Refugees Themselves Can Crack This Tough Nut

An ICG report, “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question,” is a timely and convincing reminder of why the Palestinian refugees must be central actors in the quest for a negotiated resolution of their conflict with Israel.

The Palestinian unity technocratic government that held its first meeting in war-torn Gaza on Thursday marked several significant if symbolic realities, the most important being the need to unify all Palestinians under a single legitimate leadership. It could be an important first step in a historic series of actions that are needed to address the visible weaknesses in the Palestinian national condition.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said at the meeting — held in Gaza because Israeli would not allow Gaza-based ministers to travel to the West Bank — that, “This is the government of all of Palestine… therefore I demand all factions support the government in rebuilding the Gaza strip and restoring a normal way of life.”

If Hamdallah was speaking for the government or for all Palestinians, the welcomed drama of his presiding over a national unity government in Palestine could not hide the still missing element that weakens his words and deeds. We were all reminded of this last week by a fine report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) that noted that the vast majority of Palestinians who are refugees living outside of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, remain politically outside the corridors of Palestinian power. Until the refugees are credibly re-integrated into the political decision-making system, as was the case at the height of the Palestinian national movement in the 1970s, statements and decisions by Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and Gaza will have very limited impact, because they do not reflect the pain and the will of the Palestinian majority.

The ICG report, entitled “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question” and available on website, is a timely and convincing reminder of why the Palestinian refugees must be central actors in the quest for a negotiated resolution of their conflict with Israel. It notes correctly that, “The Palestinian refugee question, like the refugees themselves, has been politically marginalized and demoted on the diplomatic agenda. Yet, whenever the diplomatic process comes out of its current hiatus, the Palestinian leadership will be able to negotiate and sell a deal only if it wins the support or at least acquiescence of refugees — because if it does not, it will not bring along the rest of the Palestinian population.”

For Palestinians, their refugeehood always was and remains today the central issue that must be seriously addressed and equitably resolved for any permanent peace agreement to take hold. That it can be resolved politically is inherent in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that acknowledges two critical realities: Any negotiated agreement must respect the concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians, and it must be based on international law and UN resolutions. That is a tough nut to crack, but it is, with hard work, a crackable nut.

Refugees today are almost totally neglected by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its negotiators in the occupied territories, the report notes, and refugees also resent the class structure that the PA and its economic policies have produced. Neither in their demand for basic services nor political representation are Palestinian refugees anywhere finding receptive ears among Palestinian leaderships, especially since the PA has assumed the mantle of national leadership in place of the now dormant Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The positive symbolism of a national unity government meeting in Gaza to demand the rapid reconstruction of that territory captures the shrinkage of the Palestinian leadership’s concerns from truly national concerns to much more localized ones. Gaza absolutely needs reconstruction, but this is a meaningless process for all Palestinians if reconstruction only leads to renewed warfare a few years from now — which is what will happen if the political validity and force of the refugees are not harnessed and incorporated into Palestinian leaders’ daily priorities.

The ICG reports captures this urgency very well: “For the Palestinian leadership, the main priority must be to reclaim representation of the majority of refugees, for without their acquiescence it will be exceedingly difficult to implement any comprehensive agreement with Israel; this therefore should be a concern of all who seek one. The growing chasm between the political elites and the refugees also portends greater instability, particularly should refugees or their advocates, despairing of the diplomatic process, seize the political initiative. But stability in and of itself is no answer: the marginalization of refugees within their host societies has left them with little choice other than to fantasize about returning to their former homes in Israel.”

This is precisely the moment when Palestinian everywhere should actively work to rebuild a credible national movement that focuses on a realistic and fair resolution of the conflict with Zionism and Israel. Gaza’s recent war experience reminds us of the power that Palestinian refugees can muster when they work seriously, but also of the immense waste and destruction that occur when political arenas — both Zionist and Palestinian — neglect the centrality of refugeehood to the conflict.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global