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Under US plan, Palestinian refugees will still be refugees

Adnan Abu Amer – Al-Monitor

The United States reportedly plans to unveil this month a proposal to rebuild Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank as permanent cities and towns, a concept already rejected by Palestinians across the spectrum.


At Washington’s request, Bahrain will host a summit June 25-26 in Manama to discuss economic aspects of its so-called “deal of the century,” designed to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel Hayom daily newspaper cited May 27 an undisclosed source close to the White House as saying the United States will propose a way to provide stable housing communities for Palestinians to fundamentally change their lives and revive their economic situation.


As soon as the US statement was issued, Ahmed Abu Houli, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO and head of its refugee affairs department, said in a statement that Washington is trying to sell an illusion. Realistically, such a move would try to work around the refugee issue, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will not accept this, Houli added.


Hamas also has rejected the US peace plan in toto, believing the proposal will greatly favor Israel.

A source in the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The UNRWA doesn’t have a clear position on the issue of permanent towns for refugees. If Gulf support is available for these projects, they will be implemented through the [UN Development Program], not the UNRWA, because the United States doesn’t want anything to do with the latter and is trying to exploit the poor living conditions of the refugee camps” by using them as leverage.


Atef Adwan, former minister of refugee affairs in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Refugees in the camps are trying to improve the difficult conditions they live in. They have improved their housing units [somewhat] compared to when camps were first built after the 1948 Nakba. Back then, their shelters were made out of zinc slabs and bricks, but today, cement houses have spread in those refugee camps. As their families grow, refugees also buy land outside the camp and build multistory structures.”


He added, “Meanwhile, the problem with the US proposal is that the area of camps is narrow and streets are small and unorganized.” The plan is impossible, he said, unless the United States “intends to rebuild camps from scratch with a whole different model, taking into account modern housing developments.”


The refugee issue is one of the most complex in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject arises frequently during discussions about the US peace plan, as Washington increasingly calls for ending the work of the UNRWA. Jason Greenblatt, US envoy to the Middle East, reiterated this call May 22 while addressing the UN Security Council.


According to 2018 UNRWA figures, there are nearly 5.45 million registered Palestinian refugees: 1.39 million in the Gaza Strip, 2.21 million in Jordan, 469,555 in Lebanon, 552,000 in Syria and 828,323 in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.


Wassel Abu Yousef, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The PA was aware of the US intention and it refuses to change the [status of] refugee camps, because this action aims to resettle refugees [rather than returning land to them] and is an extension of similar 1950s and 1960s projects. Both the PA and all factions reject this US proposal, as it is a prelude to quashing the Palestinian cause.”


The resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the 1950s and 1960s was aimed at preventing refugees from returning to the lands from which they were exiled, eliminating them from Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, reducing international humanitarian pressure on Israel, destroying the refugee identity, and removing camps from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


Amer al-Hazeel, a Palestinian academic in Israel — also a former mayor of Rahat municipality in Israel and a founder of the Palestinian National Democratic Assembly — revealed May 27 that the US plan aims to develop the infrastructure and housing of around 750,000 to 1.5 million Palestinian refugees and develop land in Area A and Area B in the West Bank.


He explained that the US plan is based on a study conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in July 2017 to expand nine towns and villages in the West Bank: Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Tubas in the north; al-Jiftlik and Jericho in the east; al-Bireh and Bethlehem in central West Bank; and Hebron in the south. The plan also calls for establishing towns near Beitunia west of Ramallah, Tarqumiyah west of Hebron, another north of the Jordan Valley and the Latrun area; and one near Rafah in southern Gaza.


Mohammad Abu Jiab, editor in chief of Al-Eqtesadia newspaper in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The US approach comes in a political and field [physical] context to end the refugee issue by expanding the camps, developing their homes, creating new ones, and building reinforced concrete structures as well as large roads, squares, parks and parking lots.”


He added, “All of this is supposed to happen with Arab and Gulf funding, under UN supervision. Camps would be under the control of local municipalities and not the UNRWA, as is the case in the Saudi, Emirati, Dutch and Japanese neighborhoods in the southern Gaza Strip.”


There are 30 refugee camps distributed throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the end of 2018, Palestinian refugees in the territories constituted about 42% of the total number of Palestinians, amounting to 4.91 million citizens, according to a report issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics on Dec. 31. This estimate differs from the one from the UNRWA.


Perhaps the United States has already monitored the difficult conditions under which refugees live, most notably overpopulation in small and narrow areas. Many refugee families endure unbearable conditions, as some have more than 20 members living under one roof in no more than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet).


Issam Adwan, head of Hamas’ Division of Refugee Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The challenges facing the success of the US project are the ever-growing population in refugee camps, the fact that the plan has political motives despite its economic cover, and the seriousness of the UNRWA not being in charge of the new towns since it is not the one that is building them, [if the towns] would be outside camp borders.”


Since 1967, Israel has made changes to camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an attempt to resettle refugees there. It has cut and expanded the streets, established new refugee communities, promised better housing and public services, and gradually adopted the policy of emptying the camps with economic incentives. Prior to its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel had the authority to carry out work inside the refugee camps.


Ali Huwaidi, director of Association 302, which defends refugees’ rights, told Al-Monitor, “The US project is a humanitarian one, despite its political dimension. It may not aim at building new cities, but rather renovating the camps to improve services there. The project needs to be cautious about changing the identity of camps and forcing refugees to abandon their status, as well as putting the UNRWA aside and not allowing it to supervise the reconstructed camps, as a prelude to eliminating it. As long as the plan steers clear of these trigger points, it’s good to go.”


The main motive behind the US plan to build cities instead of refugee camps is that it believes the Palestinian cause represents a financial crisis and an economic hardship for Palestinians that can be overcome, although it is a political issue related to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians outside their country, to which they wish to return.


While the US approach may improve refugees’ conditions and their situation, it won’t be enough to end the refugee controversy if no political solution is found.