Connecting Refugees: An interview with Karma Nabulsi

Dr. Karma Nabulsi

It is 11 November 2004, Abu Ammar is sick, and the phones have been ringing all day. Karma Nabulsi, a Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford University and a former P.L.O. representative, and advisory member of the delegation to the peace process in Washington D.C. 1991-1993, is in demand. The BBC wants her opinion on the latest developments concerning Yasser Arafat, who is lying sick in a hospital bed in Paris. Although Nabulsi keeps abreast of the latest international developments, and does her best to speak up for the Palestinian cause, her P.L.O. days are long over. Instead she is currently embarking on one of the biggest projects of her life called Civitas.

Civitas which is pronounced with a strong C is Latin for commonwealth, citizen, city, civic and the common good. Supported by the European Commission of external relations, and run from Nuffield College, Civitas is a study on the channels of communication Palestinian refugees and exiled communities need to communicate effectively with their national and local representatives, international agencies, and refugee communities, using a unique participatory methodology.

The idea behind civitas dates back to 1999 at the height of the so-called Oslo “Peace Process” when the refugee question was off the map. This was when Nabulsi and Ernie Ross M.P. came up with the idea of having a cross-parliamentary commission of enquiry into the Palestinian refugee dilemma. Ross took part in the McBride Commission of Enquiry into the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon along with Richard Falk of Princeton University. As Nabulsi told me:

“The Commission’s job was actually to go and talk to the refugees themselves which everyone had been ignoring, and do what was seen as a radical idea at the time, which was to ask the refugees what they thought; hear their own voices on the issues that concerned them, because nobody was talking to them, and everybody was talking about them. They had really just become objects in a final status settlement”.

The bulk of the cross-parliamentary report, called “The Right of Return” was comprised of oral evidence from ordinary refugees from all over the camps in the Middle East. It was the first time since 1948 that a Commission of Enquiry had gone to the Middle East to ask the refugees themselves what their hopes and aspirations were. The refugees informed the Commission that the P.L.O. was “without question” their representative but they said they wanted better representation from them. They also felt that UNRWA, the international agency responsible for providing them with relief, was being undermined and needed strengthening. Most importantly the refugees desired to be involved in the peace process. As Nabulsi pointed out:

“It had been the accepted understanding up until now in the international community that you don’t want to talk to the refugees; you don’t want to hear what they have to say, because they are in the way; they are the obstacle to ŒThe Deal’ ”. She continued, “the most striking thing that the M.P.’s found is how anxious the Palestinians were to move forward, to participate, to engage in discussions about a solution, to talk about different kinds of compromises they might think about making if they were involved, such as Œwell I know there is a hotel on my land but I would take a room.’ That might not be practical, but it showed the kind of sharing arrangements they would be willing to make if they were addressed with respect and if their rights were addressed”.

In January 1996 the EU funded the Palestinian elections that took place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There was, however, a serious lacuna in those elections. It did not include the majority of Palestinians. In fact it specifically excluded the millions of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. As Nabulsi recalled:

“The P.L.O. delegation in Washington, when I was there between ‘91 and ‘93, had argued for elections to take place everywhere there were Palestinian refugee communities, and that all Palestinians that were members of the Palestinian body politic should be involved in the state building project and in shaping the political ideas, principles, and foundations for that state in all kinds of ways and they were excluded from this election process, which I think was really short-sighted”.

One of the recommendations in the report was specifically addressed to the EU, which was asked to facilitate a process that would allow those refugees who want to be involved to contribute to the peace process and participate. Nabulsi went to the EU with the Commission of Enquiry Report and told them about her idea. She explained that the peace process had so far been, “hugely illogical, and unworkable.” She said “it had been wildly utopian to expect the refugees to disappear off the face of the earth and if you want to make peace you have to make it with the people involved. So how about creating a positive, constructive way of inclusion?”

The EU asked her how this could be done. Nabulsi explained that the academic and think-tank surveys carried out in the 1990s in the refugee camps had resettlement as the preferred option in mind. (As she put it, “the refugee issue had been suspended and was not going to be dealt with.”) These institutions had mostly used opinion polls and surveys. The refugees told the British Commission of Enquiry that they were very hostile and anxious about opinion polls and surveys and their findings. They did not trust them because they felt they were always being manipulated, and afterwards they would read results that did not reflect what they actually thought. Nabulsi thus believed that it was best to ask the refugees themselves what kind of structures of communication they would like (which could not be done through polls) through a methodology that would be both democratic and authentic.

Nabulsi argued that it was not for the EU or experts or anyone else to decide what the refugees want to discuss. This is not a service that was needed. “It’s like if you provide services for elections or civil society building you are not telling people what to do or think. You are just helping to provide the structures and the fora in which they can do this for themselves. So we are not going to ask them what they want to do in their future, what their views are or about what rights are important to them. That’s for them to raise with their representatives. But they need safe channels of communication.” She explained:

“The purpose of this service is really to provide the structures that have been fragmented and destroyed through the wars, through the consequences of Oslo, and the creation of the interim Palestinian Authority, and through these different geographical and external constraints. These factors were not created through the mistakes of the Palestinians, but through their misfortunes. They are now in a situation where they can’t actually communicate and get good representation with all the national bodies and international institutions that are there to serve them. The Palestinians are already democratic. It’s not that we need to learn democracy. We are a democratic people. We have parties and unions and a vibrant associational civic life. But we don’t have the safe spaces in which to practise this democracy as a result of the war, the destruction”.

Nabulsi went on to explain the difference between Civitas and other research studies. She said, “the difference in this, as a research study, from all other studies hitherto is that it relies upon participatory deliberations for choosing the structures people need. Most people in the West usually don’t have to design their own institution. This is not something people are commonly asked to do. These channels and structures grow up around them and usually there are a variety of institutions they can join that are there to serve them. It would not be authentic unless the people could shape and decide what structures and communication they wanted. It becomes the right structure or channel for that particular community, serving local needs.”

In other words, “what they need in Berlin is not going to be the same as what they might need in Egypt. It might not be the same as what they need in Southern Lebanon. So it will be particular to the place. The P.L.O. has to be able to answer the different needs and priorities of the different Palestinian refugee communities, many who are suffering terrible privation and lack of basic rights” she said. She continued, “this will build a bridge between these tiers of political society, and serve both the refugees by letting them articulate their needs in their own voice, and equally it will serve our national institutions which need to be strengthened by this connection.”

At each debate there will be a moderator and note takers. They will list the structures the refugees choose and the results will then be sent to Oxford for inclusion in a report that will identify the needs of Palestinians all over the world. Nabulsi said that in the pilot meetings in Lebanon and Jordan it was clear that the women were the best particpants. “They were fantastic I have to say (and perhaps I am prejudiced) but they were to the point, they talked in a very realistic way, were very pragmatic, practical and really constructive” she said.

Nabulsi then pointed out that “we have to reassure people that this is not altering our current political society and the institutions and parties it currently has, or interferes with the party structure, or the union structures, or NGOs — all these will be strengthened by this process, because it is inclusive of all strands of Palestinian society. The needs-assessment just asks questions about the channels of communication refugees want to connect to the various bodies that served them, and to other refugee communities. We are not making elections; we are not replacing or restructuring representatives. There is a representative already. This is just a facilitation process to ask the people themselves what kind of structure they would like. We then bring these needs and recommendations forward and lobby for their implementation”.

She concluded by saying, “This will be a unique oral record of where we are as a people at this moment. What everybody wants, what their dreams are, where they are at this crucial moment in our struggle, what their needs are. This has never been done.”

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    Director of Arab Media Watch, Victor Kattan, was a U.N. Development Program TOKTEN consultant to the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights from May-August 2003 and from November 2003-February 2004. This interview will be published in a forthcoming edition of Haq Al-Awda in Arabic. You can visit Badil’s web site at