Khalid al-Hassan, a prominent Palestinian thinker and member of Fatah, was among the first to call for the unification of refugees, even going so far as to call for the establishment of a refugee party. Palestinian political factions thereafter began warning about the dangers for the right of return issue, but their calls remained as slogans and speeches that were never implemented on the ground (due to the political, intellectual and organizational crises that faced these factions).
This situation highlighted the importance and the need for a popular movement capable of expressing refugee interests and rights. Accordingly, several meetings and workshops were convened in Palestine and in exile in order to find an answer for the fundamental problem: “How can we maintain and preserve the rights of Palestinian refugees?” During the summer of 1994 there was a call for a meeting in Askar refugee camp including representatives from the entire West Bank camps and activists from Palestinian villages and cities to form what was called “The Committee for Defending the Camps”. This title was later modified to become “The Committee for Defending Palestinian Refugees Rights”. This was followed by calls to convene regional refugee conferences in order to finalize the agenda of the popular refugee movement and unite efforts. Conferences were held, for example, in al-Fara' in 1995 and later in Deheishe in 1996.
These conferences aimed to clarify an agenda regarding all aspects of the refugee issue, including the right of return, compensation, the relationship with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the future settlement of the conflict and finally the camps and their needs. In 1996 the Union of Youth Activities Centers in the camps in Palestine initiated a campaign for defending refugee rights. The campaign subsequently expanded to include internally displaced Palestinians from the destroyed villages inside the 'Green Line' who were excluded from the negotiation agenda. The Committee for Defending the Rights of Displaced Persons inside the Green Line was established to lobby for the rights of some 250,000 Palestinian IDPs. In 1995 the Committee organized its first 'Return March' with some 35,000 participants. The march has become an annual traditional with visits to a different village every year.
At the same time, the PLO Refugee Affairs Department (formerly the Department of Returnee Affairs) established Popular Service Committees in all West Bank and Gaza Strip camps. The Popular Service Committees began to address the daily suffering inside the camps. This prompted the reopening of other organizations in the camps, including women's activity centers, centers for people with special needs and youth centers, which had been closed by decision of the Israeli military during the first intifada. One of the primary issues of concern of these organizations was the return issue.
The late 1990s also witnessed the birth of several cultural centers inside the camps such as Yaffa Center in Balata refugee camp and Ibda’ Center in Deheishe refugee camp. By the end of 1997, BADIL Resource Center for Residency and Refugee Rights was established as a result of a recommendation issued by the popular conferences mentioned above. During this period several institutions and centers focused on the refugee issue were established, including Shaml Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center and the Refugee Studies Unit in an-Najah and al-Quds Open universities. Refugees themselves formed associations based on the village or city of origin.
This included, for example, al-Lid Charitable Association, al-Abasiya, Yazour, Beit Nabala, Yaffa and others. Due to the general awareness regarding the importance of the return issue, a Refugee Committee was formed as one of the main committees in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). This was followed by the formation of higher committees and popular committees for defending the right of return, such as the Popular Assembly for Defending the Right for Return in the Gaza Strip, in addition to other committees associated with various political factions.
In exile, refugees intensified efforts in and outside of camps in order to find structures and committees capable of defending their rights. Newly-established committees included The Higher Committee for Defending the Right to Return in Jordan, which emerged from a group of Jordanian political parties in 1999, and A’idoun in Lebanon and Syria in 2000. A'idoun is one of the most active return associations educating Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon about their rights. Concerted efforts by these groups led to a first Return and Self-Determination Conference in Beirut in 1996. al-Awda ('Return') committees were also set up in Sweden, Denmark, France, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and North America (United States of America and Canada).
These committees work on several levels, including building ties with local politicians to lobby and pressure Israel in various international fora to respect refugee rights. This included facilitating a British all-party parliamentary fact-finding mission on the refugee issue in 2000. They also organized workshops, conferences (including the first al-Awda conference held in Boston, MA in April 2000) and produced publications for education and awareness-raising about Palestinian refugees. They contributed to raising public awareness abroad due to their knowledge of and relationships established in Europe and the United States.
They also encouraged youth who were born in exile to enhance their relationship with their homeland through solidarity campaigns with the intifada, organizing festivals, commemorating national events (e.g., Nakba, the UN decision to partition Palestine, Resolution 194, Sabra and Shatila and Deir Yasin massacres, International Refugee Day, and Palestinian Camp and Refugee Day), in addition to organizing field visits and summer youth camps in order to acquaint youth more closely with their social, cultural and historical heritage.
How did the Coalition idea come to Light?
There is no doubt that BADIL Resource Center for Residency and Refugee Rights played a central role in facilitating the establishment of an annual coordinating meeting on refugee activities at home and in exile. These meetings aim to study and analyze the current circumstances of the refugee issue and attempt to find practical solutions to the challenges facing Palestinian refugees. Many different activists in the refugee community also raised the need for coordinating refugee activities; however, BADIL was the sole organization that translated this idea into a practical reality.
The first coordination meeting took place in Cyprus in October 2000 and was attended by BADIL , al-Awda Committees in Sweden, Denmark, Greece and Germany, Yaffa Cultural Center, the Committee for Defending the Rights of the Palestinian Refugees, the Union of Youth Activities Centers, Refugee Camps (Palestine), the Union of Women Activity Centers in the West Bank Camps, A’idoun from Lebanon and Syria, and finally, the Higher Committee for Defending the Right to Return – Jordan. This meeting established the foundations for the right to return movement. The meeting was based on the fact that the right to return is a right that possesses different legal, political, moral, human, educational, social and cultural dimensions. It is a right that can never be renounced or traded. Although this meeting did not officially decide on the birth of a Palestinian coalition for the right to return, it succeeded in reiterating the importance of continuing these meetings for further activity coordination, uniting the return discourse for it to become more rational, and finally to put forth a joint program of activities.
Forming the coalition
The second coordination meeting took place in Brussels, Belgium in 2001 in order to declare the birth of the Coalition as a popular coordination body composed of a group of active right to return committees. Since its inception the Coalition has emphasized that it is not a representative body; the Palestine Liberation Organization is the sole representative for the Palestinian people. Furthermore, the coalition reiterated that its work will focus and feed into the issue of defending the rights of refugees, which are their right to return, restitution and compensation. As a popular body, the coalition seeks to create a level of awareness around the rights of refugees, and to carry out coordinated activities. Despite numerous obstacles, the coalition was able to realize an unprecedented level of solidarity and unity among refugee societies in exile. Coordination began bear fruit, as witnessed through the level of popular participation, the increase in the number of the committees seeking to join the coalition and through the type and number of activities that addressed many long-forgotten issues.
The coalition continued working in accordance with its original vision, although the third meeting, which was held in Saint Marine, Denmark in 2002, focused on clarifying the responsibilities of coalition members. This was done through a comprehensive evaluation process that led to the realization of the importance of internal bylaws that define the coalition's mission as an independent, non-governmental, popular assembly and govern the coalition’s work. The bylaws must also reflect the aspirations and hopes among wide sectors of refugees within the Palestinian camps in the occupied Palestinian territories, the host countries, Europe and North America.
The Coalition: from a state of reaction to an actual initiative
The fourth and fifth meetings, which were held in London, United Kingdom and Ghent, Belgium during 2003 and 2004 respectively, represented a new phase in the coalition’s work. During those meetings, the coalition adopted new bylaws and set out organizational standards related to membership, coordination committees, tasks and goals. It also conducted a comprehensive evaluation of previous meetings and decisions. One of the main outcomes of the evaluation process was the development of a joint work plan. The coalition also set up mechanisms for communication between members between annual meetings and made plans to cooperate with organizations active in the field of refugee rights but not part of the coalition.
This was accompanied by new efforts to study other refugee problems to see what might be relevant for the Palestinian case. Coalition members visited Bosnia, South Africa and Cyprus. They also examined legal, social and economic studies related to refugee problems elsewhere, all of which influenced the development of the popular campaign. al-Awda committees expanded to reach most European countries and more recently established the European Confederation for the Right to Return, which has become a symbol for the Palestinian cause in the European arena.
During this period the coalition also identified a set of annual activities and tasks. Internally displaced Palestinians inside the 'Green Line' are working on establishing a museum about the internally displaced. The European Confederation is looking at raising legal claims for restitution in European courts. al-Awda North America is working on a boycott campaign linked to Israel's recognition of the right of return. A'idoun Syria and Lebanon continue to develop several innovative projects.
The Committee for Defending Refugee Rights is working to transform Yaffa Cultural Center into an open cultural space specialized in refugee issues with a focus on camp refugees in the West Bank. al-Awda London continues to lobby British members of parliament and the British public. The Popular Service Committees are working to find solutions for problems caused by military closure and the apartheid wall. And the Union of Youth Activities Centers is working on special materials for students to explain the refugee issue from the Nakba to the present.
Future expectations of the coalition
There is no doubt that the efforts exerted until now are not sufficient; there are many issues that need further work. There is a dire need to find Arab committees for defending refugee rights, and a need to integrate non-Palestinians in Europe and the US within an international campaign for defending refugee rights. This demands a rational and open discourse. The right of return is not only a political issue but also has complicated psychological, social, economic, educational and cultural dimensions.
The coalition is expected to expand the base of the al-Awda movement among Palestinian gatherings, especially in Latin America and Australia and to vigorously confront all initiatives that do not serve the Palestinians and their rights. The coalition must make serious efforts to raise the true voice of the refugees, and to enhance international popular campaigns in order to implement a boycott on Israel until it responds to the legitimate international resolutions and acknowledges refugee rights in their entirety. The coalition is also expected to enhance its work in the legal field and to learn from the experiences of refugees elsewhere. It should also highlight the current living conditions of refugees and special needs of different sectors such as children, women and youth.
Finally, the coalition must enhance its work with all popular and official bodies and committees, such as the PLO Department for Refugees Affairs, the refugee committees in the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and other coalition initiatives that fall under the al-Awda movement. Now is the right time to press for active refugee committees in Palestine, Europe, host countries and North America to be represented in the Palestinian National Council.
Anwar Hamam is a researcher specialized in the sociology of refugees and a PhD candidate from University of Tunisia, Social and Human Science Faculty. Mr. Hamam is the manager of Dar al-Amal for Observation and Social Care in the Ministry of Social Affairs in Ramallah. He is also Deputy Manager for Yaffa Cultural Center in Balata refugee camp and a board member of BADIL. He is the author of several publications on the Palestinian refugee issue.Translation to English by Rana Mousa.