Two articles I wrote for ResetDOC. The first one is about UNRWA, its marginalization and its betrayed mission within the framework of the forgotten right to return. The second one on the debate on naturalization and right to return and how the first option should not come at the expenses of this untouchable right (as this is the discourse implied by those willing to ‘shrink’ UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees). On the other hand, the protection of the right to return should not jeopardize the living conditions of Palestinians in Arab host countries (and this is the definitely the case of Lebanon and Jordan).
UNRWA: an agency neglected to forget about its mission
In the face of a new exodus from Syria, the assistance of Palestinian refugees is in the hands of a neglected UN agency, sidelined by the marginalization of the only UN-sanctioned route to improve their conditions: the right to return to Palestine. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Western powers prepared the ground for this scenario through the Oslo Accords (1993).
Out of more than nine million Palestinian refugees worldwide, around five million are registered under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the PA. According to the UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, besides the original residents of Palestine between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, all the descendants of Palestinian refugee males are entitled to receive its services. Palestinians refugees still dream of returning to their homeland and this right is sanctioned by UNGAR 194 (III).
At odds with these aspirations, during an interview with an Israeli TV channel last November, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the official representative of all Palestinians for the international community (i.e., the West), Mahmud ‘Abbas Abu Mazen, denied his right to live in Safed, the native village he had to leave after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The declarations of ‘Abbas predictably sparked off indignation among Palestinians, since the descendants of those who fled the ’48 territories refuse categorically any resettlement in the PA. “The right of return doesn’t mean being resettled in Gaza or the West Bank,” affirms Yahya, a young refugee from Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, originally from Acre, “it’s not only a struggle for ourselves, we are also defending the right of return of our sons.”
Palestinian activists and academics understand Abu Mazen’s position in line with the Oslo Accords, which resulted in the marginalization of refugees and cuts on the UNRWA budget. The current outlook is particularly bleak, taking in consideration the massive inflow of Palestinian refugees coming from war-ravaged Syria into Lebanon. Until February 19,2013, 30.000 Palestinians crossed the Lebanese border from Syria; speaking at a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, the UNRWA General Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, denounced that half of the 500.000 Palestinians living in Syria had to flee their homes. The crisis is intertwined with the marginalization of Palestinian refugees, as a consequence of ‘Abbas’ appeals to the UN to direct Palestinians from Syria to the PA and the renunciation to their right of return to the ’48 territories Israel has allegedly required to accept this. The head of the PA seems to have temporarily rejected this plan, but there is already enough evidence of his willingness to negotiate on the right of return.
Any resettlement of ‘48 Palestinian refugees within the UNRWA’s territories, thus including also the PA, implies a crucial role for the agency. However, the UNRWA appears financially neglected, subject to Western political agendas and actively involved in the marginalization of the right of return.
Over the last two decades, the agency saw its budget drastically reduced. UNRWA’s website states that “at the end of April 2012 the agency’s cash deficit stood at USD 69.4 million and the average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today.” While facing a crisis started in the first half of 2012, the UNRWA could not afford to pay the rents of those Palestinians, who fled Syria to settle in the Lebanese refugee camps: only on February 25, a 2.5 million euros agreement has been reached between the EU and UNRWA to shelter in Lebanon Palestinian refugees from Syria (“The contribution to Lebanon is part of a total amount of 7.5 million to UNRWA to assist the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in Syria and those refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon.”).
In a wider picture, the lack of funds is ascribed to the marginalization of the right of return ensued from Oslo. “The right of return has been already put on the backburner by Oslo,” maintains the American activist of Palestinian descendants, Jacqueline Husary, “the focus has always been on creating a State.”After the Accords, as pointed out by the Oxford professor and former PLO representative, Karma Nabulsi, in her Civitas Report (2006), Palestinians ‘inside [Gaza and the West Bank] received considerable international funding, whilst the political and civic aspirations of those living outside […] were ignored, […] at best they were classified as objects of humanitarian relief.’
Quite predictably, Palestinian authorities hold a completely different view on the relations between the peace process and the condition of refugees. “A peaceful settlement with Israel would empower the Palestinian State to negotiate a solution on refugees,” affirms the UN Palestinian ambassador, Ibrahim Khraishi, “the last talks between Olmert and Abbas [N/A: 2008] proceeded on the right path to agree on compensations and allow the return of some refugees.” On the contrary, this was a partial renouncement to the right of return and Olmert actually wrote in his memoirs that the proposal to take into Israel an annual quota of 1.000 refugees for five years was actually rejected by ‘Abbas.
Moreover, it goes hardly unnoticed that Oslo and the UNRWA share the same Western sponsors: according to the agency’s website, until the last year, Europe and the US contributed to 42% of UNRWA core program budget. In January 2010, the Canadian treasury, which accounts for 11% of UNRWA’s funding, decided to withhold its support to the agency: it was announced that donations would have been reallocated to projects administered by the PA in ‘alignment with Canadian values regarding democracy, equality and safeguarding Israel’s security.’ Such a move has been understood by conservative pro-Israeli organizations as motivated with the disagreement on UNRWA’s employment of Hamas supporters. The last attack on UNRWA came from the US Congress in May 2012, when a distinction between 1948 refugees and their descendants has been proposed to “shrink” UNRWA’s definition of Palestine refugees.
Although ensuring the return has never been the agency’s mission – it was the goal of the currently inactive UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) – UNRWA was supposed to cooperate with UNCCP and even its foundational resolution (UNGAR 302 (IV)) confirmed the right of return sanctioned in UNGAR 194 (III). According to its mandate, the agency was originally created as a “temporary” solution to the plight of Palestinians, but its activities are motivated 60 years later with the pending ‘just resolution to the question of the Palestine refugees.’ “What is a just resolution?” asks sardonically the Palestinian researcher Mahmud al-‘Ali, who works for the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), “it means that, to gain support, UNRWA started supporting the peace process and the focus on the development of the Palestinian Authority.”
Palestinian refugees stuck between naturalization and right of return
The hard daily lives of Palestinian refugees remain stuck between the impossibility to return to their homeland and the difficulties presented by naturalization: all Arab countries oppose it for political reasons and the West is criticized for understanding any new citizenship as a renouncement to the right of return. Naturalization (tajnis) is considered by many Arabs as a preamble to settlement (tawtin), meaning the loss of any claim on the original homeland, even though denying citizenship is often equal to blatant discrimination.
The dichotomy entrenched between naturalization and right of return is extremely relevant to the aftermaths of the Syrian uprising, which is forcing Palestinians outside one of the few countries where they were treated fairly. The runaways found themselves with limited options: most of them stopped in Lebanon, some are still waiting for Jordan to open its borders to Palestinians, others prefer to remain in Syria rather than being discriminated in these two countries.
In Lebanon, Palestinians are not yet allowed to work in at least 25 different professions. Despite law amendments easing access to certain professions in 2010, Palestinians are paid 20% less than Lebanese for the same job. The Lebanese Government has been criticized for not implementing the amendments and, by law, Palestinians are still not allowed to register properties.
In Jordan, the disengagement from the West Bank in 1988 was accompanied by revoking the Jordanian citizenship of 1.5 million Palestinians living there. Since then, the Hashemite Kingdom kept on stripping other categories of Palestinians of their Jordanian nationality. “There are some 1.25 million Palestinians in Jordan without citizenship rights, that is they lack the basic protections enjoyed by citizens in access to education, health services, voting, movements, ownership,” confirms prof. Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.
In Syria, Palestinians used to enjoy equal rights to nationals, apart from nationality and political rights, according to Law 260 of 1957, although Palestinian do also face restrictions on property rights. According to a study conducted in 1999 by the Palestinian NGOBadil, ‘Syria […] serves as an example, which confirms that secure civil and social rights in the host countries can protect refugees from falling victim, for fear of discrimination, to the dangers of re-settlement and loss of their national identity.’ Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have all signed the League of Arab States’ Casablanca Protocol in 1965, which obliges Arab countries to grant Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency and freedom of movement, while maintaining their Palestinian identity by not naturalizing them. However, Amman and Beirut didn’t live up to their commitments.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees aspire to fair treatment, but they remain wary of resettlement and naturalization, as these options have been often interpreted by the West and Israel as a renouncement to their right of return. This regardless of the official UNRWA definition, which qualifies a Palestinian refugee on the basis of his/her lineage and regardless of his/her nationality. “A refugee nowadays chooses to remain in the worst living conditions to preserve his sacred right of return,” affirms Rami Suleiman, a Palestinian activist from Damascus, “this situation would change, provided that the international community starts considering us Palestinians, regardless of our nationality.” With regards to this issue, Mahmud ‘Aidun, a Palestinian researcher from the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), quotes past examples of UN-sponsored quick resettlement without any consideration of Palestinian peculiarities. “After the fall of Saddam, UNHCR turned immediately to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees leaving Iraq in third countries like Brazil, after it realized the return was not accepted by the Israelis,” recalls al-‘Ali. There is no doubt that these Palestinians found better living conditions in Brazil, but in the eyes of al-‘Ali they practically lost their right of return.
Most Arab Governments stopped naturalizing Palestinians in 1952, despite a $200 million offer from the UN Refugee Rehabilitation Fund to find ‘homes and jobs for the refugees’, since they rejected any project that could be interpreted as promoting resettlement. “If we can achieve a status like the one enjoyed by Palestinians in Syria, without any need of being naturalized, it would be enough,” says Yahya, a young Palestinian refugee in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp.
But even now, as the craved refuge in Syria is vanishing, Palestinian officials in Lebanon seem keen on belittling the grievances of the newcomers and reassuring Lebanese authorities about the absence of any resettlement purpose. “The figures of Palestinians coming from Syria are not so high yet,” told me the Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbur, on November 26, “and we need to take in consideration that, God willing, they will remain for a limited period.” Dabbur stressed also his gratitude for the Lebanese Government for helping Palestinians arriving from Syria, even if they were facing tribulations to extend their residency permits, while living in overcrowded refugee camps. While the ambassador was speaking, the Yarmuk Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus was under heavy shelling: on February 19, UNRWA’s General Commissioner Filippo Grandi denounced that only 20.000 of its 150.000 Palestinian residents are still there. Palestinian and Lebanese authorities cling to the idea of a community bound to return, the focus is not on improving its conditions, but on ensuring ‘that it doesn’t feel at home’.
In Lebanon, the real political and sectarian reasons behind the refusal of the naturalization of Sunni Palestinians have been masked behind an ethic adherence to the right of return. “The denial of political and social rights is justified under the slogan of persevering the right of return to Palestine,” notes prof. Hilal, “such claims hide practice of exploitation- Palestinians provided cheap labor for decades in Lebanon and other places of refuge- political petty mindedness and discrimination.”
In Jordan, Palestinians are denied political and civil rights under the guise of preserving their right of return and support their struggle for self-determination. Among the excuses given by the Jordanian kingdom for stripping Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, there is the aim to keep Palestinians in Palestine, to stop the indiscriminate expansion of Israeli settlements. The ‘alternative homeland’ vision of the Israeli right-wing, that is the belief that Palestinians should move to Jordan, is thus used as a pretext to violate their human rights. Naturalizing over one million stateless Palestinians in a country of around 6.500.000 inhabitants, which is home to almost two million Palestinian refugees, has clear political repercussions. Jordan. Needless to say, political calculations should not come at the expense of human rights.
Even if Lebanon added some reservations on the articles related to freedom of movement and employment.
UNRWA has never been allowed to work in Iraq, as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on to the protection of refugees. This is the reason why Iraqi Palestinians have been registered under UNHCR after 2003