International Community Bargains with Rights of Palestinians


In spite of the high profile of the Oslo peace negotiations and the country’s subsequent role, Norway has failed to focus on the core issue of the conflict. Eva Bjøreng and Steinar Sørlie report.

The Palestinian refugees are the world’s oldest and largest refugee population. Nearly four million Palestinians are UN registered refugees, and a considerable number of them have lived as refugees for more than fifty years.

The UN partition plan for Palestine in November 1947 was followed by fighting between Jews and Palestinians and already the day after the British withdrawal from the area in May 1948, a war between Israel and the Arab neighbour states broke out. 900,000 Palestinians fled their homes, the majority to Gaza, which at that time belonged to Egypt, and the West Bank, which was a part of Jordan. 130,000 took refuge in Lebanon, while Syria received nearly 100,000. 

Over the past years, a number of Israeli historians have documented that the refugees were systematically expelled by military force. Israel consequently refused to let the refugees return, and levelled 418 Palestinian cities and villages with the ground. 

In 1967 Israel started the Six Day War by launching an air attack on Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and 1.5 million Arabs, mostly Palestinians, came under Israeli occupation. More than 300,000 Palestinians were forced to flee. Israel is still occupying the territories. 

Today the Palestinians are denied the freedom of movement, both within the occupied territories, and between these and the rest of the state of Israel. At the same time, Israel has received almost one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past ten years. A great number of these immigrants have been encouraged to settle in the occupied territories. In that way Israel is consolidating its occupation in violation of international humanitarian law. 

About 850,000 Palestinians are living as refugees in Gaza, while 600,000 are refugees in the West Bank. The living conditions are miserable in spite of emergency aid from the UN, and about 50 percent are unemployed. On the West Bank 46 percent of the families are living below the poverty line, while the figure for Gaza is 65.

As for Palestinians in the neighbouring countries, the situation is worst for the 400,000 refugees in Lebanon. More than 50 percent of them are still living in camps. Hardly any of them have citizenship. They are denied social benefits, they do not have access to the Lebanese public health care system, and hardly anyone has a work permit because the Palestinians are excluded from 72 professions. 

The situation for the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria is better than in  Lebanon, but still none of them has citizenship. The Palestinians are denied the right to vote and they do not get Syrian passports. 1,6 million Palestinian refugees are living in Jordan, where the majority has received citizenship and enjoy basic civil and political rights. 

The international community has failed the Palestinian refugees. The UN early on took a particular responsibility for the refugees through the establishment of two UN bodies, whose task it was to secure humanitarian assistance to the refugees, the right to return to their homes and to receive economic compensation for destroyed property. The refugees are still receiving

humanitarian assistance. However, with the rest of the world as passive witnesses, they are denied the right to a lasting solution. Israel denies any return, and the neighbouring Arab states, with an exception for Jordan, deny the refugees the right to integration. Despite the fact that the Palestinian refugees are in a special legal position since they were forced to flee before the Convention on Refugees was drafted, their rights are stated in a number of

other international instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and everyone has the right to leave any country and to return to his country.

The perhaps most important legal document for the Palestinian refugees is the UN resolution 194 of 11th December 1948. This resolution states that all Palestinian refugees who want to return to their homes shall receive an economic compensation. The resolution has been approved by the UN General Assembly more than 100 times since 1948 and can therefore be interpreted as part of international customary law.

The Norwegian Refugee Council and Norwegian People’s Aid are of the opinion that the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is absolute. All Palestinian refugees have the right to a lasting solution to their situation, and they have the right to decide for themselves whether they wish to return to their places of origin. These rights can not be made the subject of political negotiations for peace. 

Israel’s main argument against the return of Palestinian refugees is that Israel must preserve its “Jewish character “. This is reflected in the Israeli “Law of Return” of 1950, which grants all Jews the right of immigration to and residence in Israel. Today, Israel is the only state in the world founded on the idea of ethnic purity, a so-called ethnocracy, which is a political system that puts one group above all other groups. Both Norway and the USA and most of the other actors in the Middle East, are showing an unacceptable double standard of morality when they silently accept Israel’s ethnic argument and disregard the obvious rights of the refugees. 

Why did Europe, USA and NATO put so much prestige in a return of minorities on the Balkans? Why did NATO go as far as resorting to a military attack against Yugoslavia to stop the expulsion of Kosovo-Albanians from Kosovo and secure the refugees` right of return? Why was there never any doubt that one and a half million Hutus should return to a very tense, ethnic conflict in Rwanda shortly after one of the bloodiest genocides in the history.

Norway’s role in the Middle East has not contributed to a solution of the refugee problem – perhaps on the contrary. The close historic ties between the Norwegian and the Israeli Labour Party, and Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science´s surveys on the living conditions of the Palestinian population, paved the way for Norway in a central role as a facilitator for the peace negotiations in the early nineties. 

Norway knew how difficult the refugee issue was, since neither USA nor Europe were willing to put pressure on Israel, and gave the issue little attention out of fear that it would cause the peace negotiations to break down. Instead the rights of the refugees were used as a bargaining card: Israel was to withdraw from the occupied territories and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state if the Palestinian refugees renounced the right of return to their places of origin.  Who asked the Palestinian refugees what they wanted? Who spoke their case? Certainly not Norway. 

In the Norwegian position paper for the UN General Assembly in the autumn of 2001, the Palestinian refugee problem is reduced to a humanitarian issue. The only thing said about the Norwegian position is that UNRWA must secure a proper control over the use of the donor funds. In his foreign policy statement to the Norwegian Parliament 26 February 2002, Foreign Minister Jan Petersen did not say a word about the Palestinian refugees. 

The Norwegian Refugee Council and the Norwegian People’s Aid ask the Norwegian Government to use all its power to put the Palestinian refugees on the agenda. We think it’s unrealistic to believe in a peaceful development in the Middle East without a solution to the refugee problem in accordance with international humanitarian law. 

All Palestinian refugees must have the right to choose whether they wish to return, and if so, Israel must be pressured to allow this. If they wish to remain in their country of exile, the international community must put pressure on these countries so that they grant the refugees their basic human rights. 

Eva Bjøreng is Secretary General of Norwegian People´s Aid and Steinar Sørlie,

Secretary General in the Norwegian Refugee Council. Published in Norwegian in the Norwegian daily Aftenposten on June 12, 2002.