SOME COMMENTS ON THE RESPONSES TO AND DEBATE OF THE RECENT SURVEY RELEASED BY DR. KHALIL SHEKAKI ON PALESTINIAN REFUGEES’ CHOICE TO NOT RETURN
These comments are triggered mainly by a piece of commentary written by Jehudith Harel (14 July), who touches on many important points:
1. It is very important to understand that the Palestinian demand for the right of return (and/or implementation of UN Resolution 194) is the demand that refugees must be offered a free and educated choice between three major durable solutions:
These are the choices recognized by international law (and UN Resolution 194), these choices are expressed in the official Palestinian negotiation position, and the fact that the right of return means the right to choose is generally understood by the refugees themselves.
2. Based on the above, it is clear to the refugees and their organizations and the Palestinian leadership that not all of the some five million 1948 refugees will return to Israel, if given a choice. It is extremely unfortunate therefore, that Israeli media and political spokespersons continue to confuse and frighten the Israeli public by claiming that the Palestinian demand for the right of return is a demand for the forced return of five million refugees (even against their will?)! It is vital for a rational debate about just and durable solutions to the refugee question that Israeli peace activists challenge this wrong interpretation of the Palestinian position.
3. The major problem remains the fact that all current Israeli proposals for solutions of the refugee issue (including the Israeli proposals presented at the Taba negotiations) deny Palestinian refugees this free choice among all of the three options listed above by excluding - or illegally limiting (by means of quota, ‘symbolic return,’ or ‘return’ in the context of family reunification) - the option of return to their homes and properties in Israel.
4. And why do Palestinian refugees oppose Dr. Shekaki’s opinion poll? Obviously enough, the fact that his poll aims to establish the preferred choices of Palestinian refugees is not the problem, because the fact that actual return will require a personal choice is crystal clear to the refugees. The problems are elsewhere:
a) Popular Opposition to Refugee Opinion Polls and Surveys in the Current Situation of Israel’s Denial of the Right of Return: Since the late 1990, Palestinian refugees have been the target of opinion polls conducted by parties interested in gathering data supporting their respective political positions, i.e. either trying to prove by means of polls that all refugees are united behind the demand for (the right of) return or the opposite, i.e. that the right of return is not really a major issue and can be by-passed in the political negotiations with Israel. Already in 2000, refugee community organizations responded to these manipulative efforts by deciding to no longer participate in opinion polls about (the right of) return. Their position was and is that as long as their right of return is not respected and as long as the option of return is not available to them, opinion polls will remain a tool for political manipulation and of little use to advance their issue. Since then, polls have been conducted mainly behind the backs of refugee community organizations and their representatives.
b) Justification and Presentation of the Survey by Dr. Khalil Shekaki: Information about this recent poll reached the refugee camps as a result of a briefing meeting on the poll held at Dr. Shekaki’s office earlier this year, and through several reports in the local Palestinian and the London-based Al-Hayat. Major concern about the motives behind this polling effort was triggered by the fact that its aims were presented differently in various fora: one time the poll-results were presented as a tool for the Palestinian negotiator to facilitate negotiations with Israel (i.e. the small number of refugees actually opting for return as a means to encourage Israel to accept the right of return in principle), on other occasions as evidence of the fact that Palestinian negotiators can easily compromise on the right of return (because it won’t become a major issue and problem inside Palestinian society).
c) Fears of Likely Political Abuse: The above, combined with rumors about Dr. Shekaki’s close ties with and funding from U.S. sources, has lead people to conclude that they were dealing with yet another effort to manipulate their rights, an effort which coincides with pressures on the Palestinian leadership in the framework of the Road Map.
5. From a professional point of view, there are several additional problems with the poll as conducted by D. Khalil Shekaki:
a) The absence of recognition of the right of return remains a major obstacle for professionally sound opinion polls on this matter. It may just be impossible for an individual to abstract from 55 years of denial of the right of return and his/her struggle for it, to imagine - for the time of the interview - that this right is recognized, and to make a fully aware and educated choice about whether s/he would return. While polls about refugee choices are a common tool for establishing preferences and related planning parameters in many other refugee cases, they are usually conducted under conditions in which all options (including return) are recognized and immediately realistic options.
b) The options presented to Palestinian refugees in Dr. Shekaki’s poll are not in conformity with international law and UN Resolution 194. They are not the options outlined in paragraph 1 above, but the options outlined in the Israeli “non-paper” presented to the Taba negotiations. Refugees are thus asked to choose among the following:
Based on the above, this poll should not be considered an “authoritative poll on the very sensitive subject of the right of return.” While it should not surprise anybody that many refugees choose not to return, the final figures resulting from this poll are probably a very bad indicator of the choices refugees will make once their rights are fully recognized.
BADIL Resource Center aims to provide a resource pool of alternative, critical and progressive information on the question of Palestinian refugees in our quest to achieve a just and lasting soluton for exiled Palestinians based on their right of return.