Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA Commissioner-General
It is to the Palestine refugees of 1948, and their descendants--all four and a half million of them--in Jordan Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank that the real honour of tonight belongs. And it is to acknowledge their trials, struggles, achievements and aspirations that I speak tonight, representing the 29,000 Palestine refugee staff of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (known as UNRWA), created by the General Assembly in 1949.
I begin with a few words on the remarkably gifted Palestinian to whose memory this lecture series is dedicated. Edward Said was born in British Mandate Palestine and his extended family was forced to flee the 1948 conflict to dispersed locations – Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the United States, thus reflecting a blend of the Palestinian refugee and diaspora experience.
Some might wish to highlight the outward contrasts between Edward’s life of relatively privileged opportunity and the daily struggle for survival presently confronting many Palestinians – refugees and non-refugees alike. I prefer to note that, however wide the divide of class and circumstance, Edward Said’s work succeeded in illuminating for a global audience the universal Palestinian predicament, and within it, the particular ordeal of Palestine refugees. He treated his audiences to searing critiques of power and authority in the Middle East and described the complex means by which the dispossession of Palestinians was carried out and maintained. He was consistent in his view that the interests and destinies of Palestine and Israel are intertwined in a single construct of mutuality and co-existence - rather than one of exclusion and separation. And he saw in this construct a sine qua non for a durable resolution of the conflict.
Such perspectives resonate with UNRWA for a number of reasons. Our humanitarian and human development activities are non-political in character and practical in orientation. To be effective in our work, however, we must be conscious of the complex context in which the Palestine refugee condition is situated. We must understand that the causes, evolution and resolution of refugee situations are driven by currents deriving from the perceived interests of states, contests for international influence and the ebb and flow of geo-politics, among them military strength and economic power. It is also helpful to appreciate how the larger context impinges on the international legal framework, particularly those aspects established to protect and care for people affected by armed conflict and its consequences.
UNRWA’s work is informed as much by an understanding of this context as it is by our close physical connection with the Palestine refugees we serve.
As many of you know, UNRWA’s raison d’être is the direct provision of essential public services to Palestine refugees in the Middle East. UNRWA maintains a programme of primary education for some half a million children annually. We provide primary health care that has eliminated communicable diseases among refugees, while achieving a close to 100% immunization rate for refugee children. We offer social services, particularly to those rendered vulnerable by poverty, disability and social exclusion. We build homes for refugees, replacing those destroyed by Israeli forces in the course of conflict and we construct and maintain the infrastructure of environmental health in refugee camps. UNRWA also runs a microfinance programme, helping small entrepreneurs to weather economic crises, build assets and improve their prospects for self-sufficiency.
Tonight, I shall offer glimpses of the Palestine refugee condition as I see it. I shall share some thoughts on how that condition relates to the wider international context and what the state of Palestine refugees and the persistence of their condition mean - or should mean - for international actors. As you might expect, I am influenced by 27 years of working with refugees around the world and by the experience of living and working in Gaza since August 2000.
I chose the themes of exile, isolation and prospects to highlight pertinent aspects of the uniquely fraught Palestine refugee condition. Exile and isolation are common to the refugee experience, but only in the Palestinian case have these features acquired such lasting global notoriety. I shall try to bring to this discussion a measure of the understanding garnered through UNRWA’s long years of presence in refugee communities, striving to make a difference in each refugee life.
The leading word in my title this evening is a defining attribute of the refugee condition everywhere. In refugee parlance, "exile" implies the occurrence of abnormal – usually tragic - events which threaten life, liberty or safety to a point where the instinct of self-preservation overrides attachment to community, land and livelihood, propelling flight to a place of safety. This sequence – flight, dispossession and arrival at a place of refuge – triggers a ripple of dissonance at a number of levels. The refugee is cast adrift from the moorings of identity, kinship, livelihood and belonging. And in their place emerges a sense of loss, the psyche of dislocation and an overwhelming longing for that which is lost.
Beyond the very personal, human consequence of forced flight, mass refugee movements disturb the often fragile equilibrium of international relations and immediately raise the issue of international responsibility.
States are under an obligation to guarantee the protection of rights and freedoms for their nationals and others in their territories. People become refugees when their country of origin is no longer able or willing to perform that obligation or afford them the protections necessary for normal life. To compensate, there is a matrix of shared, overlapping duties and roles entrusted to a variety of international actors. These are grounded in international law and custom and are meant to ensure that the "protection vacuum" in which refugees find themselves is filled.
Shared responsibilities straddle the humanitarian, developmental, political and diplomatic arenas. Ideally, these should function in mutually reinforcing harmony to deliver international protection for refugees. Inherently and by definition, such protection is finite in duration because the law and practice of refugee protection recognizes - at least implicitly - the refugee’s fundamental need to physically restore the broken bond with his or her place of origin. Moreover, the protection framework assumes that reinstating the connection with the country of origin is the most effective way to resume full protection to the refugee.
If this condensed outline of forced flight and its connotations is accepted, it is appropriate to consider to what extent it corresponds to the experience of Palestinian exile and isolation, and how these themes play out in the countries and territory where UNRWA exercises its mandate.
On 14 May, 1948, the State of Israel proclaimed independence, triggering a conflict with Arab States and the genesis of the Palestine refugee situation. The details of events surrounding the forced flight of Palestinians sixty years ago are disputed and debated to the present day. This is hardly surprising given the diametrically opposed worldviews and historical perspectives of the protagonists.
For one side, the conflict was a war of liberation and independence, and victory an affirmation of the rightness of its cause. For the other, it was a catastrophe or Nakba presaging an era of suffering, struggle and unwavering resistance. One question on which views diverge particularly sharply, concerns the circumstances of Palestinian flight. Was it a "conventional" exodus of civilians seeking safety from an armed conflict in which civilian casualties were incidental, or was the scenario one of expulsion in which the ejection of, and casualties among, Palestinians were calculated and premeditated?
I raise this question to prompt reflection on a particular characteristic of Palestinian exile, namely, that the conflict which ‘created’ the refugees established at the same time a new and different entity on the territory of Mandate Palestine, viz. the State of Israel. The very reason for being of the newly-declared state – to create a Jewish homeland for Jews, wherever they were, was at odds with the aspiration of Palestinians to return to their homes.
The point is the 1948 conflict was imbued with existential significance. In the popular consciousness of those in the new State and throughout the Jewish diaspora, there was at the outset (and reportedly long before) little appetite for allowing - let alone encouraging - the inclusion of Palestinians in the new State. On the contrary, many historians agree that the overriding intent was to discourage or exclude Palestinian return.
In the decades since 1948, this ‘orientation towards exclusion’ has been cemented in many ways. Recurrent conflict has reinforced deep-seated antagonism on both sides, playing into the hands of those, including many in positions of authority, who question the feasibility of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. And, of course, there is the demographic issue, which tends to cast natural Palestinian population growth as an effective bar to the possibility of return.
If we admit that the option of refugee return to the country of origin is central to the protection framework, then we see how the special circumstances surrounding the 1948 conflict and Palestinian exodus significantly constricted – and continues to constrict - the scope for protection and just solutions for Palestine refugees. I refer to the "orientation to exclude" to describe part of the limitations placed on the protections available to Palestine refugees from the inception of exile to the present day. All too frequently, the orientation towards keeping Palestinians and Palestine refugees "out" seems to overshadow not only the possibility of their return to their original homes, but also the rights and entitlements which are accorded to other refugee groups and to which Palestinians are also entitled under international law.
Across the region in which UNRWA works, Jordan and Syria stand out as countries where the trials of Palestinian exile have been tempered by a climate favourable to their protection. In place of the inclination to exclude, in Jordan and Syria there is respect for Palestinian rights and freedom for Palestinians to pursue social and economic opportunities. In Jordan, where the largest number of Palestine refugees – almost two million - resides, many enjoy Jordanian citizenship, hence the right to seek employment without restrictions and to benefit from assistance and support from the Jordanian government. In Syria, Palestine refugees do not acquire citizenship, but are free to lead normal lives. Refugees may join educational institutions at all levels and benefit from an open labour market.
In Lebanon, the features of exclusion and isolation of Palestine refugees have been much more pronounced, particularly as regards the right to work and freedom of movement. Until June 2005, when the government reversed decades of adverse legislation, Palestine refugees were prohibited from working in 73 specified occupations. The lifting of this particular restriction was welcome, yet many obstacles remain. Freedom of movement is still restricted for refugees living in some camps in the south of Lebanon. Most refugees depend almost entirely on UNRWA as they have only limited access to government services.
Political instability and armed conflict have also been the bane of Palestine refugees in Lebanon. Their vulnerability in this regard was proved during the summer of 2007 as over 30,000 refugees were displaced when the Nahr El Bared camp was destroyed in the course of conflict between the Lebanese army and a militant group that had recently entered the camp. UNRWA and the Government have developed a plan to rebuild Nahr El Bared camp and to help refugees return there in dignity.
While challenges remain in Lebanon, it is in the occupied Palestinian territory where exile, exclusion and isolation of Palestine refugees reach an appalling zenith.
There is a tendency to assume that conditions in the West Bank are relatively acceptable in comparison to the situation in Gaza. There is a difference between the deprivations suffered by Palestinians in the West Bank and those endured by Gazans, but the difference lies in the form, extent and varieties of oppression – not in the substance of suffering for the over 2.3 million Palestinians, 800,000 of whom are refugees.
I shall speak to four areas where Palestinian exile in the West Bank is accentuated by exclusion from the purview of protection. These are:
§ the demolition of homes,
§ the expropriation of land (for settlements and other ‘security’ purposes),
§ the proliferation of checkpoints and other obstacles to movement, and
§ the impact of the separation barrier and its associated regime of restrictions.
The homes and landed property of Palestinians and Palestine refugees are destroyed or removed – systematically and deliberately - by the Israeli authorities with worrying frequency. In the six months from September 2007 to February 2008, 169 properties met this fate, of which 88 were refugee homes. In consequence, some 676 Palestinians were displaced or rendered homeless. Among the most often affected are poor and vulnerable Bedouin and pastoral communities whose livelihoods are reliant on the land.
The circumstances of this invasion of fundamental rights vary. Some houses are destroyed in the course of military operations. Many are demolished in pursuance of judicially issued administrative orders on the grounds that the owners lack building permits. While the orders are issued under Israeli law, questions arise as to why so few Palestinians are able to satisfy the requirements for applying for building permits and why so many who do apply are denied them.
It has also been observed that the areas cleared by the destruction of Palestinian homes and property appear to correspond to the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. The inference is that settlement activity and demolitions may be allied elements in a larger scheme to create a Palestinian-free zone around occupied East Jerusalem and beyond. Human rights organizations have documented how apparently innocuous processes of municipal planning and zoning have been methodically employed to expel Palestinians from their land.
And land confiscation appears to be quickening of late, in parallel with accelerated construction of Israeli settlements, with significant parcels set aside for exclusive use by some 480,000 Israeli settlers or to support a vast security infrastructure. It is estimated that some 38% of West Bank territory has been confiscated or is otherwise inaccessible to Palestinians. This is land which, by international agreement, is meant to form the foundation of a Palestinian State
Obstacles placed by the occupying power to impede free movement of Palestinians and their goods are a feature of the closure regime in the West Bank. These take a variety of forms: both stable and ‘flying’ checkpoints manned by military or private security personnel; trenches dug across roads; blocks of concrete; and mounds of earth or boulders. These obstacles, which Israel claims are security measures to protect its citizens, have steadily increased over the years, despite negotiated agreements to the contrary. In 2005, the number of obstacles by monthly average was 472. In 2006 and 2007, there were 518 and 552 respectively. In February this year, three months after the Annapolis meeting and the re-launching of a peace process, there were 580. Today, there are 612 physical obstacles, impeding not only personal freedom of movement, but also commerce, development and all manner of social interaction among Palestinians.
The illegal separation barrier, with its associated system of checkpoints, terminals, permits and searches, is another practical manifestation of exile exclusion and isolation of Palestinians in the West Bank. The barrier is a hybrid structure. Much of it takes the form of a fence with restricted security zones on either side along with an array of security accessories – observation towers, patrol roads, trenches and razor wire. In parts, the barrier is a wall of grey concrete slabs, 25 to 28 feet high and several inches thick. It is a dominant, overpowering presence in the lives of those who live in its shadow, a testament to the exclusion of Palestinians from normal life and a bold statement of Israel’s defiance of international law.
Construction of the barrier has continued in disregard of the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, and now stretches over 57% of its planned 723 kilometer route. When it is completed, it will have used up or rendered useless nearly 10% of West Bank land. A quarter of million Palestinians will be affected by it and it will prevent a quarter of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem from entering that city. The lives and livelihoods of literally hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are blighted, strangled by this intrusive oppressive structure.
Those who have seen the barrier firsthand or on a map will notice that it runs a jagged course, encroaching deep into West Bank territory at many points, creating pockets between it and the border with Israel. In these spots on the map, the barrier takes on the depressing appearance of a noose. Thousands of Palestinians are trapped in these spaces. Palestinians in other communities are surrounded by the barrier on every side. Residents must have permits to reside in their own family homes inside these enclaves and a checkpoint serves as the only way for them to enter or leave. Exile, exclusion and isolation are nowhere so stark.
And Gaza? How does one begin to describe the excesses of exile, exclusion and isolation there? And what has not already been said about the misery they endure? A passage from William Shakespeare is an apt foil for discussing Gaza.
"A wretched soul, bruised
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain."
These are the words of Adriana, in Shakespeare’s "A Comedy of Errors", a title that rings with irony.
I hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wretched about the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, two-thirds of whom are refugees. On the contrary, Gazans – and Palestinians generally – are proud, dignified, hardworking people with a well-deserved reputation for devotion to family, learning and high achievement.
The fortitude of Gazans is legendary. Their cries seldom reach our ears. What we do hear, clearly and repeatedly, are pleas from within and outside the United Nations to stem the suffering of Gaza’s people and warnings that the slide into the abyss serves the interests of no one. It is the international community which bids "quiet!"- greeting these cries on Gaza’s behalf with studied indifference.
Since early 2006, after Hamas won free and fair, democratic elections in the occupied Palestinian territory, a range of progressively more stringent sanctions have been imposed on Gaza and its people. And since June of last year, when the Hamas movement took control of Gaza, following weeks of bloody internal conflict, the restrictions have tightened further, resulting in a ‘siege’ unprecedented in scale and severity.
The main crossings at Rafah and Karni have been closed for most of the period since June, suspending exports from Gaza with very few exceptions. Curbs on imports are draconian. What is allowed into Gaza, how much and when, is entirely at the whim (or the security decisions) of Israel, the occupying power. The well-being of every Gazan is entirely in the hands of those controlling the border crossings.
Consider the decrease in the declining number of trucks allowed in over the last 12 months. From January to June 2007, prior to Hamas taking control of Gaza, an average of some 11,000 trucks brought in goods every month (a number already considerably reduced from before the 2006 elections). From July 2007 to March 2008, the average monthly inflow shrunk to 2,485. Every item necessary for a normal healthy life is absent or in short supply in Gaza: medication and medical equipment, hard currency, textbooks, paper and pencils and erasers, detergents, light bulbs, construction materials, chemicals for sewage treatment, cooking gas, meat, raw materials for factories, farming inputs, batteries for hearing aids for the deaf. The list goes on and on. Any item deemed by the Israeli authorities to be of "dual use" is proscribed.
Gaza is grinding to a halt as a severe shortage of fuel hits hard. This affects the production of bread as well as the supply of water and electricity and the treatment and disposal of waste and sewage. Some 450,000 Gazans – 30 per cent of the population - are unable to access clean water. Since January, more than 60 million liters of raw or partially treated sewage has been dumped into the sea.
The blockade on Gaza has exacerbated poverty, unemployment and the human suffering that comes with material hardship. The adverse consequences for the health system are predictable. Serious conditions cannot be treated inside Gaza, yet many patients applying for permits to seek medical treatment in Israel or elsewhere are refused, including those who were already undergoing periodic treatment outside. The World Health Organization reports that between October 2007 and April 2008, 32 Palestinian patients, including five children, died as a result of their delayed or denied access to medical care outside Gaza.
Among the blockade’s most destructive effects on Palestinians are those of a long-term nature. Last year, before Gaza’s closure reached its present levels, there was evidence of stunted growth in over 13% of Gazan children with another 10% suffering permanent effects from chronic malnutrition. These statistics are predictable in a place where poverty is rife and where 80 per cent of the population is dependent on food aid and humanitarian assistance – food aid through UNRWA which covers only 61% of prescribed daily caloric needs. And I need not detail the long term psychological effects of the violence, humiliation and deprivations ever present in Gaza.
Most refugees are no longer able to supplement UNRWA rations with purchases of food; they cannot afford it, or produce never makes it from farm to market for lack of fuel or because there are too few donkey-carts.
And while the siege bites deeply into the lives of Palestinians, armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants persists and sporadically intensifies, causing death and injury to civilians on a distressing scale. In the week of 13 April, 3 Israelis, including 2 civilians, were killed when Palestinian militants attacked a fuel depot. In reprisal, Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians and injured 48, many of them seriously. Children were among the casualties as they so often are in Gaza. So far this year, 344 Palestinians have lost their lives and 756 have been injured, among them were 60 children killed and 175 wounded.
There is no shortage of certain items in Gaza. These are anger, frustration, resentment and militant fervour. Much of this is directed externally because Gazans see the infliction of misery as a foreign policy tool of some States. They view the siege as a crude, brutal means of demanding from them a particular political choice.
For those Palestinians involved in militant politics, the siege of Gaza is a gift. It provides visible confirmation of Israel and its allies as enemies whose objective is the destruction of Palestinians and everything they hold dear. It enhances their power to persuade thousands of unemployed, frustrated and angry young people to join their cause. The siege gives substance to their rallying cry and imparts a ring of plausibility to the argument that violent resistance is the only path to delivering an independent State of Palestine.
The siege of Gaza gives strength to those it was meant to weaken.
A distinguished American jurist once observed that law and reason are "all we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling."
I fear that Gaza has entered a phase where the tyranny of the unreasoning will of both sides rules. For too long the international community has failed to hold the parties to account under international law, particularly with regard to international humanitarian law. As a result, Gaza has gradually acquired the aura of a legal wilderness, a place to which the writ of law and its restraints do not run and where neither side accepts to be governed by law. Rather, combatants revel in their role of outlaws in this wilderness, with each one guided only by their distorted views of the other.
For all these reasons, today’s Gaza represents the tragic pinnacle of Palestinian exile, exclusion and isolation. It is the place where these themes, set in motion in 1948, have come together today to reach their bleakest expression.
If these are the outlines of Palestinian exile, if dispossession, exclusion and isolation are so deeply embedded in the Palestine refugee experience, what prospects might there be for Palestinians and Palestine refugees?
I referred earlier to the matrix of shared responsibilities which constitutes the corpus of international protection. I feel strongly that the distress of Palestinians and the wretched Palestine refugee condition are owed to willful repudiation and neglect of clear legal responsibilities on the part of international actors. In the Palestinian context, that composite of mutually reinforcing international roles and obligations functions at best partially and at worst not at all. Over the years, support for humanitarian work has been the principal – if not the only – arena where the international community has, by and large, kept faith with its obligations to protect and care for Palestine refugees.
In this regard, we are grateful to those nations, notably the United States and Europe, whose contributions to UNRWA and other UN agencies have made it possible to continue to serve Palestine refugees over the decades. The donor community and countries and territories that host refugees and those, mainly Arab states, that support large scale construction projects, deserve credit for their important role.
At the same time, it is impossible to deny the consequences of a divided, partial approach to international responsibilities. Humanitarian and human development work was never meant to function in an environment devoid of constructive efforts to resolve conflict or to address its underlying causes. Indeed, humanitarian work is profoundly undermined in a context where there is implicit or active complicity in creating conditions of mass suffering. This is the situation bedeviling Palestinian prospects. We are at a juncture where helping Palestinians with the basics of daily survival takes precedence over the achievement of human rights and longer-term human development outcomes. (And we are reduced from contemplating solutions to counting trucks and checkpoints.) UNRWA’s commitment to Palestine refugees will persist, but we are under no illusions about the urgent need for complementary action from all sides on the diplomatic and political fronts.
I see initially three avenues for creating a glimmer of hope for Palestinians, Palestine refugees and their aspiration for a State of Palestine. These are:
§ first, and immediately, ending the closure and movement restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza,
§ more broadly, seeking the enforcement of international law, and
§ generally, fostering a climate of inclusion in the international community’s engagement with Palestinian issues.
To maintain the state of closure and siege means continuing to abdicate responsibility toward ordinary Palestinian men, women and children. The majority is neither politically nor militarily active, yet their lives are drastically impaired by measures whose pretexts are political or military. Continuing the siege denies Palestinians their humanity and pretends that Palestinian lives are not worthy of interest. If concrete action is to be taken to reverse abject conditions, the well-being of every Palestinian should be understood to be a matter of legitimate concern to the international community. It is from their humanity – and nothing more, certainly not their political leanings – that they acquire their status as subjects of international law and their entitlement to protection. For this simple but profound reason, objectives such as the strengthening, weakening or overthrowing of any political entity should not be deemed to override the need to protect and care for the hundreds of thousands with no direct affiliation with the intended target.
There is a need to re-open Gaza’s borders and to lift the sanctions which have brought the entire population of Gaza so close to the brink of a precipice. The Agreement on Movement and Access which Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed in November 2005 provides a ready basis for resolving the present impasse. Under this Agreement, the parties, encouraged by Quartet representatives, undertook to facilitate the movement of people and goods between and within Gaza and the West Bank and to ensure that "the passages operate continuously" with a view "to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground". Reviving this Agreement, even gradually at first, would be a feasible, practical starting point for reversing the current crisis of access.
A second avenue towards opening up prospects for Palestinians and Palestine refugees is the enforcement of international law – a point others and I have also made on many occasions. International law applies to all States without exception and to those who act in the name of States and governments. Its purposes include the restraint and regulation of the behaviour of States and of individuals, to the end that conditions may be established in which prosperity, justice and humanity might flourish. International law applies with particular urgency in times of conflict, precisely because safeguarding humanity and preserving human life are the essence of the law.
These simple yet fundamental precepts of humanity and justice contributed to the rapid development of international law after the Second World War. With the Charter of the United Nations at its centre, the modern legal scheme elevates the protection and integrity of the individual to a place of prominence under international law. Hence the attention it gives to human rights in international relations and jurisprudence and to addressing contraventions of human rights, not least those which, by virtue of their gravity, frequency or scale are deemed to "shock the conscience of mankind" and are therefore considered to offend the very essence of humanity.
Allow me to mention a few provisions from international humanitarian law instruments, including the Rome Statute of the International Court of Justice, relevant to the present Palestinian context. There are provisions prohibiting starvation as a method of warfare, including measures against deliberately depriving civilian persons of food, or destroying or rendering useless "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population."
There are clear prohibitions against: "systematic attacks against any civilian population"; "inhumane acts... intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury …to mental or physical health"; intentionally directing attacks against civilian populations or civilian objects; and the transfer by the occupying power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. International law also proscribes "the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity".
Given the magnitude of civilian casualties in the conflict in the occupied Palestinian territory, the density of the Palestinian population and the superiority of Israeli armaments, certain international legal principles apply with particular force. Notable among these are provisions limiting the choice of methods of warfare and prohibiting the deployment of weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. The thread running through this particular genre of legal rules is the primacy of humanitarian considerations in times of conflict.
Civilian deaths and injuries that occur so frequently in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the general condition of Palestinians, are attributable to policies, approaches, acts and omissions that are liable to the scrutiny of international law, including human rights law and international humanitarian law. A crime wave in a city may be prolonged and deadly, yet it does nothing to annul or reduce the force of local laws. In much the same way, international law remains valid and applicable in spite of the frequency and degree of violations in the occupied territory. Indeed, international law is transgressed so often and so flagrantly that the task of gathering evidence of serious breaches, including verification of the official intent behind serious violations, would be less complicated than it might be in a different context.
A third possibility for improving Palestinian prospects is the fostering of an inclusive engagement of the international community with Palestinians and Palestinian issues in terms of interlocutors as well as substantive matters. Thus far, the current approach to negotiating a settlement is more in keeping with the orientation to exclude which I spoke of earlier. The reasons for this are well-known. The international community has laid down certain conditions for Palestinian participation in the negotiation process: renouncing violence, accepting the existence of the State of Israel and endorsing previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
These conditions are intrinsically prohibitive and risk appearing to have been devised with a foregone conclusion in mind. Any credible negotiation process must be designed to win the confidence – if not the active support - of as broad a cross-section of the people involved as possible. This means the international community should carefully weigh its approval, or otherwise, of the participants against the strength of the constituencies they represent and their ability to contribute to popular endorsement of the negotiated outcome while promoting harmony, in this case, among Palestinians. I worry that the current negotiation process appears to be at odds with these vital factors.
The result has been a negotiation process from which a considerable portion of the Palestinian polity is precluded. This raises obvious and grave risks for the legitimacy and acceptability of any outcomes to the Palestinian people as a whole, risks serious enough to justify considering a more inclusive approach to participation in the process of negotiating an end to this conflict.
And should not Palestine refugees have a place in the scheme of an inclusive negotiation process? The only correct response to this question is a resounding "yes".
In terms of their numbers alone, Palestine refugees constitute a significant presence in the region and beyond. The population of four and a half million in UNRWA’s records does not account for those refugees within the region but not registered with UNRWA, or the estimated five million refugees who have made their homes elsewhere in the world.
By any measure, the global Palestinian presence is formidable. Yet the stake refugees have in the establishment of a stable, prosperous State of Palestine rarely receives the recognition it deserves.
As I remarked earlier, the ultimate expression of protection for refugees is found in a State which safeguards their human security and restores their bond with their place of origin – a bond in whose rupture lay the root of exile, isolation and exclusion. Repairing that fracture entails a complex of actions whose effectiveness rests on being grounded in principles of fairness and equity in international law.
Besides a physical and psychological connection with a State they can call their own, there must be restitution for refugee properties lost, adequate compensation for that which was destroyed, assistance and support for reintegration and justice under the law for the grave infringements perpetrated against them as refugees.
The demographic weight of Palestine refugees globally and the imperative of ensuring for them the ultimate protection of a just and durable solution are two reasons why the refugees must be given a voice in determining the course of the future of Palestine. Refugees and the issues they stand for have been conspicuously absent from the discourse and process of negotiating a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tendency is to thrust these – and some of the other ‘final status’ issues - to one side on the grounds that they are too difficult or too sensitive to be addressed at delicate moments of the negotiation process. This inclination to disavow what is in fact pivotal has so far yielded failure. And yet negotiators proceed, without reference to the chasm between the negotiation agenda and process on the one side and the tragic realities on the ground on the other. The very real danger is that this divide may be reflected in the outcome of the negotiation process, furnishing easy justification for the outright rejection of outcomes, or providing the spark for intensified conflict.
My call is to concerned actors to boldly grasp every opportunity to ensure the inclusion of Palestine refugees and their issues in the process of seeking to resolve this conflict, and to do so with utmost commitment to the best interests of refugees. It is not too much to ask that the "universal humanism" espoused by Edward Said, a concept which underpins the principles of the United Nations Charter, should guide our approach to Palestinians and to the search for solutions to their plight. We owe Palestine refugees that much, but equally, we owe it to ourselves to return principle, integrity - and meaning - to the negotiation table.
The condition of Palestinians and Palestine refugees is like no other. Few, if any, have been "burdened with like weight of pain". Through our negligence and acquiescence we – the international community - have made of Palestinian suffering a spectacle of adversity, a manifestation of the absence of all that we swore to embrace in a modern age emerging from the horrors of two ‘world’ wars. And in so doing, we perpetuate the fiction that Palestinians are a people beyond the pale – somehow removed from the purview of even minimal compassion, human consideration or protection of law.
It is unpardonable that this degree of exclusion should be visited on any people or that we should allow such a yawning gulf to exist between the Palestinian condition and the norms of international law. In the face of their grief and travail, our silence shames us, our indifference indicts us and our inaction condemns us. It is time to work towards forging a solution which genuinely respects Palestinian humanity and reflects their aspirations as individuals and as a people.
Such a solution can be just and durable only if it reflects the desires of refugees and thus banishes, irrevocably, the travesty of Palestinian exile, isolation and exclusion.