The Return of Palestinian Refugees and Displaced Persons: The evolution of an eu policy on the Middle East Peace Process

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The Return of Palestinian Refugees and Displaced Persons: The evolution of an EU policy on the Middle East Peace Process.
Mick Dumper, Department of Politics, University of Exeter, UK.
External intervention in the return and repatriation of refugees is a common feature of most refugee situations. Examples can be drawn from recent UN and NATO involvement in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia and East Timor. With regard to the Palestinian refugee issue, there is much evidence to suggest that the absence of a coordinated and coherent policy on the part of the international community is a major factor in the failure to achieve a resolution. One of the major fault lines in the approach of the international community is the divergence between the European Union and the United Sates over approaches to the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) and in particular over their respective policies on the Palestinian refugees.
The US broadly concurs with an Israeli position that any return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has to be subject Israeli security needs and that any repatriation of refugees to Israel itself will be both nominal and in the context of family re-unification. On the other hand, the EU has sought to reconcile its stronger adherence to UN conventions on the rights of refugees and refugee repatriation with the constraints on those rights due to Israeli security and demographic concerns. At the same time, largely as a consequence of the marginalisation of the EU in the MEPP by the US, the EU has directed its energies towards economic development and cooperation in the region and the financing of the Palestinian (National) Authority (PA). Yet because any solution to the refugee issue would require large-scale investment and economic development, the EU has been able to engage more actively in the political aspects of the issue. It has been, therefore, obliged to face a conundrum: how to support a resolution of the refugee issue based upon international law yet find an accommodation with the Israeli veto on this issue which is broadly backed by the US.
The wrestling with this conundrum and the evolution of a policy can be seen in the commissioning of two studies between 1999-2001 and in the consequent funding of a number of initiatives that sought to apply the findings of those studies. The first study focussed on the absorption of Palestinian refugees into the West Bank and Gaza Strip while the second on the issue of the 1967 War Displaced Persons. This paper will examine the evolution of EU policy by discussing the second of the studies, including the factors that led to its commissioning and the impact it may have had on EU policy. The study in question was submitted in 2001 to the Refugee Task Force (RTF) advising the EU Special Envoy (EUSE) to the Middle East Peace Process. Entitled A Study of Policy and Financial Instruments for the Return and Integration of Palestinian Displaced Persons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the study was designed to assist in the formulation of EU policy on the Palestinian refugees. As coordinator of the research team that undertook the study and the final author of the report, this paper, therefore, is in part a self-critique of the study and in part a reflection on the context and processes contributing to the formulation of EU policy. As such, it explores the dilemma confronting the EU in seeking to play an influential and relevant part in promoting a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
In addition, the paper draws attention to elements of the study which have been introduced into the discussions, and, indeed, helped frame the terms of references of the debate, around a fuller EU engagement in the Palestinian refugee repatriation process. Much of the economic and political data in the study preceded the 2nd Intifada and the Israeli re-occupation of the Palestinian territories, and therefore requires updating and will not be reviewed in this paper. Nevertheless, the study raised a number of important issues that are still relevant. These include the need for transparency over the legal principles in the construction of a repatriation programme, the need for refugee participation in operationalising priorities, the need to address the fragmentation of decision-making over the refugee issue in the PLO, the PA, UNRWA and the donor community, the need to involve host countries in the planning and preparation of a repatriation programme, and, finally, further examination over the role of UNRWA.
The paper is divided into five sections. The first part contextualises the role of the EU in the refugee issue and the background to the commissioning of the study. The second section outlines the Terms of References for the study and discusses the issues that led to their revision. The third section highlights the main issues raised by the study while the fourth discusses the policy implications of these issues and summarises the key recommendations made. The final part attempts to assess the significance of the study and the subsequent activities of the Refugee Task Force.

  1. Context of Study

While Europe’s long-standing and extensive links with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are not the subject of this paper and have been discussed at length in many other publications, it is important to refer to some of the main elements. (Aliboni, Joffe, and Niblock , 1996; Ludlow, 1994; Weidenfeld, 1995) Clearly, historical links from the classical period, the Moorish invasion, the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire and the colonial period have created a history of exchange and fusion which have been embedded in their respective cultures. More recently in the post -1945 period, economic interdependence between the two regions has increased with, on the one hand, European dependency on the region’s hydrocarbons (80% of its energy supplies come from the Middle East) and, on the other, the EU being the main trading partner of virtually every state in the region, including Israel . (Ayubi, 1995)
The result is that due to the MENA region’s geographic proximity to Europe, any instability in that region, whether it be fluctuations in oil prices, the threat of uncontrolled migration or political radicalism, is perceived as threatening the security and interests of Europe. Thus the European involvement in political and economic issues of the region can be seen as based on rational self-interest and not merely competition with the US over access to markets, resources and political influence. In this context, the EU’s lack of influence in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a strategic and critical policy failure in the defence of its future as a collective entity. Hence, there is likely to be constant pressure to undermine the attempt of the US to monopolise policy initiatives in the region.
The exclusion of the EU and its predecessor, the European Community (EC), from the MEPP is rooted in the imposition of Cold War dynamics in the region, particularly since the Suez crisis of 1956. (Dannreuther,3) The US-USSR rivalry over influence in the region during the fifties and sixties left little space for a “european” policy. An additional factor in the absence of a European role has been the absence of institutions that could express a European policy. As a result European policy in the region was largely an aggregate of disparate bilateral relations. This is a pattern and dynamic that the US sought to preserve. It resisted European involvement from the Venice Declaration of 1980, which called for the inclusion of the PLO in negotiations, down to the 1991 Madrid conference, that launched the Middle East peace process, to the current reluctant acceptance of the existence of the Quartet (US, Russia, UN and the EU) as an actor in the MEPP. In the Madrid conference the co-sponsors were the US and Soviet Union/Russia, with the EU being sidelined along with the United Nations. It was given no role in any of the bilateral negotiating tracks between Israel and its neighbours and was relegated to chairing the Regional Economic Development Working Group (REDWG) (Peters, 1996,)

However, two developments occurred in the 1990s that changed the pattern of external involvement in the region. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar international system led to a growing US hegemonic control over the MENA region. Second, the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 that established institutions for a collective EU foreign policy (the Common Foreign and Security Policy, or CFSP) provided the basis for a EU challenge to its exclusion from the MEPP. Tensions surfaced with the US over its refusal to intervene more strongly in the Washington round of negotiations that flowed from Madrid conference. This had led to a paralysis not only in the Israeli-Palestinian track but also in the multilateral negotiations such as the REDWG. From the perspective of the Europeans, the impetus towards a negotiated solution following the Gulf War was being squandered. The Oslo Accords between the PLO and the Israeli government brokered by Norway was seen as a European initiative, despite Norway being a non-EC state. However, any advantage the EC sought was usurped by the US when it recaptured the initiative by hosting the signing ceremony between the two parties in Washington. Likewise, while the EC sought to carve out a role for itself in the subsequent donor coordination meetings, the US insisted on holding them in Washington and passing the chair onto the World Bank.

Nevertheless, EU pressure to be more closely involved has appeared to be unstoppable. While the Oslo Accords had failed to revive the REDWG activities that were still chaired by the EU, its expertise in economic development issues in the region came to the fore in the other multilateral forum established by Madrid: the Refugee Working Group (RWG). In this working group, the EU was given responsibility for Social and Economic Infrastructure Development. This combination of involvement in one of the key Permanent Status Issues in both the Madrid and Oslo frameworks for negotiations (the so-called “deal-breaker”) and in one which was bound to require a massive effort in economic terms, put the EU in a strong position to have a significant input in the outcome of the MEPP.

The EU had also played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the process set up by the Oslo Accords, particularly since the creation in 1991 of the post of European Union Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, occupied during the period of the study by Ambassador Miguel Moratinos. Creating this post gave the EU a greater ability to respond to events and a greater visibility in the peace process. The EUSE undertook a number of small-scale initiatives aimed at building confidence between the parties, in a number of areas including refugees. (Peters, 2000:159) The establishment of the Refugee Task Force, chaired by Karen Roxman, a Swedish diplomat seconded to the EUSE office, was an attempt to draw in the expertise of the member countries, and to coordinate their different agendas on the refugee issue. Its main brief, however, was to develop policy initiatives that would help the EU contribute to a solution to the refugee question. In addition, it was hoped that the work of the RTF would provide an alternative channel to the paralysed RWG for fostering progress on the refugee issue.(Peters, 2000:160)

Part of the impetus in the EU’s efforts to strengthen movement towards the establishment of the Palestinian state was derived from the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, launched at the Barcelona Conference in November 1995. The EMP process (also known as the Barcelona process) included three programmes: the political and security partnership, the economic and financial partnership and the partnership in social, cultural and human affairs. The process was designed to create a Mediterranean Free Trade Area (MEFTA) and to enhance political security of the Mediterranean region. The process launched a series of Mediterranean region conferences and meetings at Foreign Minister level and the EU provided the secretariat. Despite being seen as a separate framework, it, nevertheless, required progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian refugee issue in order to attain its objectives. In this way, the EU became structurally involved in the progress of the MEPP. (Xenakis and Chryssochoou, 2001) In addition, the EMP process, in which the EU was the pre-eminent party, provided an alternative entry point to the MEPP outside of the US-dominated Madrid framework and the US-sponsored MENA economic summits that took place in Casablanca and Amman. For example, at the Third Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference in Stuttgart, in April 1999 reiterated its “commitment to a “just comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East based on faithful implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the terms of reference of the Madrid Peace conference, the Oslo Accords…”. (Xenakis, Chryssochoou, 2001:89)
Thus, at the time of the study, 2000-1, the EU position on the peace process and on Palestinian refugees in particular was built on three pillars: the political framework established by Madrid conference and the Oslo Accords; the EMP process and also on legal principles based upon UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and other articles of international law regarding military occupation (namely, the Geneva Conventions). Continuing is role as “outrider” of the US, begun in the Venice Declaration, the EU followed this up with the Berlin Declaration of 1999 which announced its support for the creation of a Palestinian state as a prerequisite for a solution to the refugee issue. It provided substantial aid, to the tune of $6 billion, in addition to an equivalent amount in loans from the European Investment Bank, with the purpose of laying the infrastructure for such an entity. In addition, the EU signed an interim trade agreement with the Palestinian Authority that focused on liberalising trade and contributing to economic development of the West Bank and Gaza as part of the EMP process.
Despite the extent of EU activity in supporting a future Palestinian state and its reiterations on a number of occasions of its belief in the importance of making progress on the refugee issue it has, nonetheless, avoided formulating a clear position on the refugee issue as a Permanent Status issue. A good example of this is a document submitted to the RWG by the EU, which became known the Bristol Report. Despite being an attempt to break the impasse on the RWG, the report made no explicit declaration in support of refugee rights as understood by the UNHCR conventions. (European Commission, 1994: Point 12) In addition, while the Berlin Declaration had declared that no actions must be taken by either side that would prejudice the final status issues, there was no explicit support by the EU for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return or compensation as laid down in UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Rather, during the 1990s the EU saw its main contribution to the refugee issue as being based on a humanitarian perspective - providing aid to Palestinian refugees via the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO) and UNWRA.(Tamari, 1996:19) One can note also that the EU sponsored conference entitled “Resolving the Palestinian Refugee Problem: what role for the International community?” held in Warwick in March 1998 comprised mainly of workshops on donor cooperation, economic needs and constraints and the issue of compensation. (Warwick, 1998) In this context, the commissioning of two studies by the RTF can be seen as an attempt to make further progress on specific humanitarian and material steps.
The first study commissioned by the RTF was designed to ascertain, in the event of negotiated settlement, the numbers of refugees that could be settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In turn this would assist in both preparing the international community in drawing budgetary contingencies to support a repatriation programme and also possibly re-assure the Israeli government that such a programme was feasible and could be managed in a way which did not threaten Israel. Entitled “Prospects for Absorption of Returning Refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (Tsardanidis and Huliaras, 1999) it focussed on the economic capacity for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to absorb returning refugees. Following an analysis of existing literature and studies on the economic performance of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the authors presented three scenarios permitting a range of refugees numbers that could return, with a top ceiling of 250,000. The capping of refugee return at such a low figure notwithstanding, the study was criticized in the RTF and by Palestinian bodies. EU member states argued that the conclusions did not tally with the evidence presented and insufficient care had been taken in establishing the political assumptions that underpinned the scenarios. A critique prepared by the PLO Department of Refugee Affairs called into question its “gratuitous and pre-emptive political assumptions” regarding both the numbers and location of repatriation as well as the weak evidence for its quantitative conclusions. (PLO Department of Refugee Affairs, February 2000) Despite being revised and re-submitted, the study was shelved and the EU turned to the World Bank for further research in this field. There was considerable embarrassment that the RTF’s sally into this politically contentious field had been poorly executed. (Informal conversations with RTF members, October,2000)

  1. Palestinian Displaced Persons

The second study was commissioned in July 2000 with even a narrower remit. To some extent this was a victory of the “pragmatists” over the “idealists” in the RTF in that the focus was to be a component of the Oslo Accords which was both humanitarian and agreed upon by all parties, including Israel. The aim of the study was to identify under different scenarios “the policy and financial instruments essential for the successful return of Palestinian Displaced Persons (DPs) to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) and their integration there”. A team based at Exeter University, UK, was asked to conduct a “short and quick” study. Budgetary constraints limited the amount of fieldwork that could be conducted, so the study, therefore, did not attempt to carry out new surveys. Instead it brought together existing material and the experience of other agencies in the field in order to offer policy recommendations concerning Palestinian DPs. In addition, the study was not a feasibility study. While some of the recommendations were quite detailed, they were not costed. Finally, the Terms of Reference did not include a consideration of the compensation issue.

Almost immediately, however, the researchers encountered a series of political, conceptual and methodological problems that led to revisions in the Terms of Reference. Palestinians DPs are a sub-group within the generic category of Palestinian refugees who were displaced as a result of the 1967 War. They are specifically referred to in the 1993 Oslo Accords (Declaration of Principles (Article XII)). The 1994 Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel (Article 8, para.2a) also provided the legal basis for the setting up of a Quadripartite Commission, comprising Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians, to solve the issue of the DPs. The Quadripartite Commission failed to reconcile the different Palestinian and Israeli positions but the agreement in principle provided enough of an opportunity for the PA and the donor community to begin the process of planning a return programme for DPs.
However, due to the lack of agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides as to whom the term DPs actually covers such plans remained at their early stages. The Palestinian position is that DPs should include Palestinians temporarily outside WBGS in 1967; those deported after 1967; those who left voluntarily but were refused permission to re-enter and, finally, the descendants and relatives of the above.

The Israeli definition is narrower holding that the term should be limited to those individuals actually displaced as a result of the fighting in 1967, excluding descendants. The Palestinian definition pointed to estimates between 800,000 and 1 million. The Israeli definition led to estimates between 50,000 and 300,000.

The Exeter study noted that the term DPs in the Palestinian context was problematic. In some senses DPs are simultaneously both refugees and not refugees. They are refugees in the sense that in addition to being displaced in 1967, an estimated 50%- 80% of them are also refugees from pre-1948 Palestine (i.e. refugees for a second time in 1967). But they are not refugees in the sense that they do not fall under the original UNRWA mandate although many of them receive UNRWA services both as a result of their 1948 status and because UNRWA extended emergency relief to all DPs after the 1967 War for humanitarian reasons.
However, the term DP had considerable utility on the political level provided but that the Oslo framework remained in place. By the time the research team was assembled and the budget allocated, the political circumstances during which the study was conducted (November 2000 - January 2001) had changed and the original ToRs were under question. In addition, on a programme planning level the term brought with it some serious problems of both principle and operational effectiveness. First, for possibly up to 80% of DPs, a return programme to the WBGS would not be a return or repatriation to their place of origin. Therefore, unless it was designed and presented as an interim measure or as a prototype for a second repatriation to their original homes, the principle of refugee choice was being circumvented. Second, a return programme designed specifically for DPs but which did not address the needs of other refugees, was most likely to cause resentment and hostility, creating additional difficulties in implementation and successful integration. Thirdly, the acceptability of a repatriation programme would be essential for successful integration. Refugees and DPs would be wary of any scheme that might undermine their right of return or which might deal with them as constituent parts or in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion. Fourthly, while most DPs reside in Jordan, they are difficult to isolate in terms of identifying specific financial and policy instruments or programme design that will assist their return to the WBGS. Their definition as a sub-category is a result of a political event (the 1967 War) not of a particular socio-economic, regional, cultural, or religious characteristic. Indeed, they come out of the refugee environment and share experiences and aspirations of that wider group.
As a result of these considerations, the Exeter team decided to interpret the Terms of Reference more broadly and locate its study in the wider context of the whole refugee issue. The challenge was to reconcile these divergent considerations and to design policy and financial instruments that had relevance to DPs of the Oslo framework but at the same time relevance for the return of the refugee community as a whole. These considerations were presented to the RTF at the interim report stage in November 2000 and accepted. Their acceptance by the RTF reflected an ongoing debate within the RTF and by extension in the EU about the extent to which the EU should engage in Permanent Status Issues and challenge US dominance in this area. It also mirrored the changing dynamics in the region following the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada in September 2000 and the ongoing attempts to reach an agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations which culminated in the Taba talks in January 2001. The prospect of a last minute breakthrough at Taba running parallel with the total collapse of the Oslo framework, which the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Barak of Israel presaged, meant that the focus had moved away from DPs.
As a result the study comprised a broader perspective than had been envisaged in the original Terms of Reference. By introducing issues linking the operational feasibility of a repatriation programme to UN conventions on refugee rights and good practice, the support for a more comprehensive approach was made more credible. Adherence to UN resolutions could be dismissed as merely an idealist aspiration but when its was seen to be part of an effective package and producing value for money then it was worthy of greater consideration. In this way the study tried to knit together various strands of existing EU policy: its track record in humanitarian assistance and economic development; operating within the framework of international law and the growing need to make overcome the impasse in the EMP process brought about by the lack of progress on Arab-Israeli conflict, in order to produce a series of policy recommendations that were both practical and incremental.

  1. Main Areas of study

While not carrying out any primary data collection, the study surveyed the existing literature on the demographic profile of the refugee population. The aim was to identify key characteristics that would need to be incorporated in the design of a repatriation programme. Among these were: the relative youth of potential returnees; the importance of the family as an economic asset; the centrality of kinship links; the role of women in maintaining the cohesion of households; the relatively high levels of human resource development (education and training); the labour skills in particular sectors. The study also highlighted the lack of gender specific surveys to inform the design of a programme.

A major part of the study focussed on the internal and external parameters and constraints for a repatriation programme to the WBGS. While the economic and political circumstances have dramatically changed since the study was submitted, many of the observations and issues raised are still pertinent. Internally, the study argued that WBGS was not in an optimum situation to accommodate a massive return programme of either DPs or the wider refugee community. In the first place, demographic growth and projected return figures pointed to rates of job creation, health and education provision and infrastructure development in excess of projected local real GDP growth rates and beyond the internally-generated fiscal revenues of the PA. The productive and financial sectors of the economy are under-developed and would require significant investment for many years to come to meet existing and projected demand.. In addition, the existing political framework and conditions of conflict was highly problematic as a context for the implementation of a successful return programme. There was a crucial lack of clarity over the role that a DP-only return programme would play in a wider return programme for refugees. The study also argued that the likely collapse of the Oslo framework would require a re-evaluation of a DP-only return programme.
The external parameters provided a more mixed picture. The regional economic climate had been buoyed by a period of unusually high oil revenues in 1999-2000. However, the specificity of the Palestinian situation - with its political instability and dependence on economic relations with Israel - meant that any regional economic upturn would not significantly alter the poor prospects of the Palestinian economy. Other external factors to be considered was the way in which the international legal framework on refugees was evolving towards a more human-rights based understanding and away from a state-sovereignty formula. This offered considerable support for a more comprehensive return programme and for a negotiating agenda based around it. In addition, the role of the EU had become increasingly proactive which, from a Palestinian viewpoint, provided a counterweight to the close US-Israeli coordination on the refugee issue. The wide experience of the EU in development assistance in the area, its extensive contacts and the fact that many of its political positions are based upon UN resolutions, positioned the EU as a crucial partner with the Palestinians over a return programme.
A distinguishing feature of the study was its attempt to place any planned return programmes in a comparative context by briefly examining refugee return programmes in other post-conflict situations. The first case study selected was the Bosnian return programme, asserted by many to be an example of how not to organise a return programme. The second was the Guatemalan programme that emerged out of a principled approach to the issue of return and strove to ensure its implementation met standards of good practice. It provided some useful learning points on the kind of challenges that can be faced when aiming to achieve high standards. Third, the Vietnamese programme was chosen as noteworthy in being one of the largest international return programmes, operating in the context of continued political tensions and involving the involuntary return of thousands of reluctant returnees.
The case studies highlighted a number of critical factors that should be taken into account when designing a return programme for Palestinian DPs and refugees:

  1. Planning and Preparation. Thorough planning and preparation before beginning a return programme is a crucial issue. It took two years of preparation before the Guatemalan programme finally started. Factoring in this time ensures that the systems to co-ordinate the contribution of all stakeholders can be identified and put in place. In addition, joint standards of good practice can be discussed and agreed, and a common understanding of aims, objectives and ways of working can be developed.

  2. Assistance Packages. The success of assistance packages is dependent on a number of crucial factors, such as consistency, legislative support and a gendered approach. The extent to which there is consistency in the level of benefit for each returnee and the degree to which the support given to returnees is seen to benefit the community as a whole is important in order to counteract resentment from the existing community not receiving benefits. Other factors include the provision of advice, training and ongoing support to individuals in the schemes, the introduction of appropriate legislation to support the creation of micro enterprise while at the same time avoiding the saturation of the market for small businesses. In addition, it is important to introduce enabling systems for women to ensure, among other things, that women professionals benefit and are equally attracted to return.

  3. Country of Origin Participation. The level of co-operation from government agencies in the country of origin is important as it determines how effectively the programme can be implemented, particularly in terms of the legislation needed to facilitate return programmes and the issuing of documentation papers.

  4. Refugee and DP Participation. It is important to establish information systems that ensure information and advice is available in host countries which matches the reality in country of return. This will returnees to plan for the particular needs of single women, young single men, elderly, disabled, unaccompanied minors. In addition, the involvement of returnees themselves in the design and implementation of return programmes is vital for the success of a return programme building up a sense of ownership and trust in the process.

  5. Gender Awareness. Programmes need to demonstrate a clear commitment to ensuring both men and women benefit from the programme and include a coherent and systematic gender component.

  6. Integrated Approach. An integrated or holistic approach that includes the long-term well being of the community as a whole has been shown to be the most effective approach.

The final substantive part of the study examined the range of options being discussed among the PA, local NGOs and the donor community within the context the likely trends and projections of the economy of the WBGS and of the fiscal position of the PA. While at the time of the study there were no published plans for a refugee return programme, the implications of such a programme could be discerned from the long-term development plans of the PA. Particular reference was made to two documents: the Palestine Development Plan and the Pathway towards a Palestinian Vision of 2005 and Beyond.( Palestinian Authority, 1999; Palestinian Authority, 2001) At the same time, the study recognised that strategic planning in the PA is highly diversified and unco-ordinated, it therefore also examined the priorities expressed by different Palestinian institutions such as the Department for Refugee Affairs, Palestine Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR), and the Legal Support Unit of the Department of Negotiation Affairs. The potential role of external aid in a prospective return programme was also examined.

The study noted that Palestinian planning for a return programme encountered a number of issues and debates. First, the political uncertainties regarding the future of the Oslo framework and the nature of relations with Israel mean that projections about numbers or target groups was largely speculative. Second, the economic conditions, even before the 2nd Intifada, were not conducive to a large-scale return programme. PA revenues failed to cover recurrent spending, leaving a total dependency upon external funds for capital expenditure on current infra-structural development. The sustainability of the then current and projected PA expenditure was contingent upon a level of private sector growth that was unlikely to materialise in the short to medium term. Private sector growth, with its knock-on effects in terms of overall economic expansion, job creation and higher fiscal revenues, only would become a significant factor when there was sufficient political stability in addition to legal, monetary and institutional reforms. In this context, during the short and medium term, (five to ten years) the role of the international donor community would be essential in providing the means for the implementation of a return programme. Thus, if the EU was to be committed to assisting in the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem in the long-term, it would be required to finance a raft of measures from providing short to medium term budgetary support for the PA to the transformation of UNRWA.
Third, the nature of the return programme and the “package” of infra-structural measures to be implemented were the subject of many debates. For example, approaches to the provision of refugee housing differed. One group, led by MOPIC, PECDAR and others in the international development assistance community, expressed a preference for new city development. This can be termed the “Big Bang” school. It takes the position that large-scale projects in “empty areas” of the West Bank, should be a primary PA response to the practicalities of a return programme. Others in the local NGO community and individuals in the PA belonged to a second group, which can be termed the “incrementalist” school. Their argument is that the existing absorptive capacity in the West Bank is much higher than assumed. Within the village context, for example, up to 50% expansion would be possible in many neighbourhoods. It is feasible, they suggest, to begin strengthening the infrastructure of these villages now in preparation for the eventual return, rather than wait for large-scale developments pending a peace agreement. Full creation on the Israeli development town model would not be necessary or desirable except perhaps in the Jordan Valley. Even in the Gaza Strip, there are possibilities for some such expansion. A key benefit would be the re-integration of small refugee communities back into Palestinian society rather than the negative effects of the development town model.
Finally, there was the issue of implementation and the role of UNRWA. Officially there were no concrete plans for UNRWA to play a role in a return programme, and, indeed, plans for its dissolution are referred to in the 1995 Annual Report. With the stalling of the peace negotiations, discussion over the agency’s future had been stymied by the political sensitivity of the refugee issue. However, the study encountered two schools of thought over the future of UNRWA. On one hand there was what can be termed the “UNRWA plus” school which recognised the need for the gradual handing over of UNRWA functions to the PA, but contends it has a major role to play in the organisation of a return programme. Under UNRWA plus, the agency would take on the logistical functions that UNHCR, or IOM and GTZ have taken on in other refugee return programmes. This school of thought argues that transforming UNRWA in this way would have the added advantage of being trusted by the refugee community, and having staff with the experience of humanitarian assistance and micro-enterprise development projects. In addition, it provide not only a collective and institutional memory that would contribute to the sensitivity required in organising a return programme but also international legitimacy and a measure of protection for the programme and fruitful and ongoing relations with the international donor community and experience with host governments.
On the other hand, the second school of thought, which can be termed “UNRWA minus”, argued that any return programme, whether it be for DPs or the whole refugee community, should fall within the ambit of a Palestinian immigration policy. Instead of an independent agency there should be a PA Ministry of Immigration and Absorption which would co-ordinate the relocation and absorption of returnees with other Ministries and contract out the logistics of return to IOM or GTZ. The advantage of this approach would be to delineate with greater clarity which party is responsible for which aspect of the return programme. The study recognised that whether the UNRWA plus or UNRWA minus option was finally adopted, both options involved the transfer of functions to the PA that would have major fiscal and developmental implications for the PA, and hence the donor community.
The study concluded that if the return of refugees was not accompanied by improved management of public resources, better service delivery and efforts to increase the existing limited physical resource base (e.g. water supply), then the PA would struggle with the return of a mere100,000 refugees. On the other hand, under improved circumstances in terms of increased water supply, good macro-economic management, a robust regulatory environment that encourages private sector investment and economic growth, better use of existing banking sector deposits and additional resources from the diaspora, the PA and the Palestinian economy might effectively absorb much larger numbers in a phased manner.

D) Policy Implications derived from the study

The final section of the study comprised 21 recommendations for policy initiatives based upon the following assumptions:

  • That an EU-supported return programme would take place either in the context of a negotiated Permanent Status Agreement or a series of interim agreements. It would not take place in conditions of open conflict or outright hostilities liable to jeopardise the safety and dignity of DPs and refugees.

  • That if a series of interim agreements evolved, there will be sufficient regional stability and commitment to allow the implementation of certain projects of a preliminary nature, prior to actual return.

  • That a return programme supported by the EU will adhere to UNHCR and international conventions and be based on refugee choice, giving due respect to principles of justice and fairness. Such an approach has been demonstrated elsewhere to be the most effective and successful.

  • That an EU-supported return programme will form part of a larger commitment to the general short to medium term development of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thus adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach. That is to say it will include processes intended to assist the existing Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to absorb returnees, while also maximising returnees' ability to contribute to building and strengthening Palestinian society.

Many of the recommendations related to the general economic and institutional development of the WBGS in order to facilitate the absorption of refugees and DPs and need not be dealt with in this summary. Those recommendations that specifically related to the refugee issue included the need to establish transparency in the form of a commitment to UNGAR 194 and UNSC 237 as a basis for a return programme and the adoption of UNHCR principles of good practice. It also recommended the introduction of mechanisms for better co-ordination between DORA, MOPIC, NAD, UNRWA and other host countries including preparation for the creation of a ministry for immigration and refugee absorption. In addition, the study recommended that in order to assist in the planning of a return programme, a series of symposia should be organised to bring into the public domain the needs and concerns of the host countries. Another recommendation was that the EU should assist in the formulation of plans to transform parts of UNRWA into a return programme agency including the re-training of key personnel and the incorporation of best practice from other schemes. A final series of recommendations focussed upon the constituent parts of a return programme: preparation, transportation, housing, employment and orientation and follow-up services and suggested specific tasks that the EU could undertake. One that did not require waiting for a Permanent Status agreement was the initiation of public discussion of the nature of Palestinian relations with Israelis and with the state of Israel. This would involve a consideration of what steps towards restorative justice and reconciliation can be taken in order to heal the emotional and psychological damage of the conflict along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa.

  1. Observations on the evolution of an EU policy

It is difficult to assess the impact of the study in any measurable way for at least three reasons. First, the arcane and opaque processes of the EU bureaucracy prevent a tracking of specific decisions taken in respect to the study. Minutes were not made available and feedback was informal and on an erratic basis. Second, the submission of the study in February 2001 coincided with the intensification of the 2nd Intifada and the formal discussion on its recommendations took place during the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank. This led to a re-ordering of priorities in the EUSE office and the RTF to direct humanitarian assistance. Follow-up discussion of the study and execution was therefore delayed. Third, there was a series of changes in personnel in the EUSE’s office during the summer of 2001 that broke some of the continuity in discussion.

Nevertheless, some results can be discerned. The study was favourably received by most of the main officers involved in that it indicated a clear set of tasks that the EU could undertake. It was seen as particularly valuable in suggesting policies that not only would assist the pursuit of a Permanent Status agreement but also others that could be implemented prior to any agreement. (Email communication from Karen Roxman, 6.2.2001) In addition, the contextualising of the needs of 1967 DPs within the whole refugee issue was seen as a helpful framework of formulating a return programme for DPs. The main controversy occurred over the study’s contention that a prerequisite to a successful return programme would be the adherence to UN resolutions and UNHCR guidelines. Some saw this as unrealistic given the political conditions pertaining to the region. During the final presentation of the study to the RTF in April 2001 there was considerable debate over this issue in both the formal and informal sessions. No decisions as such were taken during the presentational session, apart from the establishment of a working party to identify which recommendations would be pursued. The research team was not privy to the outcome of these discussions.
Nevertheless, from informal exchanges one can conclude that the study remained a basis for discussion in the Refugee Task Force and there are indications that some initiatives that originated from the office of the EUSE have been partly framed by its analysis and recommendations. For example, the recommendation concerning the involvement of host countries was taken up through a series of seminars coordinated by Royal Institute for International Affairs partially funded by the EC. The importance of greater coordination between Palestinian agencies dealing with refugee affairs was recognised and although introduced as a result of a Canadian initiative the EUSE supported it. The issue of taking heed of the principle of best practice in the construction of repatriation programmes appears to have made some headway. This was partly due to the preference of EC and EUSE officers to adhere to UN conventions but also because the destructive impact that the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank on EU investments in infrastructure and institution building led to a re-evaluation of funding strategies. Although the office of the EUSE was reluctant to be more proactive than the Palestinian leadership itself is in adhering to international laws and conventions, there was a growing awareness that if it was to invest huge sums of money into a repatriation process it needed to be one that was going to be acceptable not just to the Israelis but also to the main stakeholders – the Palestinian refugees. Without their cooperation EU expenditure in this area may also turn out to be a waste of money.
My own critique of the study has identified two weaknesses. First, that it suffered by trying to pitch itself at both the specialist and non-specialist members of the RTF with the result that there was some duplication of previous work. The RTF comprised officials from the EUSE office but also representatives of member states, some of whom were more knowledgeable than others and some who had a clearer agenda than others. Second, and more importantly, the study could have been improved by a greater knowledge of the decision-making processes within the EU. There are many different centres of power and financial channels ranging from European Commission’s control over the development assistance budget to the growing influence of the office of Xavier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. In addition, it is clear that on the Middle East issue certain member states exert considerably more influence than others and scrutinise the refugee file in particular. Furthermore, the changing composition of the RTF as member states sent different representatives to each meeting led to a situation where a consistent dialogue, continuity and an institutional memory between the Exeter research team and the RTF was difficult to achieve. Thus, without an insider’s grasp of the different levels of decision-making and budgetary authorisation, it was difficult to identify specific activating levers that would drive a set of initiatives or policies through the different parts of the EU administration concerned with the Middle East.

In sum, during the period under review, EU policy towards a key element in the MEPP, the Palestinian refugees, appears to have undergone a subtle change. Greater institutional coordination among member states over foreign policy that flowed from the Maastricht Treaty, structural involvement in the region through the EMP process, active participation in Madrid based frameworks such as the REDWG and RWG, budgetary support for the PA and UNRWA, creation of the EUSE have all combined to place the EU in the forefront of external intervention in the Palestinian refugee issue. This was reflected in the way that an EUSE funded study originally intended to be focussed on Palestinian Displaced Persons comprised analysis and recommendations on the broader refugee issue. The narrower remit seems to have been superseded by a greater willingness to intervene in the formulation of a broader political agreement on the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.


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