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A Palestinian elder is held up among hundreds of Palestinians protesting in front of the UN relief agency, UNRWA, headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, in March, concerned that the agency would drop services for Palestinian refugees. AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Palestinian refugees: How statehood bid at UN affects us

Niamh Fleming-Farrell in Beirut and Ronan Delaney in Dublin have been examining what today’s move by President Abbas means to third-generation Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon – and what it does not.

CAMPAIGN 194, under which the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas is seeking to become the 194th member state of the United Nations, is in full swing, with just hours to go before the statehood bid is likely to be brought before the Security Council.

However, the number, 194, currently the emblem of much hope, expectation and debate, in the Occupied Territories and beyond, has a different association in amongst the some 280,000 Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon.

The number 194 for them refers to UN resolution 194. Passed 63 years ago in the aftermath of the foundation of the state of Israel and their subsequent exile to Lebanon and other neighbouring states, 194 guarantees the refugees’ right of return to their homeland. However, many refugees – who remain suspended in Lebanon without passports, democratic rights of participation, entitlement to purchase or inherit property, and are effectively prohibited from working in more than 30 professions – fear the Palestinian statehood bid at best carries no weight for them and at worst places resolution 194 in jeopardy.

In Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, 22-year-old Mohammed, a third-generation refugee, has no hesitation in saying the statehood bid “doesn’t offer a solution for 1948 refugees. There is no right of return.”

Seated Sunday afternoon in a small courtyard surrounded by poorly built breezeblock structures on all sides, Mohammed’s views draw disembodied commentaries from the rooms above. Everyone has an opinion. Voices are raised and impassioned. Some come to join the discussion. One thing is quickly clear: These people fear being forgotten; they fear the continuation of the existence they have endured since coming to Lebanon – the existence of non-citizens, of a population of ever-increasing size trapped in an ever more crowded space.

Nabil, 53, says, “The only benefit [of a successful statehood bid] would be for the people who live in the ’67 territories.”  That is those people inside the West Bank and Gaza, the areas occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and which the Palestinian Authority wants for a state.

Not only would a successful UN bid have no benefits for Palestinians in Lebanon,  Nabil argues it might even have a negative impact. He says that the recognition of such a state at either the Security Council or in the General Assembly would come with knock-on effects for Palestinians in Lebanon: “UNRWA will stop giving services; the Palestinian embassy will be in charge. We won’t be considered refugees anymore.”

UNRWA is not legally bound to provide for refugees if a Palestinian state emerges

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was founded in 1949 and provides both emergency assistance and education, health and other development services for over 5 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. However, although its mandate has been repeatedly renewed since its inception, UNRWA is in no way legally bound to continue providing for refugees if a Palestinian state emerges from these meetings. Instead its mandate will require renewal by the UN as before, but in a new set of circumstances, generating anxiety among the refugees.

However, UNRWA chief Filipio Grandi sought to allay refugees’ doubts in an interview published last week by the Maan News Agency, saying: “The need for UNRWA’s work also remains paramount and so does the imperative to ensure that our programs are fully funded, whatever the outcome of the coming months.

“UNRWA will continue with its mandated services and programs until such time that there is a just and durable solution for the refugees”

However, such reassurance has not resonated within a community of third and fourth generation refugees that have never known anything other than exile. When 20-year-old Farrah, who has joined the courtyard discussion, is asked for her view on the outcome of a statehood bid, she replies: “We will be neglected here and they will forget everything about us as refugees.”

While others may not be overtly opposed to the UN bid, Farrah is unequivocally against it. “Palestine will be liberated by us,” she says, “and we don’t want anyone to fool us by saying we have a state. … There is nothing positive to establishing a state.” She believes only an armed resistance can yield a sincere solution to the myriad problems Palestinians both inside and outside the Occupied Territories face.

Others are not so adamantly opposed. Shehadi Abdul Ghani, a retired teacher, speculates that there may be benefits arising from a successful U.N. bid. If there is a recognised state he says then perhaps it will make it easier for Palestinians to get visas to travel to Gulf countries, where many see viable work opportunities. The absence of a means of entering into reciprocal arrangements with other states has long barred Palestinians from being eligible to apply for such visas and travel. But he too expresses anxiety that UNWRA’s services will be discontinued. “UNRWA may leave its services in hospitals and teaching if the Palestinian Authority get a state,” he says.

For her part, Kholoud, 42, draws attention to the concern that by bidding for a state on the 1967 borders, the Palestinian Authority is essentially recognizing the right of the state of Israel to exist on its 1948 borders, and in doing so admitting 1948 refugees have no right of return to pre-1967 Palestine. This, she and others fear, obliterates the claims of many refugees in Lebanon to the right of return.

Palestinian refugees will not be considered citizens

Quoted in the Lebanese English language daily, The Daily Star, Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, offered some consolation by making clear that citizenship of a new Palestinian state would not be granted to refugees in Lebanon or elsewhere.

“… even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens,” he said.

But he could not offer solid reassurance on the inviolability of resolution 194. “How the issue of the right of return will be solved I don’t know, it’s too early [to say], but it is a sacred right that has to be dealt with and solved [with] the acceptance of all. … [but statehood] will never affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees,” he is quoted as saying in The Daily Star.

His words do little to soothe the diverse fears of Burj al-Barajneh’s residents. “The ones who will benefit from this state are Mahmoud Abbas and his gang,” Farrah says definitively.

“There’ll be no change, no change,” Mohammed stresses, “The US is bad; Israel is bad.”

“We will be forgotten,” Nabil reiterates.

Yet amid all the discussion there is one point of unanimity. State bid or no state bid, come benefits or costs, there is absolutely zero faith remaining in the potential for negotiations to yield progress.

“For 19 years we’ve had negotiations and no progress,” Nabil says.

“Negotiations don’t find a solution,” Mohammed states.

Despite last-ditch diplomatic efforts by the US and Israel to convince the Palestinian Authority to re-chart its course, Abbas is due to bring the full membership bid to the U.N. Security Council Friday, where the U.S. has already declared it will use its veto despite some late speculation that the Palestinians might give the Security Council an extended period to discuss its options.

US President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly Wednesday firmly set out his oppposition to Abbas’ move declaring there was no “short cut to the end of the conflict” and that peace would not be acheived “through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.” President Obama’s speech made no mention of settlement expansion, the 1967 borders or other issues currently acting as an obstacle to any renewed negotations, intead strongly emphasising his country’s continued support for Israel’s security.

Were violence to erupt it could leave the Israelis with no interlocutor among the Palestinians

Abbas will then seek non-member observer state status in the General Assembly, which he is likely to gain with two-thirds support from the 193 states represented there. Non-member status would give the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court and other bodies through which they could bring cases against Israel and become an ever more consolidated entity. However, the Security Council may take upon itself to play for time in hope of bringing about a new set of negotiations without the achievement of non-member observer status for a Palestinian state.

It is widely acknowledged that neither full membership nor non-member status will yield immediate impacts on the ground for Palestinians inside or outside the Occupied Territories, and fear abounds that the consequent frustrations may precipitate an uprising.  Such an outcome would make a return to negotiations impossible in the short term, but if intensified it might also undermine the Palestinian institutions as currently constituted, if not consume them entirely in an extreme scenario.

Were intense violence to erupt it could unravel what progress the Palestinians have made toward state formation and leave the Israelis with no interlocutor amongst the Palestinians with the wherewithal to realise a lasting settlement.  It would also further alienate the Palestinian refugee diaspora who might perceive Abbas and Fatah as gambling with the PLO and their resolutely defended “right of return”.

- By Niamh Fleming-Farrell in Beirut and Ronan Delaney in Dublin

This article was produced with assistance from The Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. For more information about the fund, see here.

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