Palestinian refugees key to peace

 

For most of the last two decades the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has taken the shape of bilateral negotiations, with Washington as the only third party allowed to play an active role. But the US secretary of state, John Kerry, now sees a different way for playing that role.

Perhaps only former US president Bill Clinton has previously attempted to propose detailed plans for peace between the two parties. Mr Kerry is going a step further and is now working to develop solutions for a series of complex problems. For example, Mr Kerry’s security plan for the Jordan Valley, which was revealed last month.

It is possible to conclude that he is “maturing” ideas pertaining to different issues before discussing them with Palestinian, Israeli and regional leaders. Through this technique, he may succeed in bridging previously unbridgeable gaps.

The issue of Palestinian refugees appears to be the second situation Mr Kerry is “maturing”.

The majority of the Palestinian people are refugees. About five million refugees are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

There are different categories of refugees: those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, where the Palestinian state is proposed; those who gained nationalities of other countries such as a large part of those in Jordan or in the US, EU and Latin America; and those who still live without nationality, especially in Lebanon and Syria. For Israel, the return of refugees and the idea of “the Jewish state” are mutually exclusive. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state is one of the reason why many Israelis accept the two state solution in the first place.

Jordanian officials confirm they are very close to the “negotiations” with the Americans and Palestinians. Palestinian factions, including Islamists who do not formally support the negotiations, accept the proviso that Palestinian refugees in Jordan are a special category.

During discussions over reconciliation and reform, it was agreed that refugees in Jordan will not participate in the envisioned elections of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). This provision triggered angry reactions from refugees and their representatives. Palestinian students in Jordan’s universities issued a protest statement, visited the head of the PNC and informed him of their concern regarding such exclusion involving their future.

Last week, the head of the royal court in Jordan and former prime minister Fayiz Al Tarawneh invited chief editors and columnists of the Jordanian newspapers for informative discussions.

Mr Al Tarawneh told them that approximately two million refugees are Jordanian citizens and that Jordan will look after their affairs in the negotiations, including the possibility of their return and compensation.

According to Article 8 of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, it is possible to reach an agreement to settle refugees. Based on all of this, it is reasonable to suppose that Mr Kerry will work on settling refugees in countries where they live, and to facilitate giving them political and economic incentives to minimise their demand of the right of return.

Such a task is not easy. It creates a huge disruption inside host countries. In Jordan, there is a powerful rejection among east Jordanians to absorb refugees forever, while at the same time strong opposition is expected among some of the Palestinians themselves.

There are also around one million Palestinians living in Jordan without Jordanian nationality. Absorbing them would be very complex. Likewise, in the case of Lebanon, where the majority of Palestinian refugees are Sunni Muslim, absorbing them would change the sectarian and already tense make-up of the country.

Leaving the refugee problem without solution or delaying it in a “framework agreement” is an option, but a dangerous one.

Palestinian refugees started the armed struggle in the 1960s, and at present, there are already agitated refugees. For example, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled Syria recently and are living under very poor conditions. In some cases, they were placed in detention camps and centres in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Also, the living conditions in the Lebanese refugee camps are very poor, with gradual detrition of the power of PLO factions to the benefit of jihadi groups.

Looking among the Palestinian refugees around the world, especially those who managed to rebuild their personal and family life, it is apparent that they have tried hard to reorganise themselves without waiting for the inactive PLO.

For instance, there are popular annual conferences in Europe for refugees. Also, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and active participation in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), are examples of Palestinians reorganising themselves away from the traditional political factions, and carrying out widespread self-help campaigns.

Reaching agreement on the refugee status in the Arab-Israeli conflict is very difficult. But waiting too long to solve this problem or further delaying it may have the effect of transforming the whole Palestinian political scene with new actors among Palestinians in exile.

 

Published in The National UAE, January 4, 2014