Homes in Gaza

Posted: November 17, 2015 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA

Video released by UNRWA on 16 November 2015, showing current situation in Gaza.

The following personal account appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (November/December 2015). I’m reposting here with the permisison of its author, Ellen Siegel.

To add my own personal note, the Sabra-Shatila massacre—which occurred when I was in my final year as an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria—was the formative event that led me to study Palestinian politics at graduate school and write my PhD thesis on the PLO in Lebanon.


Sabra and Shatila 33 Years Later—A Personal Account

By Ellen Siegel


The author (r) with Bahaa Tayyar, BAS director and senior social worker at the Ein el-Helweh Camp Center. (PHOTO BY SIRKKU KVISTO)

This past September marked the 33rd anniversary of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and surrounded its capital, Beirut. One aim was to end the control of Beirut by the PLO. The city was under siege, blockaded, and repeatedly bombed, resulting in extensive casualties. On Aug. 21, the U.S. negotiated an agreement which would end Israel’s assault and allow for the safe evacuation of the PLO fighters. Western nations guaranteed that the refugees and civilian residents of the Palestinian camps would be protected by a multinational force (MNF) once the PLO left.

By Sept. 1, the PLO fighters had been evacuated from Beirut under the supervision of the MNF. Remember that this evacuation was conditional on the MNF providing security for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. On Sept. 11, however, the MNF departed Lebanon. On Sept. 14 Lebanon’s newly elected president was assassinated. Within days, Israeli forces surrounded the Sabra and Shatila camps, preventing anyone from leaving.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), under the leadership of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, gave permission for the Phalangists (a Lebanese Christian political party and militia, and avowed enemy of the Palestinians) to enter the camps in order “to rid the camps of any fighters left behind and to prevent chaos.” From Sept. 16 to 18 hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent civilians living in the camps, including many women and children, were brutally slaughtered by this militia under the watchful eye, and with the aid, of the IDF.

During this time, I was working as a nurse at the Gaza Hospital inside Sabra camp and bore witness to much of what happened. I subsequently testified before the Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Massacre.

Every September I return to the camps to commemorate the massacre—and each year the situation for the Palestinians deteriorates. The 12 UNRWA camps in Lebanon with 455,000 registered Palestinian refugees are extremely overcrowded, and now house refugees from Syria as well. Most living spaces consist of two very small rooms: a bedroom, where the entire family sleeps, and a living room of sorts with a chair or two, maybe a sofa; in addition, there will be a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchen. There is no ventilation, and hardly any electricity. Most families use battery-powered lighting provided by American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Drinking tap water is prohibited, as it is full of bacteria and very salty—it actually corrodes pipes. Narrow alleyways—some with sewage running through—wind through the camps. When it rains these small paths become muddy.

Electrical wires hang from dwellings. When I first went to Lebanon I noticed those wires. Over the years, I see that they have been strung lower and lower, so that now the top of your head can actually brush up against them. Walk through any camp on any day: you can see young men connecting and re-connecting wires. From time to time, someone is electrocuted.

Foul odors emanate from those crowded conditions. Illness is rampant. In Nahr el-Bard, in the north, there is an impetigo epidemic (a highly contagious skin infection that mainly affects children) due to poor sanitary conditions; some camps have clinics which specialize in treating lice. Nahr el-Bard is in the process of slowly being rebuilt after being leveled in 2007. The construction produces dust and debris which blow into homes and affect those living there. Medications for all illnesses are in short supply.

This year, I noticed a few families living in very small spaces made entirely of tin. In Nahr el-Bard some refugees are still living in containers once meant to serve as temporary shelters.

To add to an already difficult situation, this year a sandstorm hit the Middle East. The air was thick when I arrived; people could hardly see what was in front of them. Most wore masks. In the north, hundreds of people were admitted to the hospital with respiratory complications. A number of them died.

September was hotter than usual. Due to an ongoing trash strike, garbage was piled high in the streets. Almost everyone in my delegation had some sort of intestinal problem.

The Not to Forget Sabra and Shatila Commemoration is organized by the excellent NGO Beit Atfal Assumoud (BAS), the National Institution of Social Care & Vocational Training, directed by Kassem Aina. Our program was full and productive. This year we were joined by a delegation from Palestine representing NGOs in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. This delegation made our visit even more interesting as its members shared stories of their own day-to-day lives. They were appalled by the conditions in Sabra and Shatila, and remarked that they “were worse than in Gaza.” The leader of the delegation reminded all of us—visitors and camp residents alike—that “the Palestinians are one people no matter where they are…whether they are in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, or in the diaspora. It is one struggle. And the Right of Return must be recognized.”

We visited many camps and broke bread with those living in them. One of the high points for me, always, is the visits with the survivors. I have known many of them for years. I am aware of their aging (as well as my own). I watch as they hold the frames containing faded pictures of those they lost so long ago. The survivors have grown old, their faces lined with wrinkles. Yet they remember their loved ones as they looked way back then—promising young boys, handsome husbands—all looking forward to a future which ended horribly and tragically in September of 1982. A small group of us visited the sparsely furnished home of one of the survivors, who now lives in what was once the hospital and is now a run-down shelter where hundreds of displaced live. She shared with us her story of what happened to her during the massacre.

The re-telling of those days during the massacre is important to me. It allows me to remember the events with her and with the translator (also a survivor). It verifies the moments, the past; it is a way of sharing. It is a means for me, as a non-Palestinian, to deal with what happened. It re-affirms my commitment not to forget the event and to keep that part of Palestinian history alive. At the end of our visit I asked to see pictures of her grandchildren—she remarried after her husband was killed. This small request made her smile. Sharing talk of her grandchildren was a lovely way to end the visit.

Annually, we have lunch with a group of survivors. It allows us to share a delicious home-cooked Arabic meal prepared by BAS in a relaxed atmosphere. These people are our heroes; we want them to feel honored and special. As we’ve come to know them over the years, we share not only their sorrow and resignation, but their steps toward healing. One woman, who in years past was very tearful and sad, and seemed in poor health, looked wonderful this visit. She has lately been receiving excellent health care, and she was smiling and upbeat. One gentleman used to carry a book about his murdered son and always seemed anxious. This year he did not bring the book to the lunch. Instead, he seemed in good spirits and joyfully sat with some of the delegation.

We traveled south to Rashidiyeh camp, on the edge of the Mediterranean, for a special visit. The residents say they like living there because it is “close to Palestine.” We were entertained with a lovely concert by the Assamoud band, debke dance, and poetry readings. For some reason, I always have tears in my eyes when I watch the young generation carrying on their tradition. No matter what the Israelis do, they cannot kill a culture!

The Closing Ceremony

The commemoration program closes with a ceremony that includes survivors, those living in camps, including youth groups, guests and dignitaries at a cultural center close to the cemetery. After several speeches, the participants march from the center to the mass grave. Wreaths are laid, survivors place pictures of those lost close to the wreaths, prayers are said. It is a time to greet friends who come every year, to grieve alongside those who remain.

When I reflect on my visit, I am reminded that there are now four generations of Palestinians in these camps. It is a painful thought. I have had conversations with many of the elderly who came in 1948. At first, these refugees truly believed they would be returning within days to their homes, their groves and orchards in Palestine. They left with just the clothes on their backs. Most had lived quite comfortably, tending crops, working their farmland, raising animals, producing goods. Now they are impoverished. Never did they imagine that 67 years later they would be living in such harsh conditions. The lack of basic essentials that most of us take for granted has become a way of life for them.

The generations that were born there are not aware of how comfortable and profitable their ancestors’ lives were; they know nothing better than their daily reality. Through no fault of their own, these Palestinians have lived out their lives in deplorable refugee camps. I always wonder why Israel has never taken any responsibility for this tragedy.

I have been asked, “Why is this massacre different from other atrocities the Palestinians have suffered? Why is so much attention paid to this one?” I am not sure I can answer. All I know is that the barbarity of what happened is unprecedented and that Israel played a direct role. The U.S. did not “provide safety and security” once the PLO left, despite the promise by President Ronald Reagan’s envoy Philip Habib. The Lebanese who participated were and never will be charged. All parties went free. Israel, America and Lebanon all played a role. Justice has not been done.

A great deal of attention is paid to Gaza. Most organizations are focused on the situation there, and that is understandable. But the conditions in the camps in Lebanon are ignored altogether. Why is this? One organization says that “its goal is to change U.S. policy.” Fine, but what about the decades of day-to-day suffering in the camps in Lebanon? Peace is not at hand; military occupation and violence are not compatible with peace. The conflict will not be resolved soon. Let us help those in need. No doubt, a fifth-generation Palestinian child will be born before long in Sabra and Shatila. Let us make life more tolerable for families and give youths the tools to further educate themselves, to improve their skills—let us allow them to hope for a better future.

The situation of the refugees in Lebanon was created decades ago for political objectives—yet today the refugees remain. They are not abstract political concepts, but individual human beings, generation upon generation, forced to live in conditions that are barely livable. This is the immediate question you can ask yourself, in whatever way works for you, without waiting for others to “solve” the “problem” of the refugees. What can you do?

You can join me for the 34th Commemoration next September. In the interim, you can support the work of ANERA. I am on its Medical Committee and have visited its programs in Lebanon. It does excellent work. ANERA describes its mission as to “advance the well-being of people in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. Through partnerships and close consultations with local groups and communities, ANERA responds to economic, health and educational needs with sustainable solutions and delivers humanitarian aid during emergencies.” I encourage you to visit its website, <>, and consider becoming a donor.

BAS, which organizes our annual commemoration, has many projects in Lebanon—all professionally run and with ongoing training for those who provide services. Some of its programs include sponsorship for children and the elderly, social services for families and children, vocational training, literacy classes, computer training, embroidery production, mental health counseling, dental clinics, reproductive health clinics, and cultural and social activities. The kindergartens in the camps are fantastic—a lovely respite from camp life, giving children some sense of normalcy. One way of supporting BAS is to sponsor a child, a family or an elderly person through its website, For specific spon­sorship opportunities visit

Ellen Siegel, an American Jewish nurse, is a peace activist who has focused her activism on bringing awareness of the situation of the Palestinian refugees in the camps in Lebanon to others. She volunteered her medical services in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. She was working at Gaza Hospital in Sabra Camp during the massacre.

ed171007-84f5-44c9-9589-dcbdb948cddaThe Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford will be holding a short course on Palestine refugees and international law in Amman, Jordan on 11-12 March 2016:


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 nongovernmental organisations.


Dawn Chatty, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration, RSC

Susan M Akram, Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law

Further details and an online application form can be found at

* * *

In addition, the RSC is now accepting applications for their International Summer School in Forced Migration, which will be held in Oxford on 4-22 July 2016.

Applications are invited for the 2016 International Summer Schoolin Forced Migration, to be held at Wadham College, Oxford. The Summer School, now in its 27th year, offers an intensive, interdisciplinary and participative approach to the study of forced migration. It aims to enable people working with and for refugees and forced migrants to examine critically the forces and institutions that dominate the world of the displaced. Beginning with reflection on the diverse ways of conceptualising forced migration, the course considers political, legal and wellbeing issues associated with contemporary displacement. Individual course modules also tackle a range of other topics, including globalisation and forced migration, and negotiating strategies in humanitarian situations.

The participants

The Summer School is principally designed for practitioners and policymakers working with and for refugees and related issues, normally with several years work experience.   Participants typically include staff of the main refugee, migration and humanitarian international organisations; staff from refugee, human rights and humanitarian NGOs, and government officials working on refugee protection and related issues.

Participants also include academics and postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working directly on refugee and forced migration issues; practicing lawyers and advocates working in refugee and human rights law pertaining to forced migrants; journalists, commentators and activists working on refugee protection and the human rights of forced migrants.

The teaching

Lecturers and tutors include research staff, academics and professionals from the Refugee Studies Centre and other world-class institutions, drawn from a number of disciplines and practices including law, anthropology, politics, and international relations.

The course, which is residential, is held in Oxford. Teaching is conducted in English.


Saïd Foundation bursaries are available for Summer School candidates who work on refugee-related issues from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (or Palestinians and Syrians resident in the Arab world). Candidates wishing to be considered for bursary support must apply directly via the International Summer School office and not contact the donors directly. Please note the deadline for a bursary application to the International Summer School is 1 February 2016.

Should additional funding become available details will be made available on the Refugee Studies Centre website.

Additional details and an online application form can be found at

Fact-checking “UNRWA has got to go”

Posted: October 28, 2015 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNRWA

factsToday’s Times of Israel has a piece by Ari Krauss entitle “UNRWA has got to go.” Unfortunately it is another example of the poorly-informed debate within Israel on the Agency and what it does (and doesn’t) do.

A few examples:

“It has, from the very beginning, been an organization that has had an interest in managing the problem of the Palestinian refugees rather than solving it.”

  • Not at all–UNRWA has been vociferous in calling for a resolution of the refugee issue that it would put it out of business. In the early, optimistic days of the Oslo process it began preliminary planning for service transfer/wind-down in the aftermath of a final status agreement, and it certainly took part in a range of quiet discussions on transitional issues (I know–I organized some of them). It also aligns its service delivery practices with host countries, in part, to make any eventual post-peace transfer of services easier.

“In contrast, the UN Refugee Agency, which deals with all refugees worldwide totaling approximately eleven million, employs sixty three hundred staffers…”

  • Only partly true. UNHCR subcontracts most of its actual service delivery, while UNRWA employs teachers, medical personnel directly. If you added employees of subcontracted NGOs to the UNHCR total it would be very much higher. (UNRWA also provides more extensive services.)

“The recent wave of violence has revealed a disturbing trend of calls to incitement of violence on social media. individuals identifying themselves as UNRWA employees in their profiles and even teachers at UNRWA schools have shared and posted images calling for violence against Jews and praising the stabbing attacks that had already taken place;

UNRWA has made no effort to curb these incidents and, as far as anyone can tell, makes no effort to investigate or fire such employees.”

  • The first part, regrettably, is true—and while it is hardly surprising that Palestinian employees of UNRWA (almost all from families that were ethnically cleansed from Palestine by Israel in 1948) might hate Israelis, there should be absolutely no tolerance for expressions of this within a UN agency.
  • The second part isn’t true. UNRWA does have active and ongoing measures against incitement or violation of political neutrality. UNRWA has taken disciplinary measures against some UNRWA employees, although in my view needs to do more, and to do it more publicly.

“UNRWA has made no effort ensure that it does not employ members of the many terror groups that operate within the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Refugee camps.”

  • Actually, the entire UNRWA employment roster is regularly transmitted to Israel for vetting (although they don’t talk about it a lot, since that’s hardly popular among Palestinians). It also checks its employee lists in other ways. Obviously, in some cases they’ll miss members of extremist groups, just as there are Israeli civil servants or military personnel who support the banned Kach/Kahane Chai Jewish terrorist organization.

“We don’t need to look further than last summer during Operation Protective Edge where UNRWA schools were offended found to be booby-trapped or storage sites for Hamas ordnance. In one shocking case, UNRWA officials claimed that they had turned over missiles found in one of their schools to “the local authorities” as per routine UN practice in these situations. Presumably that means Hamas, who, to the knowledge of counter terrorism experts and Western intelligence agencies, does not maintain an explosive ordnance disposal unit.”

  • No UNRWA school was found to be booby-trapped. The IDF did identify one “UNRWA clinic” as booby-trapped, but the claim was false as the IDF later admitted.
  • Weapons were found in a couple of UNRWA schools  that had been closed for the summer, which was a clear violation of UNRWA’s neutrality policy. It was UNRWA that found the weapons, UNRWA that denounced their presence, and tried to have them removed by liaising with Palestinian police personnel reporting to the Ramallah (not Gaza/Hamas) government. If Krauss had actually bothered to read the UN investigation report on the incident he would know that unknown persons removed the weapons before disposal could be arranged—UNRWA’s statements at the time got this wrong.
  • On a side note, the IDF has also made use of UN schools as military positions (even, in one case, as a temporary detention centre) in the past during operations in both the West Bank and Gaza. That too is a violation of UNRWA’s neutrality policy.

“The United Nations High Commissioner on Human rights states that the three primary solutions to refugee problems are “Voluntary repatriation, local integration, resettlement” these solutions only apply to original refugees; would that the Palestinians had not been allowed their special status of being able to pass down their status as refugees to their children than estimates put original Palestinian refugees today at anywhere between thirty and fifty thousand people, a much more manageable number which could have easily been granted the right of return in a peace agreement. Instead, we have a number that has ballooned into the millions and which would be impossible for Israel to absorb.”

  • Oh, where to begin
  • UNHCR has an even stronger position than UNRWA on refugees’ “right to return,” and clearly prioritizes the repatriation of refugees for 90%+ of refugees.
  • UNHCR recognizes the children of stateless refugees as refugees (“derived status”). Most UNRWA refugees would be refugees under UNHCR rules too. In cases where stateless subsequent-generation Palestinian refugees have been outside UNRWA’s area of operation (for example, Iraq), UNHCR has treated them as refugees.
  • Finally, the current Israeli government is not willing to accept the return of ANY Palestinian refugees, so it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that “thirty and fifty thousand people” would be “a much more manageable number which could have easily been granted the right of return in a peace agreement.”
  • I happen to agree that large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is not ever going to happen, and that clinging to an absolute right of return is an impediment to achieving peace. That being said, I’ve yet to meet a Palestinian negotiator who thinks very large numbers of refugees would return to 1948 areas either. The roots of the Palestinian yearning to return to their homeland are not to be found in UNRWA, however, but in forced displacement by Israel. Jews, after all, didn’t need a UN agency to wish to return to Eretz Israel, a yearning they sustained through centuries of diaspora… why think that Palestinians are incapable of that same desire?

There are certainly issues on which UNRWA practices and Israeli preferences (or the preferences of the current Israeli government) do not align. There are also issues on which UNRWA practices and those of the PA, or Hamas, or host countries, or even donors do not fully align. By all means, those are appropriate subjects for discussion.

It does help, however, to get your facts straight.

Donating to UNHCR and UNRWA

Posted: September 3, 2015 by Rex Brynen in Syria, UNHCR, UNRWA

Amid the onging human devastation of the Syrian civil war and a growing regional and international refugee crisis, this is probably as good a time as ever to remind readers how they can help.

Click the images below to donate to UNHCR or UNRWA..

UNHCR appeal

UNRWA donate

“UNRWA TV” has published an interview with UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell. She focuses most of her comments on the Agency’s growing funding crisis. UNRWA currently has a deficit of $101 million, and has had to take a variety of emergency austerity measures—including service cuts and a possible postponement of the start of the 2015-16 school year.

Mitchell was appointed as Deputy Commissioner-General in December 2014. Mitchell previously served as Vice-President of International Programs of the International Rescue Committee, and previously worked at UNRWA from 2011 to 2013 as Director of Operations (Jordan) and Chief of Staff.

Call for Papers: Towards Engaged and Responsible Research: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon Workshop

18-19 March 2016, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, Lebanon

Submission deadline: 31 August 2015


The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most protracted conflicts of our time and has produced one of the largest refugee crises in contemporary history. In the continued absence of a political solution Palestinian refugees remain in exile for over six decades. Reflecting the importance of this longstanding and fundamental crisis, the academic study of Palestinian refugees generated, and continues to generate, a large body of knowledge across a variety of disciplinary fields. In contrast little research has been devoted to investigate the state of academic research and its impact on the researched community. This workshop will focus on the study of the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon which have been, and continue to be, one of the most coveted sites of fieldwork for researchers year after year and decade after decade. It will convene scholars and community workers to probe three inter- related themes.

1. The state of academic research

What is the current state of academic research on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon? How has research evolved over time? Is it possible to outline certain trends? Are researchers focusing on certain topics and leaving others unexamined? Are there gaps to be filled? What directions should future scholarship take?

2. Research impact

How has research, spanning several decades, affected the Palestinian community? What responsibilities do researchers carry towards the researched community in under-privileged conditions? Are there strategic intersections between activism and research in Palestinian camps? What challenges or
dilemmas does it give rise to? What are the different models, experiences and potentials of activist- research that have emerged in this context? Are there lessons to be learned from other places?

3. New forms of research/knowledge production

What new forms of research are emerging in Palestinian camps? Are these practices challenging traditional roles of researchers in marginalized contexts? Are they exploring new forms of knowledge production and targeting new audiences for their research?

The workshop will be in both English and Arabic. Speakers will be given 20 minutes to discuss their papers and a 40 minutes Q&A session will follow at the end of their panel.

To apply, please email with the following information:

  • Your name, position, and institutional affiliation.
  • The title of your paper.
  • An abstract of your proposed paper (up to 500 words). Make sure to include your paper’s main
  • A short biography – not exceeding 100 words.

Please put ‘IPS research workshop submission’ in the subject line. Submissions can be either in English or Arabic. The deadline for submitting paper proposals is 31 August 2015. Submissions will be reviewed and selected participants will be notified by 30 September 2015.

The selected presenters are required to submit a draft paper of 4,000 to 5,000 words by the 31 January 2016.

If you wish to attend the workshop without presenting a paper, please email your request to Please include your name and affiliation and please put ‘IPS research workshop attendee’ in the subject line.

The Institute for Palestine Studies, founded in Beirut in 1963, is an independent nonprofit Arab research and publication center that is not affiliated to any political organization or government.


PRRN refugee books on sale at Pluto Press

Posted: June 28, 2015 by Rex Brynen in new publications


Two of the books I coedited with Roula el-Rifai—Compensation to Palestinian Refugees and the Search for Palestinian-Israeli Peace (2013) and The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for a Resolution (2013)are currently on sale at the Pluto Press website with a 40% discount.

Click here to access the website to have the 40% discount automatically applied, then search “Brynen” to find them. You’ll also find several other books on Palestinians, refugees, and Palestinian refugees on sale too.

The sale ends July 10.


Last month, Fateh Azzam (Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University in Beirut, and Senior Policy Fellow at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy) authored a piece on the al-Shabaka Palestinian policy website proposing that the State of Palestine grant all Palestinian refugees citizenship.

What is proposed here is that the State of Palestine can begin conferring citizenship, in accordance with the Declaration of Independence, and in exercise of its sovereign right to do so as a state, albeit still under occupation and even though its citizens are unable yet to exercise their right to return to their homeland. Importantly, this would be the first act by the State of Palestine to give priority to its hitherto almost-forgotten constituency, the stateless refugees. There are of course benefits and risks….

Jadaliyya has now reproduced that piece, invited critical comments from others, and posted it all as a roundtable discussion.

In this roundtable, Al-Shabaka policy advisors debate the pros and cons of this proposal, and find more problems than solutions. Randa Farah, who has done extensive work on Palestinian refugees, warns against de-linking the law from the messy reality of power and politics and describes the ways Israel can use this proposal, including in its persistent campaign to dismantle the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Ingrid Jaradat, co-founder and former director of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, notes that the legal tools and mechanisms already exist to give Palestinian refugees rights almost equal to those of the citizens in the countries of refuge, and argues that a citizenship law will undermine the international status of Palestinians as one people.

Amman-based international lawyer Anis Kassim, recalling the history of the Palestinians in Jordan and the problems they face today, fears that the idea may play into the hands of a government interested in divesting its Palestinian-origin citizens of their Jordanian nationality. Writer and analyst Mouin Rabbani believes that creative thinking is sorely needed to shake up the political dynamic but also notes that the narrow factional state of the Palestinian movement will preclude any action.  Political commentator, author, and playwright Samah Sabawi notes that the Palestinian passport is ranked the 5th worst in the world in terms of visa restrictions and wonders what authority the ailing leadership can wield. Jaber Suleiman, the Coordinator of the Centre for Refugee Rights/Aidoun in Lebanon, points out that the Palestinians never lost their original citizenship and expresses concern that while the current proposal might not weaken the individual right to choose to return, it would weaken the collective right of return.  Fateh Azzam offers a response to the points made in the discussion.

For another perspective on this issue, see also the article by Asem Khalil (Birzeit University) in Middle East Law and Governance 6 (2014), asking “Is Citizenship a Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Problem?”

1433642901008RAND recently released a major study on the The Costs of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which explores the cost and benefits of several possible outcomes to the conflict:

For much of the past century, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been a defining feature of the Middle East. Despite billions of dollars expended to support, oppose, or seek to resolve it, the conflict has endured for decades, with periodic violent eruptions, of which the Israel-Gaza confrontation in the summer of 2014 is only the most recent.

This study estimates the net costs and benefits over the next ten years of five alternative trajectories — a two-state solution, coordinated unilateral withdrawal, uncoordinated unilateral withdrawal, nonviolent resistance, and violent uprising — compared with the costs and benefits of a continuing impasse that evolves in accordance with present trends. The analysis focuses on economic costs related to the conflict, including the economic costs of security. In addition, intangible costs are briefly examined, and the costs of each scenario to the international community have been calculated.

The study’s focus emerged from an extensive scoping exercise designed to identify how RAND’s objective, fact-based approach might promote fruitful policy discussion. The overarching goal is to give all parties comprehensive, reliable information about available choices and their expected costs and consequences.

Seven key findings were identified: A two-state solution provides by far the best economic outcomes for both Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis would gain over three times more than the Palestinians in absolute terms — $123 billion versus $50 billion over ten years. But the Palestinians would gain more proportionately, with average per capita income increasing by approximately 36 percent over what it would have been in 2024, versus 5 percent for the average Israeli. A return to violence would have profoundly negative economic consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis; per capita gross domestic product would fall by 46 percent in the West Bank and Gaza and by 10 percent in Israel by 2024. In most scenarios, the value of economic opportunities gained or lost by both parties is much larger than expected changes in direct costs. Unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank would impose large economic costs on Israelis unless the international community shoulders a substantial portion of the costs of relocating settlers. Intangible factors, such as each party’s security and sovereignty aspirations, are critical considerations in understanding and resolving the impasse. Taking advantage of the economic opportunities of a two-state solution would require substantial investments from the public and private sectors of the international community and from both parties.

The project also has put together an online costs-calculator, which allows a user to modify economic assumptions used in the study and see how these affect the result.

What does the study have to say about the refugee issue, especially with regard to the two state outcome?

Under the two-state solution, we assume that 600,000 Palestinian refugees will return from abroad to the newly formed Palestinian state. Estimates of the number who are likely to return vary significantly, and we select 600,000—equivalent to an approximate 10-percent increase in the size of the population of the Palestinian state— as an “average” value. (p. 75)

Second, we assume that the international community will provide financial support to repatriate the refugees in a two-state solution. Specifically, we assume that the international community will provide sufficient public and private capital investment so that any influx of labor will not lower per capita GDP. (p. 99)

We also assume that the return of refugees would not reduce the per capita GDP of the Palestinian economy. Thus, the 10-percent expansion in the population (600,000 refugees) will be accompanied by a 10-percent expansion in the size of the entire economy, or roughly $2.7 billion. This will require an estimated $9 billion in additional public and private investment. (p. 113)

 We also anticipate that humanitarian assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [sic] will continue. (p. 143)

In my view the RAND study overestimates the amount of international financial assistance that would be forthcoming to support an agreement. It likely underestimates the challenges of refugee repatriation and absorption.

Moreover, the study also assumes that no compensation/reparation payments are made by Israel to refugees, although the payment of some compensation has long been both a Palestinian demand and an assumption of the international community. Previous Israeli governments have accepted the idea of refugee compensation in principle, although it is not clear that is still the case.

Given that estimates of compensation run from $2-3 billion to a Palestinian demand of $200+ billion, the absence of this from the study’s calculations is a significant omission. Moreover, many donors have signalled that they expect much or most of this ought to be paid by Israel, not the international community. Clearly it could factor as a significant expense for Israel, and a significant financial plus for the Palestinians.