For Palestinians, There's No Refuge from Politics

The Palestinian refugee crisis continues, but it doesn't have to. Dr Rex Brynen explains.
By: /
June 21, 2013
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Refugees remain one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Camps once assumed to be temporary have become cement fixtures in the desert landscape a. The difficulties confronting many Palestinian refugees have been exacerbated by the war in Syria, where thousands are caught in the crossfire. OpenCanada spoke to Dr. Rex Brynen, political science professor at McGill University and middle east conflict, security, and development specialist, about some of the issues explored in his newest edited volume on the Palestinian refugee crisis, and the current political situation in the Middle East.

You are the co-editor of a new anthology examining the Palestinian refugee crisis. What did you hope to accomplish with this project?

This project is the culmination of many years of work, dating back to the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s when Canada was assigned the gavel of what was then known as the “Refugee Working Group.” It soon became apparent that there was a real lack of technical knowledge about Palestinian refugees and that no one had really thought through the modalities of a possible agreement on the issue. This continued to be so even during the heyday of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000-01. Indeed, there was a real risk that because of this lack of knowledge, negotiators might agree to arrangements that were counterproductive or unworkable.

Both the International Development Research Centre and my own project (Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet) have spent several years encouraging policy-relevant analytical work on the refugee issue in conjunction with Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, and international scholars. Over the years we’ve had a lot of encouragement from the Palestinian Authority, Israel officials, regional governments, and the international community. Our joint work resulted in conferences, workshops, briefings for governments, and research papers, as well as two previous edited volumes, Palestinian Refugees: Challenges of Repatriation and Development (published by I.B. Tauris and IDRC in 2007) and Compensation to Palestinian Refugees and the Search for Palestinian-Israeli Peace (published by Pluto earlier this year). A third and final volume, The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for Resolution, will also be published by Pluto soon. All three books are co-edited with my colleague Roula el-Rifai.

 We’ve tried to avoid setting forth a single way of addressing the various components of the problem. It is up to Israelis and Palestinians to work those out one day, at the negotiating table. However, we have identified various possible approaches, and the associated cost and benefits. I think it is fairly clear to everyone that any just and lasting Arab-Israeli peace will require addressing the situation of everyone who has been subjected to forced displacement and exile during the conflict.

 What kinds of recommendations do the contributors to your project offer on issues like refugee repatriation and compensation schemes? Are you optimistic about the potential for peace?

Taking the project as a whole, I think there is a lot of agreement that repatriation of Palestinian refugees (whether to Israel or a Palestinian state) has to be done in a way that is respectful of rights, recognizes realities, and is developmentally sustainable. Compensation, we’ve shown, is an enormously complex issue and if you don’t design the system well, it has the potential to become a major source of grievance and possibly undermine a broader peace agreement. A refugee agreement will be more effective if there is cooperation from other regional states. There also needs to be buy-in from the refugees themselves.

Most important, we believe that the policy research clearly shows that it is economically and technically feasible to resolve these issues as part of a broader, comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether the political will presently exists to resolve the conflict is, unfortunately, a different question.

With the recent announcement of new settlements in the West Bank, do you see any potential for diplomatic progress between Israel and Palestine?

I think the prospects for diplomatic progress at the moment are exceedingly small. The Palestinians remain politically divided. I’m not convinced the current Israeli government is interested in a reasonable two-state solution. As you note, settlement activity (clearly illegal under international law) continues unabated, constantly narrowing the political window for peace. The U.S. and the rest of the international community seems to have no clear idea on how to break the logjam.

On top of all that, Palestinian refugees in Syria (like Syrians themselves) face the devastation of a brutal civil war. According to the UN around 70,000 Palestinians have fled the country and more than half are internally displaced. It is a very depressing time.

The poor prospects for political progress are one of the reasons why we wanted to get these various studies and analyses into book form, to extend the shelf life of their findings so that they will be available to negotiators and mediators when and if the peace process resumes. You would be surprised how often past policy lessons are forgotten when government leaderships change, officials retire or are reassigned, only to be rediscovered or reinvented a few years later.

The new Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah submitted his resignation yesterday after only two weeks in office. What does this mean?  What does it say about the future prospects for a Hamas-Fatah unity government?

It goes to show how difficult it is to be the Palestinian prime minister – having to contend with demands by Fatah that you appoint loyalists to key portfolios, President Abbas' preference that the prime minister be more compliant than his predecessor, the challenge of political reconciliation with Hamas, a difficult fiscal and economic situation, and, of course, the ever-present realities of Israeli occupation. It isn't clear quite yet if the resignation is a temporary, tactical move in the political struggle over who gets what power within the cabinet, or whether Hamdallah is really leaving.

More broadly, however, I’m not very confident we’ll see deep reconciliation any time soon between Fatah and Hamas. We might see a reduction of tensions, greater functional cooperation, or further dialogue. But Hamas doesn’t really want to risk its current control of Gaza, Fatah really doesn’t want to risk its control of the West Bank, and those entrenched interests make resolution of the Palestinian political divide very difficult.

The Harper government has taken a firm stance in support of Israel. How has that affected Canada’s potential future role in the peace process, and our potential for engagement in the broader Middle East?

I’m never quite sure what “pro-Israel” means, given the broad spectrum of political opinion within Israel and the deep differences there over policy. However, it is certainly the case that Palestinian officials and commentators see Canada as increasingly (and uncritically) aligned with the hardline positions of the Netanyahu government. Privately they’ve made it clear to others that they don’t see Canada playing a major role in any future peace process as a result.