Palestinian Statehood: What Do the Refugees Get?

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Supporters of those factions that belong to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were certainly overjoyed by what they viewed as a victory over US and Israeli obstinacy. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finally, we have a Palestinian state! Its birth is marred by the fact that it is only 22 percent of the original country occupied by Israel. And sure, it came about despite Washington and Tel Aviv, but what will millions of Palestinian refugees get out of it?

Beirut – Mahmoud Abbas arrived at the UN General Assembly as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and returned as president of the Palestinian state.

What does it mean now that the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the world have a state? Are they now simply considered an émigré community in their countries of refuge? Will their legal status change from refugees to expats?

How will statehood benefit these refugees, who can’t even visit this country, and which in turn cannot provide them with the most basic rights of citizenship? And, most importantly, will these refugees accept that their new state is a mere 22 percent of their original homeland?

These questions were not raised the day Palestine gained statehood status at the UN. For when the state was declared, the Burj al-Barajneh’s residents lit up the skies over their refugee camp in celebration.

According to Abu Mustafa al-Shaafati, for example, “This is a political victory over Israel after the victory of the resistance in Gaza.” But this view is not shared by all refugees.

Supporters of those factions that belong to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were certainly overjoyed by what they viewed as a victory over US and Israeli obstinacy.

Those who belong to factions outside the PLO, however, had their reservations about such a step and have chosen to remain quiet to see how Abbas is going to deal with the new status.

The majority of refugees lean toward the view that the PA leadership has sold Palestine out to the Israelis. It is true that the country was recognized as a state after much struggle, but Palestinian refugees wonder what they will get out of it in the end.

“So, now we have a Palestinian state?” asked Ihsan Taha from the Shatila refugee camp. “We have nothing whatsoever.”

“Abbas sold out the refugees and those lands occupied in 1948. It means that there is no possibility of return after today,” he said. “The state benefits residents of Ramallah and Gaza; as for the refugees, they get nothing, for they cannot return to the lands from which they were expelled.”

Further inside the camp, the same question was posed to some young men hanging out next the UNRWA school.

“The statehood declaration is another form of recognition that we as a people have a right to state,” Ahmad Mohammed said.

When asked, “Doesn’t this also mean a recognition of Israel, thus revoking Palestinians’ right to return?” He paused a moment before replying that “no one can give away our right of return, and we do not want to return except to the homes from which we were expelled.”

His friend Kamal Mustafa fired back that the recognition is of both Palestine and Israel: “If we as Palestinians recognize Israel, we are legitimizing the occupation of our land.”

At the end of the day, the Palestinian state is nothing more than words on paper. The only weapon that Abbas can wield now is that he can resort to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to account for Israel’s endless violations.

But the PA president has already reassured Israeli officials that he does not plan to appeal to the court for the occupation’s past crimes. He said he would only do so if it commits such violations in the future.

With the declaration of statehood, Palestinian refugees could very well lose on two counts.

First, rather than having the right to return to their homes, even in 1948 lands, the change of status could reinterpret this right to one of returning to the “Palestinian state,” which in effect means the West Bank and Gaza.

Second, after the UN vote, the PLO – which represented Palestinian refugees wherever they are – will now be replaced by the Palestinian state, which may very well mean the marginalization of this important constituency.

There is also a major concern raised by many refugees that UNRWA will stop providing them with aid and services, using the excuse that they now have a state which is responsible for them.

Many legal studies are being planned in the coming days to examine exactly what are the possible advantages and disadvantages of the statehood declaration, which may help settle this raging debate among Palestinian refugees.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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