and Final Status: Key Issues
|PRRN is currently working with IDRC to finalize a series of policy papers on the refugee issue, outlining the various negotiating issues and possible approaches to resolving them. When that series is available, it will be posted online, replacing the overview below.
Substantive negotiations on the refugee issue were first held in 2000-01, at the Camp David and Taba negotiations, as well as in other talks and in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters. There was also some discussion of the issue during the Annapolis Round in 2007-08.
From those talks, as well as various second track projects such as the Geneva Initiative, . However, it is clear--from second track dialogue projects, from discussions in and around the RWG
(Quadripartite) Committeeit is clear that four sets of issues will be at the core of any possible solution of the refugee issue.
The Right of Return
The Palestinian "right of return" has been
a central element of the Palestinian position throughout
post-Madrid negotiations on the refugee issue. The
right of return is expressed in terms of both the
moral claim of refugees to return to homes from which
they have been displaced, and by reference to a number
of United Nations resolutions. The most important
of these is General
Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 1948, which inter alia declares that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date..". However, a broader right of return can also be read from Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international human rights instruments.
Israel has rejected the "right of return," and consequently opposed basing any negotiations on the principles of UNGAR 194. Typically, Israeli spokespersons have argued either that Israel bears little moral responsibility for the flight of Palestinian refugees in 1948, and/or that a de facto "population transfer" occurred as Israel accepted post-1948 Jewish refugees from the Arab world. Israel also argues that UNGAR 194 was a non-binding resolution of the General Assembly that merely recommended a particular course of action, but did not require it. In any case, mainstream Israeli commentators are virtually unanimous in their assessment that no Israeli government would ever countenance substantially changing the demographic balance of the state--the very raison d'être of which is its Jewish character.
Despite this large gap in official
positions, it is possible to discern some middle ground
between some Israeli and Palestinian analysts of the
refugee issue. Many Palestinians--both intellectuals
and officials--have spoken of a Palestinian right
of return that would be understood to mean a return
to national soil (in the West Bank and Gaza), rather
than a return to 1948 homes. Ziad Abu Zayyad, for
example, suggests that "One must distinguish
between, on the one hand, the "right of return"
as a principle, and on the other hand, exercising
that right by literally returning to Palestine as
a national homeland, and to that same home, piece
of land, or grove which a certain Palestinian owned
before 1948, as a private individual property."
Rashid Khalidi--emphasizing what he terms "attainable"
(rather than "absolute") justice--suggests
that while "it must be accepted that all Palestinian
refugees and their descendants have a right to return
to their homes in principle..." it must be "equally
accepted that in practice force majeure will prevent
most of them from being able to exercise this right."
Others have maintained somewhat more ambiguity. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in a 2002 opinion piece in the New York Times, indicated that some accommodation of Israel's demographic concerns was possible:
In addition, we seek a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who for 54 years have not been permitted to return to their homes. We understand Israel's demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns. However, just as we Palestinians must be realistic with respect to Israel's demographic desires, Israelis too must be realistic in understanding that there can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the legitimate rights of these innocent civilians continue to be ignored. Left unresolved, the refugee issue has the potential to undermine any permanent peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. How is a Palestinian refugee to understand that his or her right of return will not be honored but those of Kosovar Albanians, Afghans and East Timorese have been?
The Arab League's March 2002 peace initiative, while calling for "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194," makes this contingent on Israeli agreement.
Tamari (a member of the Palestinian delegation
to both the RWG and the Continuing Committee) approvingly
quotes Khalidi's views, expressing them in the following
Israel's acceptance, in principle,
of the right of Palestinians and their descendants
to return to their homes. The Palestinians, in exchange,
would recognize that this right cannot be exercised
inside the 1948 boundaries but in a state on Palestine
[in the West Bank and Gaza]. As part of these mutual
concessions, Israel should take into its territory
several tens of thousands of refugees, particularly
those who have family members living inside Israel.
He also adds his own view, however,
that the "right of return to a mini-Palestine"
should not be "bartered against the right of
return to Israel itself." In a similar vein,
Abbas Shiblaq (another periodic member of the Palestinian
RWG team) has noted that "The right of return
for Palestinian refugees will be basically applied
to the future Palestinian state in areas occupied
in 1967." However, the Shaml
Newsletter (of which Shiblaq is editor) declares that
"Return to Palestinian National Authority areas
is not a substitute to the right of return of the
refugees of 1948"--while also acknowledging that
"it would be naive to assume that political considerations
and developments of the last fifty years will not
have an impact on the way that this right might be
The responsiveness of Israelis to this position has been mixed. On the one hand, Likud spokespersons have rejected outright even a Palestinian "return" to the West Bank and Gaza. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for example, once stated:
If these people find themselves resettled
once again in miserable refugee camps in Judea, Samaria
and Gaza, gazing out from them upon their towns and
the remains of their former villages, the tension
and anger will be enormous.
We cannot count on their wanting to stay put in their
current places of residence, whatever the government
placatingly tells us...
The Palestinian refugee problem is a tragedy the Palestinians
brought upon themselves. But one tragedy must not
be replaced by another.
If we want to continue living in this country, a solution
to the refugee problem must be found elsewhere - even
if it goes against the Camp David accords.
Similarly, Netanyahu advisor Dore
Gold has cited Israel's "demographic security"
as the consequent need to prevent "a situation
where the Palestinian Authority floods Judea and Samaria
with [returning] refugees." 
On the other hand, a number of influential Israelis have been open to the idea of very limited or symbolic return to 1948 areas--provided that Palestinians explicitly abandon claims of a right of return to 1948 areas. Mark Heller, for example, has suggested that, given the impossibility (and from his perspective, undesirability) of implementing any "right of return" to the refugees' original homes within Israel proper, Palestinian refugees would instead be free to "return" to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This might be accompanied by the admission of some former Palestinian refugees to Israel on humanitarian grounds.
Shlomo Gazit also suggests that the refugee issue
be resolved through the establishment of an independent
Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the
establishment of a Palestinian "Law of Return"
under which "every Palestinian in the diaspora
so wishes would be receive Palestinian citizenship,
carry a Palestinian passport that would grant him
international recognition and rights, and, if need
be, the right to immigrate to the new state."
By contrast, Gazit is personally less willing than
Heller to consider the "return" of a token
number of Palestinians to 1948 territories on humanitarian/family
reunification grounds, although he does include it
as a possible Israeli policy option. Even Shimon Peres,
while emphasizing the resettlement of Palestinian
refugees in their current place of exile, leaves the
door open for this sort of arrangement, suggesting
that "once a permanent settlement has been worked
out, the Israeli government should have no objection
to free movement into and out of the areas included
in the Palestinian-Jordanian confederation."--and
that, furthermore, "the success of negotiations
and the positive atmosphere thus created will make
it easier for Israel to show goodwill in resolving
the question of family reunification."
1996 understanding between Labor's Yossi Beilin and
Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen suggested that the return of Palestinian refugees would be focussed on the West Bank and Gaza. This possibility was also held open in a 1997 unofficial paper developed by Beilin and Likud MK Michael Eitan.
During the Taba negotiations in January 2001, members of the Israeli negotiating team suggested that 25,000 refugees might be accepted over three years or 40,000 over five years, in the context of a 15-year programme of absorption that would also include (possibly additional) family reunification. This ambiguous formula could be read as representing anything from 25,000 to 125,000 or more refugees. As an alternative to this, Israeli negotiators had also suggested granting the right of return to orig- inal 1948 refugees only a relatively small number of refugees who were well past reproductive age and therefore posed no demographic threat to the Jewish character of Israel. This proposal was deemed unac- ceptable by the Palestinian side. Palestinian negotiators had been urged to press for a level in the six figures, but with no more explicit political guidance. During the Annapolis Round of negotiations in 2007-8, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested that some token "family reunification" of refugees might occur, but he ruled out any substantial right of return.
Most second track dialogue projects, such as the Geneva Initiative, have envisaged Palestinian refugees largely repatriating to a future Palestinian state, rather than returning to Israel.
As can be seen above, a central assumption of the more flexible interpretations of the Palestinian "right of return" is the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a state would not only be able to accept those Palestinians wishing to return to their national soil, but would further be able to offer Palestinian citizenship to those who remain in the diaspora.
The implications of this would vary across the diaspora.
In Lebanon--where most Palestinians are presently
stateless--the provision of Palestinian citizenship
to any Palestinians electing to remain in that country
might serve to assuage some Lebanese concerns regarding
the political consequences of the Palestinian presence.
Much the same would apply in Syria. In Jordan, however,
Palestinians overwhelming hold Jordanian citizenship.
Some Jordanian officials have suggested that dual
citizenship would not be an option, and that Palestinians
would have to choose one political identity or the
other in the event of a final settlement. However,
it is also possible that this issue would be resolved
through the formation of a future Palestinian-Jordanian
confederation, which at times has been a declared
aim of both parties.
With regard to Israel, some Israelis have expressed
concern at the idea that its Arab citizens might opt
for Palestinian citizenship if the option were available
to them. It is questionable how many would do so,
however--particularly since under these circumstances
Israel would presumably excerise its sovereign right
to deny dual citizenship, and could easily establish
additional legal disincentives.
A second essential in final status resolution of the
refugee issue is compensation--or, more accurately,
the issue of both compensation (monies paid for lost
property) and reparations (monies paid in recognition
of the historical injustice which created the refugee
issue). UNGAR 194 (III) emphasized the former, proposing
that “compensation should be paid for the property
of those choosing not to return and for loss of or
damage to property which, under principles of international
law or in equity, should be made good by the governments
or authorities responsible.” Estimates of potential
Palestinian compensation/reparation claims have varied
widely, although they are typically in the tens of
billions. Rashid Khalidi, for example, notes:
A third element is reparations for
all those who will not be allowed to return, and compensation
for those who lost property in 1948. Given that most
refugees will not be able to return, the sums involved
are large indeed, according to the most authoritative
recent estimate of property losses alone. Depending
on the criteria used, they range from $92 billion
to $147 billion at 1984 prices, when the study was
done [Kubursi in Hadawi, 1984, p.183]. Even if one
uses an entirely different approach, $20,000 per person
for an arbitrarily chosen figure of 2 million eligible
refugees and their descendants yields a figure of
$40 billion. However, lest this seem like a great
deal of money, we should recall that it amounts to
little more than a decade worth of US aid to Israel.
Such estimates are typically based
on estimates of Palestinian losses in 1948, or perhaps--as
with Khalidi’s figure of $40 billion, or Shlomo
Gazit’s suggestion that Israel might pay up to $7-10 billion in compensation, or alternatively $10,000 per family--an attempt to place an appropriate price-tag on a historical injustice. However, some have raised questions as to what financial resources might be available to finance compensation payments.  A number of Western donors have signalled that while they would be generous in support of a overall Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, they see compensation of Palestinians for property seized and held by Israel as primarily an Israeli--not international--responsibility.
In addition to the issue of available resources,
there are a number of questions surrounding who receives
Payments might be made to surviving 1948 refugees,
or to all UNRWA-registered refugees, or differentially
allocated to original refugees and their descendants.
- Payments might be made to surviving 1948 refugees, or to all UNRWA-registered
refugees, or differentially allocated to original refugees and their
- Payments might be directed equally at all refugees, or tied
in some regard to whether refugees elect to utilize their right
of return. UNGAR 194 (III) suggests both models: that payments
be made to those choosing not to return, and that general
payments be made for loss and damages. If returning refugees receive
lesser payments than non-returnees, this creates an incentive (especially
for the poorest refugees) to remain in diaspora.
- A portion of compensation/reparations might be paid to the Palestine
Authority. This could be justified on the grounds that the PA
is assuming the task of reintegrating returnees and rehabilitating
existing refugee camps in the territories. It might also appeal to
donors and to Israel on political grounds, given the extent to which
the peace process hinges on the political stability of the PA. It
would be much less effective, however, in assuaging the historical
grievances of ordinary Palestinians.
- Host governments will certainly make a claim for financial
resources associated with a refugee settlement, especially given the
wind-down of UNRWA and their consequent assumption of the full burden
of any remaining refugee community. Palestinians themselves will be
unwilling to see resources intended for refugees flow into the coffers
of host governments instead, especially in the case of a Lebanese
government that often seems hostile to the Palestinian presence. On
the other hand, refugee-linked financial support (or debt relief)
for host governments would, in the case of Lebanon in particular,
provide the international community with some leverage to assure good
treatment of, and the continued provision of services to, those Palestinians
remaining in the country. By contrast, if aid were not provided to
Lebanon it might simply refuse to assume functions previously provided
by UNRWA, further worsening the position of any remaining Palestinian
There are also a variety of issues surrounding to
how compensation/reparation payments might be made:
- A claims-based system, linking compensation payments to properties
lost in 1948, would result in a highly uneven distribution of resources.
Those Palestinians from poorer peasant family backgrounds (who often
represent the poorest portion of the current refugee population) would,
under such a system, receive the smallest payments. By contrast, a
system of per capita payments would recognize the injustice
done to all Palestinians, would have more positive socio-economic
effects, and would be much easier to administer. It might also have
political advantages should the level of compensation available fall
far below calculations of 1948 losses. One advantage of either system
is that it would put economic resources into the hands of individual
Palestinians, and create an immediate capital injection into the economy
of host countries.
- Compensation might take the form of cash payments, and/or
some sort of package of services (including vouchers and soft
loans). Simple cash payments maximize refugee flexibility, but provide
less ability to use compensation payments to achieve certain desired
economic and social objectives.
- Compensation might be immediate, or paid over a period
of time. The former provides a more ready capital resource for
refugees; the latter may be necessary to bridge shortcomings in compensation
financing, or to reduce the economic disruption caused by a sudden
short-term, one-time capital injection into local economies.
Finally, there is the issue of compensation claims that might be made by Jews who fled Arab countries after 1948. Some Israelis have argued that such claims could be used as a bargaining chip to offset Palestinian compensation demands. Palestinians, on the other hand, argue that the proper address for any Jewish claims should be the Arab states responsible.
A fourth set of issues revolves around the question
of refugee resettlement, whether in current countries
of refuge or in third countries. Because of its opposition
to any Palestinian "right of return," this
has been a position favoured by successive Israel
governments. Equally, Palestinian refugees have strongly
opposed any resettlement outside of their homeland.
Arab host countries have also rejected
the option of resettlement, although with varyting
degrees of vehemence. The Lebanese government strongly
imposes "tawtin", or permanent implantation,
of its present Palestinian population. This view is
generally shared across the Lebanese political and
sectarian spectrum: According to one survey, three
quarters of Lebanese opposed resettlement, and a similar
proportion believed that it would have damaging political
or economic consequences. In
Jordan, by contrast, Palestinians already enjoy full
political and social rights as Jordanian citizens.
Several factors would likely shape the propensity
of Palestinians to repatriate to a Palestinian state:
- The degree of historical and social attachment to the territories.
Whereas some 40% of Palestinians in Jordanian originate from the West
Bank (excluding "second time" refugees), this is true of only 1% of
Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.
- The degree of local social and economic integration. Palestinians
are most integrated in Jordan, and perhaps least socially integrated
in the Gulf states. In Lebanon, officials report that fully one quarter
of third-generation Palestinians have a Lebanese mother or father.
- Political and economic "push" factors in the host country. This
is particularly relevant in Lebanon, where some observers fear that
an unwelcoming Lebanese government would actively discourage Palestinian
resdents from remaining in the event of a final status settlement.
By contrast, it is doubtful (barring a sudden rise in Palestinian-East
Bank tensions) that any such push factors would be felt in Jordan.
- The economic resources of Palestinian refugees, coupled with economic
conditions in the territories. Poorer refugees might be unable to
relocate, even if they wished to do so. Similarly, high prices and
high unemployment in the territories might make it difficult for them
to do so. Because of this, the nature of any refugee compensation
package would become particularly important.
- The willingness of third countries to accept Palestinian immigrants.
Some surveys suggest that many Palestinian refugees would avail themselves
of the opportunity to immigrate to Western countries were that option
open to them. However, the availability of such an option would be
subject to the complex domestic political dynamics of immigration
policy in receiving countries.
Irregardless of the political viability
or desirability of such assumptions, it is immediately
evident that even were final status arrangements on
the refugee issue to be successfully concluded, the
number of Palestinians remaining in the diaspora would
remain substantial.  This in
turn raises important questions about their civil
status. As suggested earlier, a Palestinian state
would presumably have the option of extending citizenship
to them (although this might be constrained by the
dual citizenship policies of the host country). The
most sensitivity would undoubtedly arsie in Lebanon.
This has led Nawaf Salam to suggest that a form of
permanent residency could be granted to Palestinians
remaining in Lebanon, granting them full civil and
economic rights but not the political rights (voting,
office-holding) of Lebanese citizenship. 
Others have been critical of such a suggestion, raising
the concern that this might create a permanent political
underclass, generating the same sorts of dilemmas
as those posed by long-term "guest workers"
in parts of Europe.
During the intensive permanent status
negotiations that took place from the summer of 2000
until January 2001, some progress was made between
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in identifying
a common middle ground. On the Israeli side, there
appeared to be recognition that Israel would have
to be accept some refugee return, admit some responsibility
or regret for the refugee issue, and accept primary
responsibility for financing refugee compensation.
On the Palestinian side, there was recognition that
Israel would not permit practical implementation of
the right of return to fundamentally change the demographic
face of the Jewish state. As a consequence, voluntary
refugee repatriation (to a Palestinian state) and
resettlement (in either present host countries or,
to a much lesser extent, other countries) would also
be important elements of an eventual agreement.
However, these understandings were rendered moot--temporarily,
perhaps--by the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli
prime minister in February 2001. More generally, the
upsurge in violence that began in the fall of 2000
hardened public opinion on both sides. Within Israel,
protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel as to their
second-class treatment led many Israeli Jews to fear
any future return of even token numbers of 1948 refugees,
while the second intidafa severely weakened support
the Oslo peace process overall. Among Palestinians,
popular support for the right of return remained strong,
and the violence and increasing harshness of Israeli
occupation disinclined many away from considering
 Ziad Abu Zayyad,
“The Palestinian Right of Return: A Realistic
Approach,” Palestine-Israel Journal 2 (Spring
1994), p. 77.
 Rashid Khalidi,
“Toward a Solution,” in Center for Policy
Analysis on Palestine, Palestinian Refugees: Their
Problem and Future (Washington, DC: CPAP, 1994).
 Salim Tamari,
Palestinian Refugee Negotiations: From Madrid to Oslo
II (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies,
version archived on PRRN.
“Commentary,” Shaml Newsletter 3 (June
1996), p. 4.
 Ariel Sharon,
"Arab Peace Ambush," Likud USA
 Gold in Yediot
Ahronot, 4 June 1996.
Archived on PRRN.
 Mark Heller,
A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Cambridge
MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 80-87; Mark
Heller and Sari Nusseibeh, No Trumpets, No Drums:
A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian
Conflict (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991), pp. 86-96.
 Shlomo Gazit,
The Palestinian Refugee Problem, Final Status Issues
Study No. 2 (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic
Studies, 1995), p. 26.
 Shimon Peres
(with Arye Naor), The New Middle East (New York: Henry
Holt, 1993), pp. 192.
 Khalidi, "Toward
a Solution," p. 24.
 Rex Brynen,
"The Funding of Palestinian Refugee Compensation,"
presented to the ISEPME refugee group, Harvard University,
February 1996, and archived
 Hilal Khashan,
Palestinian Resettlement in Lebanon: Behind the Debate
(Montréal: ICAS Montréal Studies on the
Contemporary Arab World, April 1994), p. 10.
 Heller, A
Palestinian State estimates the number at around 800,000
(p. 83); the PL0's own Programme for the Development
of the Palestinian National Economy for the Years
1994-2000 (Tunis, July 1993) suggests a number of
500,000 returnees (displaced persons, rather than
1948 refugees) over five years.
 Nawaf Salam,
"Between Repatriation and Resettlement: Palestinian
Refugees in Lebanon," Journal of Palestine Studies
93 (Autumn 1994).
 Eldar, Akiva.
to solve the Palestinian refugee problem".
Ha'aretz Tuesday, May 29, 2001; and "Sir,
if you please, tear down your house" (Ha'aretz,
Thursday, May 31, 2001)