The Palestinian Refugee issue is considered, by most, as the central plank in the Israel Palestine conflict. It is also the cornerstone of any political negotiations that aims to resolve Israel Palestine conflict.
Since the birth of the refugee crises in 1948, Palestinians were subjected to shameful attempts to dismantle and fragment their plight as a political issue, yet, even after 64 years, it remains the essence of the Palestinian cause.
The plight of refugees has always been in the minds of the Palestinian people. They have resisted all attempts to compromise their fundamental human rights as refugees. Given the centrality of the right of return amongst the global Palestinian community, It is sad, and politically ill-advised, for some Palestinians (who don’t represent Palestinians fully) to be part of the agenda to dissolve the refugee issue. They obligingly endorse projects or compromises which neglect, marginalize and surrender the right of return. The stance of such a people does not represent the Palestinians nor their sacrifice and quest for freedom.
The issue of Palestinian refugees and their right to return is one of the two fundamental pillars towards justice and peace in Palestine. The two pillars, representing the path to justice and peace in Palestine include:
- The Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees to their homes and villages.
- The Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Palestinian Resistance, led by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), represented the main vehicle for the National Palestinian agenda. This resistance is a continuation of the resistance movement against the British mandate and the Zionist occupation. The establishment of the PLO, in 1964, was set to achieve the two pillars of the Palestinian movement; the right of Return and Self-Determination.
Following the Naksa (6-Day War in 1967) the National Palestinian project started to retreat. This continued in 1969, when the Palestinian National Council met in Algeria and agreed on the 10-points plan that centered around establishing a Palestinian state, on land freed from the grip of Israeli occupation. Their retreat to a new compromised position was a result of the persecution Palestinians faced in exile, which targeted Palestinian resistance in Lebanon and Jordan.
Israel refused to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians and looked for alternatives to the PLOs position, ideally a Palestinian entity to coordinate civil administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was hoped, such an entity would not be a threat to Israel and its future but rather would protect Israel’s interest and give up on key principals of the Palestinian resistance, self-determination and right of return.
Israel also refused to implement many articles enshrined in the first Camp David agreement signed with Egypt; these articles clearly demand Israel to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
The denial of the rights of Palestinians and the refusal to recognize PLO was clearly a devious attempt to block the rights of return and Palestinian self determination. According to Israels, such a state would be built on the “promised land of Jerusalem, Hebron and Nablus”, which all belonged to the Jewish people.
Israel felt that the existence of a Palestinian state would endanger the future of a Jewish state. It also perceives peace with the Palestinians as an achievable outcome, only if the Palestinian entity dropped their right of return.
Israel is making gains from the fact that the peace process is not a path to peace but a process to maintain the status quo. It serves Israel’s interest only, and does nothing to bring peace and justice to the region. Such sentiments were candidly expressed by the former Israeli Prime Minister, Isaac Shamir, who said, during the Madrid negotiations, that he will make sure negotiations continue endlessly for decades without any result. Such an approach was adapted by successive Israeli governments which refuse to uphold any of its obligations under the peace process, and more worryingly, obligations under international law. Such a one sided approach will not bring justice and peace in Palestine.
Palestinian Internal Differences:
The Palestinian political arena consists of two contradictory political paths. One believes the road to statehood is the ultimate goal and thinks a negotiated settlement will achieve this. This path does not have any problems in negotiating over key Palestinian principles like the right of return and borders. They are willing to concede where the vast majority of Palestinians are unwilling to concede, even though Palestinians continually compromise rights to facilitate Israel’s needs.
The second believes that ongoing resistance and non negotiation of Palestinian rights is the way to protect Palestinian principles and its national aspirations. The past century has shown that negotiation between two unequal parties, with one party conceding rights and the other conceding merely a limit on expansion, will not work.
Mindful of the diverging positions, it is vital to mention a number of strategic points to achieve Palestinian national aspirations:
- Palestinian resistance is a vital / strategic tool to achieve our national goals.
- Palestinian resistance should be strengthened, as it is a tool to protect our fundamental rights.
- A unified Palestinian entity should be established that can unify Palestinian people towards achieving their national goals. One that does not concede rights for merely less occupation and one not dictated by American and Israeli interests.
Securing membership for a Palestinian state at the United Nations will protect Palestinian negotiators from pressure from US and Israel. Without the UN recognition Palestinian negotiators are subjected to enormous pressure to concede fundamental rights in the areas of economy, security, settlement, and coordination of society. The membership will help to reduce the American monopoly of the Palestinian cause and will bring in other international players such as modern Egypt, Turkey and others. The right of return will remain a collective right for Palestinian people.
The project of a Palestinian state should be a step towards unifying Palestinians by protecting resistance and national principles like the right of return and self-determination. Even if Palestinians are divided at the moment, such a state will unify them in the future as long as they exist and resist from within their lands. In this instance, it is important to emphasize on the following points:
- Palestinian principles and righted stated within UN resolutions did not give Palestinian anything but sympathy.
- Palestinian achievements were made through sacrifice, national resistance and popular activism.
- Palestinian people are not holding false hopes that the UN will force Israel to implement the right of return.
- The Palestinian people need to achieve their freedom through establishing a Palestinian state on the Palestinian land in a step to obtain right of return and self-determination.
- The current status quo is a slow process of political suicide which would end through establishing, at least, a Palestinian state of a membership at the UN.
- The UN recognition of a Palestinian state doesn’t endanger the right of return since it’s a collective and individual right which cannot be be relinquished by time or an agreement from those who claim to represent the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian step towards UN membership was met with national consensus that included organizations like Fatah and Hamas. In this respect, there has been a letter circulated by Dr. Isam Udwan, Director of Refugees Affairs at Hamas movement which included a number of questions that I will answer:
Will the UN non-state membership of a Palestinian state support and enable the right of return for refugees?
There are fears about obtaining this membership. Israel and US are against such a move purely because it forces them to ease their grip on power over the Palestinians. Israel and US want Palestinians to gain their freedom by begging Israel, as stated by the spokesperson of the American Foreign Secretary, Hilary Clinton, who said that, “Palestinians should seek their rights through Israeli via negotiation and not via the International arena. This means that Palestinians should not develop their strategies based on what is in their best interest but only in consideration of Israel’s interest.
In any case, there is no guarantee of protecting the right of return while Palestinians are divided. There has to be a unified Palestinian discourse, and a representative and internationally recognized organization that will protect Palestinian rights. The non-state membership will only enhance the chances of securing a Palestinian state that is not merely an American and Israeli construct but a true reflection of Palestinian goals and aspirations.
The fears associated with moving the Palestinian observer membership to non-state member is theoretical. However, the status quo and practical reality is that Palestinians are heading towards a scenario that only serves the interest of Israel and the US. The PLO has done very badly in terms of negotiations and dealing with the UN over the past decades. It’s hard to accept the reason for their persistence in continuing with the status quo given the historical failure and missed opportunities to rebuild the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) after the cancellation of the National Charter.
The steps taken by President Abbas were welcomed by most of the Palestinian parties. These parties looked at the UN move with hope that it will also end the division which has blighted Palestinians for Seven years in addition to confronting Israeli occupation and expansion; including the Gaza siege and the refusal of the election results in 2005.
The non-state membership for a Palestinian state would not be an alternative to the PLO which is an observer member of the UN. PLO would remain the umbrella organization for all Palestinians inside the occupied territories and abroad.
Palestinian can only secure their political and human rights by continuing their struggle at different international arenas. Israel’s accession to UN membership was conditional on its agreement to implement UN resolution 194. However, it refused to do so and remained a member of the UN. Protecting the Palestinian refugee issue will be best achieved by a unified Palestinian entity that can unify Palestinian people towards achieving their national goals without capitulation to Israeli demands.
Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies, Valume 2, Issue 2, Autumn 2012