Mati Steinberg
February 17, 2011 - 1:00am

The Arab Peace Initiative comprises two main references to the Palestinian refugee issue that seem to be mutually contradictory. On the one hand, the API stipulates the need for "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with United National General Assembly Resolution 194". On the other, it indicates "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation ["tawtin"] which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries".

An "agreed upon" solution that necessitates the consent of Israel locks the door to a massive return of refugees to the state of Israel, while the "rejection of patriation" in the Arab host countries leaves no other option but return. So is the latter provision a sort of escape clause that voids the earlier provision of any substance? Moreover, is there really an "either-or" dichotomy here: either return or tawtin?

In order to clarify the issue, we must address the origins, i.e. the text of 194 (article 11):"...the refugees WISHING to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those CHOOSING not to return..." (my emphasis).

The highlights of 194 are manifested in these two terms: the "wishing" and the "choosing" of the refugees themselves. It is up to the individual refugee to decide on return or compensation. For many years since 1948, this fundamental principle has been the cornerstone of the Palestinian and Arab position on the refugee problem. And herein exactly lies the main constructive innovation of the API concerning the refugee problem: the achievement of a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem" must be "agreed upon in accordance with . . . 194". In spite of the seemingly clumsy language, it is clear that the exclusive burden to decide on this issue is taken from the refugee and is subordinated to the agreement between the two parties, namely Israel and the PLO-Palestinian Authority.

This is precisely the interpretation of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department (headed until recently by Saeb Erekat): "The API ensures that through a process of negotiations, Israel's concerns will be taken into account in deciding how the resolution [194] should be implemented. The initiative provides a framework for an 'agreed upon' solution to the refugee problem with all the relevant parties, including Israel".

Furthermore, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) attested to the API's references to the refugee issue in his March 2009 guidelines to the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit. According to the meeting minutes leaked recently by al-Jazeera and the Guardian, he stressed that the API phrasing of "just and agreed upon" is the cornerstone for addressing the refugee issue: "On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million or indeed one million--that would mean the end of Israel. They said 5000 over 5 years. This is even less than family reunification and is not acceptable. There also has to be compensation."

In this interpretation, the Palestinian antagonists see eye to eye: on the first day of the API, March 29, 2002, Hamas harshly attacked it for abrogating the "sacred right of return" and denounced "the transference of the issue of the right of return to the negotiation table and the demand to implement it through mutual understanding and agreement with Israel". Hence, in the eyes of Hamas, the expression "agreed upon", attached to the solution of the refugee problem in the API, is tantamount to a shameful betrayal, and for this reason Hamas sanctifies the literal and original wording of 194 that exclusively empowers the refugee himself to determine his fate.

Nor is there a contradiction between the "agreed upon" clause in the API and the clause about "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation [tawtin]" in the Arab host states. First, the rejection of tawtin does not contradict the return of refugees to the Palestinian state side by side with Israel. Second, this rejection is not categorical in the API but conditioned upon "the special situation of the Arab host states". Therefore, in places and circumstances where there is no such contradiction, Palestinians could stay as citizens.

In fact, Abu-Mazen instructed his advisors to that effect: "All refugees can get Palestinian citizenship (all 5 million) if they want to (for example, Palestinian refugees in Jordan may not want, while for refugees in Lebanon there is a need). With that, Palestinian refugees will no longer be stateless but rather foreigners."

Thus, Abu Mazen's understanding of tawtin clearly and fully complements and does not at all contradict the "agreed upon" solution. The Palestinian refugees would remain in their Arab host countries as alien residents and would be able to acquire Palestinian citizenship. In this way, the two references to the refugees in the API go hand in hand.

The most important evidence concerning the real significance of the refugee issue in the API appeared in the resolutions of the two last Arab summits (Doha, Qatar, and Sirte, Libya, March 2009 and March 2010, respectively). Moammar Qadhafi, the leader of Libya, insisted on adding the following remark to the text of the API: "[Libya] affirms its reservation to the API and other terms of reference which are not conductive to the establishment of a democratic state on all Palestine or to the return of Palestinian refugees." Had the "tawtin" clause voided the meaning of the "agreed upon" clause, Libya (along with Hamas, the Muslim Brothers, Iran, Hizballah and the Global Jihad) would not have so vehemently rejected the API.

To sum it up: the two pertinent provisions in the Arab Peace Initiative concerning the refugee problem are complementary


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