Palestinian refugees and exiles must have a say-so

A relationship that comes at the cost of Palestinian refugees: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 14 January 2007. MaanImages/POOL/PPO)

Today, Palestinian refugees outside the occupied territories and Palestinian exiles feel completely excluded from the body politic and national debate currently taking place in the occupied territories. They listen to the feuding emanating from the territories in helpless dismay. They watch those on the inside who are caught up in a carefully engineered web of power struggles and passionate rifts that seem incomprehensible in their intensity and misdirection.

This fragmentation in the Palestinian political process has long been in the making. The Palestinian National Authority, courtesy of the Oslo negotiations, is designed to represent only Palestinians living in the occupied territories and to function as no more than Israel’s administrative arm.

The advent of Hamas on the Palestinian political scene has forcefully brought to the fore the question of adequate forms of representation for the Palestinian people. Far from enhancing democracy and representation, the elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council exclude Palestinians outside the territories. As it turned out, these last elections were also deemed by the international community as irrelevant.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people as recognized by the United Nations and the Arab League in 1974, is now separated functionally and structurally from the Palestinian diaspora. Its links with the outside were weakened and marginalized when the core elite of the PLO moved to the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the Oslo negotiations in 1994.

What all this means is that the vast majority of Palestinians are disenfranchised. The number of Palestinians worldwide as of the end of 2006 was estimated by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics to be 10.1 million. Of these, only 39.2 percent (or 3.95 million) live in the occupied territories.

A participant in one of the public meetings conducted by CIVITAS, a research project on Palestinian communities living in exile, expressed her feelings of being shut out of the political process thus: “Before the peace treaties, Palestinian political parties were more effective, and we had a voice: we worked properly! We made our voice heard to the entire world. But the world now only hears the voice of the Palestinian president, and his prime minister. As a citizen, I no longer have a voice. His voice is enough. But before the peace process my voice was heard. If this peace will silence me then I don’t want it!”

The national aspirations of Palestinian refugees on the outside and inside are driven predominantly by a single, uncluttered historical agenda: their right of return. Both groups must contend with poverty and severe health and education challenges. But whereas the refugees on the inside are in daily bloody confrontations with their dispossessor, those on the outside have their own crosses to bear based on where they happen to have been planted. Lack of legal documents, passports, travel documents or identity papers, unfair electoral systems, denial of the right to work, and lack of entitlements for ownership and inheritance are but a few of the hardships they face.

In spite of being clearly impotent to represent Palestinians outside the occupied territories or those inside for that matter, the Palestinian National Authority runs ineffective consulates around the world that simply raise false expectations and frustrations among Palestinian exiles as well as those allowed by Israel to reside in the occupied territories: “Any citizen who has another nationality would resort to his Embassy when seeking protection or help. Therefore I demand my Embassy offer me this as a Palestinian. We don’t want money from it, we just want it to defend us, and we want to feel that we belong to this Embassy which can protect us when we need protection. This is all what I ask from my Embassy, which is my country” (CIVITAS Participant, Meeting, Cairo, Egypt).

Throughout the past decades, international efforts to help the Palestinians have come in the form of their conditioning Palestinians to accept “painful” compromises, and to de-historicize the conflict by ignoring the rights of those outside the occupied territories and treating them as humanitarian aid beneficiaries at best. Even the United Nations Relief Works Agency, supposedly at the forefront of pressing refugee rights, has been reduced by its funders to a service provider and imposes restrictions on how Palestinians express themselves in refugee camps: “As UNRWA teachers, we are forced to sign a document which prohibits us from discussing politics, especially the Palestinian refugee issue, with students, directly or indirectly. Whoever refuses to sign is fired. It is illegal to hang anything in schools that has a reference to the Intifada, or the [Palestinian] revolution, or expressing your right as a refugee.”

What’s on the table currently by way of a “peace plan” is an Israeli unilateral plan that has US backing for a putative Palestinian state. This plan means the Israeli annexation of a further 15 percent of the West Bank and the vast majority of its water aquifers, a plan whose essential features are already “facts on the ground”. On the Palestinian side, there is a proposal based on a referendum drafted by the leaders of Palestinian prisoners of various factions in Israeli prisons. This plan drops Palestinian territorial claims beyond the 1967 borders and promises full Arab recognition of Israel. It is a proposal that has only partial legitimacy, because it does not include consensus from Palestinians living outside the occupied territories in the far-flung diaspora. Needless to say, neither the Israeli side, nor the Palestinian side, even in its partially-formed and troubled current consensus, accepts the plan of the other.

But continuing to give precedence to the concerns of West Bank and Gaza residents over those of non-resident Palestinians means the planting of a time bomb in the heart of the peace process. Their inclusion guarantees that the historical roots of the conflict, something that Israel has spent its monstrous state apparatus denying for decades, will be taken into consideration, as it is the right of every Palestinian that they should be. Israel must understand that Palestinians will never forget these roots. Here is what one CIVITAS participant in a public meeting in Toronto, Canada has to say: “Young Palestinians should go and visit their towns just like the Zionists do through their Birth Right program; after all, there are a lot of Palestinians in the world with foreign citizenship. So why not plan visits to Yafa in an organized way and sponsor the youth to go back to their homeland?”

Palestinians must start building political infrastructures that go all the way to the top for Palestinians now outside the West Bank and Gaza who have never relinquished their right of return. These Palestinians must have active and constructive involvement in the decision making process.

Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.