November 11, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 154

Palestinian Reactions to the 'Geneva Understandings'

November 11, 2003 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 154

In October 2003, in Jordan, Israeli and Palestinian politicians and activists were reported to have reached a detailed understanding on a permanent-status Israeli-Palestinian settlement, following two years of secret talks. The "Geneva Understandings" have not been officially released.

The Palestinian Authority expressed qualified support for the understandings. Yasser Arafat, who according to his military advisor Mamdouh Nowfal "knew of the meetings in advance and was updated with the relevant documents," [1] said that the Understandings are "not an official document" and that "our policy is not to prevent any attempt to arrive at the 'peace of the brave' that I achieved with my late partner Rabin." [2]

Similar statements were made by PA Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei', also known as Abu 'Alaa: "We are not against dialogue and peace, but we are not seeing [the Geneva Understandings] as a document of peace." He also said, "The road map is the only document that is still on the table." [3]

In a survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, which is directed by Dr. Nabil Kukali, 51.4 percent of the respondents expressed opposition to the Geneva Understandings, while only 32 percent expressed support. [4]

While Palestinian officials were reluctant to openly support the understandings and much of the Palestinian public is opposed to them, Palestinian columnists have tried to emphasize the initiative's advantages for the Palestinian people, and called for support of them.

The Palestinians' Goals in Reaching the Understandings

The Palestinian and Arab media provided several explanations for how and why the Geneva Understandings were reached:

The Understandings were Meant to Counter Israeli Claims that There is No Palestinian Partner

Politicians such as Qaddoura Fares, one of the participants in the negotiations, said the goal was to "disprove the claims of the right-wing government in Israel that there was no Palestinian partner with whom it is possible to arrive at a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." [5]

Hussein Hejazi, media advisor to the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in an article for the PA daily Al-Ayyam: "From a practical, political point of view, this agreement proves the falseness of the lies and the brainwashing that Barak began and that Sharon and his hangers-on completed, that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to make peace. [The Understandings also] prove the falsehood that the Israelis were generous to the Palestinians [in their concessions] at Camp David, and that they [the Palestinians] replied with ungratefulness. Actually, Barak did not [even] reach the middle of the road in his concessions, and he did not have the courage to push the negotiations at Camp David and Tabu to a permanent settlement, and if this were not so, we would have arrived at an historic agreement." [6]

The Understandings are Meant to Bring Down Sharon's Government and Bring the Israeli Left and the Labor Party Back to Power

Ashraf Al-Ajrami, director of the PA Information Ministry's Department of Israel Affairs and columnist for the PA daily Al-Ayyam, wrote: "This agreement will restore the hope of the Israelis that there is a way out of their crisis and will make possible genuine political change in Israel that will topple the Israeli Right and return the Labor Party, the circles of the Left, and the Center Left to power. This is a realistic possibility, in light of the drop in Sharon's popularity and the Israeli public's sense of his helplessness on all levels…

"What is important in this framework is for the circles of the Israeli Left to circulate the agreement broadly among Israeli public opinion, and focus on [the concept that] a change in government in Israel is what will lead to a real, viable, and just peace. The Palestinians can, by means of constructive political positions, contribute to and influence the Israeli public by announcing the adoption of the document and distancing themselves from unhelpful slogans, particularly in light of the current international situation." [7]

Bilal Al-Hassan, a Palestinian columnist for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, criticized this approach. In his op-ed "Conceding the Right of Return to Save the Israeli Labor Party" he wrote: "Election Day in Israel is approaching, and the Labor Party is trying once again to use the same failed tactic – to conduct highly successful negotiations with a group of Palestinian volunteers in order to reach an agreement that will serve Israel, [in hopes that] this agreement will help restore the Labor Party to power. The Israelis can think what they want, but why does the group of [Palestinian] volunteers think so? They think that the problem is in Ariel Sharon's being at the head of the government, and that having a man like Peres, Mitzna or Burg at the head of the [Israeli] government will lead to a political solution acceptable to the Palestinian people. They go off on an adventure gambling on Israeli horses and expressing no confidence in the Palestinian Intifada, the struggle of the Palestinian people, and its sacrifice and steadfastness." [8]

The Understandings are meant to Replace the Road Map

Hejazi's Al-Ayyam article also addresses how the understandings will impact the road map. He wrote: "Does this mean that the Geneva Accord is making the road map irrelevant now? The answer is yes. Through [these understandings], Bush's or Sharon's involvement or perhaps the involvement of both of them together is becoming irrelevant to a permanent solution. Do the [Geneva] Understandings have a chance of succeeding so that they will be an alternative road map? The answer is yes." [9]

Similar statements were made by Talal 'Oqal, member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and columnist for Al-Ayyam: "The document is a logical replacement for the road map that took a wrong turn and caused escalation and more violence. Why should the American administration persist with [the road map] when there is a document that realizes Bush's vision of two states?" [10]

The Understandings are Meant to Send a Message to the Israelis: The Alternative to the Understandings is a Bi-national State

'Ali Al-Jarbawi, lecturer at Bir Zeit University and Al-Ayyam columnist, wrote in his column: "Every plan for a political settlement that is acceptable to the Palestinians as a solution to the conflict must be accompanied by an alternative that the Israelis will fear and take into account. The existence of such an alternative is essential for [Israeli] support of the Understandings… This is the backbone of every Palestinian plan for a political solution based on the two-state principle: to hint seriously that Israeli non-compliance with the plan within a limited and prearranged time frame will close the door finally and completely and will make the Palestinians continue towards the option of a bi-national state even if the PA needs to dismantle itself and the Palestinian people needs to suffer the Israeli occupation for an additional time…" [11]

The Geneva Understandings Versus Previous Rounds of Negotiations

To gather Palestinian public support for the Understandings, the Palestinian media compared them to previous negotiations in order to demonstrate their advantages:

The Geneva Understandings are the Best Israeli Offer So Far

Mamdouh Nowfal, military advisor to Yasser Arafat, told the Jordanian daily Al-Rai: "What was offered [to the Palestinians] at Taba was better than what was offered at Camp David, but what was offered at the Dead Sea [i.e. in the Geneva Understandings] is twice as much progress as both, and also more than the initiative of former president Bill Clinton." [12]

In his weekly Al-Ayyam column, columnist Tawfiq Abu Bakr wrote: "I will not expand upon the details or the nature of the agreement, and I hope that not many will come out from among us saying that this agreement is better than the Clinton initiative and the Taba agreement. This, even if true, would place the peace partners on the [Israeli] side in a problematic situation with their public, and would provide Sharon with the goods to continue his barbaric verbal attacks on the Israeli peace camp." [13]

There is Nothing New in the Geneva Understandings, But It is a Chance the Palestinians Should not Miss

Palestinian activist 'Ata Al-Qimari wrote in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds: "If this is the result we reach after three years of Intifada, during which we sacrificed 1,000 martyrs, tens of thousands of wounded, and great economic destruction, what was all the tumult about? Weren't we very close to the Geneva Accord at Camp David and then at Taba?…

"If we adopt [this] agreement despite the flaws, disadvantages, and concessions [that it includes], we will send a clear message to our enemy and its public that we do not intend [to eliminate] their existence but aspire to find a way to live with them in coexistence with a minimum of security, welfare, and future.

"Peace for me is a supreme value worthy of making sacrifices for, even though I am certain that the idea of two states is impossible and that there is no escape in the future from coexistence in peace in a single democratic state in all of Palestine or Israel. But I am willing to agree to [any]thing that will spare these two quarreling peoples the price of blood, suffering, and money [until they reach this solution]. I know [the result] that they will reach after they pay this price will not be far from what it would have been possible to achieve earlier. It is reasonable to assume that we will not employ a tactic of a peace attack and that very soon the cannons of this initiative will fall silent, and we will go back to our daily routine of the continuation of the struggle and the bloodshed." [14]

The Palestinian Situation is So Bad that Accepting the Understandings, for Now, is a Must

In his Al-Ayyam column, Al-Ajrami, also wrote: "Time is not on our side. In the Palestinian territories, catastrophes are happening that are slowly making reality unchangeable. [This refers] in particular to the [construction of] the settlements that is going full speed ahead and that is accompanied by the construction of the separation fence…

"The Geneva document is considered the best thing that the Palestinians and Israelis can attain at this stage. It must not be viewed with a telescope of black or white, but in the framework of the realistic and the possible. It is not easy, and not within arm's reach… Returning the occupied lands has become a more pressing need than ever, and the Geneva Accord can liberate them all fully, based on 97.5 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and 2.5 percent in territorial exchange. This can put an end to the Zionist expansion enterprise that knows no borders. This will enable a strategic change that will perhaps make the solution of a bi-national state or a united democratic state feasible in the long run." [15]

Opposition to the Geneva Understanding

Palestinian opposition factions and organizations representing refugees were highly critical of the Geneva Understandings, particularly of the section dealing with refugees. For example, Palestinian Legislative Council Refugees Committee head Jamal Al-Shati sharply criticized the negotiators, saying that the PLC would call them in, debrief them, and demand clarification as to what was attained. He said that any solution that did not include the right of return and the implementation of UN Resolution 194 would be considered a "partial solution not binding upon the Palestinian people, and it is a national obligation to oppose it with all our might." [16]

Most Palestinian factions expressed opposition to the understandings. Salah Zeidan, member of the political bureau of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, accused the Palestinian side of conceding four basic principles: the removal of all the settlements; the implementation of refugee return; Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem; and the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes all the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine issued a communiqué that stated: "We emphasize our condemnation and reservations that the PA is continuing to discuss our national issues in a way lacking any fundamental democratic basis and Palestinian agreement, which permits concessions on the refugee issue in exchange for nothing." [17] A communiqué published by the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) asserted that the Geneva understandings "do not respond to all the legitimate national rights of our people." For this reason, the organization claimed it was "not a party to the understandings and not obliged to abide by them." [18] A high-ranking FIDA representative in the Palestinian National Council, Yasser Abd Rabbo, was a senior negotiator in talks leading to the Geneva Understandings. There are reports, however, that he has resigned from FIDA.

Top Hamas official Adnan Asfour said the understandings were "part of the deceiving of the Palestinian people with illusions of peace, that has gone on for so long." He said that "the document will not be implemented because of the great concessions in it, particularly on the matters of Jerusalem and the refugees… Those who signed it set themselves up as representatives of the Palestinian people while they in effect are marginal figures who do not represent the Palestinian people." [19]

Annex I
The Understandings' Fundamental Principles

In an interview with Palestinian Television, Palestinian Legislative Council member and top Fatah official Qaddoura Fares, who was a member of the Palestinian negotiating team and who is said to be representing Marwan Al-Barghouthi, [20] said: "We tried to benefit from the principles on which previous [rounds of] negotiations were based. UN Resolutions 242 and 194 were the guiding principles for the conclusions we reached. Second, we tried to derive possible positive ideas from the Camp David and Taba agreements, from the Beilin-Abu Mazen document, and from the Clinton document, all of which will be combined with [UN Resolutions] 242 and 194, and with the principle of 'land for peace.'" [21]

Borders and Settlements

In an interview with Al-Ayyam, Qaddoura Fares said: "According to the agreement and the maps that we drew up, Israel will withdraw from the territories that were occupied in 1967 and a Palestinian state will be established on 97.5 percent [of the territory]. Regarding the remaining 2.5 percent, there will be territorial exchange. The Palestinian state will be compensated for it with land [that Israel will give it] in the southern Gaza strip and southwest Hebron. Thus the Palestinian state will have an area of 2,600 square meters, which is the area of the territories occupied [by Israel] in 1967… Israel will evacuate over 142 settlements located on Palestinian land. Two settlement blocs will remain, which will include the settlements around Jerusalem." [22]


Hisham Abd Al-Razeq, who participated in the talks, told the UAE daily Al-Bayan: "The Palestinians will have full sovereignty over the Palestinian territories, including the Palestinian population centers in Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Haram Al-Sharif [23] area will be under full Palestinian sovereignty, with no [difference made between] what is above it and what is beneath the area [as was suggested by Israel at Camp David.]" [24]

Similar statements were made by Qaddoura Fares in an interview with Al-Ayyam: "The agreement instructs that the Arab neighborhoods will be in the Palestinian state, and the neighborhoods [in Jerusalem] in which there are Jews will belong to the State of Israel. The entire Old City will be under Palestinian sovereignty, except for the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall." [25]


In his interview with PA Television, Fares said that the following guidelines were agreed upon for refugee return: "First, reliance on Resolution 194 as a basis for the solution. Second, refugees will return to four places: 1) the State of Palestine; 2) the settlements that Israel will evacuate and the places that are to be annexed to the borders of the Palestinian state; 3) Israel; 4) a third country. The [term] third country means any country willing to host refugees in which the refugee expresses a desire to live…

"What will be the quota for [the refugees that] Israel [will accept]? Since it was difficult to talk about numbers, it was agreed that a committee would be established to examine the preferences of each refugee regarding the place to which he wishes to return. The quota of Israel will be the average of what all the countries will accept, whether they are countries that are currently hosting the refugees or other countries in the world. [26] No one can know now what the quota is. It could be 100, 150, or 50,000, or more, or less. No one can determine the number, but Israel will be obligated to accept this number." [27]

Fares made similar statements in his interview with Al-Ayyam: "With regard to the return [of refugees] to the State of Israel, it is written [in the understandings] as follows: This option [i.e. returning to Israel] will be under Israeli control. It will be determined according to the number of [refugees] submitted by Israel to an international committee. This number will be the number of all the refugees that Israel agrees [to accept]. As a basis for this, Israel will take into account the average [number of] refugees that the various other countries will offer to accept before the international committee…. There is a right of return, and this is what the agreement instructs. The matter returns to Israel, and they can interpret these sections as they wish, but for us, it is a right of return." [28]

In contrast, Yasser Abed Rabbo claimed during a press conference in Ramallah that the actual number of refugees was never discussed during the talks: "The number of refugees was never discussed because we cannot rule on this matter ahead of time unless it refers to the later stage when it will be possible to implement the solution." [29]

On the matter of compensation for the refugees, Yasser Abed Rabbo said at the press conference: "There will be an international compensation committee [that will serve] not only those who want to remain someplace else. On the contrary: Every refugee will have the right to compensation, including all the damages caused him, material and emotional, even if he returns to his original country." [30]


In his interview, Qaddoura Fares told Palestinian Television: "[The release of] the prisoners is divided into three stages. In general, the agreement must be implemented within 30 months, that is, two and a half years, from the moment of its signing. The prisoners are divided [into three groups]: The first group, according to the wording [of the Understandings], will be released on the day they are signed. It will include prisoners arrested after May 4, 1994, the women, the sick, the young, the elderly, and the administrative prisoners [detainees], and their number will reach 2,000-2,500. The second group will be released after [the prisoners included] in the third group are defined. The third group will be released on the last day of the implementation of the agreement, and will remain in prison for two and a half years. This is a small group of those who carried out operations against the occupation. After the number [of the prisoners in the third group] is determined, the second group will be released, 18 months from the beginning of the implementation of the understandings." [31]

Demilitarized Palestinian State

Yasser Abed Rabbo said at the Ramallah press conference: "The Palestinian state will be demilitarized. It will have police forces to protect its citizens' security and to preserve order and implement the law." [32]

Israel as a Jewish State

In an interview with the London-based daily Al-Hayat, Qaddoura Fares denied the claim that the Understandings stated Israel would be a Jewish state. He also said that most Palestinians, himself included, were opposed to the Nusseiba-Ayalon document [33] "because it recognizes that Israel is a Jewish state and ignores the presence of more than a million Palestinians [in Israel]." [34]

* Y. Yehoshua is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Rai (Jordan), October 13, 2003.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), October 15, 2003.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), October 21, 2003.

[4] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 27, 2003. The survey of 618 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank was conducted between October 15-20, 2003. The remainder of the respondents expressed no opinion regarding the Geneva Understandings.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 18, 2003.

[7] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 13, 2003.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 26, 2003.

[9] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 18, 2003.

[10] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 20, 2003.

[11] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 20, 2003.

[12] Al-Rai (Jordan), October 13, 2003.

[13] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 15, 2003.

[14] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), October 18, 2003.

[15] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 17, 2003.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2003.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2003.

[18] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), November 3, 2003.


[20] Qadoura Fares represented Marwan Al-Barghouti also in talks held among the Palestinian factions on the Hudna.

[21] Palestinian Television (PA), October 14, 2003.

[22] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 14, 2003.

[23] The area of the mosques on the Temple Mount.

[24] Al-Bayan (UAE), October 14, 2003.

[25] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 14, 2003.

[26] In contrast to Qadoura's statements, the draft of the Geneva document, as published in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on November 1, 2003 by its signatories, the Israeli quota will be set according the percentage of refugees in the third countries, which do not currently host them.

[27] Palestinian Television (PA), October 14, 2003.

[28] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 14, 2003.

[29] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), October 16, 2003.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Palestinian Television (PA), October 14, 2003.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Fares is referring to the Popular Campaign for Peace, initiated by the president of Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem Professor Sari Nusseiba and former Israeli General Security Services chief Ami Ayalon. In Article 4, the plan stipulates that the Palestinian refugees will return only to the Palestinian state. The plan was first published in full in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds on November 30, 2002.

[34] Al-Hayat (London), October 14, 2003.

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