Terry Rempel

In early September 1993, weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Principles setting out a political framework for a negotiated solution to the conflict over the future of mandate Palestine - i.e., Israel and the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory - more than 100 Palestinians from various walks of life issued a public statement warning that "decisions on issues that are crucial to the destiny of the Palestinian people [were] no longer [being] made by Palestinian institutions".[i] For many, the subsequent decision not to bring the Declaration before the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) highest policy-making body, for discussion and approval exemplified their concern. The transfer of PLO cadre and resources to build a nascent Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the delegation of PLO responsibilities to a newly-established self-governing Palestinian Authority (PA) there with limited powers and  responsibilities further underscored growing concern about the PLO's ability to represent the rights, interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people as a whole. With more than half of the entire Palestinian people residing outside of the borders of historic Palestine, activists, academics and  policymakers alike increasingly began to speak of a "crisis of representation" central to which was the exclusion of the vast majority of Palestinian refugees from decisions affecting their future.

In recent years it has become increasingly common to emphasize that any solution to the Palestinian refugee question must be agreed upon. The Arab peace initiative and the Road Map both call for an agreed upon solution. This appears to be a common sense approach to resolving what the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as “[b]y far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today.”[2] Solutions that are agreed upon, in contrast to imposed ones, are widely seen to be more durable, not least of which is due to the broad ownership that such approaches tend to generate.[3] The question is: agreed upon by whom? What role, if any, do refugees themselves have?

Humanitarianism has often been a surrogate for effective international action to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.(1) Political intervention to ensure the voluntary return of Palestinian refugees after the 1948 war, for example, eventually gave way to a program of long term assistance. More recently, emergency relief programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have all but superseded efforts to end Israel’s protracted military occupation.

 With the political and economic isolation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the January 2006 elections in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs), however, humanitarianism has been transformed into the primary manifestation of international political will as donor states condition additional aid (beyond that required to keep Palestinians alive) on Palestinian acquiescence to conditions that Israel itself has yet to fully accept.

Palestinian refugees may be one of the longest-standing refugee cases in the world today; they are also one of the most documented group of refugees. Recent years have seen the digitization of housing and property records held by the United Nations. But there remains a gap in documentation – registration of those records still held by refugees themselves.

 Reflections from a Fact-Finding Visit to Cyprus

Refugees and displaced persons themselves should be included in the process of crafting durable solutions. Civil society can play an important role in ensuring that an agreement is both acceptable to the larger public and durable over the long-term. While it may be politically expedient to compromise certain principles to reach a peace agreement, an agreement that is not consistent with international law may not be sustainable. 

 In September 2003, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied territories warned that the construction of the separation (‘apartheid’) wall in the West Bank is creating a new generation of refugees and displaced persons.1 The UN and local non-governmental organizations estimate that nearly a quarter of a million Palestinians will be affected by phase one of the wall in the northern West Bank.2 This number is likely to more than double as the wall snakes around Jerusalem and winds its way down through the southern West Bank. 

 The Building Blocks of a Viable Solution for Palestinian Refugees

A Reform Agenda for Middle East Peacemaking

The basic principles governing durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons are well-known. All refugees and displaced persons have the right to voluntarily return to their homes of origin in safety and dignity and repossess their properties.(1) Those not wishing to exercise these rights may opt for integration into host countries or resettlement in third countries.(2) Host countries should not push refugees to return; countries of origin should not prevent their return.(3) In other words, the starting point in crafting durable solutions is the wish of the refugee herself. While implementation is often imperfect, these basic principles are sine qua non for the crafting of durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons.

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.

Indicators that once documented [UNRWA’s] successes in health, education, relief, social services and other sectors are now in decline. In many areas these indicators compare unfavorably with host authority services as well as with international standards. Education and health facilities are often overcrowded and under-equipped; refugee homes and infrastructure are in dilapidated condition and refugees are increasingly falling through the gaps in service provision. Any further deterioration could threaten the long term human security of Palestine refugees and adversely affect stability in the Agency’s areas of operation.(1)

 the UN and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Presenting his last report to the UN Security Council in December 2006 outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented that the ‘greatest irony’ in the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that there was ‘no serious question about the broad outline of a final settlement.’ The only thing that was needed was a ‘ew and urgent push for peace’.(1)

 This simple assertion has become soewhat of an 'article of faith' among seasoned diplomats and policy analysts.(2) Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call this assertion a 'known known' or something that we know that we know. Annan's summary of the contours of a final settlement, however, is somewhat more specific than the Road Map, referring specifically to a solution for refugees 'consistent with the character of States in the region.'