U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Palestine

Gaza Strip and West Bank UNRWA registered 716,930 refugees in the Gaza Strip and 532,438 in the West Bank in 1996. For most of the year, the Israel-Palestinian peace process remained on hold, although the Palestinians continued to build civil institutions within the Gaza Strip and the seven cities in the West Bank that were turned over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in December 1995. The PA held elections in January 1996, in which UNRWA refugees reportedly voted in large numbers, and continued during the year to develop government institutions in the Gaza Strip and most Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, including 17 of the 19 refugee camps there. In the West Bank, only 28 percent of the registered refugees were living in camps. In the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, 55 percent of registered Palestinian refugees were still living in eight refugee camps, the highest percentage of camp residents in any of UNRWA's fields of operation. Setbacks in Peace Process Palestinian refugees saw little progress with many key elements of the peace process in 1996. Negotiations in May on permanent status that were to resolve some of the thorniest problems in the future relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, including the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and Palestinian refugees, were adjourned as soon as they began. Neither the Multilateral Working Group on Refugee Affairs, established by the 1993 Oslo agreement to resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 and their progeny, nor the Quadripartite Committee on the Repatriation of the 1967 Displaced Persons, also created by the Oslo agreement, made any progress in 1996. There were major setbacks to the peace process during the year. In February and March, a series of four suicide bomb attacks by Palestinians inside Israel killed 59 and injured scores. As a result of the heightened security situation, Israel decided not to redeploy Israeli troops from most of Hebron at the end of March as had been scheduled. The election of Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud Party on May 29, brought a new prime minister highly critical of the Oslo accords. Upon taking office, he promulgated "Guidelines of the Government of Israel," setting out his administration's goals, which, with respect to the peace process, said that the government would "oppose the right of return of the Arab populations to any part of the land of Israel west of the Jordan River." Dismissing at the outset any discussion of refugee return to the West Bank contradicted the Oslo agreement, which stipulated that displaced persons and refugees from the 1967 War would be able to return to the PA-administered territories in the West Bank. In August, Netanyahu also reversed a four-year ban on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the status of which are to be decided in the permanent status negotiations. In September, the opening of a tunnel near the Temple Mount (also the site of the Al Aksa mosque), touched off rioting that killed 62 Palestinians (including at least 11 Palestinian police and security personnel) and 16 Israelis (all of whom were soldiers or security personnel). Open clashes between armed and uniformed Palestinian policemen and Israeli security forces raised questions on both sides about the prospects for co-existence. Population Zones Throughout the year, Israel continued to control most of the land in the West Bank and a substantial portion of the Gaza Strip, yet delegated to varying degrees of PA control the areas where the Palestinian populations lived. This patchwork was created by the September 28, 1995 Interim Agreement (called "Oslo II"), which established three zones: Zone A, consisting of large Palestinian population centers; Zone B, other Palestinian residential areas, mostly villages; and Zone C, Israeli settlements, strategic military sites in the Jordan Valley, and large tracts of sparsely populated rural land. Nearly all of the Gaza Strip Palestinian population and about one third of the West Bank population live in Zone A, where the PA has both internal security and civil authority. About two thirds of the West Bank population live in Zone B, which covers about 27 percent of the land of the West Bank. In Zone B, Palestinian police are allowed to operate, but Israel maintains overall control over security. About 70 percent of the territory of the West Bank and 40 percent of the territory of the Gaza Strip are in Zone C, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) maintain complete responsibility. In 1996, there were 140 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, in which about 133,500 settlers were residing (128,300 in the West Bank; 5,200 in the Gaza Strip). During 1996, ten refugee camps were located in Zone A; six in Zone B; one, Kalandia, in Zone C; one, Shu'fat, within the expanded municipal boundaries of Jerusalem; and one, Askar, spanning Zones A and B. "Super Ministry" for Refugees The Palestinian Authority worked during the year to consolidate its hold over territories within its jurisdiction. In addition to work within PA-administered areas, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also created a new "super ministry" for refugees and displaced persons to replace the old Department of Returnees Affairs, which, since 1987, had been based in Tunis. In November, the PLO announced that the new super ministry would concern itself with the Palestinian diaspora as well as with the refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the concern of the ministry was to be broader than the territories, it was located within the PLO rather than as a ministry within the PA. The ministry, headed by Dr. Assad Abdul Rahman, the chief of the Palestinian delegation to the working group on refugees as part of the final status peace negotiations, was slated to deal bilaterally with host governments where Palestinian refugees reside, and to work closely with UNRWA. The headquarters of the new ministry was to be located near the new UNRWA headquarters in the Gaza Strip. In July, UNRWA transferred its Vienna headquarters to that site. Major departments, including administration, human resources, legal affairs, external relations and public information, and finances were located in a four-story building in Gaza City together with UNRWA's commissioner-general. Other program offices, such as education, health and relief, and social services, were located in Amman, Jordan. Travel Restrictions Although the PA issues passports and other travel documents to the Palestinians residing in the areas under its jurisdiction, during most of 1996, the Israeli authorities prevented most Palestinians from traveling into Israel or East Jerusalem from the West Bank or Gaza Strip without specific travel permits. The Interim Agreement provides for "free passage" between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, but no such corridor was agreed upon in 1996, and movement between the two was exceedingly difficult throughout the year. Israeli authorities rarely permitted Gazans to travel to the West Bank, and made it difficult for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to travel to PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. Travel restrictions were particularly severe for young Palestinian males, considered by the authorities to be security risks. Although Israeli troops redeployed out of the major population centers of the West Bank, they still exercised control over the roads connecting those West Bank towns. For Palestinians, movement in, out, and within the Gaza Strip and West Bank has been difficult – and at times impossible – since Israel imposed a general closure on the occupied territories in March 1993. Since then, Palestinians have not been allowed to travel from the territories into Israel (including Arab East Jerusalem) without a permit. In 1996, it was often very difficult for Palestinians to enter Israel for employment, health needs, study, or visits. Twice in 1996, for two-week periods, Israel imposed "internal closures" within the West Bank, preventing Palestinians from traveling between villages and towns, including within the areas under PA jurisdiction. In effect, internal closure meant that all 465 towns and villages in the West Bank were under town arrest with no one being able to enter or leave their locality. This included towns and villages in the PA self-rule areas. In addition, refugee camps were placed under 24-hour-a-day curfews. Essentially, commerce, higher educational activities, and much health care came to a halt for the duration of internal closure. The Israeli authorities prevented food and medical supplies from entering the territories. The barriers to health care, in particular, according to Human Rights Watch/Middle East, resulted in at least nine probably avoidable deaths during the first ten days of the spring closure. Extended curfews and other punitive measures were especially severe in Fawwar camp, the home of two of the suicide bombers. On March 4, the Israeli army rounded up all the men in Fawwar, located in Zone B near Hebron, and interrogated about 1,000; by the following day, the Israeli authorities had arrested 120. In mid-March, UNRWA made an emergency distribution to about 1,100 families in Fawwar experiencing hardship as a result of Israel's restrictive measures. On March 20, the IDF blew up two refugee homes belonging to relatives of the bombers and sealed another's home. In addition to "internal closures," there were also "total closures," which completely closed all or parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank for entry to Israel or East Jerusalem. During total closures, Israeli authorities revoked all Palestinian permits for travel to Israel. This happened during holidays, elections, and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, such as on February 25 through April 4 (the first internal closure – March 5 to 15 – occurred during that total closure). After the end of total closures, permit holders were required to apply anew for permits, a lengthy, bureaucratic process. In April, after total closure ended and the situation reverted to that of "normal closure," only 8,000 Gazans (married men 40 years of age or older who had no record of opposition to the occupation, including nonviolent political expression or activism) were issued the combination of magnetic identification cards and travel permits allowing them to work in Israel. Between May 15 and May 29, when another total closure was imposed on the Gaza Strip (on the occasion of the Israeli elections), these permits were again revoked. By the end of June, however, the number of work permits had risen to 22,000, and age requirements for receiving magnetic cards appeared to be lower. As recently as 1987, about 130,000 Gazans worked in Israel as day laborers, and just prior to the closure, Gazan day workers numbered about 35,000. Travel restrictions hampered UNRWA's work, preventing local and international staff from carrying out their responsibilities. During its 1995-96 reporting year, UNRWA said that its staff members were interfered with in both PA- and Israeli-controlled areas. The Palestinian Authority arrested 93 UNRWA staff members in the Gaza Strip during the year, compared to 53 arrested the previous year. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority arrested 13 UNRWA staff members; the Israeli authorities arrested three. Most were released after a short period of detention, and no charges were leveled against 77 of those arrested. Many complained, however, of having been mistreated in detention. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israelis provided sufficient information about the arrests for UNRWA to ascertain whether or not its employees were arrested in the performance of their official duties. Although PA officials in the Gaza Strip generally blocked UNRWA from visiting its staff members in detention, both the PA and Israeli officials in the West Bank allowed UNRWA access to detainees of concern to the agency. Palestinians often do not travel abroad for fear of being denied re-entry to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. Israeli authorities do not permit adult Palestinian males traveling to Jordan to return less than nine months after leaving, yet generally forbid them from returning permanently if they spend more than three years abroad. An unconfirmed report indicated that the nine-month, no-return policy was rescinded for men under 25 years of age in February 1996. The Israeli authorities require all Palestinians residing in the areas under Israeli control to obtain travel permits before traveling to other countries. Visitors to the PA self-rule areas, such as from Egypt to Gaza or Jordan to Jericho, must first obtain Israeli visas. Refugee Status One of the ironies of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was the continued existence of Palestinian refugee camps under its jurisdiction and the continuation of refugee status for Palestinians living under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian governing authority. UNRWA-registered refugees in the Gaza Strip and those in parts of the West Bank under Palestinian self-rule retained their status as refugees both because of their origin inside present-day Israel and because of the relevant UN General Assembly resolutions defining the nature of the Palestinian refugee problem and solutions for Palestinian refugees. These resolutions, most of which were adopted prior to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, create a unique treatment for Palestinian refugees that differs from the approach found in the Refugee Convention. The key General Assembly resolution, Res. 194, provides only two solutions: repatriation for those refugees "wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors," or compensation for those choosing not to return. In Resolution 302 (IV), the UN General Assembly created UNRWA and assigned to it the task of caring for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defined Palestinian refugees as persons who resided in Palestine two years prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1948, who lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of that war. When the UN adopted the Refugee Convention and established UNHCR, it excluded from the UNHCR mandate those falling within the UNRWA mandate. In effect, this means that UNHCR does not concern itself with (or count) Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although it may assist Palestinian refugees outside the UNRWA mandate area. Therefore, being under the authority of a Palestinian political entity (which could represent the cessation of refugee status for other refugee groups covered by the UN Convention and Protocol) does not terminate refugee status for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who either fled from Israel in 1948 or who are descended from persons who fled at that time. Even if the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were considered solely under the terms of the Refugee Convention, they would still qualify as refugees. Under the Convention, refugee status ceases once refugees are able to re-avail themselves of the protection of their state of nationality. Palestinian refugees residing in the area have not as yet been able to re-avail themselves of the protection of their state of nationality. Although a Palestinian Authority has been established in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it does not have sovereignty. The Oslo and Cairo agreements explicitly state that during the interim period (before final status has been agreed upon) the territory of the Palestinian Authority is not a state. Although the PA issues passports, it does not confer citizenship. In order to obtain a Palestinian passport, an applicant must produce an identity card, and Israel controls the issuance of identity cards. Israel continues to be the occupying power under international humanitarian law. The territories – even the Palestinian "self-rule" areas – remain subject to Israeli military government, and, according to Oslo II, Israel retains "the overriding responsibility for security." The Oslo accords made an important distinction between refugees who fled Palestine in 1948, and their descendants, and persons displaced by the 1967 War, mostly from the West Bank to Jordan, which, at the time, claimed sovereignty on both sides of the Jordan River. This distinction, while arguably useful politically, is based on a misnomer, in USCR's view: the West Bank Palestinians who fled to the east bank of the Jordan River were indeed internally displaced in 1967; their status, however, should have changed from "displaced" to "refugee" when King Hussein rescinded Jordan's claims of sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988. The distinction was maintained, however, to distinguish between those refugees whose goal was return to Israel itself (the 1948 refugees) and those who were seeking to return only to the Israeli-occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip (the 1967 displaced). In response to a USCR query on categories of Palestinian refugee and citizenship status, the PLO's chief in charge of refugees and displaced persons, Dr. Abdul Rahman, wrote, "To split the Palestinians into ‘genuine refugees,' ‘refugees with passports,' ‘refugees in neighboring Arab countries,' ‘refugees under the PNA,' etc. is a euphemism for dismemberment of the Palestinian people." He added, "For us, the term ‘displaced' has no legal meaning.... The term has acquired a ‘political' meaning because Israel occupies the West Bank." Negotiations Both Israel and the Palestinians judged that it would be easier to resolve the situation of the persons displaced from the occupied territories as a result of the 1967 War rather than those who were displaced from what became Israel proper in 1948. Therefore, the Oslo accords maintained the approach started in Camp David in 1978 of tackling the issue of the 1967 displaced people first and deferring until the "permanent status" talks the attempt to resolve the issue of the 1948 refugees. As a result, many of the refugees who trace their exile to 1948 have felt marginalized by the peace process. Despite the decision to begin with the issue of displaced persons, by the end of 1996, no agreement had been reached. The Israelis differed with the Palestinians and representatives of the Arab states on both the definition and number of displaced persons. Israel contended that the number is between 200,000 and 300,000 and limited its count to those who fled as a direct result of the 1967 War. The Arab parties, on the other hand, put the number between 800,000 and 1,000,000, and also included in their count persons who were outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip before the outbreak of hostilities as well as Palestinians who left or were forced to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip due to Israeli military measures after 1967, and were not allowed to return. The Palestinians and Arab countries also raised the issue of a group known as "latecomers." These are people, numbering about 100,000, whom Israel had registered as residents after the 1967 War, and permitted to work or travel abroad. Because they failed to return in time to renew their re-entry visas, the Israelis revoked their documents and refused to allow them to return. The Arab parties continued to insist on the unconditional return of all displaced persons from the West Bank and Gaza Strip regardless of the particular circumstances of their displacement. Israel's willingness to consider allowing the return of displaced persons was much narrower, and Israeli officials were adamant in their refusal to consider readmitting persons who had been expelled for political or security reasons. At its February 1996 meeting, the Quadripartite Committee on the Repatriation of the 1967 Displaced Persons did agree on six sources for records that could be used to establish identity of displaced persons, including: UNRWA; the Red Cross; the Jordanian Department of Palestinian Affairs; the Egyptian population registry for Palestinian refugees after 1967; the Israeli census of the West Bank and Gaza conducted in 1967, as well as the Israeli population register; and the PLO. However, Israel canceled the meeting of the Quadripartite Committee in March in the aftermath of the suicide bombings. No further meetings were held during the year, and no progress was made toward identifying, much less repatriating, displaced persons from 1967. In November, the Multilateral Refugee Working Group met informally in Petra, Jordan, but appeared to make no progress. The year ended with the two sides far apart on the weight they would accord the various, and no doubt conflicting, sources on the numbers of 1967 displaced. They were equally far apart on defining who would qualify. The gap in the parties' positions on the 1948 refugees was even wider. The Arabs insisted on the "right of return" as proclaimed in UN Resolution 194 with its choice of either repatriation or compensation for those refugees not wishing to repatriate. The Israelis rejected UN Resolution 194 as a basis for discussion, saying that the "right of return" is incompatible with Israel's right of self-determination. Israel also insists that any discussion of compensation be based on the principle of reciprocity, taking into account Jews who were expelled from Arab countries as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel. Only on the issue of family reunification, which both sides agreed should be handled as a humanitarian matter rather than a political one, was there any discernable progress. Israel appeared to be sticking to the timetable established with the 1993 Declaration of Principles, whereby it would allow 2,000 returns per year based on family reunification. Relief and Development Closures, curfews, and other restrictions on work and travel to Israel and within and between the Gaza Strip and West Bank hurt the economy of the Palestinian territories. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Ministry of Labor estimated that unemployment reached 74 percent. In the West Bank, it was about 50 percent. By some estimates, the border closures cost the PA-administered areas six million dollars a day. Development plans for the region were crippled, and some aid had to be diverted into emergency measures to alleviate the hardship caused by the closures and curfews. Since 1993, UNRWA has been engaged in the Peace Implementation Program (PIP) to spur development projects. PIP was designed to focus on income-generation projects (particularly in the Gaza Strip), creation of jobs, and infrastructure development that were intended to build confidence in the peace process. Projects included the construction and upgrading of schools, clinics, and community centers, the rehabilitation of shelters, and the installation or improvement of camp sewage and drainage systems. During the closures, PIP funds provided temporary work for thousands, who swept streets, cleaned up refugee camps, and rehabilitated refugee housing. During the internal closures, UNRWA and other development and economic activities came to a virtual standstill. Nevertheless, a combination of PIP and general budget funding enabled UNRWA to finance the repair or reconstruction of 2,307 refugee dwellings during the year belonging to special hardship families and other impoverished refugees whose living accommodations had fallen well below minimally acceptable standards (1,515 in the West Bank, 792 in the Gaza Strip). Despite continuing housing needs, however, UNRWA's field housing rehabilitation unit was dissolved in May 1996 for lack of funding. UNRWA had less success raising money for its regular programs than for the PIP, and it faced a fourth consecutive year running a budget deficit (which reached $8.4 million in 1995). The failure of donor countries to increase their contributions to keep pace with the increasing numbers of refugees (due to natural increases), inflation, and unexpected needs caused the deficit. The deterioration in UNRWA's financial health had an impact on services: schools were overcrowded, often running double shifts, and doctors saw an average of 94 patients per day at UNRWA health facilities. UNRWA's annual report to the UN General Assembly said, "A decline in the Agency's relations with the refugee community as a result of perceived deterioration in services was already becoming noticeable." The General Assembly suggested that UNRWA's deficit would result in an almost certain decline in Palestinian refugee living conditions with possible negative consequences for the peace process. This became most evident during times of general closure of the Gaza Strip in 1996 when refugees called upon UNRWA to provide broad-scale emergency humanitarian assistance, but it lacked the funds to do so. The centerpiece of PIP development in the Gaza Strip was the construction of the 232-bed European Gaza Hospital, scheduled to be completed by year's end. Funding shortfalls impeded progress, however. In the health field, as in other areas, such as education, UNRWA worked to harmonize its programs with those of the Palestinian Authority with an eye toward transferring all operations to the PA at the point at which UNRWA dissolves. Although there is no actual time-line for the dissolution of UNRWA, the processes of harmonization and transfer were indications of UNRWA's commitment to building Palestinian institutional capacity for self-reliance. In December 1995, the UN General Assembly extended UNRWA's mandate through June 30, 1999. In July 1996, UNRWA turned over to the PA the Biddo health center in the West Bank, the first UNRWA facility to be turned over to PA administration. In 1996, the refugee population in the Gaza Strip grew by 4.9 percent from the previous year, a faster rate than in any of the other areas of UNRWA operation. Crude birth rates continued at a high rate of 52 live births per 1,000 population, and Palestinian women in Gaza on average had more than seven children. The increase in refugee population was due not only to natural increase, but also to Palestinians moving into the Gaza Strip, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. This growth was particularly evident in school registration, which for the 1995-96 school year rose 9.3 percent above the enrollment for the 1994-95 year, which, in turn, had been a 7.9 percent increase from the previous year. Increased enrollment required the hiring of 236 additional teachers in the Gaza Strip, but UNRWA's financial difficulties caused the agency to give them only one-year contracts and pay them less than regular teachers.

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