Creating civic structures for Palestinian refugees in exile

Inside a Palestinian taxi (Photo: Helga Tawil)


An EU-funded study at the University of Oxford will assess how Palestinian refugee communities living in exile in the Middle East, Europe, and further afield can build civic structures to enable better communication with their political leadership and national representatives.

The project, entitled Civitas, will run over the next 18 months, and will establish the precise types of mechanisms needed by Palestinian refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza in order that they might participate effectively, and contribute democractically, to the shaping of their future.

Millions of Palestinians across several generations live in refugee camps and exile communities outside the West Bank and Gaza. Under the Oslo arrangements in the mid 1990s, these communities were excluded from the elections that took place there, as well as the establishment of civic and institutional structures, all of which were largely funded by the European Union. The role of the refugees was left to be determined in ‘final status’ negotiations, which in the end never took place. Refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza have thus - so far - been systematically excluded from all political and civic aspects of both the state-building process and the Middle East peace process itself.

The first step of the project is the establishment of a database to gather information about the size, location, and structure of Palestinian communities across the world.

In a second stage, each community will run their own needs assessment exercise, where they will determine for themselves which structures they would like in order to engage more effectively with their political leaders - for example by regular newsletters, delegations, monthly meetings, visits, and other means of communication. These will be decided by series of publicly convened debates and deliberations, run over a period of two months, within the communities and refugee camps.

The results of these deliberations will then be brought together in a report whose recommendations will assist in the incorporation of this large constituency of Palestinians into the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians - an essential precondition for the achievement of a durable peace.

Dr Karma Nabulsi, Director of Civitas, is a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, from where the project will be managed. She said: ‘The key point about this project is that it will be run by the Palestinian communities themselves. Democratic structures have to be created from the bottom up for them to hold. This is the lesson which can be learnt from many recent transitions to democratic rule, where consultation and participation have been vital to establish new democracies. The Palestinian case is unique in that the majority of the people are dispossessed and dispersed throughout the world. If you want to build peace, public participation and civic involvement are the cornerstone.’

The project will draw on a range of expertise from across Oxford University. It has been developed in collaboration with the European Commission of External Relations, through a series of reports and workshops run at Nuffield College, the European University Institute, and exile Palestinian communities over the last four years. The final report is due to be published in October 2005.

Civitas Foundations for Participation: Civic Structures for the Palestinian Refugee Camps and Exile Communities

This collective project, based at the University of Oxford, will assess how Palestinian refugee communities living in exile in the Middle East, Europe, and further afield, can build civic structures to enable better communication with their political leadership and national representatives, the PLO. It is almost entirely a volunteer project, run by the communities themselves, and is facilitated by a very small team who will co-ordinate the activities in order to carry forward the voices of the refugees themselves. The project, entitled Civitas, will run over the next 18 months, and it will establish the precise types of mechanisms needed by Palestinian refugees and exile communities outside the West Bank and Gaza in order that they might participate effectively, and contribute democratically, to the shaping of their future. Millions of Palestinians across several generations live in refugee camps and exile communities outside the West Bank and Gaza.

Under the Oslo arrangements in the mid 1990s, these communities were excluded from the elections that took place there, as well as the establishment of civic and institutional structures, all of which were largely funded by the European Union. The role of the refugees was left to be determined in ‘final status’ negotiations, which in the end never took place. Refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza have thus – so far – been systematically excluded from all political and civic aspects of both the state-building process and the Middle East peace process itself. This project will restore the vital links between all tiers of Palestinian civil society, and reconnect them with their national representatives, the PLO.

The first crucial step - over July, August, and September 2004 - is the establishment of a database to gather information about the size, location, and structure of Palestinian communities across the world who will participate in making their voices heard. Then each community will run their own needs-assessment exercise, where they will determine for themselves which structures they would like in order to engage more effectively with their political leaders – for example by regular newsletters, delegations, monthly meetings, visits, and other means of communication, and thus ensure a more democratic representation.

These structures will be decided by series of publicly convened debates run over a period of two months within the communities and refugee camps, between December 2004 and January 2005. The overall purpose of these civic structures and processes is to facilitate the involvement of Palestinian refugees and exile communities in the main issues that concern them.

This project creates the steps required for an inclusion of the refugee voices in the peace process according to democratic models of participation and consultation. By asking the refugee communities to design their own civic structures and processes, this project conforms to best democratic practice, and will be run by the communities involved through popular participation. The needs of the refugee camps and exile communities will be established by introducing two sets of questions on civic structures and processes which will be debated by them as communities. The results will be turned into two reports.

The first report details the types of structures decided by the refugees. It will demonstrate how the project was carried out, and the discussions that went into choosing the structures needed. This report will be for the benefit of the refugee communities, their national representatives the PLO, and for the wider international community involved in the Middle East Peace Process.

The second report will be written specifically for the international donor community in order to assist in the creation of the recommended civic structures and process at the end of this 18 month project. Phase two establishes the necessary civic structures for the Palestinian refugee communities outside of the West Bank and Gaza, in the host countries of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the Arab world, and in the large refugee and exile communities elsewhere, such as Europe and Latin America.

The international donor community will be engaged in the project at the end of Phase One for the purposes of providing the funding for the civic structures that will be recommended by the two reports. It has now been understood that only an active involvement of the refugee community in the decision making process, and the civic participation of Palestinian refugees in exile and refugee camps, can positively contribute to finding a solution that is viable but also acceptable to the refugee community themselves. These refugee communities were excluded from participating in the peace process as an unintended consequence of their political and legal rights being reserved for “final status” resolution, according to the mechanisms of the Oslo peace process, within the multi-lateral track.

This has led to a wide gulf between the different tiers of Palestinian society. The national representatives are entirely cut off from one of their largest constituencies, and the structures in which to have a healthy debate and discussion need to be both restored and created. Thus the overall objective of the project is to create the bridge between these two tiers of society – the local, particular and popular – with the political level of national representation, institutions, and international negotiations. The objective is to provide Palestinian refugees with the practical means in which to engage, in a positive and democratic form, with their national representatives.

Practical Implementation of Civitas

There are two simple questions that are to be discussed and decided by the refugees: What structures would you like in order to better communicate with your national representatives? What are the issues of importance that you would like to raise with them? These questions will be disseminated by local Palestinian associations all over the world in November 2004, and then debated in December 2004 and January 2005.

The first step is a small preparatory study in the refugee camps in July 2004, in order that the project team familiarise themselves with the type of views on civic concerns as well as the range of views, from as wide a range of refugees as possible.

The second step is the creation of a database over the first three months of the project, which will compile basic information on the structures and sizes of the various refugee communities world-wide. Communications and contacts with the grass-roots level civic leaders within and across the refugee camps and exile communities of all the host countries, as well as the large exile communities, will be established and maintained. The questionnaires, as well as the procedures and democratic guidelines for the deliberative debates, will be developed with the assistance of international, technical, and academic experts. This will be based upon the assessment from the refugee camps, as well as the community database. After this meeting at the end of August 2004, a workshop will be held in October for members of the refugee communities from across the world.

The draft questions will be presented, discussed, and fine-tuned at a three day meeting with the project facilitators, popular committee and grass-roots representatives, NGOs, and those from the camps who take responsibility for distributing and arranging for the questions to be debated within the refugee communities. This will give an opportunity for all involved to determine the questions’ final shape. It will also provide the opportunity to discuss all possible understandings of the questions, to suggest improvements to them, and to finalise the various means of dissemination of these questionnaires over the eight weeks of debates in the camps.

The small Civitas team will ensure the dissemination of the questions to the communities. This will be done through the delegates and through other means, such as electronic methods, email, and post. The deliberations in the camps will be enacted through a variety of public events: meetings, discussion groups, distribution of the questions throughout community centres and areas of common association. It will rely largely upon grass-roots methods of debate and communication particular to each community, although some more formal meetings will be arranged at the beginning and the end of the two week long process.

This is a voluntary exercise, will be run by the communities for the communities themselves, and is inclusive of all strands of Palestinian political and civic society.

Expected Results

This project will reach all of the refugee communities in the camps and exile communities outside of the West Bank and Gaza– over half the entire population of the Palestinians – for the first time, and will link them together by a process of participatory deliberation. It will be entirely democratic, and let the refugees speak for themselves. As a result of this facilitation by the Civitas project all of the refugee communities will be linked together in a common purpose and a common platform in which to be heard. They can begin to participate more fully in their future in ways that they determine for themselves.

More Information

  • For information on how you can help please contact the project director, director@civitas.nuf.ox.ac.uk, or the Project Team at: civitas@nuf.ox.ac.uk; Tel +44 207 243 2089, fax +44 207 292 3856.

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