Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question
Jerusalem/Ramallah/Gaza/Brussels | 9 Oct 2014
With Palestinians increasingly doubtful that the refugee question can be resolved within a two-state framework, the Palestinian leadership should seek to reinvigorate refugee communities as well as to reclaim its representation of them. When diplomacy emerges from its hiatus, the leadership will be able to negotiate and implement a peace agreement only if it wins refugees’ support or at least acquiescence.
In its latest report, Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question, the International Crisis Group examines what could be done on the Palestinian side, without compromising core Israeli interests, to mitigate the risk that the Palestinian refugee question would derail a future agreement. For most of the 66 years since the Arab inhabitants of historic Palestine were displaced with the establishment of Israel in what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe), the refugee question was at the forefront of the Palestinian national agenda. It no longer is. Refugees feel alienated from the Palestinian Authority (PA), doubt the intentions of Palestinian negotiators, and resent the class structure that the PA and its economic policies have produced.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- Calcified refugee camp leadership committees ought to be renewed by election or selection. While their predicament is largely a reflection of the dysfunction of the overall political system, the relative isolation of the camps could facilitate a more representative local leadership. Given the limited resources of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), credible local leadership is needed.
- Palestinian elites, particularly in the West Bank, should combat the notion that refugee political claims can be advanced only by isolating camps from the broader social fabric. Refugees increasingly have come to believe that socio-economic deprivation is not the only way to maintain identity; reinvigorating political structures to better represent them would be more effective and humane.
- Donors should continue to fund UNRWA. Its support cannot solve the refugee problem, but the precipitous decline of services could exacerbate it and provoke regional instability. Palestinian political elites should undertake measures to improve daily life for refugees and ensure that economic reforms benefit rather than further marginalise them.
“Only a Palestinian leadership perceived as legitimate, inclusive and representative by all Palestinians will be considered authorised to negotiate a compromise with Israel” says Nathan Thrall, Senior Middle East Analyst. “The lull in talks gives the national movement a chance to reconstruct itself so Palestinians of all sorts, particularly refugees, can influence negotiating positions”.
“The Palestinian leadership, the Israeli government and the international community need to understand that their current approach to the refugee question is a recipe not only for failure and strife, but for further undermining the two-state solution”, says Robert Blecher, Middle East and North Africa Acting Program Director.