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Source: FOFOGNET Digest, 5-7 July 1996.

by Leila Zakharia

June 1995,

The subjective discourse surrounding the Oslo Accord can be summarized as follows : Palestinians will almost certainly obtain some sort of self determination but not quite. They will gain some form of auto governance, which they are urged to believe is a type of independence and statehood but then again not quite. They may or may not obtain sovereignty either in part or in full subject to Israel's willingness to withdraw (not re deploy ) its occupying forces and dismantle its settlements. As for the refugees they are being told that the majority are just barely Palestinians, and they are advised to refrain from remaining Palestinians for long, for their long-term material well-being.

Clearly there is a need to reiterate fundamental facts. In relation to Palestinian refugees, there is broad international consensus that:
  1. the Palestinian refugee problem lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict
  2. that the refugees, though dispersed across the Arab world and beyond, are an integral part of the Palestinian nation

Since the uprooting and exile of the native Arab population of Palestine in 1948, the international community has gradually assumed responsibility for the repercussions of the Partition Plan of Palestine. This is reflected in a body of resolutions adopted by the United Nations addressing four principal and interrelated issues of vital relevance to Palestinian refugees:

  1. the right to return to their homes and lands in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related Geneva Conventions and the right to be compensated for losses and damage incurred . This includes refugees who were uprooted from Palestine in 1948 and those who were displaced in the wake of the 1967 Israeli invasion of the West Bank and Gaza.
  2. the provision of humanitarian assistance and basic services without prejudice to the right of return.
  3. the recognition of Palestinian inalienable national rights which include the right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return.
  4. the affirmation in the UNGA since 1976 that the solution of the Palestine question is based on a) the implementation of the right of return, in accordance with UNGAR 194 and UNSCR 237, and on b) the right of self-determination.

The political weight and dimension of the Palestine refugee problem is underlined by the fact that Palestinians in exile make up 58% of the total Palestinian population (over six million) and that they also make up 56% of the population inside the Occupied Territories. There are three million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA: 37.8% live in the West Bank and Gaza, 39.7% in Jordan, 11.2% in Lebanon, 10.9% in Syria.

Israel has consistently refused to recognize the right of return and has called for the resettlement of refugees in Arab countries.

The USA has consistently refused to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination and since 1993 has withdrawn its endorsement of resolution 194 in the General Assembly.

Thus despite its centrality, the political dimension of the Palestinian refugee question has been omitted and/or deferred at every level of the Middle East negotiating process both on the bilateral and multilateral levels as well as in the peace agreements reached with Israel by the Palestinians and the Jordanians. This was one of the major concessions by the PLO leadership and it has had immediate political impact on the short-term status of Palestinian refugees which in turn threatens to undermine their ability to exercise their inalienable rights in the long-term perspective.

The deferral strategy is not lacking in political objectives. It has allowed the establishment of precedents and paved the way to creating irrevocable facts that eliminate the refugee problem through:

  1. abandoning international legality
  2. Permanently fragmenting the Palestinian national entity
  3. resolving the refugee question on the basis of resettlement, absorption and transfer excluding return or citizenship in the future Palestinian state.
This process began with the Madrid Conference. UN resolutions on the Palestinian question were brushed aside and Palestinian representation was limited to residents of the West Bank and Gaza. The repercussions were immediate on Palestinians. In Lebanon displacement and transfer were publicly proposed by government officials. All major camp rehabilitation and reconstruction projects were halted or impeded, and UNRWA was officially informed of plans to eliminate the four Palestinian camps located in Beirut. Likewise Israeli measures were adopted to begin displacing Palestinian refugees from the annexed Jerusalem area and other occupied areas which Israel intends to retain.

Consistent with initial Palestinian concessions, the Multilateral Refugee Working Group would not adopt resolution 194 as a basis for negotiations. Embarrassment to Palestinian and Arab members was avoided by deferring what was dubbed 'issue of principle' to all the bilateral negotiations without specifying the Palestinian-Israeli track or the identity of the refugees. By implication the refugee question was transformed into a regional Arab-Israeli issue encompassing all regional refugee questions.

The Oslo-Cairo Accord made no reference to UN resolutions 194 and 237 (or any other resolution on the Palestinian question), and while one of the principal provisions of UNSCR 242 affirms the necessity for achieving a just settlement of the (unspecified) refugee problem, this was deferred to the final negotiations, formally eliminating the refugee question as a core negotiating issue on the Palestinian-Israeli track.

The Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement blatantly violates the national rights of Palestinians. It divests the Palestinian refugee problem of its political content and of its international legal dimension. Thus it considers the (unspecified) refugees as a humanitarian problem for both sides and defers it to the MRWG. On the political level it proposes the resettlement and absorption of 1948 refugees in violation of UNGAR 194. It also abandons UNSCR 237 which guarantees the unconditional return of Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1967 war. Instead it proposes their case by case 'reentry' to the West Bank on humanitarian grounds and subject to Israeli approval. Left hanging, 200,000 Palestinian displaced will reside in Jordan without civil rights.

One of the MRWG's stated objectives is the alleviation of the living conditions of Palestinian refugees. It has been working closely with UNRWA since the DOP. UNRWA's discontinuance is the principal fruit of this collaboration. The Agency's five year plan (1993-1998) states:

1) UNRWA's discontinuance is inevitable based on the DOP, the Jordanian-Israeli Agreement and the agreement with the Palestinian authority, even though "to discontinue its services unilaterally prior to a resolution of the refugee problem would seem inconsistent with the historical evolution of the Agency's mandate and role"(1)

2) Discontinuance requires one (and not all) of the following:

  • a political resolution of the refugee problem.
  • a decision by the General Assembly (scheduled to consider UNRWA's mandate in 1995)
  • a formal request by a host country

Thus the pacification of Palestinian refugees through the promise of economic incentives is counterbalanced by the looming threat of withdrawing existing services and undermining their basic right for education, health, and shelter. From both a humanitarian and economic perspective, it would be irresponsible to claim that the living conditions of three million Palestinian refugees can be resolved within the next four years. It would be equally irresponsible to begin plans to dismantle UNRWA before such an objective is realized.

NGOs working in Palestinian refugee communities find themselves unable to cope with rising socioeconomic needs and the effects of current UNRWA reductions. The euphoria surrounding the DOP and the illusion that the Palestinian question had been resolved is leading to the steady withdrawal of donors. UNRWA's discontinuance would be a humanitarian catastrophe.

From a political perspective, it would be deceptive to ignore the impact of Israeli occupation and of host government polices on the socioeconomic conditions of Palestinian refugees.

Because of occupation and Israeli restriction on the movement of workers, unemployment is rife in the West Bank and Gaza and the rates are substantially higher among refugees where 35% live below the poverty line. In Lebanon 60% of refugees live below the poverty line. The denial of their right to work is a political act, a knee-jerk reaction to the evident direction of current Middle East negotiations. At least 20 to 30 thousand work permits were issued to foreigners in 1993 just 193 given to resident Palestinians. Equally, in Jordan widespread apprehension of tilting the population balance to the advantage of Palestinians is bound to affect the status and situation of refugees.

The international community is on the verge of allowing the repetition of the tragic error committed in 1948, by ignoring the very same realities and violating the very same principles at the behest of the very same people. The passage of almost half a century could not erase Palestinian national identity and it is unlikely to disappear by virtue of agreements, diplomatic activity and economic incentives.

The UN remains the guardian of Palestinian rights and NGOs can play a vital role in helping to halt the tremendous reversals threatening Palestinian refugees by campaigning in alliance with Palestinian NGOs and by lobbying their governments on:

  • 1. Ensuring the implementation of UN resolutions on the question of Palestine with the right of return at its forefront.
  • 2. Ensuring UNRWA's continuing operation and the extension of its mandate until the settlement of the Palestine refugee question and by calling upon their governments to increase funding for UNRWA's regular programs.
  • 3. Supporting Palestinians as a whole and refugees in particular in exercising their right to shape their own future by calling for a referendum on the Oslo Accord under UN auspices.
  • 4. Guaranteeing protection and the political, civil and human rights of Palestinian refugees in exile and under occupation.
  • 5. Supporting Palestinian NGOs in responding to the immediate social developmental needs of Palestinian refugees.

Footnote 1: The Role of UNRWA and its Future ; UNRWA Headquarters, Amman; March 1995

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