Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Peacemaking
Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Peacemaking
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iran: Gaza, “Axis of Resistance” and Nuclear Calculations
Iran: Gaza, “Axis of Resistance” and Nuclear Calculations
Report 22 / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Palestinian Refugees and the Politics of Peacemaking

When Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations resume, a key stumbling block is likely to be the Palestinian refugee question. The plight of the refugees and the demand that their right of return be recognised has been central to the Palestinian struggle since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Executive Summary

When Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations resume, a key stumbling block is likely to be the Palestinian refugee question. The plight of the refugees and the demand that their right of return be recognised has been central to the Palestinian struggle since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Palestinians warn that a dissatisfied, angry refugee community whose core demands remain unmet could undermine any peace agreement. For their part, Israelis reject any significant return of refugees, which would spell the end of the Jewish state. They suggest that the issue has been kept artificially alive by the Palestinian leadership and Arab states; improvements in the desultory living conditions of camp refugees coupled with substantial resettlement plans in host or third countries could, they argue, dilute the intensity of the demand for return.

Both diagnoses are only partially correct. The refugee question has formed a core of the Middle East conflict since the late 1940s, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were driven from or fled their towns and villages during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and were prevented from returning to their homes after the end of hostilities. While there is considerable controversy over the statistics, the number of Palestinian refugees today, if defined to include the descendants of 1948 refugees and those displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a result of the 1967 war, probably stands at between four and six million, comprising some two-thirds of the Palestinian people.

For 55 years, the refugee question has by default and design played a central role in virtually every aspect of Palestinian life and politics. The guerrilla movements, particularly the dominant Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), initially emerged under militant refugee leadership, whose agenda focused on the return of exiled communities. Even after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began its strategic shift toward acceptance of a negotiated two-state settlement in the mid-1970s, participated in the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference and signed the 1993 Oslo accords, it never repudiated its official commitment to the right of return. While some officials informally proposed solutions to resolve the refugee question consistent with separate Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish states – thereby acknowledging a fundamental incompatibility between a negotiated two-state solution and unrestricted implementation of refugee demands – the Palestinian leadership reacted ambivalently, alternately ignoring the issue and reconfirming its pro forma commitment to the right of return. Oslo and more recent informal proposals – such as the Geneva Initiative and the People’s Voice – precipitated a renewed campaign of activism on behalf of Palestinian refugees with which the leadership has had to contend.

In all this, the refugees as an organised political force have played only a limited part. The renewed campaigns for the right of return are not chiefly autonomous activities undertaken by refugees who feel abandoned by their leaders. They are, rather, first and foremost activities sponsored by national Palestinian organisations that oppose concessions on the refugee question for reasons that often go significantly beyond or are only tangentially related to the refugee issue itself. While some are wedded to the traditional Palestinian agenda on the refugee question as a matter of national principle, others are motivated by opposition to Oslo or the very concept of a two-state settlement (opposition fueled in whole, part, or only marginally by the refugee question). Still others are supportive of partition but dissatisfied with the terms on offer or the negotiating process, and have seized on the refugee issue to mobilise broader dissent. Some Palestinian negotiators seeking a better deal with Israel have sought to use the refugee issue as leverage for concessions on other matters. Finally, individuals and groups in political competition with the Palestinian Authority (PA) or seeking to improve their position within it have used the refugee question for tactical reasons.

More than a question of refugees, there is a refugee question. Disorganised and geographically dispersed, refugees have less influence on political decision-making than their numbers would suggest. The refugee question has been nationalised, and no single Palestinian organisation enjoys more influence than others in advocating the cause on the basis of the proportion of refugees among its leaders or supporters. The intensity of feeling on the political question of how to resolve the refugee issue is largely independent of refugee status. Likewise, many if not most refugees are inclined to perceive proposed agreements through a Palestinian rather than refugee looking glass. That is not to say that the refugee question is a card waiting to be discarded once a deal on other issues is reached. Palestinians will assess any comprehensive settlement as a package deal, and compromise on the refugee question will be facilitated if core needs are met elsewhere. Nevertheless, the centrality of the refugee issue to Palestinian identity and politics means a solution that does not meet minimum requirements – in particular some form of acknowledgment of responsibility by Israel – is likely to be deemed illegitimate by refugees and non-refugees alike.

If Palestinian refugees per se are not the problem, neither are they the exclusive answer. Improving camp conditions and opportunities in host countries, providing refugees with early, specific details on their eventual options, relocating some in Israeli settlements, should they be evacuated, and perhaps even initiating a pilot resettlement program may be helpful. But one ought to be clear-eyed as to what such steps can and cannot achieve. They can make a peace agreement more saleable to the refugees and prepare them for it. Perhaps more importantly, they can prevent the growth of a far more radicalised Palestinian camp population, a recruitment pool for radical nationalists and Islamist extremists, mobilised less by virtue of their refugee status than as a result of appalling living conditions. But such measures are unlikely to blunt the edge of the refugee issue as a national Palestinian claim that will need to be addressed as such.

An internal Palestinian dialogue is crucial and long overdue. A decade after Oslo and despite the numerous permanent status initiatives in which it has participated, the Palestinian leadership has yet to conduct a serious dialogue with its constituents about the implications of its political strategy upon the refugee question. The approach it has tended to adopt – combining reaffirmation of the right of return with broad hints of compromise – risks leading Palestinians to question their leadership’s commitment to return and Israelis to question its commitment to a two-state solution. Achieving strategic consensus and clarity among Palestinians on the refugee question is a key component of the peace process. The leadership and secular nationalists should explain to the Palestinian people what a two-state settlement would mean for the refugees in concrete terms, and engage other Palestinian political actors in efforts to broaden the national consensus on the refugee question. That would be helped, of course, by reconstituting national Palestinian institutions that have since September 2000 become increasingly fragmented. It also would be helped by dialogue with Arab host countries, whose role in any final settlement will be central.

The purpose of this report is neither to recount the historical and demographic realities of the Palestinian refugee question, nor to disentangle the contesting Israeli and Palestinian narratives in this regard. Rather, it seeks to identify those actors and factors most likely to determine how Palestinian refugees will react to a negotiated agreement of the refugee question. In so doing, it also assesses the prospects for the implementation of a permanent status agreement that broadly reflect the principles previously put forward by ICG.

Amman/Brussels, 5 February 2004

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