More than 1,000 politicians, academics, NGO members, activists, students and journalists attended the two-day International Conference on the Palestinian Refugees at Al-Quds University's main campus in Abu Dis last weekend. The symposium, subtitled "Conditions and Recent Developments," attracted some key personalities, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Nabil Shaath, who served as the PA's foreign minister from April 2003 to February 2005. Just reaching the campus - three kilometers from the Mount of Olives but requiring a lengthy detour around the West Bank separation wall via Ma'aleh Adumim - symbolized the stand-off in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the 1948 war that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel an estimated 711,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes and land. Approximately 100,000 Palestinians remained in the territory that became the State of Israel and were nationalized as Israeli citizens. Under the Absentee Property Law enacted in 1950, the land of those who fled or were driven off was seized and transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property. In the Six Day War, some 350,000 Palestinians became refugees, many for the second time. Today there are approximately 4.4 million Palestinian refugees, about 70 percent of the total Palestinian population. "We have the core issue of the return of the Palestinian refugees. The conflict will not be resolved until this issue of return and restitution is resolved," said Shaath, who gave a speech summarizing his negotiations with Israel that led to the 1993 Oslo Agreement and the 2001 Taba Summit aimed at reaching final-status negotiations. Speaking in the opening session, which was chaired by Saeb Erekat, Shaath noted that the Oslo framework allowed 65,000 Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. He recalled that his negotiations with Yossi Beilin at Taba, aimed at forging an agreement which the Meretz MK could present to then prime minister Ehud Barak, resulted in an agreement in principle with Israel on the return of substantively more refugees. "Any settlement has to have relative justice and not absolute justice," Shaath said in explaining his view on the need for compromise on what the Palestinians call Haq al-Awda (the right of return). The veteran Palestinian diplomat's words echoed the controversy set off in 2001, when Sari Nusseibeh, then the PA's diplomatic representative in Jerusalem and today the dean of Al-Quds University, declared that in the framework of a two-state solution, the Palestinians cannot demand the return of refugees to homes now located within the internationally recognized boundaries of the State of Israel. Shaath noted that he had never published a memoir of his talks with Israel in the hope that one day he would be able to resume those negotiations. The issue of how many Palestinians Israel will permit to return in the framework of a peace agreement has proven to be intractable. At the 2000 negotiation at Camp David between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and prime minister Ehud Barak, the right of return was the one issue on which the talks broke down. Barak was willing to accept a Palestinian state taking in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, plus co-sovereignty over Jerusalem, but would not accept a Palestinian right of return to Israel. Arafat for his part would not accept any settlement that did not contain at least some provisions on this issue. Speaking of the Palestinian refugee camps as "places of exception," Sari Hanafi, a London School of Economics trained sociologist, argued that greater efforts are needed to integrate Palestinian refugee camps - many of which are in effect towns adjoining bigger cities in which the host country's laws do not apply - into the surrounding urban frameworks. Her comments led one member of the audience to protest that historically resistance has come from suffering in the camps rather than cities and villages, and that the camps should remain autonomous. "Who represents the camps?" Hanafi asked in reply. "There should be elections." Lex Takkenberg of UNRWA spoke about the efforts of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East to address infrastructure issues in the 59 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in which it provides facilities for 1.4 million people. (Some four million other Palestinians remain on UNRWA's books as refugees though they no longer live in camps.) UNRWA is undergoing redevelopment, he said. Takkenberg, the author of the seminal study The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law, has worked with UNRWA since 1989 and is currently the director of the Field Relief and Social Services Program in the Gaza Strip. Critics have charged that UNRWA, among other things, duplicates the humanitarian work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. On another note, Saleh Abd Al-Jawad, a historian at Bir Zeit University and currently a visiting professor at Harvard, spoke about "new trends in the Zionist narrative about the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem." Based on declassified Israeli and British archival documents pertaining to Israel's 1948 War of Independence, so-called "new historians" like Benny Morris, Tom Segev and Simcha Flapin have contributed to a broader understanding among Israelis of how and why the Arabs fled their homes as the British Mandate ended and the State of Israel fought for survival, he said. "Now it's moving onto another narrative of political liabilities," Al-Jawad continued. "There's a shift from total denial to partial denial of ethnic cleansing." To facilitate restitution, the historian called for the establishment of a Custodian of Palestinian Property to compile a list of real estate and other assets seized by Israel as abandoned. Al-Jawad decried the "legend of the Zionist purity of arms," alleging there were 70 incidents of civilian massacres during the Nakba (disaster - as Palestinians refer to the events of 1947-1949). "We have to show ourselves as heroes," he said.

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