Analysis: Why the Arab summit will not accept Israel's demand to modify the 2002 peace plan

Arab governments want the Palestinian refugees out - and the sooner the better.

palestinian refugee 2988 (photo credit: Courtesy [file])
palestinian refugee 2988
(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
It's highly unlikely that the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia later this month will accept Israel's demand to "modify" the section in the 2002 Arab peace plan that calls for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees "in accordance with United Nations Resolution 194." The reason: The Arab governments want the refugees out - and the sooner the better. Almost half of the 4.3 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA live in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where they have long been suffering from severe and inhuman restrictions involving residency rights, freedom of movement and employment, as well as property ownership rights. The PLO claims that the number of refugees, including those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is almost double that figure because not all are registered with UNRWA. Jordan has almost 1.7 million registered refugees, while in Syria the who are registered with UNRWA exceeds 400,000. Lebanon also hosts more than 400,000 refugees. "The Arab countries don't want to absorb the Palestinian refugees," said an official with the PLO Department of Refugees. "They are eager to get rid of the refugee camps in the Arab countries. That's why they are insisting that the Palestinians should return to their homes." Both the PLO and Hamas are strongly opposed - for political reasons - to the resettlement of refugees in Arab countries and insist on their "right of return." This, despite the fact that some of the refugees are aware that they will never be allowed to return to their original homes inside Israel. On the other hand, many of these refugees are unlikely, under the current circumstances, to accept an offer to move to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, where their chances of improving their living conditions are slim. There is no doubt that many would agree to stay in the Arab world once they are offered citizenship, jobs and a better life away from the impoverished refugee camps. However, in the absence of legislation regulating their status in most of the Arab countries, the refugees are deprived of civil rights and basic needs. With the exception of Jordan and Syria, Palestinian refugees in the Arab world are subject to the same strict employment laws applicable to foreigners. The vast majority of the Palestinians in the Arab world are treated as foreigners and are denied access to government-supplied services such as education, health and social benefits. Syria is the only Arab state where Palestinians enjoy freedom of access to government services. In addition, the Arab governments impose restrictions on Palestinian property ownership. But by all accounts, the Palestinians living in Lebanon suffer the most. Apart from being deprived of education and health services, they are not entitled to social security to which they contributed by working. In 1995, the Lebanese government issued a decree clearly restricting the refugees from working in 72 professions. The majority of Palestinians are therefore forced to work illegally, making them subject to exploitation in the black market. UNRWA has estimated that 60 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon live below the poverty line and suffer from the absence of proper infrastructure, overcrowding and poverty. Human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned Lebanon's policy of discrimination, but to no avail. As one refugee in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp recently told an Arab TV station, "Even the dogs in the Third World have a better life than the Palestinians in Lebanon's camps." In one of its reports, Amnesty described the mistreatment of the refugees in Lebanon as a "legacy of shame." The report pointed out that "Lebanon's discriminatory practices against Palestinians violate international human rights law and are in violation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If permanent settlement is not the solution for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this does not mean that intermediate, adequate solutions that protect their fundamental rights should not be sought."