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A Report on the Refugee Problem

By Ilan Pappe, (Right of Return Conference Page at

The Palestinian refugees have been exposed ever since the beginning of the peace efforts in post-Mandatory Palestine to a campaign of repression and negligence. Ever since the first peace conference on post-1948 Palestine, the Lausanne meeting of Arpil 1949, the refugee problem, was excluded from the peace agenda and disassociated from the concept ‘The Palestine Conflict’. In the wake of the June 1967 war, the world at large, accepted the Israeli claim that the conflict in Palestine evolves around the territories occupied by Israel in that war. Several Arab regimes cooperated with this notion when they were ready to abandon the refugee problem as an issue in their bilateral peace negotiations with Israel. The issue of the refugees was kept alive and in the consciousness of people in the Middle East and in the world at large by the PLO activity and policies.

Outside the Middle East, it was only the United Nations Organization that had been mentioning in several of its resolutions the obligation of the international community to ensure the full and unconditional repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. A commitment made first in resolution 194 from 11 December 1948.

The Oslo accord is no different. Its architects, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, have placed the refugee issue in a sub-clause, made almost invisible, in the flood of words in the documents describing future bridges, bypasses, garrisons and cantons. The Palestinian partners to the accord, contributed to this obfuscation, probably out of negligence not bad intention, but the result is very clear. The refugee problem, the heart of the Palestine conflict, a reality acknowledged by all the Palestinians, wherever they are and by anyone sympathizing with the Palestinian cause, was marginalized in the Oslo documents. The structure built for implementing the accord, accentuated the negotiators’ disregad, almost scornful attitude, to the refugee problem. A mulitaeral committee composed to deal with the refugee problem was directed by the Israelis to deal only with the 1967 West Bank refugees, but not the 1948 ones.

The Oslo process, the implementation of the documents was no better, it was in fact worse. The rules of the Oslo game defined support by the Palestinian leadership for the Right of Return as a violation of the game, similar to the building of a new Jewish settlement in the occupied territories (not that new settlements were not built in violation of the accord, but this is beside the point). Five years after the bifurcation and cantonization of ‘the Palestinian entity’ and its transformation into a Bantustan, the Palestinian leadership was given the permission to express its wish to deal with the refugee problem as part of the negotiations over the permanent settlement of the Palestine question. The Israeli discourse at this point distinguishes between the introduction of the ‘refugee problem’ as a negotiable issue on the agenda - a legitimate Palestinian move and the demand for the Right of Return which is described as a Palestinian provocation.

The victory of Ehuad Barak in the last Israeli general elections was hailed locally and internationally as the return of the Jewish State to the peace track. A sigh of relief accompanied the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu, and an optimistic air surrounded the resumption of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As the international media was quick to note, the final stage in the long road begun in Oslo is near at hand. And yet, so far, we have witnessed the conclusion of another interim agreement, an improved version of the Wye accord, the Sharem al-Sheikh agreement and preliminary negotiations on how to negotiate the final stages. In short, very little progress, compared with the negotiations under the Netanyahu regime, announced in a highly dramatic manner and interpreted by whomever sponsors the Oslo accord with the help of an extremely sanguine discourse of peace.

The balance of power between the present Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority ensured the exclusion so far of the refugess issue from the bilateral negotiations. Ever since the election of the new Barak government in Israel, the negotiations over a permanent settlement, are heralded and announced, while at the same time, no real discussions are taken place. Should these discussions finally begin, the agenda is already very clear. In January 2000, the Barak government presented a paper, endorsed by the American negotiators, which defines the parameters of the negotiations. This is an Israeli dictate, there is no counter Palestinian proposal, none had been prepared, none is being expected to be prepared.

The ‘negotiations’ will be an Israeli and American pressure on the Palestinians to accept the Israeli paper. This paper includes, among other things, an absolute and categorical rejection of the Palestinian Right of Return. It leaves open for discussion the number of Palestinian refugees that would be allowed to return to the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority (territories that would comprise 60 per cent of the Gaza Strip and 55 per cent of the West Bank). Thus, if the Israelis and the American negotiators would have their way, the Right of Return, as it was legitimized and defined by resolution 194 from 11 December, 1948, is excluded from the terms of the final agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel. An agreement which is meant to end the conflict and on which a permanent peace would be declared as being in tact and valid.

How would the Palestinian Authority react to such a dictate? Until now, and this report is written in the beginning of February 2000, it does not have as yet to respond. There is a stalemate as the two sides fail to agree on the agenda and timetable. The progress on the Israeli-Syrian front has also decelerated the negotiations. But they may be resumed in any given moment. A Palestinian insistence on brining to the table the Right of Return as a topic for negotiations, has already been pre-empted by Barak, who declared that in this case, the two sides would have to be content with the signing of yet another interim agreement and leave it at that - while this should not perclude another cermony on the White House lawn declaring the end of the Palestine conflcit. The two sides would then would have to wait for better times, before they resume the attempt to conclude a permanent settlement.

Should the Palestinian Authority give in to the Israeli demand, it would deny the most formative and basic element of the Palestinian existence, equal to a Palestinian readiness to abandon the claim for Palestine itself. A considerably domestic coercion against any opposition inside the Authority’s territories on the one hand, and an absolute cession of the Authority’s ties with the rest of the Palestinian people, on the other, would be the price the Authority would have to pay in order to keep its leadership at least in its territories. For many Palestinians the discourse of peace, employed ever since the beginning of Oslo, would produce a reality of oppression and indirect occupation as well the perpetuation of the refugee problem. The arsenal of violence and armed struggle on the Palestinian side has not as yet been exhausted, and in due course, another uprising or guerilla warfare could be expected, motivated by the sheer force of frustration and dismay, more powerful than ever before in Palestine’s history. The peace process would produce finally another bloodshed.

In order to prevent this several campaigns should be enacted from now on.  The first is within the Palestinian comminutes themselves, including those in Israel, the territories and the Diaspora, for presenting a united front on the issue of the refugees. The second in the world at large, and in particular in America, for the sake of explaining and depicting the possible scenarios that can develop from the post-Oslo reality. The major aim here is to remvoe the halo of peace hovering over Barak’s government Enquiry commission would easily find out that thepresent government is acting as brutally in the territories still under its control, as the Netanyahu government did. It Builds settlements, exapnd beyond any precednet the Jewish take over of Greater Jerusalem, abusing Palestinians at check points, transferring them form East Jerusalem and cantonizing their country. The second aim is to stress the strong and undeniable connection between the continued disregard for the refugee problem and the inevitable collapse of the peace process. The third should be waged in Israel itself. It is no incident, that a leading member of the Labor party advocated, notwithstanidn a strong rebuke from his prime minister the return of at least 100,000 refugees to Israel proper. The number, at this stage, is not important, the principle is. In the center and left of center of the Jewish state, there is a recognition, not wide spread admitedly but growing, of the need to consider seriously the Right of Return, if not on an ethical basis, at least on a functional one.

Those who are committed to the cause in Palestine, Israel and in the world at large, should move from slogans to concrete planning. A scheme should be devised, on the basis of the work of Salman Abu Sitta and others, which explains how the Right of Return can be implemented. There were plans in the past, even by Jews such as Martin Buber in 1958, who advised abortively the govermnet of his days to compensate the refugees and accept at least a symbolic number of refugees back to the country which can inspire a bolder and more just solutions to the problem. The scheme should take into acount the new realities on the ground as well as the needs and predicament of the various refugee camps and their particular conditons. There is also a need to connect the solution for the refugee problem to the question of the future political structure in Israel and Palestine. It seems that the post-Oslo reality created a strong Jewish state and a weak Palestinian protectorate. The large number of Jewish settlers in and around the protectorate, the million Palestinian citizens of Israel and the basic economic and military balance of power, may defeat the idea of a two states solution. There is a better chance of solving the Right of Return in a more loose political structure between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, one which relates to Jewish nationalism as well as Palestinian nationalism, but more importantly helps to rectify the horrendous crime committed against the Palestinian people in 1948, without causing new sorrow and suffering. This is not an easy task, but one without which, the conflict in Palestine would be far from been solved and settled.

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