Announcements by PLO head and PA president Arafat that a Palestinian state will be declared in May 1999 have caused mixed feelings among Palestinians in general, and Palestinian refugees in particular. What exactly is on the agenda? A unilateral PLO/PA decision to cancel the Oslo Accords by exploiting the current sympathetic position of Arab states and the  international community? Or just another tactical step to increase the Palestinian bargaining power in the troubled "peace process"? Few here in Palestine were surprised when Arafat’s speach to the UN General Assembly on 29 September did not mention the planned state declaration. Expectations had been low from the beginning, indicating the growing alienation of the Palestinian people from its leadership. With 70% of the Palestinian people  being refugees, implementation of refugee rights, especially the right of return, remains a basic need of the PLO/PA’s constituency. Five years into Oslo, the record of the Palestinian leadership and its agreements with Israel in regards to the refugee issue is extremely poor.

Until the signing of the Oslo Accords (Declaration of Principles-DOP) five years ago, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 served as the internationally recognized reference in regards to Palestinian refugee rights. Moreover, the right of return for Palestinians exiled in the course of later Israeli-Arab wars was stated explicitly in UN Security Council Resolution 237 (1967) and in UNGA Resolution 3236 of 22 November 1974. The  absence of these UN resolutions from the Oslo Accords opened a new gate for all those political forces and governments who - due to the strong Israeli objection to these UN resolutions - had for long considered the right of return "unrealistic" and "impractical." The fact that the PLO leadership had agreed, in the DOP, to engage with Israel in bilateral and multilateral negotiations that were not based on these UN resolutions, gave new legitimacy to foreign governments, most predominant among them the USA, to promote "new ways" of solving the Palestinian refugee question. The architects of the Oslo Accords assumed that recognition of the PLO by Israel, partial Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories, and the establishment of a Palestinian "Self-Rule Authority" would prepare the ground for an unprecedented Israeli-Palestinian compromise on the core issuesw of the conflict at a later stage, i.e. Israeli recognition of Palestinian statehood in exchange for the Palestinian relinquishment of the demand for the right of return of the refugees to their homes and properties within the 1948 borders of  the Israeli state.

However, the Madrid-Oslo process soon found itself on a dead-end road, not because of Palestinian-Arab opposition to it, but because of the Israeli governments' (Labor and Likud) unwillingness to relinquish control of the occupied territories and to make the minimal concessions required to maintain the process. The quadripartite Committee on the Return of Displaced Persons started to meet in 1995 with the participation of Jordan, Egypt, the PLO, and Israel. Initial Palestinian expectations for the return of the 1967 displaced persons were high but rapidly frustrated when it became apparent that the Israeli side was not willing to discuss matters of procedure, mainly "how to return", but insisted instead on fruitless debates about definitions and figures. Bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the "final status issues," among them the refugee question, were symbolically opened in May 1996, but never resumed by the new Likud government in Israel. The Multilateral Refugee Working Group had started in 1993 with the participation of more than 20 states and international organizations. Designed as a body which should initiate projects that would support the bilateral peace process, its raison d'etre was lost by 1996. Three years into the Oslo Accords, there was no peace to keep and no meaningful process left to support. 

Thus, five years after the signing of the DOP, negotiation-related discussion and work on the Palestinian refugee question has been reduced to academic conferences and closed-door meetings (* see box beside) on the one hand, and several research and development projects on the other.  While the meetings serve to explore basic political positions of the two sides, the projects, conducted under the supervision of foreign governments and the Multilateral RWG or UNRWA, reflect the idea that - given the uncompromising Israeli position - the Palestinian refugee question can only be solved by means of refugee resettlement and integration. However, these projects are neither accompanied by political negotiations nor do the  Arab "host" states or the refugees themselves accept the option of resettlement.

The absence of progress in the negotiations has allowed the Palestinian leadership not to formulate and/or expose its position and strategies on the refugee question. UN Resolution 194, the right of return, has remained the basis for a just and acceptable solution of the refugee question in all formal and public statements given by PLO and PA officials. The Palestinian leadership, similar to the refugees themselves, criticizes policies aimed at dividing and integrating the refugee community and emphasizes that, "the PNA is a mere host country, though a special one" (As'ad Abdelrahman, Head of the PLO Department for Refugee Affairs, Fofognet, 2-12-1996). However, this does not mean that the Palestinian leadership has abstained from participating in the "search for realistic and practical solutions". In 1996, just prior to the Labor Party defeat in the Israeli elections, two architects of the DOP, Yossi Beilin and Abu Mazen, held secret talks to prepare the final status negotiations. The talks culminated in the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement which was to be implemented after a Labor election victory.  This agreement included a re-interpretation of the right of return to mean no more than a return of a limited number of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas under PA control. Further moves along the lines of Beilin-Abu Mazen were prevented by the assassination of Rabin and the subsequent Labor defeat in 1996.

As the PA struggles to create state institutions and secure its hold on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the refugee question remains a secondary issue. Moreover, the fusion of the PLO into the PA has caused PLO infrastructure abroad to collapse, leaving refugees without a political representation or economic support. Arafat's recent announcement that a Palestinian state will be declared in May 1999 unless Israel fulfills its obligations under the Oslo Accords (i.e. second redeployment, start of final status negotiations), is met with skepticism by the Palestinian people  and suspicion by the refugees. Given the total dependence of the PA institutions on funds derived from foreign supporters of the Oslo process, a PA policy aimed at unilaterally cancelling the Accords is unlikely. In the event of  Israeli redeployment or early Israeli elections resulting in a new government with Labor participation, the Palestinian state declaration will disappear from the leadership’s agenda. 

While further partial Israeli redeployment may be immanent, the PA’s relation to its constituency is rapidly deteriorating. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially refugees, are pressuring for change and are even ready for a military confrontation with Israel. As resentment over the false peace mounts, violence may be the only way to boost the PA's reputation. Palestinian refugees, however, will not profit from another violent show-down of forces. Effective efforts for the defense of their rights requires a much more fundamental change.  A new paradigm is required,  in which refugees have both a legitimate voice and mechanism to shape Palestinian politics.

Q: Is May 1999 the right time to declare a state?

A: I believe yes for one reason: That the [Oslo] agreement set May 4, 1999 is the end of the interim agreement and so with the end of the interim agreement the world must stand by us so that we can declare our state, and establish its borders, and tell the world there are certain areas of our land still under occupation. It is you who are responsible, ethically, historically and legally to implement your decision regarding the refugees' right of return.
Ahmad Qureia (Abu Alaa) in an interview with Associated Press, September 1998

issue no. 25