A Time for Them to Speak

"To intensify the efforts to support and take care of the refugees, to protect their rights and to establish a popular council that will represent them ... [To establish] committees that will do their jobs, emphasize the right of return and turn to the international community so that UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which determined the right of return and compensation for refugees, will be implemented."

- from the national reconciliation document that is the basis for the ultimatum of Palestinian Authority Chair Mahmoud Abbas concerning a national referendum

M.A., a Palestinian friend who lives in the United States most of the time, relates that his mother, a refugee who fled to Jordan in 1948, did not take the key to her house in Haifa off the chain around her neck, and during all the years never stopped deceiving herself about the return to the homeland. M.A. decided that the time had come to make his mother face reality. One day he entered the house by storm, embraced the old woman and festively declared, "Mom, there's an agreement, the Jews are allowing us to return home. Go and pack."

After convincing his excited mother that the dream really was about to come true, M.A. added, "Mom, you know that Palestine is now called Israel, and in order to go shopping in the market in Haifa, you have to speak Hebrew." His mother's face fell. "Really? I didn't know that," she said. "At my age it's no so easy to learn a new language."

M.A. continued to attack. He told her that on her own her Nakba (meaning "catastrophe" - used by Arabs to describe the events of 1948 and commemorated on Israel's Independence Day), she would see blue-and-white flags around her, her ID card would bear the symbol of the Jewish state and so on. Since that day, there has been no further mention of the key.

Dr. Riad Malki, director of the Panorama Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development in Ramallah, is very familiar with the key syndrome. Everything is written in an impressive study that his staff conducted in the nearby Jalazun refugee camp, and in the Qalandiyah camp outside Jerusalem. In the end, due to various constraints, the project, funded by Canada's International Development Research Center (IDRC), focused on Jalazun.

For over a year - from summer 2004 to fall 2005 - the members of the Panaroma staff met with 163 residents of the camp, who were chosen randomly according to age group (15-21, 22-44, 45-65 and 65+), gender and education. The researchers conducted 65 individual interviews and worked with 13 focus groups, one of them composed of the political leaders of the camp.

The study, whose findings are being published here for the first time, reveals that most of the Palestinian refugees, like many Israelis, understand very little about the gap between the dream of returning and the UN's resolutions, on the one hand, and the situation on the ground and the correct interpretation of those resolutions, on the other. Generations of cynical politicians have exploited and are still exploiting the issue of the right of return in order to brainwash unfortunate refugees and to terrify anxious Israelis.

In order to get a grasp of the socioeconomic situation of the survey's respondents, project director Juliette Abu-Ayoun visited the windowless house of one of them. Abu-Ayoun was surprised, she later wrote, to see the refrigerator door locked there. The mistress of the house, a woman in her forties whose husband is imprisoned in Israel, explained with a smile that that was the only way to ensure that the members of the household, most of them children, received their ration of food. She said that 16 people "live" on NIS 1,000 a month in her house. Abu-Ayoun was reminded of this courageous woman when she decided to call her project "The Time Has Come for Them to Speak and for Us to Listen."

One of the questions asked in the interviews and focus groups was: "If the members of the Palestinian negotiating team were to ask you what positions they should adopt in final status talks on the subject of the refugees, what would you tell them?" Some of the replies: "No negotiation is possible on the subject of the right of return"; "Any solution that does not guarantee the return to our homes should be categorically rejected"; "We have to take care of the rights of the refugees in the diaspora before taking care of the refugees in the territories"; and "The right of return and the right to compensation are interconnected." There were also some who said that if asked, they would tell their representatives that the improvement of conditions in the camps is more urgent than the search for strategic solutions.

Little expertise

The vast majority of the participants, especially those in the youngest age group, revealed little expertise when it came to international law and to the UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian refugees. Older people and those who are educated knew a little more than the women who were questioned and than those lacking an education. Only those aged 70-80, from the first generation of refugees, were familiar with the facts and were even able to analyze the relevant UN resolutions - Nos. 181 and 194 - and almost all those involved in the research expressed lack of confidence in the ability of the UN to implement them.

Nor did the PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), receive a high grade (the study began a short time after the death of previous PA chair Yasser Arafat). Typical replies were: "The PA is impotent"; "The PA has no choice, but to obey the dictates of the United States"; and "No official Palestinian leader will ever dare to give up the right of return." Many participants complained about how refugees are kept away from the decision-making process concerning their problems. They were afraid that the balance of power and American support, which tend to favor Israel, are making a solution of the refugee problem through negotiation unrealistic. Many of them anticipated that in the final analysis, the PA will accept a final status solution that will allow only a minuscule number of refugees to return to their homeland.

Expectations that salvation will come from Israel are even lower. "When it comes to the subject of the refugees, all the Israelis think the same way," said one participant. Another remarked that "if it were up to them, the Israelis would kick us out of Jalazun, too." A third believed that "the Israelis consider the right of return a recipe for their destruction, and therefore they will never agree to accept it." Several people questioned mentioned that as a result of the demonstrations against the separation fence, in which Israeli activists have stood alongside Palestinian demonstrators, they felt they have to learn more about their neighbors' views.

After an initial examination of their views, participants took part in a series of educational sessions about the legal and political aspects of the Palestinian refugee problem. At the end of the course, the researchers once again examined their viewpoints regarding the same issues. They didn't find any significant changes regarding the main topics. Only the young people showed an interest in compromises such as the Geneva Initiative, and that was only on condition that the right of return would not be undermined. The directors of the project recommend that representatives of the refugees be included in all internal Palestinian discussions of their fate, as well as in efforts to find a solution to their problems. The researchers also suggest creating educational and information programs for the refugees about the legal significance of the UN resolutions regarding the return, and about the fact that Palestine is not what they think.

It's a shame that only a handful of courageous Palestinian leaders dare to tell Grandma from the Jalazun refugee camp that on the street sign in Haifa where she once lived, the name is written in Hebrew, that all the neighborhood residents live in a Jewish state and that in their pockets, next to the house key, they have Israeli ID cards.