Ahmad Othman (AO): The concern of broad sectors of the Palestinian people derives from the fact that the so-called peace process, since the 1991 Madrid Conference, has been based on an extreme imbalance of power. Israel, the powerful, has received the unlimited support of the United States. The latter has constantly lowered the ceiling of the negotiations from UN Resolution 242 - still the terms of reference in the Madrid Conference - to less than UN Resolution 242 in Oslo I, Oslo II, and the accords of Wye River andSharem al-Sheikh.
By accepting the leading role of the US in the negotiations, the Palestinian negotiators have in fact handed the file of Palestinian national rights to the US, and international law and resolutions providing for our right to selfdetermination, to an independent Palestinian state and the refugees' right of return, have lost their relevance for this negotiation process. At the same time, Israel is making full use of its material and ideological resources and of its broad public consensus, in order to back up its negotiators.
When it comes to the core issues of the conflict, Jerusalem, refugees, borders and sovereignty, there is no difference between the position of Barak and Netanyahu. Moreover, Israel exploits its power by creating more facts on the ground, confiscating more Palestinian lands, building more settlements, and changing the demographic composition of Jerusalem. All this has created a situation in which the outcome of the negotiations is not a result of the cleverness of the negotiating parties, but is determined by the existing imbalance of power to the detriment of the Palestinian people and the other Arab parties in the region.
Based on the above, what can be the likely scenario given the narrow time frame set for the negotiations, i.e. 13 September for a final agreement? There are two scenarios. The first being a scenario in which each side sticks to its principles. In this case, there will be no agreement within the current time frame, because the issues involved are far too complex and sensitive. Secondly, there is a scenario in which the US presents a framework for a final status agreement, which allocates certain pieces of land to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and presents villages in the Jerusalem area as a substitute for Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Pending acceptance by the Palestinian negotiators, the PA will be permitted to declare its state on these areas. All this in exchange for major Palestinian concessions, especially the closure of the refugee file and the closure of all future options for claims for the right of return to homes and properties, as well as Palestinian recognition of Jerusalem as the united and eternal capital of Israel. This deal will include major concessions also on other important issues, such as Jewish settlements, borders, and water.
Unfortunately, based on our experience since Oslo, the second scenario is the more likely one. The fact that secret negotiations were launched in addition to the official track supports this scenario. It seems that the official negotiations are to serve, from now on, as a cover-up for the secret track - something, which is strongly reminiscent of the Madrid and Oslo talks.
Tayseer Nasrallah (TN): Unfortunately, I am also afraid that there will be a deal - maybe very soon - in the political negotiations on the expense of Palestinian refugees' right of return. Unless there is a strong popular position by refugees everywhere, in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as coordination and consensus about a national plan of action for the right of return and against a compromise, I am afraid we will be confronted with a declaration of the Palestinian state which will be declared as "a state for all Palestinians" - and our refugees will be expected to re-settle wherever they are. This is what Israel wants and what the US has been pressuring for. Israel, whether on the official or non-official level, has not shown any readiness to accept refugee return.
The recent proposal for legislation of a law aimed at barring refugee return is just another example for the uncompromising Israeli stand.(see page 12) If Israel succeeds to impose its position in the negotiations and the PLO will sign an agreement, this will be very negative for the refugees, because this will be an agreement signed by their own leadership.
What will be the impact of these likely political scenarios on the situation of Palestinian refugees in your region in the short term?
TN: Of course Palestinian refugees will reject a final status agreement that does not provide for their right to return to their homes and properties. What will happen exactly is difficult to predict at this point.
First Statistical Yearbook on Jerusalem Governorate (No. 1) Released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
AO: Refugees have already been affected negatively by the negotiations, especially on the psychological level. Frustration and loss of hope have been the dominant feeling since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And these feelings are legitimate, given the neglect of refugee rights in the negotiations. The Palestinian negotiators are perceived as powerless receivers of Israeli orders, especially because they have been unable to use UN Resolution 194 and international law as a tool of pressure. Of course, our current scenario will not lead to peace, as long as five million refugees remain dispersed in the regions, crammed into refugee camps, and deprived of their basic rights The Palestinian people everywhere will continue to struggle for their right of return.
Palestinians in Lebanon are among those who have the longest experience of suffering for several reasons, but mainly because of the religious- ethnic-based system of governance in Lebanon. Palestinians are perceived as a threat to this system, a fact that has made Lebanese- Palestinian relations tense for the past fifty years, socially, economically, and politically.
Now, as a result of the Palestinian concessions in the Oslo Accords, and because additional concessions are expected in the future, official and popular Lebanese circles are afraid that the Israeli-Palestinianfinal status agreement will bring imposed refugee resettlement to Lebanon. This fear has resulted in a concerted Lebanese campaign, which pictures Palestinians as the enemy, instead of directing the campaign against Israel and against refugee resettlement. Lebanese media highlight individual incidents and turn them into general accusations, e.g. the accusation that Palestinians were behind last year's murder of four judges in Sidon.
How will these likely political scenarios affect the international legitimacy of unfulfilled refugee rights and demands?
AO: As I already explained earlier, the Palestinian negotiators put themselves in a situation where they cannot make use of international resolutions in order to support their position. There have b en many international resolutions, from UN Resolution 194 (1948) affirming the right of return of Palestinian refugees, to General Assembly Resolution 3236 (1974) providing for the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, independence and sovereignty over its land, and the refugees' right of return.
Now that the ceiling set for the negotiations is the ceiling defined by Israel and the United States, why should the international community feel bound by these UN resolutions? The international community recognizes our right to self-determination, while the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) submits this right for negotiation. While there is international recognition of our right to independence and sovereignty, the PLO accepts administrative autonomy without sovereignty over land, borders, and natural resources.
While the international community has defined the refugees' right of return, based on UN Resolution 194, as part of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian negotiators' acceptance of UN Resolution 242 as the sole terms of reference has stripped the Palestinian refugee question of its historical and political content and transformed it into a humanitarian issue that can be explored in the multilateral Refugee Working Group, or into a secondary issue discussed in the bilateral negotiations between the PLO and Israel, although the refugee question is the core of the conflict.
The international community and the United Nations will be encouraged to rescind their decisions and responsibility towards the Palestinian people by the succumbing of the Palestinian leadership to Israeli and US pressure. Thus, for example, the United Nations already cancelled its earlier resolution that had defined Zionism as racism. Our respect for international law and resolutions does not mean that we expect the solution of our cause to come from there. We know that only the struggle of the Palestinian and Arab people, based on our national rights and principles, can achieve a situation where the international community and the enemy are forced to respect our rights.
TN: We will have to cling to international law and UN Resolutions, even if an agreement is signed. So far, Israel has not implemented any of the resolutions on Palestine, neither UN Resolution 242 and 338, nor 194. We have to make clear that our right of return is both a collective and an individual right, that the Palestinian Authority - and the future Palestinian state - in which we live is a "host country", and that we continue to claim our homes and properties in Israel. Of course it will be very difficult for the refugees to move andto demand their rights once an agreement is signed, because both parties will be bound by the agreement which will be supported by the powerful states in the world. This is why we have to move before the agreement - and we have very little time.
Do you see, in principle, a possibility for Palestinian community activists to take an active role in the defense of their right of return? How would you describe this role in relation to theother political players such as the PLO, PA, political groups, and governments?
AO: Certainly, popular initiatives organized by Palestinian community activists can take an active role in defending the right of return. Of course this role varies from place to place, and its concrete form is determined by the specific conditions of each refugee community and the role taken by the social and political forces there. The struggle of each refugee community is a result of its special conditions. The right of return and the struggle for the defense of this right must form a unifying issue and a united cause of the whole Palestinian people.
All efforts made so far are no more than a beginning, and there is still as large gap between the activists and the broad public. Most activity has remained limited to circles of intellectuals and veteran activists. Given the importance of the right of return in this period, it is high time that the struggle for the defense of this right proceeds from the narrow, intellectual circles to the arena of broad, popular action. Only massive participation by the community can stop the Palestinian negotiator from making additional concessions, especially on the refugee issue.
TN: Yes, in the 1967 occupied homeland, the public can certainly influence the official position, if we are able to send a clear and strong message. In our public rally organized in Balata camp in commemoration of the 52nd anniversary of al-Nakba, for example, we had some 5,000 participants and we stated publicly that anyone who surrenders the refugees' right of return is considered a traitor. This has influence on our leadership. I assume that public opinion and popular initiatives also influence the Palestinian negotiators, as long as we are sending a clear message. We know that there is pressure on the Palestinian negotiators by Israel and the United States, but the Palestinian leadership cannot disregard the position and interest of the Palestinian public.
AO: Unfortunately, there are several subjective and objective factors, which obstruct the efforts of activists working for the defense of the right of return, and prevent their impact on the popular level. The refugee community in Lebanon, for example, suffers from extremely difficult living conditions, a daily struggle for subsistence, and an undeclared official policy of marginalization and ghettoization. All these prevent the community from taking an active role in the general Palestinian national struggle and in the struggle for the right of return in particular. Activists must take these factors into consideration.
In addition, there is the problem in all refugee camps of groups and individuals from the political right and left, who - although empty-handed - claim to represent the Palestinian people in Lebanon. These individuals and groups obstruct the efforts initiated by the civil society. In December 1999, for example, when the A'idoun Group declared its establishment, some of these groups who are interested in preserving the status quo, launched a rumor campaign and - with the support of some writers - spread baseless accusations, in order to kill this initiative from the beginning. The same happened to other community-based initiatives, such as the miscarried effort to revive the Palestinian Union of Physicians and Pharmacists in Lebanon, whose Establishing Conference was prevented by force from convening in Shatila Camp.
Last but not least, the road was blocked for the Palestinian Engineers' Association and other popular and social initiatives aiming to work outside the traditional Palestinian social and political frameworks, which - rotten and corrupt - have become a burden to Palestinians. Irrespective of these difficulties, there is an opportunity for real work on the defense of the right of return. The soil is prepared, and Palestinians are ready to leave the state of paralysis imposed on them. The demand for the right of return is alive in each displaced and humiliated Palestinian. However, people are looking for serious work, which gives an active role to them and is far from the logic of sectarianism and corruption.
An indication for this is the strong positive response to the modest activities organized in Sidon, Tyre, and Tripoli by A'idoun, in cooperation with popular social committees, clubs and institutions.If you look back over the period of the last 7 years (since the 1993 Oslo Accords),
would you say that Palestinian community activists have actually taken on such active role? Can you give examples showing that this has been the case?
TN: Yes, I think that in 1967 occupied Palestine popular initiatives have played a role. There has been progress, but not enough. We have succeeded in placing the refugee question and the right of return on the agenda of a broader public in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the official leadership. Palestinian refugees today have a much better understanding of their rights and are no longer ready to accept "solutions" which might be good for solving the problems others, but not for the refugees themselves. Take for example the issue of compensation: today, refugees in Palestine understand that they will never benefit from compensation, because compensation payments usually go to states.
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AO: In order to assess the role of community activists in Lebanon, it is important to understand that the 1993 Oslo Accords caused a split of the Palestinian National Movement, and that, as a result, Palestinian activists and the intellectual elite were divided into three
groups: The first group are those convinced of the Oslo negotiation process as the only feasible Palestinian option, given the recent powerful developments in the region and the world, most importantly the second Gulf War and its disastrous results, such as the destruction of Iraq, US control of the major Arab resources - especially petrol - and the establishment of a broad Arab alliance with US policy in the region.
The second group is opposed to the process, starting from Madrid to Oslo. In a situation of collapse of the political consensus versus the USsupported Zionist project, both on the popular and official level, this group was able to attract considerable support from among the intellectual elite and the national circles in the Arab world. However, action taken by this circle has been restricted to verbal statements rejecting the Oslo process; it has remained unable to stop the collapse of the official Palestinian position by means of concrete political action.
The third group continues to monitor the developments on the ground, in order to determine points of Palestinian weakness and strength. It hopes to be able to trigger a popular initiative which would block the deterioration resulting from the concessions made by the official Palestinian leadership, and to re-build consensus around the principles of the cause of the Palestinian people in the homeland and in exile.
Summing up, we can say that the split of the forces and activists of Palestinian civil society, and the transformation of some of its institutions into business enterprises, which serve the needs of individuals and small groups, has contributed to the corruption in Palestinian civil society. This has prevented it from taking an active role in leading Palestinian society away from the current crisis.
What do you consider the major achievements of our struggle for the defense of the Palestinian right of return since Oslo?
AO: We might say that some of the activities of the third group described above have contributed, although late and on a modest scale, to a campaign of renewal, awareness raising, and mobilization, especially around the sacredness of the right of return among the Palestinian diaspora.Among its modest results are the establishment of a network of community contacts, the facilitation of joint work focusing on the right of return, and a powerful revival of this right in Palestinian and Arab political speech. This effort also resulted in the establishment of an international network, which facilitated the re-activation of concern for the Palestinian right of return and its re-introduction to the agenda of popular and official institutions, as well as UN institutions in the world.
Given the current state of the Palestinian refugee community as described by you, how do you expect it to react to the political, negotiationsrelated scenario you mentioned earlier? What will Palestinian refugees do, in the short and medium term?
AO: Before we speak about how we will respond, in the short and medium term - to the expected results of the current negotiations, it is our most important task to affirm a basic fact which must become one of the principles of Palestinian thought, now that we are in a period of transition to a new stage of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and for the restitution of our inalienable rights. It is the basic fact that the conflict with the racist Zionist entity in Palestine will not end with the conclusion of the final status negotiations, whatever their results, and irrespective of whether they are concluded according to the current time table on 13 September, or only several years later.
This, first of all, because the seeds of the conflict are found in the essence and principles of the Zionist project, which is based on a racist, adversarial and
reactionary ideology taken from the darkest chapters of human history. [ ] Therefore the conflict will remain wide open, irrespective of what will happen in the negotiations. New social and political forces and tools will be combined into a new program of struggle. The right of return will represent a central element of this struggle in the current period and in the future.
From here, the tasks of the Palestinian exile, in the short and medium term, will have to be defined based on the special circumstances of each refugee community. In Lebanon, for example, one of our short-term priorities is to convince Lebanese society that Palestinians cling to their right of return and completely reject the idea of resettlement. On the one hand, Palestinians are trying their best to explain the circumstances that led to their imposed presence in Lebanon, which is one of the results of the Zionist project and the establishment of Israel on Palestinian land. On the other hand, Palestinian refugees are engaged in a concerted effort to overcome the negative impact of the civil war, because they reject the argument that their camps are explosive sites.
This process of reconciliation with the self and the other will help to stabilize the refugee community and enable it to participate in the Palestinian national project. It is the task of community activists to bring about the unification of individuals, institutions and associations working for the defense of the right of return, and to facilitate the creation of a joint vision and program for all those working on this issue inside and outside Palestine. In Lebanon, we must also promote cooperation between our institutions and associations, and sympathetic Lebanese national activists in order to design supportive organizational frameworks for the right of return and the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle in the future. This will serve to confront the political agitation in Lebanon, which aims to paralyze the Palestinian refugee community here.
TN: In 1967 occupied Palestine, we must increase our capacity to reach out to the broad refugee and non-refugee public in order to make our message stronger. Also, we still lack a popular framework that can speak out on behalf of the refugees. There are several organizations active in camps, the Union of Youth Activity Centers, the Popular Service Committees, the Women Centers, etc., but we need much more coordination among these organizations in the 1967 occupied territories, and between us here in Palestine and refugee organizations in the diaspora. We must work to build a genuine structure, which can represent refugees, despite the fact that the problem of representation is
extremely difficult to solve.
What do you consider the three most urgent tasks to be resolved by activists who wish to protect the individual and collective rights of Palestinian refugees in this period?
TN: Our first task in Palestine is to improve coordination among the organizations active in defending our right of return. We need a network which allows us to organize larger public events, involving refugees and non-refugees not from this or that camp only, but from all over the West Bank, or the whole Gaza Strip. Then, and this is crucial, we need to tackle the issue of representation.
We need a framework that represents refugee positions and interests. This framework must be independent of all official bodies and include all those individuals, in community organizations and in political parties, which are serious about defending our right of return. Our third task is to organize massive popular activities in the field. We must have a broad and wide outreach to the refugee and nonrefugee public, in order to reach a stage where the refugees themselves can clearly convey the message that there will be no peace without the right of return, and that Israel's borders will not be safe as long as there are Palestinian refugees who are not permitted to return home.
AO: I would define the three most important tasks as following:
1. We must coordinate the efforts of all forces everywhere - associations, institutions, unions, and political groups - active on the right of return and turn this issue into a joint priority. Coordination forums, to be convened once or twice annually, must be formed in order to exchange experience and opinions, and to design a joint plan of action.
2. We must make use of the vast Palestinian research potential in order to study and analyze the relationship between our right of return and the obstacles to its implementation posed by the Zionist entity.
3. We must concentrate our effort towards building a broad campaign of information, here in the region and abroad, which affirms our right of return among refugees and facilitates the formation of net orks and lobby groups in all areas of exile and on the international level. We must work against the public misinformation on the issue of compensation, and confront Israeli and US propaganda, which, in violation of international legitimacy and UN Resolutions such as UN Resolution 194, tries to replace the principle of return with compensation.
If we are able to progress on these tasks, we will be able to affirm the vitality of the Palestinian people and its absolute rejection of any compromise of its basic national rights, foremost its right of return to the homeland. We will be able to send a clear message and warning to the Palestinian negotiators to abstain from surrender to the Israeli conditions and the concession of the refugees' right to return to the homeland and homes they were expelled from.