Israeli policy (in)capacity and the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: May 28, 2014 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative, Gaza, Israel, peace process, right of return, UNRWA, West Bank
Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The Institute of National Security Studies has published a paper on the Palestinian refugee issue by Kobi Michael, the former deputy director and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs. In it he argues that, with permanent status issues impossible to resolve at the present time, there should be an increased focus on improving the humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian territories:

A paradigm shift in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse, which will enable a more developed foundation for advanced negotiations toward a future agreement, is now necessary. Specifically, the discourse must shift from national rights to human rights, focusing on the humanitarian rights of the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian Authority. Israel, with the backing of the United States and the international community, should launch a process built on the humanitarian drive to bring relief to the refugee population in the PA and transfer this obligation to the Palestinian  government, which would receive aid from Israel and the international community for the effort. 

His argument for doing so (from the point-of-view of Israeli interests) lies predominately in weakening Palestinian refugee claims of a right of return,  as well as improving the socio-economic context for future negotiations:

There is no question that a “Jenin Estates” or “Bethlehem Heights” project would become an economic and social engine in the PA’s economic, social, and infrastructure development. With appropriate, careful, and close input from the international community, it would also aid in developing the political infrastructure of the future Palestinian state. No less importantly, a move of this type would signal to Israel that there is a Palestinian willingness to soften, if not rescind, the demand for the right of return, without the Palestinian leadership having to declare at this point in time that it is willing to consider recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such willingness could surface in due course, once a project of this type advances significantly. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will gain additional territories in a manner that signals Israeli willingness for real territorial compromise in due course and improves PA territorial contiguity, as well as economic and political recovery.

For those same reason, Palestinians are likely to find in his proposals a recipe for undermining the inherent rights of the refugees, and reject it as completely unacceptable.

However, what may be most interesting about the INSS paper is not its precise recommendations, but rather what it says about Israeli policy capacity and knowledge on this issue—or rather the lack thereof. Regardless of one’s political or ideological position, this weakness ought to be a concern for everyone, for it undermines the prospects for future successful negotiations. Concern about shortcomings in Israeli knowledge of the issue refugee have often been raised to me in the past by US, European, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials. Such concerns have also been raised by former Israeli officials, including those intimately involved in negotiations and negotiation preparations. It was a point on which the overwhelming majority of the Israeli participants agreed at the Chatham House workshop on Israeli perspectives on the Palestinian refugee issue. Indeed, one Israeli government official once told me that, when tasked with preparing a background paper on refugees, they had found so little knowledge and understanding within government ministries that they were forced to depend in part on a Google search to find important information.

In particular, a close reading of Michael’s paper reveals a umber of very basic weaknesses.

  • He seems to be assuming that all refugees live in refugee camps. In fact, most don’t: only 29% of Palestinian refugees live in camps. In the West Bank and Gaza the numbers are 24% and 42% respectively.
  • He assumes that refugees are receiving exclusively UNRWA services. In fact, outside the camps, the PA is already the primary service provider to refugees.
  • He seems to be assuming that Palestinian refugees are substantially worse off than other Palestinians. However, this is generally not true. Certainly, conditions in the camps tend to be worse off than those outside the camp (although most are not “squalid”). This is not because refugees are some how trapped there in a cycle of poverty, though, but rather because the camps act as a sort of reserve of low-income housing, with individuals and families (especially in the West Bank) often moving out as their conditions improve. As Jon Hanssen-Bauer and Laurie Blome Jacobsen have noted in the link above, “studies of [refugee] living conditions show that their livelihoods have stabilized after three generations and their basic living conditions resemble those of the host country populations.” Moreover, “These camp refugees have lower incomes and poorer health and education levels than those outside the camps. However, camp refugees have better access to basic health and education services due to UNRWA’s presence. The latter point directly leads to the conclusion that the camp populations do not face homogeneously poor living conditions, nor do they constitute the main poverty problem in the host countries.”

He repeated claims that the PA somehow “exploits [the refugees] misery,” but provides no evidence that they actually do this—because, of course, there is none. Indeed, the President of the PA is himself a refugee, while the most disadvantaged population in the West Bank is not refugees, but rather rural villages in the north and south.

The author’s understanding of the political dynamics of the refugee issue is equally weak. Any move to transfer responsibility for UNRWA service provision to the PA would undoubtedly be seen as an Israeli-international conspiracy to erode refugee claims (indeed, the very reason Michael proposes it). Refugees would also be worried about the erosion of service delivery standards. It would therefore spark a massive backlash in the West Bank and Gaza, to the point of imperiling the political stability of the PA. It certainly would be a massive political gift to Hamas.

Finally, the analysis shows a pretty stunning lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the task he is proposing:

New Palestinian cities can be established in Area C, which, with Israel’s agreement, would be transferred to PA responsibility, and Palestinian refugees can be rehabilitated there. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which over the years has evolved from a mechanism to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem to a participant in perpetuating their refugee status, would change its mission and become the international community’s representative for promoting this drive. UN aid and additional aid effort would be used for this purpose. Commercial and employment areas would be built next to the Palestinian cities, with the involvement of Israeli, Jordanian, and international developers, so that refugee rehabilitation would not be limited to housing solutions, but would include a comprehensive employment, education, and welfare package.

Rehousing and building new cities doesn’t come cheap: the cost of this would be in many of billions of dollars, at a time when there’s barely enough aid to keep the PA running, and certainly not enough aid money available to address the needs of refugees fleeing Syria. Indeed, virtually all serious studies of the refugee issue have recommended against wholesale “decamping” of refugee camps, even in the aftermath of a full peace agreement. Instead, while some new residential areas might be constructed, for the most part housing issues would be addressed through the dedensification and upgrading of existing refugee camps (which would, in the aftermath of an agreement, cease to be “refugee camps” and instead become normal urban areas—which, in many ways, is what they already are).

Finally, I think commentators who favour rehousing and the transfer of services to the PA overestimate the impact this would have on the strength of Palestinian political claims on the refugee issue. Certainly the polling evidence suggests that living in a refugee camps, receiving UNRWA services, or even refugee status has very little effect on Palestinian perceptions of refugee rights or the political importance they assign to the issue. That being said, Michael’s piece is more focussed on the signal it would send Israel, which is a somewhat different issue.

Just to reiterate: while I disagree with the political thrust of the INSS paper, my criticisms here have nothing to do with political differences. Rather, my comments have to do with the lack of basic understanding of this issue, and the extent to which it leads to poor policy analysis. That this sort of paper can—some 68 years after the birth of the refugee issue and after 22 years of the “peace process”—be written by a former official responsible for Palestinian issues and posted on the website of a major Israeli think-tank is really pretty shocking.


  1. kobi michael says:

    I really appreciate the serious analysis of my paper published by the INSS and I even agree with some of the arguments and familiar with the facts mentioned in this analysis. Saying that, I think that the analysis takes the wrong direction regarding the ideas made in the original paper. First, I would recommend to avoid patronism with regard to the Israeli establishment and researchers and their knowledge infrastructure regarding the Palestinian refugees and the essence of the problem. Second, in your analysis you rely on some facts and commonsense which are absolutely irrelevant to the point made in the paper.
    It is well known that the Palestinians will make no declarative concessions about the refugees. On the other hand it is well known that the refugees as the so called “right of return ” is the core bone of the Palestinian ethos. it is the other side of the coin of recognizing in the right of Israel to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people. Due to my understanding this is exactly the core of the conflict and therefore the conflict can not be resolved.
    The absence of trust between the peoples and leaderships lies directly on this issue and in the eyes of the Israeli public and leadership the Palestinian refusal to recognize the right of the Israeli nation state means the will to implement the right of return, to change the demographic realty and underlying the political model of the Jewish nation state.
    Due to the fact that we are in front of a stalemate and understanding that the Palestinian leadership is not able making any compromise regarding the right of return, and in this aspect they do abuse the refugees by perpetuating their conditions and status, I thought that conditioned Israeli redeployment might create a change or at least will challenge the Palestinian leadership and the international community.
    The fact that there are refugees who improved their conditions of life, even inside the camps, does not mean that the camps are horrible and most people who live there would have prefer by no doubt to live outside the camps. The camps and the aid infrastructure facilitated by UNRWA are green houses of hatred incitement towards Israel and another sad indication about UNRWA as an institution that perpetuates a problem instead of resolving it. Therefore, it is an opportunity to change this realty as well. Your concern about the huge amount of money required for such projects does not address the outrage regarding the billions of dollars given to the Palestinians during 20 years of Oslo process where most of them were stolen or used wrongly and in an insufficient manner. Such projects can be done and they will enhance the Palestinian economy as well.
    in sum – I am talking about game changer and reshaping realty, changing the rules of the game, challenging the Palestinians, Israelis and international community and breaking the stalemate and you are talking about facts that are marginal strategically. You reflect the problem while I am trying to restructure it.

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    Thanks for you comments! I would note the following:

    Repeated public opinion surveys show that while refugee status and/or refugee camp residence has some impact on Palestinian attitudes to Israel, the effect is surprisingly small (the effect ranges from 0-5%, and would probably be less if one controlled from socio-economic status). The camps probably also have some effect on militant mobilization due to the density of social networks too, but it isn’t clear that it is greater than the effects of, say, residence in dense urban areas or having attended university. I would venture to suggest that a well-designed study would probably find that Israeli occupation practices have far more effect on Palestinian militancy than does residence in a refugee camp.

    On a side note, I don’t think it is accurate to say that “most of [aid funds for the PA] were stolen or used wrongly and in an insufficient manner.” The World Bank has repeatedly noted that the amount of aid lost to corruption is actually very small by international standards, and that–while many PA policies could be improved–the occupation (notably mobility restrictions) is by far the largest negative factor impacting Palestinian economic development. See, for example:

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