Refugee Poll Confusion

24 July 2003 — Palestinian Academic Khalil Shikaki, in consultation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), set out to gauge Palestinian refugees’ reactions to the solutions to the refugee problem offered at the Taba talks in 2001. The idea, most likely, was to give the PA a sense of their bargaining position. Unfortunately, many people have taken the results of this poll out of context, and deemed it the final judgement on what Palestinian refugees want. It is no such thing and was never meant to be.

In Taba representatives of the PA and the Israeli government of Ehud Barak developed the idea of offering to Palestinian refugees a range of options from which they could choose in order to end their stateless existence and exercise their right of return. Since Barak cut short the negotiations to concentrate on the Israeli elections, and the Sharon government has never restarted them, the point reached by the negotiators at Taba, no matter how imperfect, is still the starting point for any subsequent talks.

Shikaki began his survey by asking the refugee families - from Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories - if they thought that the Israel of today would ever actually agree to the options offered at Taba. A majority said no. Nevertheless, the refugees were told to assume that the Taba options were offered to them and then select the one they would prefer. Already we can see that whatever answers are given, they will only represent a choice between several different options - options that those being polled don’t even believe Israel would ever agree to. This is a far cry from a free and open poll of the refugees’ opinions. Their choices were circumscribed, but nevertheless their preferences out of those meager and perhaps unsatisfactory options should be examined fully.

To begin with, 95 percent of those polled believed that the right of return was a “sacred” right that must be recognized by Israel. Many commentators have seized on the figure of 10 percent who said they would return to their homes in what is now Israel, but have deliberately ignored the fact that almost every single refugee polled demanded the recognition of the right of return. As outlined in UN General Assembly resolution 194, the right of return does not require the refugees to return, it only demands that they be allowed to. To summarize the results of this poll by saying “only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees would exercise their right of return” is deliberately deceptive. It would be more accurate to say that “only 10 percent of the small sample of Palestinian refugees polled, after having received from the government of Israel unconditional recognition of their right of return, would choose the first option outlined in the Taba proposal, although they do not believe Israel ever intends to honor such a proposal.”

But moving on, the 10 percent figure itself is deceptive. A further 13 percent of refugees polled said that they would return to areas of what is now Israel which would eventually be transferred to the control of the Palestinian state. This is no different than choosing to return to Israel, because the areas these refugees would choose to return to are still a part of Israel. Now it appears that we would most honestly summarize the poll results by saying that “23 percent of the small sample of Palestinian refugees polled, after having received from the government of Israel unconditional recognition of their right of return, would choose to accept one of the Taba options which would allow them to return to their homes in what is now Israel (even if it might subsequently become part of a Palestinian state.)”

Striking also is the fact that 18 percent of those polled would either refuse all options or gave no opinion. This is almost twice the number who said they would accept that first Taba option, namely returning to their homes in what is now Israel and taking Israeli citizenship. This signifies that many refugees polled were not happy with the circumscribed choices offered and, even after having been asked to suspend disbelief and assume that Israel was willing to recognize their right of return and implement the Taba proposals, rejected the format of the questions altogether. A more nuanced picture of the views of the refugees polled is beginning to emerge.

Some critics of the poll have pointed out that the refugees were not offered all the choices that should be available to them under the law. This is correct. But the poll never pretended to include all of those options - it only focussed on the options presented at Taba. As long as it is only interpreted with this fact in mind it can be seen as accurate.

Despite the best efforts of Zionist apologists and Israel’s expert propagandists to paint the poll as a blow to advocates of refugees’ human rights, the results, as they have been portrayed, are devastating to Israel’s racist right wing. These Zionist ideologues have always attempted to frighten the Israeli public with stories of millions of dirty Arabs returning to swamp them and undermine their ethnically pure state if the right of return were ever to be recognized. Leaving aside the pervasive racism of Israeli society that the success of these scare tactics exposes, what the poll shows - if it indeed shows anything concrete - is that only a portion of the refugees would choose to return to their former homes. Almost certainly a higher percentage than the 23 percent we discussed above would choose repatriation. But those Zionist apologists who point out the 10 percent figure as some kind of club to be wielded against supporters of the right of return only end up dropping it on their own foot since it undermines all of their objections to the implementation of that right!

The reaction to this poll among both supporters and detractors of the right of return is instructive. Clearly the assault on Shikaki and his offices demonstrates that many refugees will go to any lengths to defend their rights. These are not people for whom the right of return can be ignored or negotiated away. But the widespread ignorant and de-contextualized manipulation of the data only shows that those Zionists whose prejudices have always militated against allowing Palestinians to return home are eager to make fools of themselves. They have convinced each other, and are trying to convince anyone else who will listen, that what they’ve wanted all along is really exactly what the victims of their hatred and prejudice want too. Although this might be a therapeutic coping mechanism which allows them to deal with pushing a racist ultra right-wing agenda (an ethincally pure state, free from the imagined pollution of its native inhabitants) while still considering themselves morally superior, the facts of the poll simply do not support their interpretation.

Casey Patrick Reilly is a Research Assistant of the Palestine Center. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.