Guest speakers included Ole Olsen (Chairman of the Danish-Palestine Friendship Association), Mohammad Gelle (Chairman of INSEAM), Marc Paulson (Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN)), Gudrun Bertinussen (Norwegian People's Aid-Palestine), Sabine Maand (European Confederation Coalition), and Palestinian researcher Karma Nabulsi (Nuffield College-Oxford). The majority of the 2003 annual meeting (December 13-14) was dedicated to the presentation and discussion of reports submitted by the delegates of the Palestinian community and right-of-return initiatives, to follow-up issues raised and decisions adopted at the two previous annual meetings in Cyprus (2000) and Brussels (2001).
Participants screened two films during the meeting. “Experiencing the Right of Return” (BADIL 2002) documents the June 2002 study visit of a Palestinian refugee delegation to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The second film, “Our Ancestors’ Land” (Danish TV 1995) follows the visit of an exiled Palestinian family to their ancestors' land in the destroyed village of Lubya located in the Galilee. Participants also issued a statement in support of the Iraqi people and against U.S. and British plans for a military attack on Iraq. Delegates condemned the double standard of U.S. and British government policies in the region, which have remained silent about Israel's daily aggression and large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry.
The situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, and the necessity to speak out loudly against discriminatory legislation, was an issue of major concern and lengthy debate. There was a strong call to defend the refugees and their basic rights to employment, freedom of movement, and all other rights enshrined in international human rights conventions. Participants were especially outraged by the fact that discriminatory laws have been issued by the Lebanese parliament while our people is engaged in courageous steadfastness and resistance against Israel's occupation in Palestine.
Organizational matters were central to the debates at the 2002 annual meeting. Major points of critique were raised regarding the lack of clear procedures for the enlargement of the Palestine Right-of-Return Coalition and the selection of new participants for the 2002 meeting. Partners from Lebanon, for example, protested against the short and 'haphazard' preparations for the 2002 meeting and the invitation extended to new initiatives (such as Group 194 from Gaza and Lebanon) without prior approval of all Coalition members. The organizers explained that invitations for participation and presentations were issued in accordance with the policy of the Palestine Right-of-Return Coalition-Europe to invite any group, center, club, organization, or individual that deal specifically with the issue of the Palestinian right of return.
The Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://al-awda.org) is an international organization with chapters/committees in 20 countries and over 40 US cities and states. We were represented at the 2002 annual meeting in Copenhagen by two elected activists (one from Connecticut and one from Chicago). We were thrilled to meet a great group of grass-root activists especially those from Europe, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine. We exchanged information and committed to a program of action that was articulated at the end. For constructive suggestions, we recommend this group adopt democratic means of operation and of conducting meetings. This includes voting on moderators, on agenda items, on resolutions etc. using classic democratic procedures (motion, second, discussion, amendments, voting). Overall, we felt the biggest success of the meeting was our networking.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD
I was extremely happy to participate in this meeting. The warm and constructive atmosphere showed to me once more that we share a common fate, concerns and aims, although we live in different countries under very different circumstances.
Daoud Badr, coordinator
This policy was reaffirmed by the members of the Palestine Right-of-Return Committee-Denmark, who met in late December 2002 in order to evaluate the third annual meeting, and to prepare its own meeting scheduled for 8 February 2003. (An invitation based on the same policy was also issued to the London-based Palestinian Return Center (PRC). The PRC, however, did not send its delegate and an apology was received after the meeting.) Eventually, most of the participants, including delegates from Lebanon, agreed that the level of discussion and the proceedings of the Conference were positive. Less than 40 days had been available for preparations due to a last-minute relocation of the annual meeting to Denmark from Spain, where difficulties of communication between the organizers and local hosts had caused major delays.
Expanding the Coalition - Establishing Democratic Procedures
On the matter of enlargement of the Coalition, there was a call for broader outreach to other groups working for Palestinian refugee rights, both in Arab countries and in Europe. It was clear to all the participants that much remains to be done, in Europe, in the countries surrounding Palestine, and even in Palestine, until the convening of the fourth annual meeting in 2003. It was noted that our partners in North America (Al-Awda) maintain a broad organizational network, both in the United States and in Europe (Italy, Spain, a.o.). European delegates thus asked our North American partners to support efforts at Europe-wide coalition building. A common Europe-wide platform would facilitate the implementation of our joint agenda and strengthen our relations with numerous European bodies, groups, and institutions. These include: a) the official political level where the issue of the Palestinian refugees is almost completely absent; b) the popular and NGO level; c) the parliamentary level, especially parliamentary committees concerned with human and civil rights; and, d) professional organizations and practitioners working directly with refugees, such as UNHCR branches in Europe and refugee councils in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and elsewhere. Our appreciation of the fact that the Danish Refugee Council had for the first time accepted our invitation to our annual meeting was noted in this context.
The relationship between right-of-return initiatives and Palestinian communities (al-Jaliya) in European countries represented a second major topic of debate. It was noted that this relationship is problematic, especially in countries where the Palestinian community lacks organization or is divided along factional lines. In Denmark we do not have such a problem, and in countries with an organized Jaliya, such as Norway, there are special Jaliya committees set up to deal with right of return activities. In Germany, on the other hand, there are many different Palestinian groups. While the head of al-Jaliya in Berlin has been strongly involved in right-of-return activities since the first international meeting in Copenhagen (1996), organizational issues Germany remain unresolved. This matter must yet be debated and resolved in various countries where the relationship between the two types of organizations (al-Jaliya and right-of-return committees) has remained unclear. It should be resolved in democratic discussion, reflecting the diverse and concrete experience of Palestinian communities in exile and with proportional representation of all groups and committees concerned.
Participants to the 2002 annual meeting decided that the Right-of-Return Committee-Denmark and BADIL would be responsible for the preparation of the fourth annual meeting in 2003. Both parties will issue invitations to those groups and organizations already members of the Palestine Right-of-Return Coalition, as well as to new committees that would like to join. A cautious approach, and additional elaboration of clear and credible criteria for the selection of new Coalition members, has yet to be elaborated for this purpose. Bylaws adopted by our partners (e.g., Al-Awda-North America) can serve as a model. The Right-of-Return Committee-Denmark will follow-up this matter in order to identify an optimal procedure for opening up our Coalition to others who share our concern for the Palestinian right of return in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and relevant international law. In addition, we call upon our partners to provide us with their views and suggestions, including criteria for membership in our Coalition.
Media Outreach - a Missed Opportunity
Unfortunately one strategic objective of the 2002 annual meeting was not achieved. Although we invited many journalists, including Arab and Danish TV companies, the meeting remained almost unnoticed by the media. This may be attributed to the fact that the EU summit in Copenhagen coincided with our meeting, and the remote location of our conference center some 70-km away from the capital. Our decision to aim for maximum media coverage was guided by our wish to address the European public in a direct manner. We had hoped that the annual meeting would allow us to place Palestinian refugee rights in the center of discussion and to challenge a wave of statements by Palestinian officials and personalities who continue to sell out refugee rights. Participants discussed in detail recent speeches and statements of various Palestinian Authority officials and decided upon a number of steps to challenge and block this approach in the coming year.
Final Statement and Recommendations
Participants adopted two documents: a document on the general situation and political aspects of the Palestinian refugee issue, and an organizational document specifying in detail all issues and motions approved by the 2002 annual meeting. Both documents will represent the program of the Palestine Right-of-Return Coalition in 2003. These documents are published on the websites of BADIL, Palestine Remembered and other relevant websites and magazines.
The final political statement focused on the aggressive, Israeli policies against the physical existence of our people, the unconditional support provided to Israeli by the United States, and the paralysis of European governments and the European Union. These parties have remained unwilling to use their power in order to protect our civilian population in Palestine, including our refugee camps, which have been subject to daily, deliberate, and indiscriminate Israeli aggression.
Final organizational recommendations issued by the 2002 annual meeting include the following:
• The Right-of-Return Committees in Denmark and Sweden will contribute to the establishment of additional right-of-return committees in European countries.
• The Right-of-Return Committee-Denmark will establish and administer a special Return Fund and collect contributions towards the next (fourth) annual meeting.
• Material and non-material aid to Palestinian refugees will be guided by the principles consultation and coordination. Such coordination between Coalition partners in the sending and the receiving area is vital to needs identification and efficient delivery of emergency aid to the most needy refugee populations.
• All Coalition partners are called upon to work on organizing and coordinating visits of delegations, including youth, media, politicians and activists, in order to raise the level of awareness about the situation and rights of Palestinian refugees.
• All Coalition partners are encouraged to make efforts towards the training of Palestinian cadre in media and public relations work. They are also encourage to support campaigns to boycott and divest from Israel and the United States, and to increase information and education efforts in order to spread and unify our language about the right of return.
• All Coalition partners are called upon to recognize and act on common dates of commemoration, including Nakba Day (15 May) and to help make 2003 the Year of Al-Nakba Awareness and Al-Awda Activism.
A complete copy of the final statement and list of endorsements is reprinted in this issue of al-Majdal, Documents.
Dr. Mahmoud Issa is an independent researcher and member of the Palestine Right-of-Return Committee-Denmark.