What Do Palestinian Refugees Really Want?

What Do Palestinian Refugees Really Want?

A recent opinion poll won’t tell you

The choices that Palestinian refugees will someday confront will inevitably be far more complex than the process set out in a recent poll conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR). Survey results were released in July 2003. The PSR poll may provide some insight into refugee attitudes towards particular scenarios for resolving the refugee issue. However, opinion polls are, in general, bad indicators of future social behavior and action. Particular biases and flaws in the PRS poll give special reason to doubt the value of its results in predicting what refugees will ultimately do.

Understanding Refugee Choice

The scenario presented in the PSR questionnaire reflects little understanding of the basic principle of refugee choice. Refugee choice or voluntariness is the cornerstone of repatriation programs and is dealt with extensively in the UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection. The UNHCR notes that "Voluntariness [or refugee choice] means not only the absence of measures which push the refugee to repatriate, but alsomeans that he or she should not be prevented from returning, for example, by dissemination of wrong information or false promises of continued assistance."

Refugees must be given as much information as possible concerning the current conditions in their country of origin to which they will be returning. This includes information about what type of protection and assistance will be provided upon their return. Prior to making choices, refugees should receive a text of guarantees or assurances provided by the government of the country of origin, supplemented by explanations as to their content and scope.

And they must be provided with accurate information on education and employment possibilities as well as their mobility within the country and their ability to leave and return to the country. Details about the repatriation procedure should also be provided, including customs, immigration and health formalities; procedures for bringing personal and communal property; access to land and restitution procedures; registration and documentation for repatriation; and special arrangements for vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly.

None of this information is presented in the PSR questionnaire. Such detailed information may be beyond the capacity of such a poll but in its absence – key elements of which, it should be noted, are actually addressed in the Palestinian proposal at Taba (See box below) – the questionnaire cannot be interpreted as an accurate reflection of the choices that refugees will make in the context of a final status peace agreement.

Individual choices, moreover, will inevitably be influenced by the individual and collective decisions of family members, community, and other social networks. What happens when a refugee who is thinking about not returning finds out that his brother and sister and their families have both decided to return? What happens when those wishing to return find out that the majority of their village or community has decided against return?

Moreover, the scenario in the PSR questionnaire offers real choice to only a limited number of refugees. According to the scenario Israel and the PLO will agree to limit the number of refugees returning to their homes of origin inside Israel (See box below). In other words, only a small number will be able to choose to return. Once the limited quota for return is filled, that choice is removed from the deck of options, arbitrarily depriving the majority of refugees who, for various reasons, have a lower preference status, of that particular choice.

Conflicting Scenarios

PSR Questionaire
Establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israeli recognition of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 or the right of return, but both parties, Palestinian and Israeli, agree to a limited return of a small part of the refugees to Israel in accordance with a time table of several years. Every refugee family will be able to choose one preferred solution among four solutions including:
a)   Return to Israel (1948 areas) based on an annual quota and receipt of Israeli citizenship;
b)   Remain in the Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and receipt of just compensation for properties expropriated by Israel and for damages and suffering incurred;
c)   Receipt of Palestinian citizenship and return to certain areas in Israel (1948 areas), which will then be annexed to the Palestinians state in the framework of an exchange of land with Israel and receipt of all due compensation;
d)      Receipt of just compensation for lost properties, damages and suffering, migration to a country in Europe, America, Australia or Canada, and receipt of the citizenship of the respective state or Palestinian citizenship.

While the scenario states that the parties agree to recognize the right of return, in practice, this recognition is meaningless. Of what use is a right if an individual is simultaneously prevented from exercising that right? For example, what use is it to inform a starving population that it has the right to food, but the exercise of that right will be restricted to 10 percent of the population? In the case of the right of return, the limitation imposed upon return is arbitrary and related primarily to the national, ethnic, and religious origins of the refugees.

Incidently, the scenario presented in the questionnaire, which PSR states "the Palestinian leadership says privately that it would be willing to accept and have in fact endorsed in the Taba negotiations in order to help the process of peace negotiations" is nearly identical to that presented by Israelis at Taba and subsequently published in Le Monde Diplomatique. (See box )

By contrast a Palestinian paper presented at Taba, also published in Le Monde, maps out a framework for durable solutions based on Resolution 194, international law, and individual choice. (See box below) It contains only two restrictions on choice: an annual repatriation quota that does not prejudice the right of every refugee to return to Israel; and, refugees wishing to return must declare their intention to do so within five years of the establishment of a repatriation commission. The summary of the Taba negotiations prepared by EU Special Envoy Miguel Moratinos confirms this position.

Opinion Polls and Political Strategy

Presenting the results as somehow indicative of the number of refugees who would choose to return is dangerous for Palestinian negotiators given the numerous variables that influence refugee choices. Without the type of detailed information outlined above, and the guarantee that any choice made will be respected and implemented, it is highly questionable whether such polling can have any real practical policy implications for negotiators and planners.

What happens if it turns out that in practice more than 10 per cent of refugees want to return? Perhaps 15 per cent, 25 percent or over 50 per cent of the more than five million 1948 Palestine refugees? And, given the dynamics of the negotiation process over the past decade it is doubtful that Israel will be blamed for scuttling the deal. Inevitably the Palestinians will be blamed for failing to be honest with their Israeli counterparts and for the breakdown in the political process.

The argument that such an opinion poll is a useful political tool is simply bad advice.

Israeli Non-Paper, Taba Negotiations
Options for refugees in the Israeli Non-Paper, Taba, include return:
a)   To Israel – capped to an agreed limit of XX refugees, and with priority being according to those Palestinian refugees currently resident in Lebanon. The State of Israel notes it moral commitment to the swift resolution of the plight of the refugee population of the Sabra and Shatila camps;
b)   To Israeli swapped territory. For this purpose, the infrastructure shall be prepared for the absorption of refugees in the sovereign areas of the State of Israel that shall be turned over to Palestinian sovereignty in the context of an overall development program.
c)   To the State of Palestine: the Palestinian refugees may exercise their return in an unrestricted manner to the State of Palestine, as the homeland of the Palestinian people, in accordance with its sovereign laws and legislation.
d)   Rehabilitation within existing Host Countries. Where this option is exercised the rehabilitation shall be immediate and extensive;
d)      Relocation to third countries: voluntary relocation to third countries expressing the willingness and capacity to absorb Palestinian refugees
 In addition to the problems outlined above, the argument for using such a poll is based on de facto acceptance of Israel's demand to preserve the Jewish character of the state characterized, among other elements, by a permanent Jewish majority. Whether one accepts or rejects the political, legal or moral arguments for such a demand, it is surely bad advice to counsel one's own negotiators to accept the basic demands of one's negotiating opponent as the basic framework for negotiations, particularly if one's negotiating position is already severely weakened by the balance of political power on a bilateral and international level.

A much better negotiating strategy would be to push for a framework already set out in international law and practice concerning the crafting of durable solutions for refugees worldwide. Demographic concerns based on ethnic, national and/or religious preferencing do not fall within the realm of what is regarded as legally acceptable or good practice.

Getting it Straight

Defending the questionnaire and poll results, PSR Director Khalil Shikaki (Wall Street Journal, 30 July 2003) argues that once the PLO agreed to a division of the land, it could not have logically advocated a division of the people with some becoming Israeli and others Palestinian. In reality, there is no contradiction between a two-state solution and the return of Palestinian refugees wishing to do so to the state of Israel. PLO recognition of the two-state solution is based on UN General Assembly Resolution 181.

The Jewish state recognized by the international community under Resolution 181 was a binational state with nearly the same number of Arabs and Jews. Moreover, the constitution of each state to be established under the resolution was to include protections for basic citizenship/nationality rights, land rights and non-discrimination. A contradiction between two-states and the individual right of return exists only in the minds of those who support the idea of exclusivist ethno-national states.

Palestinian Paper, Taba Negotiations
In accordance with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194(III), all refugees who wish to return to their homes in Israel and live at peace with their neighbors have the right to do so. The right of every refugee to return shall be exercised in accordance with the modalities set out in the Agreement. The modalities set out in the agreement include:
a)   All refugees who currently reside in Lebanon and choose to exercise the right of return in accordance with this Article shall be enabled to return to Israel within two years of the signing of this agreement (Paragraph 15);
b)   Without prejudice to the right of every refugee to return to Israel, and in addition to refugees returning pursuant to Paragraph 15 above , a minimum of XX refugees will be allowed to return to Israel annually (Paragraph 16);
c)   The refugees who wish to return should declare their intention to the Commission, in accordance with procedures set out by the Commission, within 5 years of the date the Commission starts receiving these declarations. The exercise of the right of return subsequent to such declaration shall not be limited in time;
d)   The Commission shall determine, according to transparent criteria, who will be allowed to return in any given year in accordance with Paragraph 16 of this Article;
e)   Repatriation should be based on an individual voluntary decision, and should be carried out in a way that maintains the family unit;
f)    The refugees should be provided with information necessary for them to make an informed decision with regard to all aspects of repatriation;
g)   The refugees should not be compelled to remain in or move to situations of danger or insecurity, or to areas lacking in the basic infrastructure necessary to resume a normal life
h)   The refugees shall be permitted to return in safety, without risk of harassment, intimidation, persecution, or discrimination, particularly on account of their national origin, religious belief, or political opinion;
i)    The Parties shall make such modifications to their internal laws as are necessary to facilitate the implementation of the right of return;
j)    The Parties shall call upon states that currently host refugees to facilitate the early return of refugees in manner consistent with human rights and international law.

Shikaki also asks the question: "How can you be a Palestinian nationalist and at the same time advocate the de-Palestinianization of a large segment of your people?" by supporting their return to their homes of origin inside Israel. The question ignores a few basic facts. Palestinians, including internally displaced, inside Israel continue to retain their national identity despite having become citizens of the state of Israel. Even Israeli social and political scientists have noted an increasing 'Palestinianization' of those Palestinians living inside Israel over the past decades despite attempts to inhibit such a trend.

Moreover, Palestinian refugees have remained 'Palestinian' despite living in forced exile for more than 50 years. Palestinians who have acquired a second nationality are no less Palestinian and no less Palestinian nationalists just because they carry another passport. Based on the logic of Shikaki's argument, the PLO should also be opposed to any resettlement of refugees outside a state of Palestine – i.e., it should demand a forced return of all Palestinians to a Palestinian state – because to do otherwise would lead to the de-Palestinianization of the Palestinian people.

At the same time Dr. Shikaki also appears to blame Palestinians themselves for the suffering of the refugees. "Unhealthy obsession with idealized rights at the expense of vital, or even existential, needs threatens to perpetuate the suffering of millions of refugees. Rights and suffering need not go together, not for so long." Indeed, rights and suffering need NOT go together for so long. The argument presents a false dichotomy between law and politics – i.e., rights are ideal but politics are practical and never the twain shall meet. Law is a practical tool setting basic guidelines to govern individual and inter-state relations according to minimum acceptable standards.

The principle that refugees should be permitted to return to their homes following the cessation of conflict and resumption of safe conditions is a basic principle that guides international policy in all other refugee cases. Israel's opposition to refugee return, based on the ethnic, national, and religious persuasion of the refugees (which Shikaki apparently accepts), is the real reason why rights and suffering have gone together for so long. Why a solution to the refugee issue (if such an approach could be called a solution) should be governed by an anomaly rather than best practice is left unexplained.

While the PSR survey may provide a somewhat interesting insight into the opinions of how refugees might respond to a particular scenario, under a particular set of political conditions, and in the absence of basic information, to suggest that the results are an indicator of future behavior of refugees and therefore a useful negotiation tool is an illogical leap of faith. In the end the poll really serves no practical purpose: neither for Palestinian negotiators, their Israeli interlocutors or the international community. Certainly it does not serve the refugees well.

Perhaps the PSR poll will have no long-term impact, not unlike previous polls conducted on this issue, but in the meantime the poll has resulted in misunderstandings and varying degrees of political damage that will only complicate the search for durable solutions for Palestinian refugees in the context of a just and comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Terry Rempel is the Coordinator of BADIL’s Research and Information Unit.

2nd BADIL Refugee Fact-Finding Visit, South Africa
Between 10-18 November 2003 a BADIL delegation composed of refugee community activists will travel to South Africa to study the South African experience with land restitution and land reform, mechanisms of community participation in restitution and reconciliation, as well as the relation between restitution/land reform and post-conflict reconciliation.
BADIL fact finding visits are part of BADIL’s regular program and organized since 1999/2000 for Palestinian refugee community activists in Palestine and in exile. These visits serve as a tool for the education of BADIL’s community partners about mechanisms for return, restitution and compensation in the context of durable solutions for Palestinian refugees. The first visit in the series of three visits was to Bosnia-Herzegovina in June 2002.
Earlier visits (1999/2000) were conducted to the villages of origin of Palestinian refugees themselves (today located in Israel). These visits had to be stopped due to the restrictions of movement imposed by the Israeli authorities since September 2000.
Information about the fact finding visits will soon be available on the BADIL website.

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