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Archived Webcast 29 April 2008 p.m.

Conférence internationale sur les réfugiés de Palestine (Paris, 29-30 avril 2008) - Plénière I - Communiqué de presse (29 avril 2008) Français
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Source: Department of Public Information (DPI)
29 April 2008

General Assembly

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Experts Focus on 60-Year History of Palestine Refugee Problem, Its Numerous Aspects

(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

PARIS, 29 April -- Despite the passage of time and the changing of circumstances, the essence of the Palestinian refugee problem was unchanged since 1951, and negotiators would do well to consider the full ramifications of that fact when proposing lasting peace proposals, or else such efforts would be doomed to failure, Michael Fischbach warned the United Nations International Conference on Palestine Refugees this afternoon.

The Professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, described the history of the refugee problem, and addressed the right of return and the right to compensation and reparation, during a panel discussion with the theme:  “Palestine refugees – the longest running humanitarian problem in today’s world”.

The two-day United Nations International Conference on Palestine Refugees was convened at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters by the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.  It will assess the present situation of Palestine refugees and examine the role of the United Nations in alleviating their plight.  It will also examine efforts at finding an agreed, just and fair solution to the refugee issue as a prerequisite for resolving the question of Palestine and achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Salman Abu-Sitta, President of the Palestinian Land Society based in London, exploded some of the myths around the problem of Palestine refugees, including the one that return was not physically possible, or that it might upset the ethnic balance in Israel.  He demonstrated that Israel held most of the refugee land in reserve, making the return of the refugees to their homes a practical proposition. 

Susan Akram, a Professor at the School of Law of Boston University, said the Palestine refugee problem was not a “humanitarian” but a legal problem, and refuted on a legal basis some of the claims that were often advanced, including the claim that Palestinians had voluntarily left in the war of 1948 so that Israel was not obliged to permit them to return.  She said the current international debate focused more on how a Palestinian right of return could be realized without jeopardizing the Jewish nature of Israel, than on whether the right of return existed.  Israel, however, had never been authorized by the General Assembly to create or maintain an exclusively Jewish State that discriminated against the rights of other ethnic groups.

Wajih Ahmad Atallah, Secretary, Union of Youth Activity Centres in the West Bank and Gaza, described the social and economic problems facing the Palestine refugees.  Daud Abdullah, a researcher at the Palestine Return Centre, in London, explored the history of the United Nations with regard to the Palestinian right of return, while Souheil El-Natour, head of the Humanitarian Development Centre of Palestinians, based in Beirut, described the problems Palestine refugees encountered in the host countries.

Focusing on the theme of “The United Nations and Palestine refugees”, plenary II tomorrow morning will address issues such as the rights of Palestine refugees in international law, the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the rights of the Palestinians displaced as a result of the June 1967 hostilities.

Plenary I:  Palestine Refugees – Longest Running Humanitarian Problem

In Today’s World

The session focused on:  the origins of the Palestine refugee problem – 60 years of dispossession and tragedy; the demographic distribution of Palestine refugees; and socio-economic problems facing Palestine refugee communities.

MICHAEL FISCHBACH, Professor of history, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Virginia, said that, after the 1948 war, Israeli forces ended up controlling 77 per cent of British mandatory Palestine, areas that became the new State of Israel, the remaining 23 per cent being the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Jewish forces, leaving behind homes, farmland, businesses, farm and business equipment and personal property.  The Palestinians’ catastrophe represented a tremendous windfall for Israel, as a Jewish identity of the new State could more easily be established.  The provisional Israeli Cabinet voted to bar the refugees from returning to their homes.  Another windfall was the vast amount of abandoned property, with a value estimated by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) at $825 million in 1948 dollar values.

He said that the Government of Israel had stated that it would pay compensation for the refugee land it had confiscated, but that it would not restitute the land to its owners.  Communal Arab lands would not be compensated.  The lands, buildings and homes were then used to settle Jewish immigrants.  Given its intimate involvement with the events that had led to the refugee exodus – the 1947 partition plan – the United Nations had become quickly involved in efforts to stop the fighting and forge peace between Israel and the Arab world.  The position of Mediator had been created in 1948.  The United Nations then defined the parameters of the refugee problem through passage of resolution 194 (III), which called for refugee repatriation and property compensation, and thus had raised those issues to the level of international discourse.  That resolution also created a three-member Conciliation Commission, whose peacemaking efforts in 1950 (the Geneva Conference) and in 1951 (the Paris Conference) failed.

After Paris, UNCCP had abandoned its conciliation efforts.  It brokered arrangements by which Israel returned frozen bank accounts and items in safe deposit boxes to their refugee owners.  The Commission ceased functioning in 1966.  Another way the United Nations dealt with the refugee problem had been to address the social and educational needs of the refugees in their exile.  The 1949 General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) had created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

In conclusion he said that, despite the passage of time and the changing of circumstances, the essence of the refugee problem, as it had emerged by 1951, remained the same.  Negotiators would do well to consider the full ramifications of that fact when proposing lasting peace proposals, or else such efforts would be doomed to failure.

SALMAN ABU-SITTA, President, Palestinian Land Society in London, said it had been 90 years since colonial Powers, including Zionism, conspired to dismember Palestine and scatter or eliminate its people.  Before that, Palestine was a typical Arab country, with a minority of Jews that did not exceed 9 per cent of the population.  Twenty-eight years of British mandate changed everything.  The British Administration put in place the framework for an Israel, complete with its separate structure and army, ready to be proclaimed in 1948.  In 1947, the United Nations, in its infancy, was persuaded to split Palestine in two States, where immigrant Jews would have sovereignty over 55 per cent or 10 times their maximum holdings during the mandate.  That was the trigger for the Palestinian refugees’ dispossession.

He said that half of the total Palestine refugees had been expelled in that period, before any Arab soldier could intervene.  The expulsions continued after 15 May 1948.  Seven months later, 78 per cent of Palestine had been conquered and 85 per cent of its inhabitants had become refugees.  That was Al-Nakba.  Using slides to show, among other things, the global distribution of the Palestinians, he said that refugees constituted three quarters of the Palestinian people.  After 60 years of war and occupation, 88 per cent of Palestinians still lived in or in close proximity to historic Palestine.

There was a thick cloud of manufactured notions to mislead the world, he stated, namely that return was not physically possible, or that it might upset the ethnic equilibrium in Israel – an obviously racist concept.  Using slides, he demonstrated that most of the land in Israel from which Palestine refugees had fled was still sparsely populated, making the return of the refugees a physical possibility.  The slogan of “ Israel as a Jewish State” was meant for the world, and for the Palestinians in particular, to accept that Israel was entitled to deny the refugees the right of return and to authorize Israel to expel its own Arab citizens if Israel considered them a “demographic time bomb”, which was a blatantly racist and morally repugnant notion.

SUSAN AKRAM, Professor, Boston University School of Law, Boston, Massachusetts, said the Palestinian problem was not a “humanitarian” refugee problem but an international protection crisis.  At its core, it was a legal problem she said as she took issue with some common Israeli claims, beginning with the claim that Palestinians had voluntarily left in the war of 1948 so that Israel was not obliged to permit war refugees to return.  Humanitarian law, however, made no distinction between forcible or non-forcible displacement in guaranteeing war refugees their right to return to their homes.  The argument that Palestinians had been part of an “exchange of populations” misconstrued historical records.  There was no historical support for the notion that there was an “exchange” of populations with the mutual consent of the individuals or States involved.  Where involuntary transfers of populations had taken place, they had been universally considered illegal under international law.

She said Israeli academics and others maintained that the right of return under article 12 (4) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) supported a Jewish right to “return” to Israel, but not a Palestinian one, as the latter were not “nationals” of Israel under Israeli law.  However, ICCPR was not the only human rights treaty incorporating a right of return.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other international and regional human rights instruments also included provisions on the right of return.  The weight of authority was that the rights in the universal instruments – the Universal Declaration and ICCPR – granted a habitual resident of territory the right to return to his/her precise place of origin, regardless of current nationality or citizenship status.  The instruments also made no distinction between individual or mass return.

It was often argued that General Assembly resolutions, unlike Security Council resolutions were nonbinding, and that there was no Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian right of return, she said.  However, Assembly and Council resolutions dating back more than 50 years had affirmed and reaffirmed the right of return for refugees to their homes in every part of the world.  The language of resolution 194 must be understood in light of the state of international law existing at the time.  Paragraph 11 meant that Palestine refugees must be permitted to return if they so chose.  The principles of restitution and compensation had been understood to be in conformity with the prevailing principles of international law.  The law of reparations at the time had already been grounded in custom, treaties and a Permanent Court of International Justice decision.  That reading of 194 was consistent with refugee law principles in general, as recognized and implemented by States and international organs.

Israel had consistently claimed that resolution 194 as an Assembly resolution had no binding authority, but had relied on Assembly resolution 181, the partition resolution, to justify its very creation and existence as a “Jewish State”.  Israel, however, had never been authorized by the Assembly to create or maintain an exclusively Jewish State that discriminated against the rights of non-Jews.  It was critical to reorient the discourse to one based on actual rights as opposed to claims based on myths, and to explode the hypocritical use of law as available to one group of people involved in the conflict, but not the other.

DAUD ABDULLAH, researcher, Palestine Return Centre, London, said that, faced with claims that resolution 194 never mentioned a Palestinian right of return, the Assembly affirmed in 1969 (resolution 2535 (XXIV) B) that the problem of the Palestine Arab refugees had arisen from the denial of their inalienable rights under the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Resolution 3236 of 1974 reaffirmed the national inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine, including the right to self-determination without external interference.  Paragraph 2 of that resolution also reaffirmed the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced and uprooted, and called for their return.  Resolution 3236 therefore described the right of return as “inalienable”, meaning that it was absolute and permanent and could not be surrendered or otherwise terminated.

He said none of the relevant peace accords signed to date had attempted to recognize and preserve Palestinian rights.  The problem was to be resolved among States such as Egypt, Israel and Jordan.  The very notion that the Palestinian return had been made dependent on agreement meant that Israel had been effectively granted a veto in the matter.  Sixty years after the Nakba, the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions remained as great as they had been in 1948.  One thing was certain, however, in the minds of all those caught up in that tragedy.  There could be no end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem; that was to say, the return of the refugees to the homes and villages from which they had been expelled.

Ultimately, the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem was the direct responsibility of the international community and the United Nations in particular.  The right of return as envisaged for the refugees was one that must be reaffirmed and implemented.  It was not a privilege or favour that required debate and concession by a reluctant benefactor.  Israel believed that the right should be defined and bargained for in secret by politicians.  With the unqualified support of the United States, it had turned all negotiating efforts into a one-sided affair in which a politically weak and disadvantaged Palestinian side was forced to contend with a domineering Israeli-American alliance.  That imbalance must be neutralized with the participation of other international parties such as the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the European Union.  A failure to adopt that course would ignite the inflammable mix of the impoverished, desperate and vulnerable youthful population in the camps.

SOUHEIL EL-NATOUR, head, Humanitarian Development Centre of Palestinians, Beirut, said the number of Palestinian refugees had increased and, over 60 years, new laws had been adopted that had a large impact on the lives of the refugees.  The ethnic cleansing that had started in 1948 had not ended, and was continuing today.  There was an additional Israeli practice, namely the cancellation of the residence permit for all those who had left Jerusalem.  Numerous refugees had left the Occupied Palestinian Territory to work in Kuwait, for instance.  When they were expelled in 1991, they could not return to Gaza or Jerusalem, because they had no identification cards.

It was quite natural that the host countries changed their attitudes towards refugees when the right of return was not realized, he said.  When the problem started to affect the country’s security and economic situation, the host countries started to push out the refugees.  When Israel prevented the return of refugees, it had created a tense and sometimes violent relationship between refugees and the host countries. 

He said the issue of naturalization created a problem between the host country and the refugees.  Palestine refugees were against naturalization as they wanted to protect their identity and their right to return.  The question was whether there was a true will worldwide to treat Israel like any other country, or whether double standards continued to be applied.  Palestine refugees in Iraq were being kidnapped, and attacked by different militias, their houses destroyed.  Palestinians who had fled the Iraqi volcano had been put in camps in the middle of the desert in Syria or Jordan.  Only 100 of them had been welcomed by Brazil.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees had been welcomed but only given the right of residence, he said.  They did not have the right to work, did not enjoy social security coverage, and had no right to education or health care in public hospitals.  Sometimes the word “refugee” was legally questioned, but the daily life of a refugee was very difficult. 

Describing social and economic problems facing the Palestine refugees, WAJIH AHMAD ATALLAH, Secretary, Union of Youth Activity Centres in the West Bank and Gaza, said the 60 years that had passed since the Nakba had seen numerous, varied and changing laws that had had far-reaching effects on every Palestinian.  Palestinians had lived under the law of the British mandate and then the law of the Israeli occupation.  They had been subject to refugee laws of host countries in addition to the rules of UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority.  The Israeli occupation had stretched the bonds of Palestinian society socially and economically.  The social fabric had been damaged as the families had been broken apart. 

Giving examples, he said the laws and practices of the occupying Power had nullified development programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and hampered private-sector investment and reconstruction.  More than 1,800 military laws issued between 1967 and the signing of the Oslo Accords had covered land use, water resources, the movement of people, and other aspects in the social, economic and political spheres.  Today, those laws were exemplified by the siege, collective punishment, extrajudicial killings, control of water and productive resources, confiscation of land, isolation, separation and arrests.  That had pushed the Palestinian refugees into a state of permanent anxiety and depression about their future.  They were tired of constantly hearing about international law, human rights and hopes for peace.  They had internalized the conviction that everything going on around them was meant to cheat and subjugate them, even the activities of UNRWA which were perceived as being hostage to political manipulation by outside Powers.

The consequences of price rises in global markets were keenly felt in the life of the refugees, with an individual income of not more that $2 a day.  The year 2006 saw 35 per cent of students from the refugee camps leave their university studies.  The dropout rate for elementary-school students had also increased, which had led to new social problems such as child labour, theft, road accidents, and vandalism, as well as to new occupations, including the collection of scrap metal.  The disappearance of private and governmental institutional facilities to engage the energies of children and youth with extracurricular activities was creating a noticeable crisis in their lives.  Preventive measures could blunt the impact, but the problem could only be solved by the end of the occupation and the return of the refugees to their homes and possessions.

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For information media • not an official record

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