The panel discussion "Radicalization and Survival for Palestinian Refugees" was held during MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC.
Mustafa Barghouthi, Richard Cook, Benny Morris, Ambassador Wegger Strommen
The panelists discussed the situation and challenges facing Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. They emphasized the importance of addressing the consequences of the refugees’ plight because these problems can lead to feelings of anger and despair, which can easily become exploited by radical forces. The speakers addressed ways to improve the situation, linking the Palestinian refugee situation to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process.
Ambassador Wegger Strommen, the panel’s moderator, opened the discussion by introducing each of the panelists and giving them time to address the topic of Palestinian refugees. Benny Morris, the first speaker, expressed pessimism about the fate of the 4 to 5 million Palestinians who live stateless, squalid, and oppressed lives as refugees. He said that there are two main issues that prevent a solution to the refugees’ problem. One is the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the political level, since Israeli power is much greater than those of the refugees. The second is the fact that the two parties cannot compromise and reach a solution because of the uncompromising nature of each party’s position. Many Palestinian refugees demand a recognition and implementation of the right of return and do not compromise on this issue because it is a crucial matter of identity. On the other hand, Israel cannot accept the right of return of Palestinian refugees since it will destabilize the country and jeopardize its identity as a Jewish state. This impasse, Morris noted, will cause the coming conference in Annapolis, as well as future negotiations, to fail since neither party is willing to compromise on key issues.
In his concluding remarks, Morris claimed that the Palestinian refugee question is not the most crucial issue in the Middle East, but rather Iran. He stated that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons can become a real threat not only to Israel, but to the rest of the world.
Richard Cook, Director of UNRWA in Lebanon, discussed the dire situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. He mentioned several appalling conditions which the refugees face, including discrimination, lack of civil and property rights, chronic unemployment, overcrowding and high levels of poverty. These conditions also cause feelings of despair, rage, and a loss of hope. They also lead to diseases, physical afflictions, and a low standard of living. Most of the refugees just want to survive and want their leaders to craft political solutions. However, Cook stated that these horrible problems prevent the refugees from improving their situation and allow terrorists to feed on these vulnerabilities, the prime example being the violence that has evolved in the Nahr al-Bared camp in the Summer of 2007.
Cook also mentioned the many obstacles to the solution to the refugees’ plight. One of the main difficulties is the fact that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) does not receive sufficient funding to be able to adequately address the many problems that plague the lives of refugees. Cook noted that the Lebanese Government has had a historically poor track record of tackling this problem, which has persisted for almost 60 years. However, Cook was optimistic of the assurances made by the current Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to work to improve the conditions of the refugees.
Mustafa Barghouthi discussed the reasons for refugees’ radicalization, including poverty and corruption, which can lead to negative feelings; the absence of democracy, which is defined by the inability of people to express themselves and by oppression; and the lack of a solution to the Palestinian question. Barghouthi focused on the horrible living conditions of Palestinians and the oppression they suffer at the hands of the Israeli occupation. According to him, the conditions on the ground represent an insurmountable obstacle to the conference in Annapolis and to the peace process in general. The main problems are the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, the Israelis’ persistence in building the separation wall – which creates difficulties for Palestinians in the ground – and finally the creation of an apartheid system, where people are segregated.
Barghouthi responded to Morris’ assertion of the Iranian threat to Israel by stating that since Israel is a great military power, it should not feel threatened. He concluded that it is fundamental to address the right of return for the refugees. He claimed Israel is unwilling to compromise and therefore it is jeopardizing the peace process. Barghouthi added that political solutions can be found and compromises can be identified, but that the Palestinians’ identity cannot be compromised in order to reach a lasting solution.
About this Event
The panel discussion was held during MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington DC
Francesca Alesi prepared this event summary. She will complete a Master in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Conflict Resolution this December at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University.
Disclaimer: Assertions and opinions in this Summary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not reflect necessarily the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.