Re-launching the centrality of Palestine’s refugee question

The 5th of November 2014 marked the 65th anniversary of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a sui generis UN agency established upon resolution of the General Assembly for an initial mandate of three years. Yet, this mandate has been extended for far too long. Here, Kelly Petillo questions the lack of interest in the refugee status of Palestinians.

The right of return for Palestinian refugees has been defined as a “sacred” right in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. The right of refugees to return to their homeland is also stated by Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its related 1967 Protocol.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian refugee question seems to have been completely forgotten, or strategically ignored.

© Institut français du Proche-Orient /Creative Commons License

© Institut français du Proche-Orient /Creative Commons License

The same Palestinian Authority (PA) that is meant to represent the Palestinian people at the international level has seemingly forgotten about Palestine’s refugees.  Last year, during a crucial moment during negotiations, Abbas showed a high degree of flexibility with regards to methods for solving the Palestinian refugee question. In general, PA’s diplomatic stance has met some general criticism by several Palestinians, who refuse to recognize Israel as “a Jewish state”, but who see the leadership oscillating between recognition and non-recognition. This generates a sentiment of suspicion, which inevitably leads to political weakness. Recognizing the state of Israel in its Jewish state formula is considered as a tricky question, since it is arguably connected to an implicit renounce to the right of return. The right of return, together with settlements, borders and Jerusalem is the cornerstone of the Palestinian identity, and therefore Palestinian refugees  nurture a strong sentiment for such a right.

Bearing in mind that there is no comprehensive solution to the conflict, without the inclusion of Palestine refugees, any agent willing to negotiate a comprehensive, effective solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must embrace their inclusion. Despite this, there has been a general exclusion from the negotiating process. This concerns two aspects: procedural marginalization –i.e. exclusion from the peace-making process itself— and textual marginalization –meaning the exclusion of refugee-related requests from the agreements.

What negotiations rather let shine through is the idea that the right of return for the totality of the Palestinians is an “impossible fantasy”, at the most a mere symbolic tool for negotiations, as revealed by the Al-Jazeera’s Palestine Papers, a series of leaked confidential documents on Palestine-related agreements. When these documents were released in 2011, what emerged was the “destructive” character of negotiations with regards to Palestinians’ self-determination claims. As of today, there is a widespread opinion that initiatives proposed by diplomats and government officials only contribute to the continuation of the status quo rather than breaking it.

What solutions are being pursued?

Besides big transnational campaigns, such as the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, throughout the years Palestinian refugees themselves have been demonstrating a general tendency towards embracing several, often undocumented forms of nonviolent resistance. From these forms of resistance, one element emerges: Palestinian refugees will not give up the vital right of return.

© Tijen Erol  /Creative Commons License

© Tijen Erol /Creative Commons License

Past attempts of return by the Palestinians have been promptly arrested by the Israeli army. It happened in May 2011, when thousands of Palestinians marched from the Lebanese and Syrian borders; and it happened in 2013 in Iqrit, where “returnees” have camped for more than two years; or few months ago, in the village of Kufr Bir’im, a semi-destroyed village where a movement called Al-Awda Hariket Abna’ Kufr Birim Al-Taqodumeyon (“The Return of the Progressive Sons of Kufr Birim”) has existed since 1982. Such attempts should continue, as they testify Palestinians’ legitimate attempts of resistance and legal rights.

UNHCR documentation  states the importance of refugees’ participation in peace-making initiatives, including the related negotiation phase. Findings related to the 2004-5 ‘Time for Them to Speak and for Us to Listen’ initiative show the importance for the Palestinians of increasing chances to elect their own representatives, or more simply to designate those intellectuals and policy makers who represent them at the local level. In this regard, they called for the establishment of community groups able to openly dialogue with their leadership.

Palestinian refugees currently have the legal right to return. However, if their involvement in the peace-making process is not  encouraged then it is unlikely that any kind of return will actually take place.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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