Surveys, opinion polls, and now, consultative approaches are increasingly being used to explore Palestinian refugee issues, and to formulate policy. The Civitas project (in which I participated as director) adopted an entirely different approach to the matter. Indeed, civic participation is different even than consultation exercises - participation gives space for the young woman from Egypt (in the quote above) to articulate the complex sentiments, ideology, and political understandings that she possesses. It highlights many of the understandings Palestinians have for Palestine, but crucially it gives a more sophisticated understanding to those reading it about its importance and relevance.
Civitas set out to explore the links which connect Palestinian refugees across different geographical regions, and the political and civic aspects of their experiences. By emphasizing their civic and political status as active agents in the Palestinian body politic, it recognised this status, and emphasized these basic rights. In over 100 meetings in over 25 countries, Palestinians themselves set the questions, the debates, and the priorities.
In highlighting the limitations of quantitative surveys and pre-coded questionnaires, this work also argued for the use of open-ended themes and participatory methods. This approach was one of the methodological premises of this collective project, its central aim being to empower refugees and exiles by facilitating a process where they identify their own political and civic needs. However, it went further than this strategic goal, as it saw the refugees not simply as subjects of research, but as agents of change. This can be seen in the very scope of the subject matter being assessed: political and civic realities. By focusing on these themes, it recognised that refugees and exiles are both citizens and part of the core Palestinian body politic, with the fundamental right to discuss these issues, and to take part in deciding upon them. The discussion by a participant from Italy in a public meeting illustrates this approach:
“So that we could all be on the same page, I would like to start by saying that as Palestinians, we no longer can control any political decision-making of our own. In the past, the Palestinian organizations were effective. There was the PLO and its national institutions along with the Palestinian federations, unions and committees, and there was Arafat. Now all this is lost, so we don’t have a strong political will. Palestinian citizens can be sent to jail without doing anything and without finding any support. Second, our dealings with NGOs and official organizations as members of the Palestinian community became very difficult. Why? Because their perspective on what relates to our problem is definitely different from ours, for we all support the right of return, but most of the NGOs and organizations that travel daily to Palestine don’t recognize the right of return. As a community living in Italy we lack awareness, not because we don’t know our rights, but because we don’t really interact with daily Palestinian suffering. In Italy, we are far from the events. Although we receive news about our people through television, we are distant from the Palestinian political decision-making process and the suffering our nation is going through every day. However, the cultural interaction should be on a daily basis, otherwise we would have a serious crisis. Of course, we don’t have enough people in the community to have enormous experience, and we don’t properly safeguard the principles that we hold onto.” (Participant, Public meeting, Rome, Italy)
Part of the universal commonality of civic and political rhetoric is the method and style of the arguments that are made in collective meetings. When expressing what needs to be done, or recommending a course of action or a particular civic structure, interventions are invariably prefaced by a discussion of why the particular suggestion is needed, as well as a reasoning of what went wrong to create this particular circumstance or need. A suggestion on future action can only be persuasive and agreed upon if an understanding of the nature of the problem is shared among the participants. There must be common agreement on what is the nature of the problem, and especially upon why it arose in the first place. Therefore many recommendations made are located in a line of reasoning that first articulates the problems being faced, and the precise reasons for these problems. Here is an illustrative example, from Spain:
“We have been suffering from huge problems since 1992. This is because we always knew that there was a big lie, but we too believed in this big lie. This lie is the peace project. Our enemy doesn’t want peace on any level. But we believed that the enemy really wants peace. As a result, all the social institutions of the PLO were frozen, and their activities in all countries were frozen as well. Even the activities of the organizations that existed all over the world were frozen, because we all believed that peace will actually be achieved after four or five years, and that we will return to Jerusalem. This is actually the lie that destroyed us, for it is the social structure that we had, whether as the Students’ union or Women’s union or any other union that were frozen all over the world. Consequently, we discovered after living here in Europe for thirty or forty years that the existing associations and communities no longer exist. In addition, we have political affiliations which separated us over the years. It is true that we all know each other, but every five or ten of us have a different view. This is also a negative thing. When we look at ourselves today, we find that we have been trying for years to work within the community, because the community is an inseparable part of the PLO. Through this community, we have a channel to express our needs, because this community brings together all our political trends. We are also interested in the youth, because we already have a lot of the old negatives that are still deep-rooted in our souls, and because our youth have new visions”. (Participant, Public meeting, Barcelona, Spain)
The Register of Palestinian exile and refugees - both inside and outside of Palestine, is now a new and dynamic source for all those seeking to establish the civic, political, social, and economic needs, as well as the civic and political agenda of Palestinians, as articulated by themselves. Above all, in an increasingly fragmented body politic, with Palestinians scattered over the four continents, and more refugees created every day, this Register enables one to understand the most fundamental feature of any people - its collective spirit.
Dr. Karma Nabulsi was a PLO representative in Beirut, Tunis and London, as well as at the UN, between 1978 and 1990, and an advisory member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks between 1991 – 1993. She currently teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University.