It is unhelpful to separate the issues facing the Palestinian refugees into arbitrary legal, moral, financial and political factors. Instead, the issues overlap these categories, for example the Israeli desire to not politicise the UN Resolution 184, which is itself a political act. Therefore, this essay recognises: the lack of desirability on both sides for compromise; the lack of meaningful international community engagement; the lack of coherence among the refugee positions; and poor refugee living conditions as issues that need to be resolved in order to address the future of the Palestinian refugee. The essay argues that, in particular, a lack of willingness to acquiesce on major issues is what is blocking progress on the refugee issue, with this being as much to the detriment of Israel as it is to the Palestinians.
Palestine refugees are defined by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as ‘persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both homes an means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict’ (UNRWA, 2015). However, this definition is problematic, as ten more camps were established to accommodate a new wave of displaced persons in the aftermath of the 1967 hostilities, let alone further conflicts such as the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Most estimates claim that there are between five and seven million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons, many of whom live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem (UNRWA, 2015; Dumper, 2008), and with a growth rate of 3.1% further delays will only exacerbate the current issues (Dumper, 2008).
A Unique Situation
The legal situation in particular is complicated by the fact that ‘Palestinian refugees are not seeking a place of residence other than their country of origin’ (Zureik, 1994: 8). Post-World War II refugee status has involved refugees moving to places other than their own countries, for example on account of fear of persecution. Therefore, with international law premised on state sovereignty it would appear to be difficult for Palestinians to return. This is further complicated given the unique role of UNRWA, instead of UNHCR, in dealing with the refugee crisis, which has created a ‘highly separate culture and ethos’ that has lead to an exceptional legal framework from which to operate from (Dumper, 2008: 190). Yet, one could argue that there is a precedent set by the Jewish Diaspora, which neither had an automatic right of return ‘since they too were not citizens of the state to which they claim the right to return’ (Zureik, 1994: 9). Furthermore, Dumper highlights how the sheer longevity of the situation – with a fourth generation of descendants involved – as well as ‘the largest refugee and displaced persons population in the world’ makes the Palestinians case very unique amongst other refugee cases (Dumper, 2008: 190). Therefore, unique solutions will be required, which are unlikely to have precedent, thus meaning that original thinking and most importantly compromise are needed.
The Need for Compromise
Unfortunately, both Palestinians and Israelis have been highly reluctant to acquiesce on their hard-line positions, which has derailed negotiation attempts such as the Refugee Working Group (Peters, 1997; Lindholm-Schultz, 2003). Instead of acknowledging responsibility for the crisis, Israel has claimed that it was largely ‘the inevitable by-product of Arab and Jewish fears, and the protracted bitter fighting’, whilst, for its part, Palestinians have categorically rejected and compensation for Jews from Arab lands. (Zureik, 1994: 12). Israel has been reluctant to politicise issues such as return, resettlement, compensation and citizenship, which are highly charged political issues for the refugees. Palestinians demand strict adherence to the United Nations Resolution 194, which states Palestinians have the right to return to Israel (Lindholm-Schultz, 2003). On the contrary, Israel has aimed to permanently settle the refugees in their host countries, with only a very limited number allowed to return on ‘humanitarian grounds’ (Zureik, 1994, 13). Fundamentally, Israel was setup as a Jewish state, so it would be nigh-on impossible for all refugees to come back given the Palestinian demographic advantage, something which even co-founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat pointed out (Arafat, 2002). Therefore, the only way in which progress can be made is if both sides acquiesce on highly charged issues such as those above, otherwise the protracted situation will endure.
The consequence of Israel failing to acknowledge its responsibility is that the Palestinian refugees are being viewed as a threat by Israel, rather than as victims. This is perhaps not limited to Israel, as refugees around the world are often viewed as ‘a potential source of instability’ (Loescher and Milner, 2008: 34). This is also in part caused by cross-border attacks, as well as attacks on humanitarian personnel, other refugees, and civilian populations. Thus, the Israeli government can present the Palestinian refugees as ‘security threats to justify actions that would not otherwise be permissible’ (Loescher and Milner, 2008: 37). Such a portrayal thence has the effect of making the Palestinians an out-group that is responsible for ‘all untoward activities’ and thus creates significant barriers to cooperation and long-lasting peace (Maluwa, 1995: 657). Therefore, Israel needs to recognise that an acceptance of at least part responsibility, thus viewing the refugees more positively, will be very helpful in reducing tensions and suspicions, whilst the eradication of Palestinian violence would also be important as Israeli security fears have strong validity. However, the strong Zionist narrative of survival in an overwhelmingly hostile environment is likely to remain dominant judging from right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 election victory. Ultimately, though, any stable peace agreement will require high-level international involvement to act as guarantors due to the depth of mistrust.
The Importance of International Involvement
Due to the positions of the two sides being so entrenched and mistrust being so deep, any peace agreement will require international involvement. Actions such as admitting responsibility and stopping violence will only have a limited effect. A multilateral process can address long-term issues that are fundamental to a long-lasting peace whilst acting as a guarantor to any deal reached on immediate concerns (Peters, 1997). There are a number of aspects to the refugee issue that have regional effects, mainly given the large numbers of refugees living in neighbouring countries, so motivation, for regional states in particular, to become involved should be strong (Robinson, 1997). Palestinians will need to forge coordination with a number of partners, particularly its Arab neighbours, if it is to succeed. A policy of “going it alone”, originates from weakness and necessity, and will ultimately prove to be unstable in the future. However, the international community has struggled to gain a foothold, for example because of Lebanon and Syria refusing to attend any multilateral meetings and due to relations between UNRWA and Lebanon being ‘variable’ (Besson, 1997: 348). Furthermore, for a long time the United States refused to use the United Nations as a forum or accept the applicability of UN Resolution 194 (Zureik, 1994). Although the US position has now changed to support the Palestinians, this demonstrates how easy it can be for the peace process to stall. The failure of negotiation processes such as the 1991 Madrid Conference and 1993 Oslo Accords to achieve substantive results further highlights the difficulties faced here. Yet, without third-party involvement it is clear that nothing will be done given the prominence of redline issues, although even with foreign involvement and the potential of universal condemnation of Israel, the emotional power of the Israeli narrative could still easily prevent progress.
The Need for Coherence Among Refugees
To make best use of third-party political support, the Palestinians need to ensure that they have a coherent platform from which to operate from. This does not mean assimilating the various Palestinian groups into one, but instead means establishing each group’s aims and objectives. Currently, due to their differing needs meaning that they are asking Israel for different things, such as the right of return versus humanitarian aid, there is confusion about what exactly Palestinians desire (Chatty and Lewando-Hundt, 2005). Greater coherence will require ‘an open debate on the refugee issue within the Palestinian refugee communities’ (Zureik, 1994: 14). One of the consequences of the aforementioned uniqueness of the Palestinian situation is that there are refugee groups spread over in many regions, which thus means that they have different needs and require different practical solutions (Besson, 1997). Whilst there is a shared experience of al-Nakba – the day when Palestinians were expelled from their homes during the 1948 War – there is, for example, a varying impact to which ‘various outbreaks of armed conflict and general violence have had on Palestinian refugees in each field site’ such as the tensions among middle-class and lower class Palestinian families in Jordan who have integrated with differing success (Chatty and Lewando-Hundt, 2005: 175). A greater understanding of the Palestinian positions will enable the international community to support them more strongly and thus put more pressure on Israel to acquiesce on key points. Perhaps more importantly, it will also make negotiations easier as Palestinian desires are made clearer to Israel. Therefore, whilst there are some groups that have assimilated better into their host countries, such as in Jordan, and thence might not want to return (Chatty and Lewando-Hundt, 2005), it is more the aspect of clarity of what each groups views are, rather than unanimous agreement, which is important.
Whether one envisages a one state or a two state solution, it is vital that the solution improves, or at least stabilises, living conditions and infrastructure for the refugees otherwise the state will collapse under the immense strain. In fact, this is important even if there is no agreement on the future of the refugee, for conditions could easily become so dire that it propels even greater strife and violence. Israel’s hard-line approach on not politicising issues has meant that it has tried to focus on ‘humanitarian aspects of the refugee question’ (Peters, 1997: 324). However, in reality, little success has occurred perhaps apart from preventing a complete crisis. Currently, water resources are a big problem for refugees, as they have to rely on vendors for drinking water, with other commonly cited problems including medical services as well as classroom overcrowding (Ugland, 2003). Education is a particular issue among young Palestinians who have identified UNRWA’s provision of education as a weakness (Chatty and Lewando-Hundt, 2005). Regarding the one state solution, one can see potential for a situation like that of the Somalian refugees, whereby ‘in the face of a crumbled state structure’ they were abandoning their camps in Kenya (Hyndman, 2000: 162). If the Israeli state infrastructure can’t support the large number of refugees that would likely return, then a similar situation could occur. This could also easily apply to an independent Palestinian state that would likely struggle to finance and organise a suitable infrastructure, particularly given the relatively small and poor quality land that they would likely attain, hence why substantial third-party aid – not just financially – is required.
Arguably, Israel and the international community have placed too much focus on practical living conditions, rather than political issues. Perhaps, this is a deliberate ploy by Israel to ameliorate and weaken Palestinian political resolve so as to remain in control. The European Union (EU), for example, has significantly focussed its involvement on ‘programs of humanitarian and practical nature’ with France concerned with family-reunification projects and Italy with public-health projects (Zureik, 1994: 6). Third parties such as the EU could become more involved politically but that depends upon the aforementioned factors of acquiescence and coherence.
In conclusion, it is unhelpful to separate the issues facing the Palestinian refugees into arbitrary legal, moral, financial and political factors. Instead, there are issues that overlap these categories, for example with Israeli desire to not politicise the UN Resolution 184, which is itself a political act. This essay has recognised: the lack of desirability on both sides for compromise; the lack of meaningful international community engagement; the lack of coherence among the refugee positions; and poor refugee living conditions as issues that need to be resolved in order to address the future of the Palestinian refugee.
Improvement in the situation will initially come from a realisation from both sides that their current hard-line positions are unhelpful to both groups. Israel may seem to be dominant but their position threatens to weaken their relationship with the US and the international community and thus become further isolated within an even greater hostile environment, whilst creating an even more determined enemy. Palestinians must recognise that Israel’s historical victimisation narrative is extremely powerful and thus requires gentle handling if they are to gain anything meaningful. Therefore, it is in both groups’ interests to acquiesce, particularly on the key issues where progress is currently nigh-on impossible such as the right to return. This will stimulate the beginning of mutual trust and thus international actors will have more to work with, the various Palestinian groups will be better engaged as they will see potential for a better future, and it will hopefully allow for a more generous and empathetic Israeli approach to refugee living conditions.
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