Global Policy Forum

1948 Refugee Issue Still Plagues Peace Efforts


By Fadi Chahine and Rhonda Roumani

Daily Star
January 29, 2004

The Geneva Initiative, introduced last month during an elaborate ceremony attended by former US President Jimmy Carter and moderates on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, has generated serious debate over how to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue. On the whole, Palestinians claim that this latest attempt at peace-making will effectively deny Palestinian's their right to return to their land inside Israel.

"The initiative forfeits the Palestinian right of return and for that reason, we reject it," Maher Taher, the politburo chief of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told The Daily Star in Beirut. "The accord also cedes parts of Palestinian lands and threatens part of the Palestinian state."

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and other members of the Palestinian Authority have neither officially accepted nor rejected the peace accord. But the initiative, authored by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo and former Israeli Cabinet Minister Yossi Beilin, is the only peace plan to date to address the Palestinian refugee issue in detail. The 1993 Oslo Agreement, the Camp David Accords in 2000 and the new plan on the block, the "road map" of 2003, all placed the settlement of the refugees on hold, considering it too explosive an issue to negotiate.

For Palestinians, the right of return is more than an aspiration; it is a collective right, a part of their national identity further legitimized by 1948 United Nations General Assembly resolution 194, which states that Palestinians have the right to return to their homes and villages from which they were displaced, including those in the holy city of Jerusalem.

But Abed Rabbo, one of the main architects of the initiative, says the media has misrepresented the plan, which he said offers "practical means" to solving the refugee problem. "In fact, many not only misunderstood the initiative but even misrepresented it as if it was drafted only to liquidate any chances to solve the issue of Palestinian refugees. This is totally untrue," Abed Rabbo told The Daily Star from Ramallah.

The initiative accords Palestinian refugees five options to citizenship. Palestinian refugees may either choose to settle in the state of Palestine, in areas in Israel being transferred to Palestine in the land swap, in the state of Israel, in their present host country or any other country that agrees to accept them. But the crux of the agreement would leave the number of refugees absorbed by Israel and the host countries up to them. According to the initiative, refugees would also be entitled to compensation for their losses.

"The initiative openly and explicitly states the settlement of refugees in their host countries is subject to the sovereign decision of the country involved, said Abed Rabbo. "In other words, there is neither an explicit nor an implicit attempt through the Geneva Initiative to impose on any Palestinian refugee, and for this matter on any host country, a settlement that is not acceptable to either party." He added that the initiative states that once the two parties have agreed to an independent Palestinian state, the refugee issue must then be addressed in a final resolution if a just and lasting peace is to be achieved.

"The overall concept of the Geneva Initiative was to offer realistic solutions to issues that have been totally unsolvable over the past five decades," Abed Rabbo said. "The initiative sets the example of a peace agreement between the two sides but it does not advocate any imposed settlement on either party." According to Abed Rabbo, the initiative was drafted to recognize United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the Arab Peace Initiative (adopted in the Beirut Arab Summit of 2002) as the basis for solving the refugee problem, with the fine points of how many refugees would be absorbed by various countries to be worked out in future negotiations. "The definition of agreed resolution is that no party would impose upon the other an agreement. This in itself ensures that the rights of the Palestinian refugees are honored," he said.

But Palestinian refugees and political leaders believe that the initiative gives too much power to the host country to determine how many refugees will indeed be allowed back. "Since Israel will have the final say and given the fact that they have already rejected the right of return, most likely Israel will not allow any Palestinians back into Israel," said Taher.

Lebanon's former Prime Minister Salim Hoss also rejected the initiative, saying that it was not in the best interests of the Palestinians. "Despite the good intentions of Abed Rabbo, I am opposed to the Geneva Initiative because it simply calls for the end of the intifada, or resistance, and does away with the basis for a permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Hoss said. He warned that once the resistance was "eliminated" Palestinians would lose their only "bargaining chip" and turn from "negotiators to beggars."

Bassem Yamout, a member of the Lebanese Parliament and part of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's camp, supports the spirit of the initiative, but agrees with Taher that the initiative would give Israel too much power over the fate of Palestinian refugees eager to return to their homes inside Israel proper. "There are certain parts that would go against the basic principles that Arab countries have laid down for peace between the Arabs and Israel," said Yamout.

According to Yamout, refugees living in Lebanon would pose a problem. "Lebanon's delicate community structure would be thrown off balance if there was an influx of new citizens of specific religions and sects," Yamout said. He added that Lebanon is constitutionally barred from granting Palestinians citizenship. Abed Rabbo denied claims by political activists and officials in Lebanon that Palestinian refugees, according to the Geneva Initiative, would have to settle in Lebanon. "This is completely false and is only meant to stir the kind of demagogical campaign that serves very narrow and personal interests of certain figures whether in the Palestinian areas or abroad," Abed Rabbo said.

Lebanon is host to nearly 400,000 Palestinians who live in 12 refugee camps across the country. UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency set up in 1948, has 4 million refugees on its books in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and others scattered in other parts of the Arab world.

Abed Rabbo explained that the initiative simply poses a question to be presented to each and every Palestinian refugee on where he or she would like to live after a settlement is reached between the two parties. "The refugees, and only the refugees, have the right to choose their place of permanent residence," said Abed Rabbo. "That is why the Geneva Initiative suggested a number of options, including living in Israel itself, returning to the independent state of Palestine, pick another country or stay in their host countries."

But Hoss and others are not convinced that the current solution offers Palestinian refugees a just solution. He warned that despite the failure of previous peace plans, the Geneva Initiative is "not the way to deal with the Palestinian issue because it expands Israel's territories beyond the 1967 borders." "If some Palestinians are willing to give up some of their land then why did we fight the 1967 war?" he asked. Hoss believes that the intifada must continue until a fair solution has been reached.

Observers say that it is exactly this argument that has been driving the internal conflict within the Palestinian political landscape since the signing of the Geneva Initiative. Palestinian political analyst Elias Zananiri asked: "Did the great minds of the Palestinian factions really think they would fool Israel into accepting a Palestinian state in all the areas occupied in 1967 and then later send millions of refugees to live inside Israel to make it a sort of second Palestinian state?"

Although 95 percent of Israelis and 73 percent of Palestinians have been exposed to the full details of the initiative, only 34 percent of the Israeli citizens and 19 percent of the Palestinian public support it, according to a public opinion poll conducted jointly by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah and the Hebrew University's Truman Institute in Jerusalem. The poll was published in early December.

But Zananiri, who has close ties to Abed Rabbo, defended the Geneva Initiative, saying the "hypocrisy" with which the Palestinian "political narrative" has been dealing with the initiative is not only "incomprehensible but is very detrimental to the Palestinian people as a whole." "There are many Palestinians whom are drawn to hollow slogans and firm rhetoric, but would that at the end lead to any settlement or would it really bring an end to their plight?" he asked. "We are shooting ourselves in the head, not in the foot," Zananiri said.

Despite the poll results, Abed Rabbo said the Geneva Initiative offers answers to many Palestinian and Israeli questions. "The initiative, in fact, has dealt with all the contentious issues. It defines the parameters for a final settlement, while offering solutions to the hardcore issues that all interim talks between the PLO and Israel deferred for negotiations on the permanent status," he said, adding: "Our goal is to build a state for our people. A state that will divert all its resources to build a democratic society with proper education, economy, industry, agriculture and social welfare for all our citizens."



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