It’s been a cold winter for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Read more about the current situation at the UNRWA website.
It’s been a cold winter for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Read more about the current situation at the UNRWA website.
Some of my recent comments regarding refugee status appear to have caused confusion among ideologues, so I thought it might be time for an end-of-year post to clear things up. Specifically, what would happen if UNHCR status rules were applied to Palestinian refugees?
1) It should be noted, for a start, that UNRWA only determines refugee status for service eligibility, not for the purposes of rights or protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. To some extent, therefore, it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Palestinian refugees under the care of UNRWA are excluded from the Convention under Article 1 D. However, that same Article notes that such persons would be eligible for Convention protections if their situation is not otherwise “definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.” In other words, the international community insisted on a multiple layers of protection for Palestinian refugees from the outset: UNRWA, the 1951 Convention in UNRWA’s absence, and a requirement that their situation be resolved in accordance with relevant UNGAR resolutions, meaning UNGAR 194 (1948).
2) It has been alleged that I claimed that “UNHCR and UNRWA definitions for refugees were virtually identical,” which is a (deliberate?) misreading of my position and the nuances of the international refugee regime. As I have argued many times before, it is my view that Palestinian citizens of Jordan—who are clearly able to avail themselves of the protection of a state—would not normally be eligible for UNHCR refugee status. (The Jordanians could, however, argue that the wording of the Convention rendered them eligible nonetheless under the terms of cessation clause of paragraph 2 of Article 1D.)
3) Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon are generally stateless, and would certainly be considered for multi-generational derivative refugee status in accordance with existing practice under UNHCR rules. Indeed, non-UNRWA, subsequent generation, stateless Palestinian refugees (i.e, those without citizenship and outside UNRWA’s area of operations) are quite regularly treated as Convention refugees by both UNHCR and Western countries. A case in point is Iraq, where UNHCR treated Palestinians there as refugees under the 1951 Convention:
Palestinian refugees in Iraq, being outside UNRWA’s area of operations fall within UNHCR’s competence by virtue of paragraph 2 of Art.1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
It should be noted that UNHCR also insisted that third country resettlement of such refugees should only be considered as an “exceptional humanitarian response and an option of last resort.” They urged that Palestinian refugees be permitted by Israel to repatriate to the West Bank and Gaza (Israel refused, while the PA was unenthusiastic). UNHCR also aserted that “resettlement should be seen as a temporary solution for Palestinians, without jeopardizing their right to return.”
4) Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are, de jure, citizens of the State of Palestine. Given this, do they therefore lose their refugee status or representation (or, more accurately, would they lose the former under UNHCR/Convention rules)? This concern was raised by some Palestinian refugee advocates at the time that Palestine applied to the UN for recognition as a state, and has also been raised by others as invalidating Palestinian refugee claims and status. However, despite UN recognition, in no way can Palestine be considered a de facto functioning state, able to provide protection for its citizens.
Therefore, no country—not even Israel—has seriously claimed that recognition of Palestine invalidates the refugee status of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, UNGAR 67/19 (2012) on the “Status of Palestine in the United Nations” explicitly invokes prior UN resolutions (including UNGAR 194). The Israeli government in particular has no interest in pursuing this, since this would result in a termination of UNRWA services in these areas, severely destabilizing the PA while enabling Hamas to assume full control over the Gaza education system—something it has been anxious to avoid. Indeed, Israeli officials continue to urge donor countries to increase, not reduce, their financial support for the Agency in these areas.
Finally, it should be noted that debates over UNHCR vs UNRWA refugee eligibility are largely an irrelevant red herring. The refugee issue does not derive from UNRWA service eligibility rules, and Palestinian concern with return, repatriation, and refugee rights would not end even if the Agency were to disappear in a puff of blue smoke tomorrow. Moreover, if somehow—perhaps due to intervention by a herd of magical, fluffy flying unicorns, since there is no other imaginable way it would occur otherwise—UNRWA were dissolved, UNHCR would almost certainly treat most Palestinian refugees as refugees. Furthermore, the General Assembly would, with absolutely certainty, direct it to do so. Indeed, some years ago some Palestinian refugee activists favoured a shift of the Palestinian case from UNRWA to UNHCR for precisely that reason, feeling the latter had a much stronger protection mandate, was far more activist, and would more explicitly press for the refugees’ “right of return.”
And with that, best wishes to everyone from PRRN for a happy, peaceful, and rights-based New Year!
On December 1, the Jerusalem Post published a op ed by Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid regarding UNRWA. Eid, who made a brief reputation years ago as a critic of the Palestinian Authority, has not been considered much of a credible or influential figure in the human rights community for some time.
His op ed was very critical of the Agency:
I live in Jerusalem and was brought up in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) refugee camp in Shuafat, a refugee camp like 58 other UNRWA refugee camps created for the sole purpose of keep Palestinian Arab people in “temporary” conditions, for 65 years, under the false pretense and specious promise of the “right of return” to pre-1948 villages that do not exist.
As a proud Palestinian, I must take responsible for what will happen to our people.
We can no longer deny our responsibility for the future of our people.
UNRWA, to continue its operation, depends on death and the visual suffering of five million Palestinians who continue to wallow in and around UNRWA facilities.
The more Palestinians suffer, the more power goes to UNRWA, which allows it to raise unchecked humanitarian funds and purchase munitions.
As you can see already, it isn’t a very well-informed piece. Take, for example, the bizarre claim that UNRWA uses donor money to “purchase munitions”—how on earth did that piece of extreme silliness get past a Jerusalem Post editor? It is also not the case that UNRWA does not promise a “right of return” to refugees. Such a promise, to the extent that it exists, is rooted in international human rights law and UN General Assembly resolutions.
One could go on picking holes in the Eid op ed for some considerable time. However, what was also striking was the extent to which his piece seemed to simply paraphrase points that were made back in October by perennial anti-UNRWA gadfly David Bedein in the right-wing Arutz Sheva news service.
I suspect that Bedein would be quite flattered by this sort of quasi-plagiarism, since it clearly serves his political purposes. It raises the question, however, of whether there is some sort of deeper relationship between Eid and Bedein, and whether the former has been assisting the latter in his various fraudulent video documentaries about UNRWA (like this one and this one). If so, UNRWA may actually owe the pair of them a paradoxical “thank you,” since the evident malicious distortions in these reports have actually won UNRWA greater sympathy in some donor agencies.
Unfortunately, attention to Eid’s mistakes was temporarily derailed when UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responded to his piece by appearing to call for a boycott of the Jerusalem Post:
I don’t think that the United Nations ought to get involved in twitter-fights, since they rarely make look you look objective, professional, or neutral. This was no exception, with the tweet causing a prompt, angry response in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere in the Israeli and Jewish media:
What Gunness should not be doing… is launching an attack on a media outlet that supports free and open debate as well as a diversity of expression. Perhaps Gunness thinks that by singling out the Post for censure, he will endear himself to Palestinian extremists. He should know, though, that by calling for a boycott against the paper, he is betraying the basic principle of free expression and in the process undermining the very moral foundations that his own organization – UNRWA – is supposed to honor.
The Israeli government and local media should send an unequivocal message that Gunness’s boycott call is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate a reputable newspaper.
A precedent must not be set whereby critique is met with boycott.
Also riding to Eid’s defence was, of course, was none other than David Bedein.
Also, rather lost in the exchange was Gunness’ observation that the Jerusalem Post had hired as one of its journalists an alleged supporter of the banned Kahane Chai (Kach) terrorist group (and, incidentally, a former Bedein writing partner):
— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) December 4, 2014
..although, once again, I don’t think that is a fight that ought to be waged by a UN official.
Today things come full circle, with an op ed by Chris Gunness himself in the Jerusalem Post (and kudos to the newspaper for offering him an opportunity to reply). Gunness doesn’t address the “boycott” controversy, but does do an excellent job of refuting some of the accusations levelled at the Agency:
One such criticism focuses on the notion that UNRWA in some sense endorses extremism.
This is an accusation we reject in the strongest possible terms. During the latest Gaza hostilities, it was UNRWA that came out proactively condemning militant groups that had placed rockets in our schools and which we had discovered during our own neutrality inspections. It is little reported, but our staff on the ground has received threats of abductions and violent retribution. As the conflict raged, UNRWA’s commissioner- general condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, not from the comfort of his office in Jerusalem, but from the battle zone itself, inside Gaza.
There is a related argument that UNRWA is in some sense anti-Israel. This is a notion we reject as groundless. Many of our stakeholders support us precisely because we oppose intolerance and discrimination and speak out against them as appropriate. No doubt in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid the appalling violence in Syria and in light of the wholesale denial of rights to Palestinians in Lebanon, maintaining staff neutrality is challenging, yet we take direct ownership of this issue. We have a plethora of procedures and systems in place for ensuring our staff understands why it is important to remain impartial.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that we pay a heavy price for working in such environments. Eleven UNRWA colleagues lost their lives during the conflict in Gaza, in addition to 14 in Syria since 2011, and one in the West Bank in 2013.
Meanwhile, you hear almost nothing in the media about our proactive programs to promote UN neutrality in the context of an increasingly radicalized Middle East. You rarely hear about thousands of UNRWA education staff members teaching human rights and conflict resolution as part of a discrete curriculum which we developed, promoting values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A related comment is that we allegedly promote the right of return for Palestine refugees in “UNRWA textbooks.” The fact is that we do not promote or prescribe specific political solutions and in reaffirming that the refugees have rights, we stipulate that the only solution to the conflict can be one acceptable to all the parties. As for text books, according to long accepted practice, we use the same books as host governments and local authorities.
This includes the schools administered by the State of Israel in east Jerusalem.
It is also alleged that UNRWA prevents people leaving refugee camps and somehow intentionally perpetuates the problem through the generations, unlike UNHCR, which, as our critics would have it, has a mandate to resettle refugees and never registers through generations. This is erroneous.
UNRWA does not run refugee camps, neither do we prevent people leaving them.
Our human development programs offer an escape from the grind of the camps, and incidentally only one-third of the refugees live in camps, a proportion declining over time thanks in no small part to social mobility nurtured by UNRWA. Moreover, UNHCR also registers children of refugees as refugees where their political plight remains unresolved.
UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition [for refugee status], his dependents are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.”
UNHCR’s Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination makes the same point.
These attacks are based on the notion that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees. The logic of this runs contrary to international law and refugee best practice.
What perpetuates the refugees as an issue is the political failure to address their plight based on international law and the precepts of justice, in the context of a just and lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict. That is one reason why UNRWA constantly calls on the political players to take meaningful political action. We seek nothing more than our own closure, which will come when the political parties finally resolve the issue for which we were created.
Let us recognize UNRWA for what it is: a UN human development organization providing essential services to an increasingly desperate and perpetually displaced population that lingers in a state of political uncertainty. The United Nations General Assembly, which represents the international community as a whole, established UNRWA for a particular reason, namely to address the needs of Palestine refugees, and the General Assembly continues to renew our mandate in the absence of a just and durable solution of their plight.
Meanwhile, we continue to ask the political actors and the international community to address the future of this population through a just and lasting resolution that provides the dignity and sense of peace that all people deserve. Until that occurs, we will continue in our mission as defined and mandated by the UN General Assembly.
Hopefully that will now serve as the point of departure for a better-informed, less vitriolic, and more productive dialogue on UNRWA, donors, Israel, and the Palestinian refugee issue.
Asem Khalil (Birzeit University) has a thoughtful piece in a recent issue of Middle East Law and Governance 6 (2014), asking “Is Citizenship a Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Problem?”
In this paper, I first argue that, since the British mandate, citizenship regulations in Palestine contributed to dispossession of the rights of Palestinians, thus laying the seeds of the Palestinian refugee problem and its eventual consolidation. I then argue that citizenship regulations in host countries were exclusionary towards refugees in general, and Palestinians in particular, making it impossible for Palestinians to integrate in host societies. The so-called “Arab Spring” did not bring about any change in that sense. Finally, I argue that the narrative of statehood, although often separated from that of the “right of return”, constitutes but one narrative, and one from a com- pletely different angle than the narrative of a “right of return”, where the ‘just solution’ creates the possibility of establishing a homeland for Palestinians where they, and in particular the stateless refugees, can be converted into full citizens. What was part of the problem for refugees is presented as part of the solution. This discussion is very important in today’s Palestine, which was just recently accepted by the un General Assembly as a non-member observer state. The importance of that move is the official Palestinian insistence on the need for a state on the 1967 borders, and the willingness to accept the formula of a two-state solution. Discussion related to citizenship and refugee status, and the right of return, are all back at the center of political and legal discussions.
As of the time of posting the issue isn’t online yet at the Brill website, but will be so soon.
In his opening statement to the UNRWA Advisory Commission (currently meeting in Jordan), UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl highlighted the severe challenges facing both the Agency and Palestinian refugees:
…At our last meeting, I described the situation of Palestine refugee communities as unsustainable. Since then, the trends have become even bleaker. The pressures on Palestinians and Palestine refugees are immense and the threats to their lives, livelihoods or future are of such magnitude that hope is needed somewhere on the horizon. Hope – in this most unstable region – can only and must be brought about by resolute political action.
Half way through its seventh decade of existence and action, UNRWA is an illustration of what can and in many ways has been achieved for Palestine Refugees over this period but we are also a living reminder of what happens when no political solutions are found to address the underlying causes of an historic injustice.
Throughout my statement you will hear confirmation – if it was needed – of UNRWA’s profound commitment to serving the Palestine refugee communities today and in the future, consistent with the mandate, role, and responsibilities we have been given by the international community, specifically the UN General Assembly. You will also hear that we find impossible, year after year, to accept the failure to resolve the fundamental issues of occupation, blockade and conflicts that affect Palestine refugees so severely.
I call here for determined and structured political leadership by the international community in this regard. I do so because we are among the best placed to daily observe and highlight the human consequences and costs of the ongoing denial of dignity and rights of Palestine refugees. In that context, I am convinced that it is our responsibility both to provide services to the refugees and to advocate for an end to this intolerable reality….
You can read the full statement here.
Last month the World Bank released a report on the performance of UNRWA education programmes in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. The study’s findings suggested that the Agency was significantly outperforming the local public education systems in these areas (emphasis added):
Palestine refugees are achieving higher-than-average learning outcomes in spite of the adverse circumstances they live under. Their education system—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—operates one of the largest non-governmental school systems in the Middle East. It manages nearly 700 schools, has hired 17,000 staff, educates more than 500,000 refugee students each year, and operates in five areas, including the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Contrary to what might be expected from a resource-constrained administration serving refugee students who continually face a multitude of adversities, UNRWA students outperform public schools in the three regions—the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan—by a year’s worth of learning.
This study uses a mixed methods research approach, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative research to address the complexity of the research question and its exploratory nature, namely how do UNRWA schools continually and consistently outperform public schools? This study was prepared using the following tools, techniques, and data collection:
- Econometric techniques were used to analyze learning achievement data, including international (TIMSS and PISA) and national student assessment data.
- The Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) tools and rubrics were used to assess different system components, such as teacher effectiveness, school autonomy, and student assessments.
- Stallings classroom observations provided a structured method to compare teachers’ and students’ interactions.
Qualitative data collected through interviews captured the lived experiences of a sample of UNRWA students.
These tools were applied through a concurrent research process (Figure 1), constituted through a mixed methods research design that led to integrated findings.
It is important to recognize the methodological and practical limitations of this study to establish its relevance to other education systems and contexts of adversity. The UNRWA system covers five regions, of which this study examines three: West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. Thus, the findings represent factors that appear to be working within a system, but they do not imply that the system as a whole is achieving positive results. That would require additional data collection and analysis for Lebanon and Syria. Nor do the findings attempt to negate or discount the incidence of falling standards in UNRWA schools in recent years. Moreover, the international assessment data point to UNRWA’s performance in relation to the public system in some of the host countries. But the data do not cover the inputs and processes in public school systems, which may differ from those in UNRWA schools, so they cannot be used to pass judgment on what these public systems may face.
When one controls for the lower socio-economic status of refugees, the results are quite striking—equivalent to one full year of additional schooling. Moreover, these results have been achieved at a lower cost per pupil.
The report identifies several reasons for this impressive performance:
This is achieved as a result of the way these schools recruit, prepare, and support teachers; because of instructional practices and pedagogy in the classroom; and because of school leadership, accountability, and mutual support. This has created a distinguished learning community centered on the student. Of note:
- UNRWA selects, prepares, and supports its education staff to pursue high learning outcomes.
- Time-on-task is high in UNRWA schools, and this time is used more effectively than in public schools.
- UNRWA schools have a world-class assessment and accountability system.
- UNRWA schools are part of a wider community and culture of learning that supports the child and ensures that the education received is meaningful and relevant.
The report also notes some narrowing of the performance gap in recent years. While it doesn’t assess the reasons for this, it seems likely that it is a product of both improvement in national educational systems and the Agency’s continuing budgetary crisis.
Previous TIMSS studies have shown the Jordanian and Palestian education systems to be at or slightly above the average for Arab countries. Many countries in the Middle East typically score relatively poorly on standardized international tests of math and science knowledge, in large part because of poor teacher training, outmoded teaching techniques and curriculum, and poor management.
Israeli-American political activist David Bedein—who has long been on a personal jihad against UNRWA—has released his latest video criticizing the Agency. The Agency need not worry, however. UNRWA Goes to War is so filled with transparent lies and distortions that no one in the donor community is likely to take it seriously. See for yourself:
Strangely, there is no mention whatsoever of UNRWA’s human rights curriculum (introduced despite objections from Hamas), which stresses peaceful conflict resolution and universal respect for human rights. Nor does it mention Israel’s repeated statements of support for the Agency’s humanitarian activities and its requests to donors that they increase their funding of the Agency. Indeed, the UN more broadly (and UNRWA in particular) is now playing a key role in the importation of cement into Gaza for reconstruction–something israel would hardly have agreed to if it thought the Agency had been taken over by Hamas as Bedein suggests.
The Refugee Studies Centre of the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford will be holding a two day course on “Palestine Refugees and International Law” at the The British Institute, in Amman, Jordan on 6-7 March 2015 and at the Asfari Institute, American University of Beirut, Lebanon on 13-14 March 2015:
About the course
This two day short course places the Palestinian refugee case study within the broader context of the international human rights regime. It examines, within a human rights framework, the policies and practices of Middle Eastern states as they impinge upon Palestinian refugees. Through a mix of lectures, working group exercises and interactive sessions, participants engage actively and critically with the contemporary debates in international law and analyse the specific context of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel).
The short course commences with the background of the Palestinian refugee crisis, with special attention to the socio- political historical context and legal status of Palestinian refugees in the region. This is followed by a careful examination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including its philosophical underpinnings and ensuing human rights instruments in international law. The key themes, which have taken centre stage in the debate on the Palestinian refugee crisis, are statelessness, right of return, repatriation, self-determination, restitution compensation and protection. These themes are critically examined along with current discussions about the respective roles of UNRWA, UNHCR and the UNCCP in the Palestinian refugee case.
This course is suitable for: experienced practitioners; graduate researchers; parliamentarians and staff; members of the legal profession; government officials; and personnel of inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations.
This programme qualifies for Continuing Professional Development with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (CPD SRA) in the United Kingdom.
Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration, Refugee Studies Centre
Professor Dawn Chatty is a social anthropologist and has conducted extensive research among Palestinian and other forced migrants in the Middle East. Some of her recent works include Children of Palestine: Experiencing Forced Migration in the Middle East (ed. with Gillian Lewando-Hundt), Berghahn Press, 2005, and Dispossession and Displacement in the Modern Middle East, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Susan M Akram, Clincal Professor, Boston University School of Law
Professor Susan M Akram teaches immigration law, comparative refugee law, and international human rights law at Boston University. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Washington DC (JD), and the Institut International des Droits de l’Homme, Strasbourg (Diploma in international human rights). She is a past Fulbright Senior Scholar in Palestine, teaching at Al-Quds University/Palestine School of Law in East Jerusalem.
Fee: £350. The fee includes tuition, lunch and all course materials. Participants will need to meet their own travel and accommodation costs and arrange any country entry requirements.
Instructions for payment of course fee will be sent with your offer of place. Your place will be confirmed once payment has been received. Offers are made on a first-come-first-served basis to suitably qualified and experienced applicants.
Maximum twenty-five spaces
The Palestine Refugees and International Law short course is also an optional module within the International Summer School in Forced Migration. Candidates may wish to apply to attend the Summer School.
Click here to complete the online application form.
For all enquiries, please contact:
Refugee Studies Centre
Oxford Department of International Development University of Oxford
3 Mansfield Road
Oxford OX1 3TB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1865 281728
The International Crisis Group has just released an excellent report on the Palestinian refugee issue. It is must-read stuff for anyone interested in the issue, or the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace more generally.
I’ve posted the executive summary below. The full report can be found at the link above.
Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question
Middle East Report N°1569 Oct 2014
The Palestinian refugee question, like the refugees themselves, has been politically marginalised and demoted on the diplomatic agenda. Yet, whenever the diplomatic process comes out of its current hiatus, the Palestinian leadership will be able to negotiate and sell a deal only if it wins the support or at least acquiescence of refugees – because if it does not, it will not bring along the rest of the Palestinian population. Refugees currently feel alienated from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which they regard with suspicion; doubt the intentions of Palestinian negotiators, whom they do not believe represent their interests; and, as one of the more impoverished Palestinian groups, resent the class structure that the PA and its economic policies have produced. As a result of their isolation, refugees in the West Bank and Gaza are making demands for services and representation that are reinforcing emerging divisions within Palestinian society and politics. There arguably are ways to address refugee needs, both diplomatic and practical, that are not mutually exclusive with core Israeli interests. This report examines what could be done on the Palestinian side to mitigate the risk that the Palestinian refugee question derails a future negotiation.
The Palestinian refugee question, since its emergence in the late 1940s, has first and foremost been a national question. Because the establishment of Israel – in what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) – transformed the vast majority of Palestinians into refugees, the contemporary Palestinian national movement is largely a product of their desire to reverse their dispossession. The issue retained its salience after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formally endorsed two states in 1988 as well as after the Oslo agreements starting in 1993, because its fair resolution was considered crucial to legitimate any two-state settlement. Today, the reduced international visibility of refugee affairs notwithstanding, the issue retains its place in Palestinian national consciousness. For Palestinian leaders to do anything that smacks of abandoning refugees, and especially of renouncing their claims, is to cross a redline that touches at the core of national identity.
Though Palestinians disagree on whether the refugee question can be resolved within a two-state framework, the failure of negotiations has rendered this debate largely theoretical. For a time after the beginning of the Oslo process, it seemed to Palestinian elites that a basic trade was in the making: in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including from settlements and Arab East Jerusalem, Palestinians would sacrifice unrestricted return to their former homes – the traditional Palestinian conception of the right to return; instead, it seemed, they would accept a compromise, “just solution” based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194, permitting the return to Israel of only a small portion of the overall refugee population.
Twenty years later, this formula has unravelled, and with it, in the eyes of many Palestinians, the premise of the two-state framework. In the 1990s, the refugee question was a lightning rod in Israel largely because it was thought to threaten the Jewish majority; today, Israel’s final status positions have hardened, its objections to refugee return as much principled as statistical. When coupled with the Israeli demand for recognition as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Palestinians believe that, instead of being offered a just solution, they are being asked to renounce what they see as an inalienable right in exchange for less than their irreducible minimum on other final status issues. When compared to the deal the PLO originally foresaw in 1993, they are being asked to concede more on refugees in exchange for less on everything else.
Many factors lie behind this shift. The second intifada, inter alia, shifted mainstream Israeli political thinking toward the right, which puts greater emphasis on the Jewish narrative. On the Palestinian side, the national movement’s centre of gravity moved, after Oslo, from the diaspora to the Occupied Territories, and more recently has been circumscribed to the West Bank. While refugees continued to be well represented in the power structure – indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself is one – refugee affairs are less prominent. With the Palestinian people increasingly fragmented, both politically and geographically, each of its constituent groupings has become relatively isolated and ever more consumed by its own problems.
For the Palestinian leadership, the main priority must be to reclaim representation of the majority of refugees, for without their acquiescence it will be exceedingly difficult to implement any comprehensive agreement with Israel; this therefore should be a concern of all who seek one. The growing chasm between the political elites and the refugees also portends greater instability, particularly should refugees or their advocates, despairing of the diplomatic process, seize the political initiative. But stability in and of itself is no answer: the marginalisation of refugees within their host societies has left them with little choice other than to fantasise about returning to their former homes in Israel.
This will be a significant challenge, especially since an ever-dwindling number of Palestinians – refugees or not – support the leadership’s political agenda. Nevertheless, much can and should be done:
- Calcified refugee camp leadership committees ought to be renewed, whether by election or selection. While their predicament is largely a reflection of the dysfunction of the overall political system, the relative isolation of the camps could facilitate a more representative local leadership. Particularly given the limited resources of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the PLO/PA, credible local leadership is needed. While some, particularly in Israel and among entrenched Palestinian elites, might see empowered local leadership as a threat, the risks of instability absent such structures are far greater.
- Donors should continue to fund UNRWA. Its support cannot solve the refugee predicament, but the precipitous decline of services could exacerbate it and provoke regional instability.
- The Palestinian political elites could undertake measures to improve daily life for refugees and ensure that ongoing economic reforms in the Occupied Territories benefit rather than further marginalise them. Development done properly, in consultation and coordination with camp leaders, can overcome suspicions among refugees that its purpose is, as often charged, the “liquidation of the refugee question”.
- Palestinian elites, in the camps and beyond, and particularly in the West Bank, should combat the notion that refugee political claims can be maintained only through the relative isolation of camps from the broader social fabric. Refugees increasingly have come to realise that socio-economic deprivation is not the only way to maintain identity; reinvigorating the political structures to nurture it and further their aspirations would be more effective and humane.
- The current suspension of negotiations should be used as an opportunity to reconstruct the Palestinian national movement on a genuinely inclusive and representative basis. Crucial for reaching a two-state agreement, it is particularly important for the refugee question: individual refugees, in any foreseeable reality, will not all be afforded the unrestricted possibility to return to their original homes and villages. But they can be afforded a voice in their movement’s positions on the refugee question. With significant contradictions between the traditional Palestinian approach to the refugee question and the two-state paradigm, this is perhaps the only mechanism for identifying a compromise approach. Given the gap between private PLO negotiating positions and popular opinion, concessions on the refugee question, without bringing the public along, could prove fatal to the leadership’s weakened credibility.
These palliative and preparatory steps focus on the Palestinian side, not Israel, despite the fundamental role that it would play in any resolution of the refugee question. Like the report as a whole, they address what the Palestinian leadership and international community can do now, not only to improve the lives of refugees but also to prepare for eventual final status negotiations. Many of these measures cannot be undertaken without Israeli acquiescence, so Israelis seeking to advance a resolution of the refugee question – some options for which are touched upon in the report, but which of course will require refinement once talks begin – should seriously consider the steps proposed herein.
This report is one in a series by Crisis Group arguing that the peace process requires a fundamental re-conceptualisation, one that would begin with each of the two sides, as well as the mediator, re-evaluating and altering its own approach before resuming talks. Necessary steps include involving and addressing the needs of neglected constituencies; building a more effective Palestinian strategy, in which refugee agendas would play a clear role; and promoting a more diverse and capable mediation architecture. It behoves the three main sets of stakeholders – the Palestinian leadership, the Israeli government and the international community – to understand that their current approach, especially to the refugee question, is a recipe not only for failure and strife, but for undermining the two-state solution.
Jerusalem/Ramallah/Gaza City/Brussels, 9 October 2014
The Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion (#49) on 11-13 September 2014, in the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza. It contains some interesting findings regarding the performance of UNRWA and others during the conflict:
Amongst Gazans who actually experienced the conflict, and who may have used UNRWA shelters or received UN assistance, the approval ratings are high (73.8%), although a significant minority has a negative view. They are also higher in Gaza than for any other actor (unfortunately, no question is asked about the the de facto Hamas government, and it isn’t clear if Gazan respondents understood the “unity government” to include Hamas officials there or the technocratic cabinet in Ramallah).
Interestingly, approval ratings for UNRWA in the West Bank are much lower–possibly indicating a lack of familiarity with what the Agency was doing during the crisis, and/or frustration at the UN’s broader political impotence.
The survey also shows:
You’ll find the full poll results here. The al-Najah University polling unit is fairly reliable, although (in my view) by far the best polling continues to be done by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion also did a survey that included a question on UNRWA’s performance back in late August that showed the Agency enjoyed a 71% approval rating. That being said, I generally don’t find PCPO polling to be very reliable (although in this case their findings accord with those of al-Najah).