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'Adaptation' in the West Bank and Gaza


Comments by Salim Tamari

This essay was prepared as a discussion paper for the special consultative meeting of the RWG intercessional which was scheduled to be held in Rome in May 1996.

The notion of adaptation is one of the broadest concepts in the social sciences, usually raised in the context of discussing the dynamics of social change. It was introduced into the jargon of the RWG after suggestions were made to the Gavel that issues of absorption and reintegration should be injected into the debate of the plenary in order to move the paralysis of the refugee group following the Antalya meeting in December 1994. Since the 'notion' of absorption proved too contentious for some of the parties in the RWG, raising the possibility of refugee return, the more "neutral" term 'adaptation' was suggested.

But since adaptation carries with it the sense of ADJUSTMENT to existing conditions--an interpretation which was and continues to be objected to by the Palestinians, it seems that this paper attempts to inject the possibilities of RECONSTRUCTION inherent in the term.

The thrust of this paper seems to demonstrate the utility of the concept of 'adaptation' to Palestinians who are re-entering Palestinian society and require help in this process of adjustment.

Five Groups of Palestinians are identified in this process:

  1. Returning PLO cadres and administrative staff who came to PNA areas since 1995, as well as their families (38,000)
  2. Family Reunification beneficiaries (6,000)
  3. Canada Camp returnees (2,000)
  4. Released Political prisoners (6,000)
  5. Refugees expelled from Libya who were admitted to the country(less than 200)

Altogether about 52,000 Palestinian who are in need for programs facilitating their economic and social adjustment to the new conditions they are encountering.

1. The term 'adaptation' is much too broad to have operational utility. We can enhance its instrumental meaning if we combine it with notions of absorption and reintegration of Palestinian returnees. Otherwise it carries the implied notions of adjustment to a lopsided and underdeveloped realities which the Palestinians inherited from 28 years of Israeli rule.

2. Since the bulk of these returnees (about 80%) were integrated into the institutional bodies of the state (police and civil servants) their situation, in economic terms, is better than the resident population of the West Bank and Gaza at large. Unemployment among returnees is less than 2%, while it is over 35% among the population at large. There is indeed a need for social programs of adaptation, but it should be remembered that these people are not foreign immigrants, but returnees who often have immediate family members in their immediate environment. The same is true of family reunification beneficiaries. Perhaps the most critical of the five groups mentioned are the only non-returnees, namely, released prisoners, who are badly in need of programs of (re)retraining and social adjustments.

3. The strongest component of the paper is the reference to the need for building and strengthening the institutional capacities of the PNA. NGOs are seen as necessary for their ability to "critically analyze policy [in order to provide] a healthy counterweight to the government of the PNA" (p. 8). Here the paper usefully points out to the need for programs of training and diversification that the state would have to undertake if it is to prepare the population to productive life. But the other natural avenue for expanding institutional capacity of the state would be in its role in facilitating absorption of returnees. This is hardly mentioned in the paper.

Perhaps the main problem in absorption of returning refugees lies in the predominantly non-civilian character of returnees. Most of them, as the paper demonstrates constituting recruits for the Palestinian police and security apparatus. This has been achieved at the expense of widening the quota of family reunification beneficiaries (frozen at 2,000 cases over the last 2 1/2 years) and of professionals and entrepreneurs who have applied (unsuccessfully) to come back.

4. UNRWA is mentioned as the main provider of services to Palestinian refugees, as well as the 'source of employment for the PA'. This last point is enigmatic. It is not clear what sort of employment UNRWA provides for the Authority--unless the writer means by PA, the Palestinian economy. The role of UNRWA is going to be critical in the next few years, both as an employer, as well as in its continued provision of health and educational services to Palestinian refugees. It would have been fruitful for this report to suggest ways in which UNRWA can play a positive role in the reintegration of returnees to the economy of the West Bank and Gaza.

April 20, 1996

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