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Bargaining over political shibboleth of Palestinian right of return

Mark Urban | 18:03 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The latest release of the "Palestine Papers", as the Guardian is referring to the files it is publishing in co-operation with al Jazeera, concerns the refugee issue.

For many Palestinians, the right of return of those displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars is one of the central issues of their national struggle.

Yet the papers, which are thought to have originated with the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit, show that in meetings, senior Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials considered options that would have allowed only a tiny minority of those spread across the Middle East to return to homes within Israel's internationally recognised borders - the so-called Green Line.

At one point, according to the documents, the Israelis proposed allowing just five thousand back. At another, the Palestinian chief negotiator appears to concede that no more than ten thousand could return.

There are more than four million Palestinians living outside Israel and the Occupied Territories who are refugees or might claim descent from them.

Those of us who have followed the negotiating process over the years have got to understand that no more than a small proportion of this diaspora could ever re-settle in Israel under a peace agreement.

I have spoken to quite a few Palestinians in Jordan or Lebanon who say they would not want to live in Israel anyway.

In the past, negotiators have hoped to deal with this issue by various formulas: financial compensation from Israel to those who could not go back; a "right of return" to the Palestinian state (rather than within the Green Line); re-settlement of those refugees who wanted it to third countries; the transfer of land within the Green Line to a future Palestinian state (and settling of some refuges on that land), and so on.

The problem for the PLO leadership is that the "right of return" has remained a political shibboleth for their movement for decades. No Palestinian leader wants to be seen selling out the refugees.

Those exposed by these leaks would of course argue that they were not selling out the refugees and that the kind of deal they were working on would have involved a package of options like those above.

The problem they face now is that many outside the Ramallah elite have never understood that the PLO was willing to negotiate on this principle, and that even those who did understand the idea of "give and take" might not have imagined that they would get such a bad deal.

In the briefings and conversations I had over the years (since the issue was first seriously discussed between Israel and the Palestinians at the Taba Talks of 10 years ago) we had heard figures of 30-100,000 refugees being allowed to go back, or of re-settlement in Canada or Australia.

We were also told that any eventual deal would be subject of a referendum in which Palestinians, including those in the camps, would have their say.

The leaked papers suggest that the number returning might be as low as 10,000, the third countries would include Chile and Argentina, and that the Palestinian chief negotiator told one European foreign minister that people in the camps would not get a vote after all.

Many questions arise from this, not least why did not Israel's centrist Kadima government that was offered these terms sign up as quickly as possible, if it was as interested in peace as it claimed to be.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland quips, "they didn't know how to take 'yes' for an answer".

In truth though, the Israelis are unlikely to feel the greatest heat as a result of these leaks.

The anger of many Palestinians, who have grown to expect nothing good from the Israelis, is being directed towards their own leadership for getting into such compromising terms in the first place.

Was it the leaker's intention to sweep away the PLO old guard? We simply don't know, but all they may have succeeded in doing is discrediting Palestinians who were ready to talk peace - and in surprisingly generous terms - at a time when there is no alternative leadership that believes in this type of compromise.


  • Comment number 1.

    ..Ireland upgrades Palestinian diplomatic delegation to a mission ..

    which follows on from the south american recognitions. Looks the palestinians are starting to make 'facts on the ground' too?

    ..Iran is not currently working on producing a nuclear weapon but could make one within "a year or two" of taking such a decision, Israel's military intelligence chief said on Tuesday...

    on no! what will the neocons do now? Mind you absence of any threat didn't stop tony declaring war on iraq?

    others make the case that in the long term the demographics favours a single [arab] state?

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    mmm. which bit broke the rules?

    talking of the palestinian papers we also learn

    ..MI6 offered to detain Hamas figures ...

    this is british national interest because....?

  • Comment number 4.

    why might arabs want a harder line?

    ..Survey shows 41% of secular Israelis support municipal religious leaders' call not to rent apartments to non-Jews, as do 64% and 88% of Israel's traditional and haredi Jews, respectively...,7340,L-3998010,00.html

    an insight into the religious matrix

  • Comment number 5.

    4... I just wonder whether I as an Englishman will ever be canvassed on whether I want housing in England to be allocated to non-English people?

    And if I even asked for a survey to take place how long it would be before I was falsely linked to some far right organisation and driven out of my job?

    I think part of the reason things are getting so polarised in Israel/Palestine is that Israelis have such powerful "friends" in the western world that they have no idea how ordinary people feel about the plight of the Palestinians.

    The enormously influential pro-zionist lobby have such influence over our media that Israelis must imagine we are far more positive than we actually are about the behaviour of Israel.

    This is a very dangerous situation for ordinary Israeli people to be in.... but who dares warn them? It`s very unlikely this post will get shown on the website....and if it does how long willit survive before the accusations of so called antisemitism start coming in?

    By the way...Palestinians are semites too!

  • Comment number 6.

    what happened to resolution 242 at the UN...gathering dust on the shelves of the UN and likely to do so for another sixty odd years.....

  • Comment number 7.


    Did the loonies that go round doing the labelling, actually realise (for once) that irrationality is not an issue?

  • Comment number 8.

    Mark Urban: "Was it the leaker's intention to sweep away the PLO old guard? We simply don't know, but all they may have succeeded in doing is discrediting Palestinians who were ready to talk peace - and in surprisingly generous terms - at a time when there is no alternative leadership that believes in this type of compromise. "

    What type of compromise would that be, Mark, the sort of surprisingly generous type rejected by the Israelis - a seemingly useless type?

    Maybe, just maybe, the leaker has succeeded in discrediting the position of the Israelis and the USA, who are apparently not ready to compromise and talk peace?

  • Comment number 9.

    If you want to debate the Middle East tiptoe past sleeping Mark Urban and get yourself down to Markie Mardell`s blog!

  • Comment number 10.

    Seems to me that none of the sides whether Israeli or Palestinian really want peace unless they get their main demands, which the order side can't give.
    The palestinians want East Jerusalem as their Capital or at least a "free city", no Israeli Government will ever give up the city.
    While the Isreali's expect the PLO to accept a series of mini-states within the West Bank, unacceptable to the Palestinians.
    result impasse!

  • Comment number 11.

    10...This impasse mystifies me. I remember Blair pulling out all the stops and sending his Middle East special envoy Lord Levy to negotiate with the Palestinians...what more could we do to bring them to the table?

  • Comment number 12.

    This should not be a matter of "bargaining" at all.
    The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in March, 2010, released a ruling in the case of Greek-Cypriots who had fled the north of the island during the Turkish invasion of 1974. What the ruling said will have implications for other unsettled issues of land, place and occupation. Please note that the ruling cannot be challenged – decisions issued by the ECHR are final and are binding.
    The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.
    The court’s decision and what many find so shocking in this reasoning:
    Much Greek-Cypriot property has changed hands at least once, whether by sale, donation or inheritance.
    Thus, the Court finds itself faced with cases burdened with a political, historical and factual complexity flowing from a problem that should have been resolved by all parties assuming full responsibility for finding a solution on a political level. This reality, as well as the passage of time and the continuing evolution of the broader political dispute must inform the Court’s interpretation and application of the Convention which cannot, if it is to be coherent and meaningful, be either static or blind to concrete factual circumstances.
    The court then dismisses the claims of the refugees from Cyprus and basically tells them to avail themselves of the remedies offered by Turkey and the TRNC, which the court has judged to be fair.
    The applicant property owners in the Cypriot cases have not made use of this mechanism and their complaints under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention must therefore be rejected for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies.
    The decision will have consequences outside Europe as well and will be closely studied in Israel, where the issue of the “right of return” for Palestinians is highly controversial. This decision may act as a force to change the negotiating positions.
    As ugly as it may seem, I agree with the Court decision. When too much time has passed, property will most likely have changed hands several times. So, it would seem compensation may be the answer, with few exceptions e.g. where the property remains vacant & therefore available.
    There are more than 4 million Palestinians living outside Israel and the Occupied Territories; these are not likely the actual refugee, but a claimant of descent from refugees.
    Is it likely that descendants of Palestinians in Jordan or Lebanon would want to love in Inrael in any case?
    The various formulas proposed by Israel seem justified and fair
    - financial compensation from Israel
    - return to the Palestinian state or
    - re-settlement of those refugees who wanted re-settlement in a third country.
    The PLO leadership may be mistaken in the retention of this political shibboleth; perhaps what is required is a referendum of refugee Palestinians to truly assess what the majority would accept.
    Now tell me how on earth you will get an accurate referendum with Palestinians refugees dying off, drifting off, and being so widely dispersed?


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