By Oren Rawls

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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No Land’s Man: Upon his return from the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that produced the Geneva Understandings, Israeli novelist Amos Oz announced that “the gruntwork of making peace has already been done.”

“The problem of the 1948 refugees, which is really the heart of our national security predicament, is resolved comprehensively, completely and absolutely outside the borders of the state of Israel and with broad international assistance,” the eminent scribe declares in the October 17 issue of The Guardian, a left-leaning British daily. “If this initiative is put into action, not a single Palestinian refugee camp, afflicted with despair, neglect, hatred and fanaticism, will remain in the Middle East.”

Within the framework of the unofficial peace plan, the Palestinians effectively concede implementation of the right of return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel. Some refugees will remain in the countries where they now live, others will be absorbed by the Palestinian Authority; a portion will be absorbed by third countries, and the rest will receive financial compensation.

Oz’s proclamation is, to be sure, cause for hope — and, one would hope, an inspiration for those Israeli and Palestinian leaders for whom the message of the Geneva Understandings was intended. Yet the nagging pessimism that the seemingly endless violence has engendered begs the question: Where are all the Palestinian refugees from 1948 going to live — and, more importantly, what country will let the Palestinians finally unpack their communal bags?

To judge by recent reports from Lebanon and Egypt, intransigence in Jerusalem and Ramallah may be the least of the peacemakers’ problems.

“The Lebanese government is once again grappling with the bogeyman of how to deal with Palestinian refugees on its soil — and, as has been the case for more than two generations now, Beirut continues to miss the point,” The Daily Star editorializes on November 11, broaching what to many in the Middle East is a taboo subject.

The point, as the Lebanese daily sees it, is the threat the disenfranchised refugee-camp population poses to the stability of a barely stable Lebanon. The world’s fourth-largest Palestinian community is denied government services such as health and social benefits, has severely limited access to state education and is excluded from many professions.

“Being treated like vermin is hardening the hearts of [the refugee camps’] inhabitants, and who can blame them?” The Daily Star asks.

Beirut’s policy on Palestinian refugees, like that of other countries in the region, is based on a 1959 Arab League decree against granting Palestinians citizenship in other Arab countries. The edict aims to preserve Palestinian identity, and after more than four decades remains on the books — even in Egypt, peace treaty with Israel notwithstanding.

The decree appears to have been reaffirmed by Cairo, which, according to the weekly online edition of the venerable Egyptian daily Al Ahram, indicated last month that it would not grant Palestinians citizenship under a proposed amendment to the nationality laws. Ironically enough, the amendment being considered would offer citizenship to non-Egyptian children of either an Egyptian father or mother, a departure from the current patrilineal law — a turn, if only slight, in the fight for women’s rights in the Arab world.

But with regard to the Palestinians — who according to Al Ahram account for nearly one-quarter of the roughly 6,000 applicants hoping to gain citizenship under the proposed amendment — tradition seems to be winning the day. Even official protestations by the Palestinian representative to the Arab League, Mohamed Sobeih, have gone unheeded in Cairo.

So while Oz and his fellow Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers may have listened to each other in Jordan last month, their neighbors to the north and south have turned a deaf ear to Palestinian refugees. To hear The Daily Star tell it, their plight — whether in Lebanon, Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world — is the fault not just of Israel, but of the governments who have ensured their permanent refugee status.

“The limitations in question amount to far more than benign neglect and constitute instead an aggressive program that both prevents Palestinians from leading normal lives in Lebanon and throws up obstacles to their leaving for more accommodating shores,” the Beirut daily charges. “The basics of human development are denied to the vast majority of the refugees, as is any basis for hope that their children might know a better future.

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