The 2014 Palestine Center Annual Conference – Panel I


Video and Edited Transcript
Rochelle Davis, Michael Fischbach and Matthew Reynolds
Transcript No. 418 (14 November 2014)



14 November 2014
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Moderated by Dr. Eid Mustafa, Jerusalem Fund Board Treasurer

Dr. Subhi Ali: Good morning. It’s a beautiful morning. I’d like to welcome all of you to the Annual meeting of the Jerusalem Fund. I’m Dr. Subhi Ali, Chairman of the Jerusalem Fund & Palestine Center. This looks like a fantastic audience and hopefully, there will be an internet audience also.

The Palestine Center is the educational arm of the Jerusalem Fund. We’ve been here since 1977. Every program packet that you have has three brochures: 1) The Palestine Center: Our Work; 2) The Jerusalem Fund: What We Are and What We Do; and 3) The Palestine Diabetes Institute, which is our newest project in Palestine. We have headquarters in El Bireh, Ramallah – the center of Palestine. We opened a year ago a branch in Nablus, further north. Hopefully, in a couple of years, there will be one in Hebron (Al Khalil) for the southern part of Palestine. And in the future, hopefully, there will be one in Gaza. That is our strategic plan for diabetes. Diabetes is, actually, one of the most prevalent diseases in the world and definitely in Palestine. We estimate that no less than 30-35 percent of the populations in Palestine and Jordan, according to our surveys, have diabetes. Inside of the packets you can find something about the Gallery, as well, as our latest publication. I hope that you will have a chance to review them. If you choose to follow us on the internet, follow us at

We have a fantastic day of four panels that I believe will cover most of everything that’s important about Palestine, as we speak. Each speaker will have 10-15 minutes to speak. The first panel will be moderated by Jerusalem Fund board member and Chief Financial Offer – I call him the money man – Dr. Eid Mustafa. Without further ado, I am going to turn it over to Dr. Mustafa.

Dr. Eid B. Mustafa: Good morning. I just want to join Dr. Ali in welcoming you here on this beautiful Friday morning. It’s good to see you all and appreciate you taking the time to be with us. This panel will have three panelists addressing the issue of Palestinian refugees. From Gaza to Yarmouk, Palestinian refugees continue to carry the heaviest burden of statelessness. What challenges face refugees historically and today? What is the status of collective mobilization among refugees? How are they preserving memory? What can be done to bring the grievances of refugees to the forefront of politics and before an international community that has forgotten them? These questions and more will be addressed by the panel.

It is my pleasure to introduce the three panelists and I will introduce them as they are in the program. First, to my immediate right, is Rochelle Davis. Welcome Rochelle. Glad you made it through the traffic. Rochelle is an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Since July 2013, she is also the Academic Director of the Master’s program in Arab Studies. Her most recent research in Jordan and Lebanon has examined both Syrian refugees displaced by the violence in Syria and the Iraqi refugees who fled to Jordan and Syria post-2005. Her past research has explored Arab and Arab-American identity and Palestinian social and cultural life prior to 1948. She has also collected over 50 oral histories from Palestinians from Jerusalem about their lives in the twentieth century. Her publications include a book “Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced”; a chapter “Mapping the Past: Recreating the Homeland”; and the book “The Claims of Memory” edited by Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H. Sa’di; and numerous articles.

The second panelist, in the middle, is Michael R. Fischbach. He is a Professor of History at Randolph-Macon College. He specializes in land issues related to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. He is the author of numerous books on this subject including, “State, Society, and Land in Jordan;” “Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict;” “The Peace Process and Palestinian Refugee Claims: Addressing Claims for Property Compensation and Restitution;” and his most recent book, “Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries.”

Our third distinguished panelist is Matthew Reynolds, on my far right. He is the Director of the North American Representative Office for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He previously served as the Agency’s acting Chief of Staff based in the Amman and Jerusalem headquarters. Prior to joining UNRWA, Mr. Reynolds served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, the principal representative of the Secretary of State and the U.S. Department of State to the Congress. Before his appointment to the State Department, Matt spent 17 years on Capitol Hill in numerous senior positions in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He was the Staff Director of the Public Rules Committee, the professional staff on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and Chief of Staff to two U.S. Representatives.

Without further ado, please help me welcome our panelists. We will start with Rochelle.

Dr. Rochelle Davis: Good morning everyone. It was an invigorating bike ride in and so I will talk very fast – because my adrenaline is going and it was cold out there. I am going to talk about Palestinians in Syria. Mostly because of the situation they’ve been in in the last three and a half years. I’m a little bit uncomfortable speaking about this topic because there are many Palestinians who were born and raised in Syria and who now live in Washington and who can speak better for themselves. I want to make it clear that I am speaking about them and certainly not for them.

I first visited Syria in 1988 when I was a student, but I lived and visited many times. I lived in Yarmouk camp in Damascus in the summer of 2008, while I was doing research on my first book on Palestinian village histories. I visited again and stayed there for a month or two in the summer of 2009. I was last there in the December of 2010 just before the uprisings in Syria started in March 2011. Most of the Palestinian refugees in Syria are there since 1948. There were about 82,000 in 1950 when UNRWA first counted them. As of the last count in 2012, as you can see, there are a little over half a million Palestinians. There are nine official camps and probably, three or four other unofficial camps. When the uprising began in Syria, the Palestinian camps sort of found themselves in the midst of it and were not spared the wrath and the bombs of the regime very early on. The camp in Daraa, from what we hear, is mostly leveled. And others have been part of the fighting. I will go into a little bit more details of that.

Here is the map of where the camps are in Syria. Most of them are around Damascus, one large one in Daraa, and then there are ones in Hama and Homs, and then a few around Aleppo. This is what Palestinians carry who are born or raised or find themselves in Syria. This is not a passport, but it is a travel document. Not everyone has rights to this. You have to have been approved by the regime to get one of these. So there are a lot of people who never got them even though they asked. The reason I think these documents are relevant as we talk about Palestinians more general is 1) the difficulty of getting a document in which to leave the country they’re in, for example, but then when they do get that document this is all it is – It’s a travel document.

I’m going to interweave in here some of the commentary by Palestinians on their situation most recently. This one is an artist. His name is down there on the bottom left hand corner – Alaa Hayakel. He takes these travel documents that everyone gets issues from the various countries – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon – and replaces the national symbol with the symbol of toxicity. There is danger, warning, death, biohazard, and then nuclear danger. Palestinian comments on their own situation and what it means I think is important to listen to as we honor their creativity as they engage in these things.

Palestinians in Syria had a lot of the rights of Syrian citizens – and I say that with all that it means. They could go to schools, they could go to universities, they could work in government jobs, they could own a limited amount of property, but they could not vote like Syrians. I don’t think Palestinians living in Syria have many of the same complaints that Palestinians living in Lebanon have, for example.

I’m going to talk a little bit about Yarmouk camp because I think it’s been in the news and we all have followed their sufferings. There were approximately, estimated, 160,000 Palestinians – there were probably more. As you can see from this map, it did not have borders. That red line is something that someone put on there. It bled into the areas around it and the areas around it sort of interacted with it in all sorts of ways. It is just south of the heart of Damascus there in the city and kind of amongst the Suburbs there. It was the largest camp. It is also an unofficial camp – it’s not an UNRWA camp, which means that essentially, the sewage and the water are not provided by UNRWA, but in this case by the Damascus municipality. This is what the camp looked like in 2008.

You can see it doesn’t really look like a camp. It looks like a neighborhood in the city and that is indeed what it was and what I functioned as. In Damascus, it was known as a place where if you wanted to buy things for a little bit cheaper than other parts of Damascus, particularly clothing, you would go to Yarmouk to buy things. One of the other parts of the equation of Palestinians in Syria, which is important to know here, is that all males, all men, were conscripted in the army, just like all Syrians were all conscripted in the army. But Palestinian men could be part of the Palestinian Liberation Army branch of the Syrian army. I could talk in the questions a little bit more about all the factional politics that went on among Palestinians in Syria, but I will mention it briefly here as well. Here is another picture of the camp, for example, and some of the ubiquitous things you would see in Syria [refers to slide].

I think one of the important things to note – this is from a Fallujah school in Yarmouk – is that in various organizations, non-governmental organizations, and civil society organizations such that they could be in Syria held lot of commemorative events to think of themselves as Palestinians and to continue to hold on and mark those identifications. The village of Safuriya, for example, is the name of one of the streets, and also a neighborhood in the Yarmouk camp near Fallujah’s UNRWA school. With the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, Palestinian local committees worked really, very hard to have these camps remain neutral spaces in the subsequent fighting. As I said, the Palestinian political factions took different stances. Hamas very early on in 2012 separated itself from its governmental patrons. It had been under the kind of patronage of the Assad regime in Syria. It actually took an anti-Assad stance. The leadership of Hamas that was in Damascus and in Syria left. So that was one very clear position that one Palestinian faction took. The other faction that took a clear position, going in the other direction, was the PFLPGC (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command). This is not the PFLP regular branch, this is the general command under Ahmed Gabriel. It had always been pro-Assad and had a lot of people in the Palestine Liberation Army position and it continued to serve as the eyes and ears of the regime in the camp. These politics have played a role in what has happened in all of the camps in Syria. Individuals, of course, joined all the other sides. All of the other political factions tried to really remain neutral and serve as negotiators between the various parties. One of the things that was continuously coming out, and I just give you an example of it here, was that because the camp – Yarmouk in particular – remained kind of a neutral space, people from the surrounding neighborhoods, Syrians in particular, as the fighting extended into those neighborhoods took refugee in the camp.

So the camp grew very, very large. Some people say it doubled or more its population. For example, when Hay al Tadamon was hit with bombs people would then flee into Yarmouk. You would see pictures all over the place of people sleeping in mosques and in doorways. There were these calls among Palestinians and among the groups that had organized themselves to sort of, be good hosts. This is kind of what is repeated over and over that the families in the nearby areas of Yarmouk camp are kindly asked to receive these displaced people in the best way possible – knowing that they are part of us and we are part of them. This was an idea that they were suffering this together. A lot of times the commentary was “They’ve hosted us for 65 years or 60 years. We should also turn around and host them in their times of need.” So there was a lot of this going on. There was a pretty gruesome bombing in August 2012 that nobody is really sure who did it – I mean; maybe they’ve figured it out now – and about, I think, 20 people were killed in and around the camp. That sort of marked to Palestinians that things were changing. In December 2012, members of the opposition – and this gets a little unclear – both the Free Syrian Army and the various jihadi groups, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and so many other, sort of took the fighting into the camp and the regime responded. The camp became a battleground between the regime and the opposition that was fighting and the various factions of the opposition. That has resulted in basically, almost, 90 percent of the population of the people living in the camp leaving. Today there is a population of about 18,000 still living in the camp. Most of the Palestinians in Yarmouk fled to other parts of Damascus because Jordan closed its borders to Palestinians coming from Syria. Today there is about 4,000-5000 or so Palestinians from Syria living in Jordan, who got in before the closure. Basically, they cannot get into Jordan. It has always been very hard for Palestinians from Syria to get into Lebanon, but now they are basically prohibited. It also costs them more money than it costs a Syrian to get into Lebanon so it has become more difficult.

The cartoonist, Latuff, who I think is in Brazil did this cartoon which sort of illustrates the plight of Yarmouk. You have the Syrian regime on one side with a gun and the Syrian opposition the other side with a gun fighting each other and then you’ve got a person from Yarmouk laying there, starving to death because his plate is empty. Sort of dead in the middle as these two forces fight over it. I think people really feel that this is symbolic of what has happened.

As the Palestinians fled the camp – I’ve still been in contact with a number of my friends from the camp; a number of whom have also been killed – but as they fled from their homes, these were the places that they knew. So many of them then sort of started to express themselves in ways where they said, “I really now understand what my grandparents went through when they had to leave in 1948 or when they were kicked out of their homes in 1948. And they started to understand in a different way that longing for a place that they know and the people that were around them and those sorts of things. They now have these kind of double understands and double memories of places that are meaningful to them that they’ve been displaced from. I think they keep seeing this as a generation thing and also as a defining thing for what it means to be Palestinian.

These are some of the pictures and others things people are commenting on. It says, “Apologies, This is not Quneitra,” which is the Syrian city in the Golan Heights, which the Israelis occupied and destroyed in 1967. People living in Syria would have seen images of Quneitra and its emptied out shell over and over and over again. So any Syrian who would’ve seen this would’ve said “Oh this looks like Quneitra,” but they’re saying “Sorry this isn’t Quneitra, this is Yarmouk Camp.”

I think you all saw this picture, unfortunately. One of the important things to know about Yarmouk is that it came under siege in July of 2013. One of the things the regime has done to punish places where there are rebels or opposition to the regime has been to basically to put it under siege and starve it until they give up. Sometimes that’s a negotiated give up; Sometimes it’s just people walking out. This is what has happened to Yarmouk. The regime has not let people in; has not let UNRWA in; has not let the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or the ICRC, until very recently. The other thing that has happened is that the opposition has also not let in food and other things or has charged very high rates for food. We do have cases – 200 people have died in the camp, largely under this sort of starvation regime. More recently, since August, the main water supply – the pipe to the camp for water – has been damaged, so now they have no water coming in. There’s a well they are drawing from, which is not not a sanitary well so they are having more health issues. As well as people just don’t have access to water so then they have to walk long distances and end up amongst these landscapes.

As Palestinians have gone out, there has been this sort of outpouring to kind of think about these things. These are signs that are appearing in the midst of the siege. It’s been things like this – From Malaysia. Yarmouk is in my heart – this whole people taking pictures of signs and putting them up and posting them. Here’s another one: “Here is Yarmouk The Palestinian border with Lebanon.” I think this is sort of where I want to think about where we are going is: people in the camp are thinking of both the possibility of returning to the camp, but what happens in this situation? The camp is destroyed and it’s never clear what’s going to happen to Syria and where are Palestinians going to fit into this? Where do they fit into it now? And how are they going to fit into in the future? They really have nowhere to go. Borders outside of Syria to them are closed for the most part. They can, of course, pay money and be smuggled across, but paying money is not an option for most people at this point. I think it brings us to think about sort of renewing the idea that return to Palestine is a more feasible option and something that has been ignored by so many people for so long. Return is one of the solutions. By return, I mean return to the historic Palestine of 1948. Of course, with Israel agreement and with some sort of negotiated agreement to get people back. Palestinians from Syria are going to be lost in this whole kind of whatever is happening in Syria sort of thing. It will be yet another disaster for displaced Palestinians if they don’t kind of end up being part of a different vision of Palestine in the future.
Here is one of the pieces of art from Turkey. It says “No solution except the right of return to Palestine.” In dark blue, it says “The Camps” – who are “The origin of this whole story” And then it lists all the names of the camps. The two in red, Hama and Yarmouk it says, “We are returning.” Finally, I showed you the travel documents for Palestinian refugees and here is something another Palestinian did and took. He replaced the Syrian regime with the heart and as you will know from the Mahmoud Darwish poem that Marcel Khalife sings, where he says “The hearts of the people are my citizenship, so I don’t need this…” It’s supposed to say “Travel Document”. So it plays with this idea of a passport, etc.

Thank you.

Dr. Michael R. Fischbach: Good morning. First, I’d like to thank The Jerusalem Fund, Dr. Subhi Ali, and Samirah Alkassim for all her help, and Dr. Mustafa for chairing this panel. When I arrived in Washington yesterday from down in the Richmond, Virginia area I was reminded in a somewhat frightening way that it was 30 years ago this year that I first came to Washington to study at Georgetown University and study with such people as Dr. Halim Barakat and Dr. Michael Hudson, both of whom are here. The privilege as my advisor when I later did my doctoral work at Georgetown, Dr. Hisham Sharabi, Later went on as a student to work at places like, the Institute for Palestine Studies and later the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee so, a lot has happened in 30 years. Certainly, coming back to Washington is like coming back home. My interest in refugees goes back a long way and I did want to mention that the first book I wrote on the subject “Property Claims of the Palestinian Refugees” has now been translated into Arabic by the Institute for Palestine Studies. That’s available finally in Arabic. I don’t get any royalties so this is not a publicity stunt, but I’d like to leave this copy here with The Jerusalem Fund. It was always my hope that someday, the refugees themselves would be able to read that book in their own language and I’m happy that that’s happened.

The talk that I’d like to give this morning is the centrality of the Palestinian refugee problem to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I’d like to stress then from the beginning that these days when one talks about negotiations or we just heard yesterday, from Secretary of State, John Kerry, that the time is not right for the parties to resume. One typically thinks of things such as, borders, and what percentage of the 23 percent of historic Palestine might the Palestinians possibly, someday get as a state. And we often forget the question of the refugees. And indeed, I’d like to argue this morning that that’s not simply one of the issues that must be dealt with in the so called final status talks, but indeed is really the essential issue that has to be dealt with.

To begin then, I found it interesting that the massive media coverage of the recent war in Gaza failed to take note of an important point that I noticed right away and that was, it was essentially a war between Israel and Palestinian refugees. Not just a war between Israel and Hamas. And the reason is that Hamas emerged from the refugee experience and that Gaza itself –which is the third most densely populated spot on Earth after Singapore and Hong Kong – is in fact an area crammed full of refugees who during that savage war were trapped and had nowhere to go. The Gaza War and Gaza itself then are intertwined deeply with the Palestinian refugee problem and they have been since 1948. Indeed, a quarter of all Palestinian refugees who are registered with UNRWA live in Gaza and 65 percent of Gazans are refugees. Meaning statistically that at least 65 percent of the 2100 Palestinians killed this summer in Gaza were refugees. They were trapped just like all other refugees. So what I’m really saying is that Gaza and the Gaza War are emblematic of the refugees and the entire struggle between Israel and the Palestinians since 1948, which in its entirety has been deeply interconnected with the refugee issue. That means that any peaceful resolution, not simply to the question of Gaza, but to the entire conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, must include a satisfactory refugee of the refugee problem. Not merely as an addendum to some kind of land for peace formula, but I argue, as a central component to the entire peace deal.

First in my talk today, I’d like to note a few statistics about Palestinian refugees today, to point out the ultimate meaning of the refugee issue for them. Secondly, to point out the ways the modern Palestinian nationalist movement, since 1948, has been shaped deeply by the refugee experience – as has Palestinian life in general. Third, I’d like to mention how the Oslo Peace Process has or has not dealt with the refugee issue. And finally, I offer a humble plea for a humane and inclusive resolution to the refugee problem for everyone to get a lasting peace.

First, some facts about the refugees: According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the plight of the Palestinian refugees today is “by far, the most protracted and longest of all refugee problems in the world today. About 40 percent of all refugees around the world are Palestinians – which is the plurality – and of the world’s elven million Palestinians, a majority, just over 7.1 million or 65 percent are refugees. That is to say that refugee issue is of immense importance obviously, to the demography of Palestinian life as well as dreadfully, significantly significant to the entire global question of refugees. And I note that when people talk about refugees we talk globally about seemingly everything, but the Palestinians. I think if the world is to go on record in the twenty-first century as dealing in an effective and a just way with refugees, generally, the test is going to be whether the world can do that with Palestinian refugees in particular.

The refugee question gets to the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which really is this question: To what extent shall the region of Palestine-Israel be a Jewish state, established in war in 1948, and inhabited since by Jews ruling themselves and others, in what scholars have called a Jewish ethnocracy? And conversely: What about the status and rights in and to that land of the Palestinian Arabs – over one-half of whom fled or were forcibly expelled during the 1948 war and denied repatriation ever since? This is precisely why the refugee issue has not been solved over the long decade since 1948 – because it demands a historical reckoning and a painful soul searching as well as a commitment to relieve the suffering and the dispossession of the refugees in meaningful ways. And unlike therefore, the questions of a Palestinian state or borders or even the question of Jerusalem that we’ll be discussing later today, the refugee problem is one whose resolution requires all sides and the international community to take a hard look at what happened in 1948 and what it has meant to all parties in the conflict. As well as, to take a hard look at just what human rights, national rights, residency rights, and so forth mean in the twenty-first century – especially when the past two centuries of ethnic and religious nationalism and the concept of nation-states themselves have led to so much violence and displacement. No matter how one looks at it the world community and Israel, in particular, eventually are going to have to grapple with the events of 1948, the long Palestinian diaspora since then and find a way of resolving them with the participation of and to the satisfaction of the Palestinian refugees themselves. That is, if the world community and Israel wish to settle the conflict peacefully and build the basis for reconciliation.

What has been the role of the refugee question in the Palestinian struggle in history and today? In fact, refugees and their status and their grievances have proven to be the bedrock upon which the modern, post 1948 Palestinian national struggle has been built. The waning of the influence of the older, pre-1948 generation of Palestinian political leaders, coming from the urban notables of central and coastal Palestine, was a result of the massive depopulation of Palestine’s Arab population during that war. And ever since, the Palestinian national struggle, in its various phases and represented by various groups over the long years, has been a movement led by refugees and deeply felt refugee needs and passions have animated the Palestinian struggle ever since. In other words, the refugee question is central to the very concept and the very struggle of the modern Palestinian national movement. It cannot be, again, dismissed as merely one of the other issues we deal with – the entire movement has been animated and led by refugees. The revolutionary guerrilla movement, or the Fedayeen movement, of the late 1960s was a movement of refugees. Centered in the camps of Jordan and Lebanon those groups hanged the entire dynamic of the conflict. It became not just a humanitarian conflict, but also a national problem and a cause and a central feature of Palestinian national life.

The return, Al-Awda, to the homeland through a people’s war in the creation of a secular democratic state for Jews and Arabs from all religious persuasions was central to a refugee dominated PLO after 1969. The same could be said for the major Palestinian group opposed to the PLO in the decades since 1948, Hamas. Since it emerged in 1988, despite all of the differences with groups like Fatah and the PLO, in general, Hamas also has been a movement of refugees. Its hardline rejectionism is really at heart an expression of the ongoing demand for justice for the refugees of 1948 and frustration with what many of those refugees perceive as the failure of the Oslo process to deliver.

So what has been the role of the refugee issue in an attempt to negotiate a peace deal? The Oslo Accords signed in 1993, 21 years ago, set the stage for a resolution, but until today, unfortunately, the refugee issue has not come up. It initially was sidelined as one of the so called final status talks, and despite a few attempts, no status talks of any consequence have occurred, no agreement has emerged, and the refugee issue has lain on the backburner. The reason for this impasse, as I said before, is that eventually dealing with the refugees has to deal with 1948. That Israel, in particular, has to open the portfolio of 1948. The Oslo Process, whatever else one says about it, is essentially a process that takes as its beginning 1967 and deciding what percentage of the West Bank and Gaza might go to a Palestinian political entity. But the refugee question reminds us that at heart, the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to have to go back further and deal with 1948 and what that meant for Jews and Arabs in Palestine and in Israel-Palestine today. Israelis have been loath as their supporters have, as has the United States in allowing the peace process in allowing the peace process to go back to 1948. For many Israelis, allowing in refugees has been said at least, to mean hundreds of thousands of Arabs returning to Israel – which would dilute the Arab-Jewish population. Allowing, in these people’s minds, too many Arabs to return would endanger Jews’ ability to retain their ethno-religious domination in a state that is based on the idea of Jewishness. I, myself, know of no other state on Earth, not Serbia or Cyprus or anywhere else, where one could freely admit, so clearly and publicly, of the desire to keep other people, from other ethnicities and religions out, in order to maintain the ethno-religious purity of the state.

But the reality is not that. The reality is that most Palestinian refugees will not return, but it is a choice that they, and they alone, must be allowed to make. In any event, it is not simply a matter of justice to deal effectively with the refugee issue – it is a practical matter. It is not simply a question of human rights. For a peace deal to work both Israel and the Palestinians are going to have to sell a peace deal to their respective sides. And if the refugees themselves do not feel at least a modicum of satisfaction about any proposed solution that deals with their question, they are going to reject it. So it is eminently practical, and not simply in the realm of human rights and doing what is historically just, but it is eminently practical to expect and demand that a refugee settlement be something that the refugees can accept, that they themselves are a part of and not negotiated on their behalf, in order for peace to take effect on a permanent level.

I hope in these brief comments I’ve been able to give a sense of the centrality of the refugee issue, both to modern Palestinian life, certainly politically, but we could also talk about culturally, as well as the centrality of its resolution for any real chance of peace to take place. Perhaps we can talk about some specific things later on in the discussions, but for the time being, thank you very much.

Matthew A. Reynolds: Great. Thank you very much. I’d like to thank Dr. Ali, and thank The Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center for including UNRWA in today’s program. In just over three weeks time, it will be no less than 65 years since the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 302, which created UNRWA to provide relief and works for the benefit of Palestine refugees in the Near East. You know, the registered Palestine refugee community today is approximately 5.1 million – just under a third of the world’s total refugee population – and some 40 percent of long term refugees globally. By way of comparison, the number of registered Palestine refugees is equivalent to the populations of the states of either Colorado or Minnesota. UNRWA is tasked with providing these refugees with humanitarian and human development services in our five fields of operation – Gaza, The West Bank (including east Jerusalem), Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. About 30 percent of all refugees live in 58 official camps. While UNRWA does not administer or run any of the camps, we provide the following core services in them and in other neighborhoods where refugees reside. Education: Over half a million refugee children in 700 schools. If we parachuted UNRWA’s school system into the US, we would be the third largest – after New York and Los Angeles. Primary Health Care: We service twelve million patient visits in 138 clinics. Social Relief Services: Providing over a million refugees with food assistance and other welfare services to help alleviate the pain of poverty. Job Creation and Training: Encouraging a brighter future through innovative entrepreneurial, microfinance initiatives, and vocational training programs in 10 community colleges. Camp Improvement: Rehabilitating basic shelters or in the case of Nahr al-Bared in Lebanon, rebuilding an entire community and expanding access to clean water and sanitation. Protection and Advocacy: Obtaining full respect for the rights of refugees under relevant international law. In many ways, UNRWA is a parallel government, at least in the delivery of community services, devoted directly and exclusively to Palestine refugees.

Historically, UN resolutions on Palestine have never been short of language suggesting the temporary nature of the situation of Palestine refugees. For example, Resolution 302 states: “That the General Assembly recognizes, without prejudice of the provisions of the General Assembly Resolution 194 – I love all of this UN speak – continued assistance for the relief of Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability and that constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the determination of international assistance for relief. So here we are, still waiting, 65 years later, for these “constructive measures” to come into fruition. We’re also still waiting for a “just settlement” of the refugee problem to be found in accordance with the relevant resolutions, including Resolution 242 – of 22 November 1967. We’re still waiting for negotiations for Resolution 338 of 22 October 1973 to establish a “just and durable peace in the Middle East” to be realized. So it is against this backdrop that we examine the exceptionally charged and difficult circumstances affecting the Palestine refugee population today. It has become apparent today, more than ever, and despite all of the pessimism and skepticism that surrounds us that hope is needed and a political action is urgently required to tackle the fundamental issues that determine the fate and the plight of Palestine refugees.

It has been a torrid year for UNRWA. With the exception of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, UNRWA and the Palestine refugees have not faced the present level of crises across all five fields of operation until now. It is simply overwhelming. In Gaza, Palestine refugees and non-refugees alike are just emerging from the unprecedented violence and destruction experienced during the 50-day conflict in July and August. During that time, nobody and nothing was safe anywhere in Gaza. We’ve all been shocked by the killing of over 1500 civilians in Gaza, including 538 children, 306 women, and 11 of my UNRWA colleagues. Some 1500 children have been orphaned, 11,000 were injured, including another 100 kids who will live the rest of their lives with permanent disabilities. Five civilians in Israel, including a little boy, have also been killed. We’ve witnessed the widespread traumatization of civilians and children and the obliteration of homes, leaving 110,000 homeless – that’s equivalent to half the entire population of Arlington country across the river. The loss of the livelihoods, the destruction of more than 500 businesses, the crippling of the Gaza power plant, the killing of 40 percent of Gaza’s livestock – I don’t know how they fit into the violence – as well as the wrecking of prime agricultural land.

This latest conflict has pushed many Palestine refugees over the edge into isolation and despair. The accent now is on rebuilding Gaza. For major rebuilding to take place, the commercial traffic through the crossing points into Gaza needs to be massively and sustainably expanded. This in turn, requires the full and swift implementation of the UN brokered temporary reconstruction mechanism between Israel and the Palestinian national consensus government. But for there to be any real future for the Palestinians in Gaza, it must be made into a livable place again. This means as the UN Secretary General has recently emphasized, once and for all, addressing the underlying causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an end to the nearly half century of occupation and the full lifting of the illegal blockade of Gaza. A manifestation of the current and growing despair is the readiness of the increasing number of people who have put their lives at risk in the hands of ruthless human traffickers in search of a new beginning in Europe. Many Palestinians in Gaza have failed in this attempt and have tragically lost their lives. For the first time, many are seeking an alternative for their children outside of Gaza. People determined to stay and stick it out in the past are looking at things differently now. Indeed, after years of collective punishment of the population of Gaza and after the recent devastating conflict, it is simply, inconceivable to return to the pre-existing conditions under the blockade. A change of paradigm is required and only the dedicated and determined political action by the international community can bring it about. As Chief of Staff of the IDF, General Benny Gantz, said, just a few weeks ago, “At the end of the day, 1.8 million Palestinians live in Gaza and the quiet is also depended on the trend of creating economic hope there.” Reading between the lines, he’s recommending that its time for a change. So if the military can understand that, why can’t the politicians?

Rochelle spoke about the catastrophic conflict in Syria. Syria used to be one of the safest and most stable places of refugee for Palestinians. Many refugees did not require UNRWA services. Today, almost all need emergency and other services from UNRWA. The plight of these refugees, highly precarious, is all too often forgotten. UNRWA itself has lost fourteen staff in Syria and has 24 missing or presumed detained. And despite the harsh and dangerous conditions, our over 4000 local staff continue to provide food, temporary accommodation in shelters, cash assistance psycho-social support, primary education, and healthcare. Speaking specifically about besieged Yarmouk, since mid-January this year, UNRWA’s periodic distribution of food and hygiene kits has slightly eased the previous conditions of widespread hunger and help head off the spread of diseases like typhoid. However, access remains irregular and the refugees remain trapped. UNRWA continues to press the parties to cease hostilities and provide for full humanitarian access and the restoration of UNRWA services. Similar situations to Yarmouk can also be found in other camps and other gatherings in Syria. We remain the safety net, in many different ways that keeps the Palestine refugee community together. Regardless of the place of refugee – Syria, Gaza or the other fields I have not even touched on today (the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon) – a growing challenge to the Palestine refugee and overall peace is international fatigue, both political and in the case of UNRWA donor financial fatigue. Though I do have to point out that the United States remains UNRWA’s largest bilateral donor and we are extremely thankful to the U.S. government and to the American taxpayer for its continued generous financial and political support.

While the new ISIS crisis in Syria and Iraq has expectedly garnered much media and public attention, the recent horrific war in Gaza, reminds us that the Arab-Israeli conflict, with its roots reaching deep into history, is still with us today and continues to cast its dark and unyielding shadow across the Middle East – touching virtually ever issue affecting the relationship between its people. It remains the primary determinant of regionally stability and prosperity. As is frequent with conflict, what is often forgotten, is that, in this case, too, peace is ultimately about people. There can be no peace with almost five million refugees living in tentative existence and the Palestine refugee issue unresolved. Palestine refugee concerns remain not only unaddressed, but are consistently removed from the narrative of negotiation and peace processing. While UNRWA will continue to provide needed humanitarian services, we remain only a temporary crutch and not a viable permanent solution.

Thank you. 


Rochelle Davis is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Since July 2013, she is also the Academic Director of the MA in Arab Studies Program. Her most recent research in Jordan and Lebanon has examined both Syrian refugees displaced by the violence in Syria  and Iraqi refugees who fled to Jordan and Syria post 2005. Her past research has explored Arab and Arab American identity and Palestinian social and cultural life prior to 1948. She has also collected over fifty oral histories of Palestinian Jerusalemites about their lives in the twentieth century. Her publications include book Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced; chapter “Mapping the Past, Recreating the Homeland” in the book Claims of Memory, edited by Lila Abu Lughod and Ahmad Sa’di; and numerous articles.

Michael R. Fischbach specializes in land issues relating to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. He is the author of numerous books on this subject including State, Society, and Land in Jordan; Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Peace Process and Palestinian Refugee Claims: Addressing Claims for Property Compensation and Restitution; and his most recent book, Jewish Property Claims Against Arab Countries.

Matthew A. Reynolds is the Director of the North America Representative Office for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He previously served as the Agency’s acting Chief of Staff based in the Amman and Jerusalem headquarters. Prior to joining UNRWA, Mr. Reynolds served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, the principal representative of the Secretary of State and the U.S. Department of State to the Congress.  Before his appointment to the State Department, Matt spent 17 years on Capitol Hill in numerous senior positions in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He was the Staff Director of the House Rules Committee, professional staff on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees and Chief of Staff to two U.S. Representatives.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.