, many within the donor community were willing to tolerate weak accountability because the PA was still seen as a facet of a liberation movement, and Arafat needed to be in a position to be able to ‘buy’ support when necessary, to ensure the success of the Authority. However, over time, it became increasingly apparent that the funds were simply not being spent in a way that could be justified by individual donors.

When untangling the complex donor issues of the West Bank & Gaza, it might be useful to have a better understanding of the objectives motivating international donors. However, this is often difficult because any objectives will not only vary over time but also between and within donors at a local and international level. Indeed their situation is further complicated because donors often find it very hard to measure progress/developments on the part of either of the parties, and therefore they are unable to develop a clear strategy for any aid programme. This was particularly the case post-Oslo, because there were many issues unfolding and a number of bilateral donors had not developed a coherent plan for disbursement of their funds.

Given the change in international priorities generally since 9/11, it was questioned whether there has been any fallout from 9/11 on the amount of international assistance being channelled to the PA and Palestinian NGOs specifically. The conclusion was that the overall volume of aid is probably the same, however, there are now more strings attached. For example, all Palestinian NGOs that now receive money from USAID must pledge that they are not a terrorist organisation or support terrorism. There are implications for non-US donors as well, since organisations like the Ford Foundation now require that organisations like IDRC must also confirm that they are not funding terrorist organisations.

While there are many examples of how international assistance may not have always contributed to the peace process, it should be remembered that up until 2001 aid allowed the PA to develop and grow. Furthermore, had final status negotiations been more successful, we might now be talking about the success of the donor community, rather than where that community went wrong.

IV. Implications for the donor community

Looking at the situation in Gaza, there are arguments both for and against the international community supporting the Israeli proposal to withdraw. For example, the international community should beware getting into a position where it has to make the Israeli withdrawal work, partly because it represents little more than the establishment of another Area A. Given the foregoing discussion, this may not be a contribution toward resolution of the conflict.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether Gaza is actually economically viable as an entity in its own right, and therefore whether the Israeli withdrawal is sustainable on economic grounds. The question of access and egress is unresolved. For their part the Israelis will be dictating the terms for Gaza’s future, relinquishing the political and financial costs of occupation and walking away. For some observers, what is proposed looks distinctly like the establishment of the ‘homelands’ in apartheid South Africa. Though, in South Africa the homelands were not seen to be a precursor to the formation of a state.

There could be opportunities within the Gaza withdrawal, because in the short term the international community could get to work on the economic and infrastructural development of the area, which is being hampered at present. But the fear remains that, in the long term, the stability of the area, in terms of political, economic and security issues, will be limited and this will prevent a real, sustained improvement in the lives of those Palestinians in Gaza.

The Broader Picture
In terms of the broader Sharon initiative, across the Palestinian community it has contributed to a real sense of hopelessness. This is partly because it is being marketed as a comprehensive solution even though any future Palestinian state within the West Bank looks more precarious with the consolidation of various settlements. But more importantly it has caused despair because the hope, which many in the Palestinian Diaspora have kept, of having the option of returning, has been extinguished. If you add this to the fact that many families in the West Bank are being displaced because of the erection of the barrier, continuing attacks from Israel, the absence of any real alternative to Sharon’s initiative and the lack of any real Palestinian leadership, the situation looks bleak.

Therefore, from the Palestinian perspective, there are many reasons why they are wary of the initiative and also why they would prefer the international community not to support the initiative and concentrate instead on improving the realities on the ground in the West Bank & Gaza. However, there will be strong pressure on the PA to accept the plan, not least because they may be labelled as a terrorist organisation if they do not. Within the PA, while there has been support for the announcement of the withdrawal of settlements, and various ministries have begun looking into the minimum requirements necessary in order to make the situation in Gaza viable following an Israeli withdrawal – the disengagement plan is not seen as an opportunity because the IDF can return at any time. A further problem the PA has encountered is that by considering the implications of the plan they are seen to be engaging with the initiative as a political opportunity, and by default supporting it.

From the perspective of the donor community, it may be difficult to obtain a collective agreement on the way forward in general and a response to the Sharon initiative specifically. Some donors will find it very difficult to voice a political opinion, while others will either reject the initiative or promote it as the only option on the table at present. This divergence of opinion will result in the process being driven solely by the US and Israel and may mean that donors are able to create the impression of action (carrying out needs assessments, donor conferences, etc) while failing to address the ever-changing issues and realities.

One option would be for the donors to develop a strategy of conditionality which would state the minimum conditions on which they would engage with the process and provide assistance – the most obvious would be that there must be complete freedom of movement to and from Gaza. Similarly the donors could identify the specific issues involved in the withdrawal plan (e.g. infrastructure, borders, resources, etc) and then identify those issues which must be addressed/resolved prior to any withdrawal. The Israelis could be obliged to listen if the donor community makes it clear that any support for Gaza will be tied to the resolution of particular issues and that there will be performance tracking and penalties for non-compliance. In parallel, it is essential that the donor community restates the importance of negotiating with the Palestinians and not proceeding unilaterally. If these approaches are to work it is very important that the donors work together, and not in isolation.

V. What is needed now? Refugees and Host Countries

For the majority of Lebanese, the refugee camps represent a security issue which is demonstrated by vivid depictions on TV of clashes and demonstrations in the camps. However, in so far as security is as much a Syrian as a purely Lebanese concern, Damascus could have a bearing on the issue. The position of the Lebanese government is that those Palestinians residing in camps do not have the right to remain beyond any peace agreement.

Following the announcement of the Sharon initiative, the argument that the Palestinian refugee community resident in Lebanon would be able to return to their homes in Palestine collapsed for two reasons – the Bush/Sharon abrogation of the Right of Return and the reduction in Palestinian territory in the West Bank. This leaves politicians in Lebanon with a dilemma as yet to be confronted.

There has been limited movement on the refugee issue within Lebanon, with a special committee dealing with the refugee issue visiting a number of Gulf and European countries to explain the Lebanese position. However, there is no mechanism within the Government, to formulate policy on those refugees residing in Lebanon – indeed the Office for the Directorate of Palestinian Affairs has been reduced to a registry and the main body dealing with the refugee community remains the security forces. In the face of the Bush declaration and the lack of any peace process, the Lebanese could allow the international community to provide greater welfare support to the refugee communities, though structural impediments any significant improvement in their living conditions will remain.

With regard to Syria, in a way the government has been strengthened by the Bush declaration because it has illustrated that their steadfast stand against Israel and support for radical Palestinian groups is justified. In contrast to Lebanon, in Syria the refugee community does not pose a threat to the demographic balance, and so those Palestinians living in Syrian camps enjoy much better services and living conditions than those resident across the border in Lebanon. That said it would be very useful if Syria could take a more supportive and positive position with respect to improving the conditions of those Palestinians in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the situation in Jordan is more complicated. There are some four categories of Palestinian refugees in Jordan at present. The first applies to those refugees who left Palestine in 1948, who have a national security number, and therefore access to any of the services available to a Jordanian citizen. Those who resided in the West Bank until the 1988 Jordanian disengagement have Jordanian passports but no national security number, and so only have access to limited services. Lately, they have been issued with a ‘Green Card’ by Jordan. In the third category are those who arrived in 1967 and were given a two-year passport, but no national security number, and thus while they reside in Jordan they are considered foreigners. This group numbers 150,000 to 200,000 people. The fourth category covers people who are permanent residents in Jordan but have access to the West Bank and are considered by Israel to be citizens of Palestine. This group have Jordanian passports and national security numbers, but also have Palestinian documents. It is anticipated that the approximately 180,000 people concerned will at some stage be expected to choose between the two nationalities they currently hold.

UNRWA, working in all these host countries, takes careful account of the specific circumstances in each country. The need for the support provided by UNRWA is as great as ever following the Israeli targeting of Palestinian camps in the West Bank & Gaza, both with military hardware and by preventing access. In Lebanon specifically, it was noted that for a variety of reasons, including that there is a new UNRWA Director and Deputy Director, there may be opportunities to work with the government, civil society and NGOs to improve living conditions in the camps.

More broadly, UNRWA recognises that, as a result of recent events, it is likely to continue to operate in the area for some time. Therefore, it has organised a one-time replacement for the usual biannual donors meeting and will instead host a Conference in Geneva involving up to 60 countries. Although the meeting is intergovernmental, refugees were included in the preparation process and so will indirectly have a voice. Also, by discussing support for UNRWA the Conference will provide a mechanism for donors to demonstrate their concerns about the Bush-Sharon initiative. Finally, UNHCR and UNRWA, as the two primary UN organisations responsible for refugees, will be working more closely together sharing best practice and experience.

In summary, the situation of Palestinian refugees in host countries will be that much more difficult as a result of the Bush-Sharon threat to the Right of Return – particularly for those refugees resident in Lebanon. UNRWA recognises that it will need to continue supporting the refugee communities throughout the region. However, in deciding how to best support the refugees, UNRWA and particularly the donors that fund it, should take care not to prevent another generation of refugees from meeting their potential because of concerns about ‘settling them’.

VI. Project Issues
At present, in the West Bank and Gaza, there is a continuing occupation, the erection of the wall, closures, and the end of the Roadmap. The refugee community is also growing as 200,000 Palestinians may be displaced because they live on the wrong side of the Israeli barrier. These issues are resulting in a radicalisation of Palestinian views, particularly among the young as people do not have any mechanism through which to channel their frustrations. There is thus a greater need than ever for projects and fora which support Palestinian refugees and which give people a voice.

In terms of what the Palestinian community can do, it is important that there should be an internal dialogue bringing all the parties active in the West Bank & Gaza together to stop any further fragmentation and agree on a common position for issues like the Right of Return. A more united approach would also help the donor community because it would be better able to allocate support if there is a clearer enunciation of priorities. There is also a need for co-ordination with and between the host countries. To a certain extent there is already an attempt to bring the Palestinian parties together, with a recent rapprochement between the factions and the PLO. In the diaspora there is a meeting planned for the 15 May in Berlin, on the Right of Return.

In terms of what the international community can do, one suggestion is to return to first principles as a way of breaking the current cycle and initiating a discourse. A return to principles may be particularly relevant in refugee discussions, given the dominant neo-conservative agenda at present which seems to pay little attention to established principles – as illustrated by Bush’s current approach to the peace process. Also, having clearly articulated principles might assist the donor community in deciding how to best support the needs of refugees. This has to go hand in hand with enabling the Palestinians to have a stronger voice.

Lobbying and support for UNRWA is essential.

Regarding RIIA/CLS work on the regional dimension of the refugee issue, the need for a safe discussion forum remains. And it has been useful in coordinating between the Arab stakeholders and the international donor community. Before going forward, however, an evaluation will be carried out on the work to date, its content and impact, as well as a survey to determine useful future directions that the project can take.

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