Trump administration has increased efforts in attempt to find a final solution on the Palestine status by removing the “refugee issue” of the negotiation table. The “refugee issue” is a central feature of the entire conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and is treated as inseparable from that of “self-determination.” Any future peace deal, therefore, must resolve this issue—in accordance with international law and the UN General Assembly’s resolutions—including the right of Palestinian refugees to return, repatriation, and compensation. Currently, there are 13 million Palestinian refugees worldwide—mostly concentrated in the Middle East and Gulf region.
Sebahate J. Shala
In a recent meeting of the Security Council, the Arab nations—including League of Arab States and Organization for Islamic Cooperation—rejected in unison the US “Peace to Prosperity” plan for the Middle East, calling for a permanent settlement of Palestine’s status based on the two-state solution and in accordance with “Roadmap to Peace” provisions (SC/3997/2019). It must have been a punch for Trump and his senior advisor for the Middle East, Kushner—who hoped that Palestinians would eventually trade their national aspirations in exchange for economic prosperity. Contrarily, they won’t!!! The Palestinian Authority denied the “deal of the century” even before Kushner launched it in Bahrain Economic Workshop on June 25th (DeutcheWelle, June 25, 2019).
The Middle East Economic Plan dubbed as “Peace to Prosperity”has met huge resistance from all sides—including politics, experts, and academics. First and foremost, the plan doesn’t make any reference on the Palestine’s political status that seeks to resolve through economic means, whereas, Palestinians are treated as customers not as political subjects. Second, the plan tends to exclude from the negotiation table the most fundamental issues—Jerusalem, borders, and Palestinian refugees—marking a departure from previous international and regional peace initiatives.
In such parameters, the “new deal” of the century, as Kushner called it, is doomed to fail. The American deal is deemed immoral and impractical—which in the worst scenario could blow the Middle East up, because economics, as Israelis’ diplomats and experts maintain, were never enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Politico, June 24, 2019). Moreover, the new deal violates international law, for it doesn’t address the right of Palestinian refugees to return, repatriation, and compensation, as stipulated in the UN General Assembly’s resolutions 194 (III) and the subsequent ones.
The Palestinian refugee issue is a central feature of the entire conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and is treated as inseparable from that of self-determination. Any future peace truce, therefore, must resolve this issue—along with four other ones—land and territory, the right of Palestinians to self-determination, Israel’s illegal settlements and status of Jerusalem—about which Israelis and Palestinians hold diametrically opposing views.
With that being said, the international mediators, UN, US, EU and Arab Nations, should increase pressure toward Israel to respect the international law and UN resolutions, which recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return, repatriation, and compensation. Israel should acknowledge the Palestinian refugees’ predicament and perilous situation, and agree to a permanent resolution based on the existing plans. The neighboring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, should respect human rights of Palestinian refugees, provide access to health, education, and employment services, and work to minimize their suffering. All other countries should treat Palestinian refugees’ claims based on collective rights as envisioned in the UNGA Resolution 194.
Palestinian refugees’ legal status: (UN)protected
Palestinian refugees represent one of the most protracted refugee situations and the largest refugee population in the world—accounting for about 13 million—dispersed throughout the Middle East and Gulf region, and Western countries. The “Palestinian refugee” term, based on the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) definition, refers to “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” It’s estimated that some 750,000 Palestinians were driven or forced to flee their homes during the 1946-48 war between Israelis and Palestinian-Arabs. Currently, about 6 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services, a UN agency mandated to provide work, education, relief, and health care services to them (UNGA Resolution A/302(IV).
Palestinian refugees are distinct from statutory refugees—those under the 1951 Convention on the Status and Rights of Refugees and UNHCR’s protection— therefore, they are eligible for exceptional treatment. First, Palestinian refugees are recognized by collective rights vs. individual rights: their claims are treated as a “group of people” based on the Article 1A.2 of the 1951 Convention (Akram, 2002b). Second, this group of refugees is governed by a separate international regime, including the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine (UNCCP, 1948), the UNRWA (1949), certain provisions of the 1951 Convention (Article 1D), and a series of UN resolutions (Res. 194, 242 and 338). In practice, however, Palestinian refugees are left without legal international protection.
Unlike other refugees whose status is determined by Article 1A.2 of the 1951 Convention, the status of Palestinian refugees is defined under Article 1D, which is interpreted as “severely restrictive and exclusive,” for it excludes this group of refugees from the most basic international human rights (Akram 2002a). Although, the Article 1D doesn’t specifically mention them, it, according to Tekkenberg, applies exclusively to “Palestinian refugees.” (1999) The article reads as following:
“This convention shall not apply to persons who at present are receiving from organs or agencies of the UN other than the UNHCR protection or assistance.”
The same provision provides Paragraph 7c of the UNHCR’s statute, which incorporates only the first sentence of Article 1D.
“The status of UNHCR will not extend to persons who at present receive protection or assistance from other organs, or agencies of the United Nations.”
“Other agencies” operating “at the time” when the 1951 Convention was drafting was the UNCCP—designated to legally protect Palestinian refugees in international arena—a mandate equivalent to that of UNHCR for other refugees (Rempel, 2000). Palestinian refugees were the only refugees receiving protection from other UN agencies (Tekkenberg, 1998).
According to the second sentence of Article 1D, however, “when protection or assistance” of the UN agencies has ceased without any settlement for such persons pursuant to relevant UN General Assembly’s resolutions, these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the 1951 Convention’s benefits. The UNCCP mandate ceased in the early 1950s as the agency was unable to represent and promote Palestinian refugees’ rights and interests—repatriation and compensation (Rempel, 2000). In a progress report to the UN Secretary General in 1951, the UNCCP confirmed the failure, stating that, “due to the unwillingness of the parties, the commission’s efforts to fully implement the mandate given by the UNGA resolutions had failed.” (UNCCP, A/1985)
The UNCCP’s focus then shifted to resettlement only, and was further curtailed with subsequent resolutions—ending up with the sole mandate to gathering information on refugee property in Israel and investigating the possibilities of property compensation (Akram, 2002b). Following the cessation of UNCCP’s mandate to protect and represent them, Palestinian refugees should have automatically been placed under the 1951 Convention and receive the UNHCR protection.
On contrary, since the 1950s, Palestinian refugees are left without international protection. No agency, as Akram argues, has the authority to intervene, represent, or protect them against infringement by states (2000). Because, the UNRWA has no political power to protect neither to represent or find a durable solution for Palestinian refugees—other than providing relief and assistance (Reem, 2008; Roberts, 2010). As a result, Palestinian refugees are ineligible for the most basic rights guaranteed under international refugee law, including freedom of movement, right to seek political asylum, residence and citizenship.
Besides that, UNRWA’s operation is impeded by its mandate that is renewed each year, limited donations, and limited geographic area of operations (Roberts, 2010). One of the main concerns raised at the UNSC last week was the UNRWA’s lack of funding, too.
The situation of Palestinian refugees: Perilous
Given the legal gaps on their status and rights, Palestinian refugees, as Human Rights Watch reports, have lived in precarious situation—subjugated to discriminatory laws and restrictions to employment and social services—because none of the Middle East and Gulf region countries, except Israel, Egypt, and Yemen, are legally abided to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol—UNHCR (2014). The situation is especially dire in Lebanon—home of 300,000—450,000 of Palestinians—and to some extent in Jordan, which deteriorated since 2005, respectively 2013 following the Iraq’s and Syria’s wars. The majority of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as Amnesty International observes in a recent report, remain stateless, consequently, they have no access to public services (2019).
Furthermore, in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees, as this organization revealed, are prohibited from practicing over 30 professions, including medicine, dentistry, law, architecture and engineering. Mohammad, a 21-year-old, is among those who can’t work as a professional dentist simply because he is Palestinian. “I am surrounded by poverty…I want to create a better life for myself, away from all of this misery,” he told Amnesty.
In similar conditions live 2.1 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan—most of which are not allowed to work in government offices and banks (Amnesty International, 2019; Khaled Muhammed, 2009). In Iraq—out of the UNRWA’s mandate of operations, meanwhile, Palestinians have been a deliberated target of violence, harassment, and evictions under the suspicions they had cooperated with Saddam’s regime (Human Rights Watch, 2006). In almost all Western countries, on the other hand, Palestinian refugees’ claims are treated in the same way as those of other refugees—on individual basis—as prescribed in Article 1A.2—thus violating the UNGA 194(III) resolution that acknowledges their “unique status.” (Akram, 2002b).
Solution: Respects Palestinian refugees’ right to return
There is a tentative within the US administration to exclude the “refugee issue” from the package deal on Palestine’s status. Trump’s White House through Special Envoy to the Middle East, David Satterfield, has intensified efforts to find a resolution on Palestinian refugees currently residing in Lebanon and Jordan (Haaretz, June 2019). Eventually, pressuring respective governments to accept Trump’s deal that would strip Palestinian refugees’ right to return to Israel. In fact, cutting the UNRWA’s funds and punishing refugees is viewed as a strategy to deny the refugee status of Palestinians. Trump eliminated all financial assistance for Palestinians, including the assistance to Palestinian security forces and contributions to the UNRWA, hoping to force Palestinians make necessary concessions to Israel.
“Peace to Prosperity” plan seems to have been designed with that intent in mind—omitting the “refugee issue” of the package deal and depriving refugees the right to return to Israel. For Kushner, integrating Palestinian refugees within Arab countries is the most pragmatic, achievable, and viable solution in the modern age. He even tried to equate Palestinian refugees—driven or forced to flee out of Israel in 1948 with the Jews “exodus” from Arab countries—apparently an inadequate and misleading comparison (Times of Israel, June 2, 2019).
The “deal of the century” is strongly rejected because it doesn’t take into consideration the Arab Peace Initiative plan, standing, as Kushner explained for Al Jazeera, somewhere in between the Arab plan and Israel’s position towards Palestine status (August 19, 2019). Regarding refugees, the plan departs from the UN resolutions and previous peace agreements between Palestinian and Israel’s leaders on the resolution of this problem that includes a combination of resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Palestine, third-country resettlement, symbolic absorption of a small number of Palestinian refugees in Israel, and compensation (Id.).
Thus, any attempt to remove the “refugee issue” from the status settlement, as Lorenzo Kamel, Associate Professor of History at the University of Turin, argues, is doomed to fail (Al Jazeera, June 24, 2019). Even worse, it would further exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Philip Luther, Director at Amnesty International, warns, “There can be no lasting solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis until Israel respects Palestinian refugees’ right to return.” (2019) This year marked 71 years of what is known to Palestinians as “Nakba”—meaning of catastrophe—and Israel still denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their land, posing a flagrant violation of international law (Id.).
The international mediators, UN, US, EU + Arab Nations should stick to the existing peace plans by pressuring Israel to recognize the Palestinian refugees’ right to return, repatriation, and compensation. The receiving countries in the region should respect Palestinian refugees’ human rights by repealing discriminatory laws and removing obstacles blocking refugees’ access to employment and essential services pursuant to international law. All Western countries should treat Palestinian refugees’ claims based on the collective rights as envisioned on the UNGA Res. 194.
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Zvi Bar’el, “Analysis: Trump’s Peace Plan Would Give Palestinian Refugees Many, Many Countries,” Haaretz, June 02, 2019.