A Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research


Tuesday, 9 December 1997

Discussion Session: Compensation

Although a few participants opposed detailed discussion of compensation--fearing that it might be used to supplant the legitimate rights of refugees, or somehow weaken the Palestinian bargaining position--most disagreed. Academic discussion of compensation, it was asserted, in no way constrained negotiators. On the contrary, it served a useful function by identifying the advantages and disadvantages of different compensation systems, thus providing information that was likely to be of value to all sides in negotiations.

Three important themes emerged in the session. Participants highlighted the need to put the issue of compensation in a broader context notably emphasizing the need to start from a common middle ground. They attempted to operationalize compensation, break it into a number of smaller more manageable sub-issues, and explore the implications of each of these. Finally, the potential challenges of resource mobilization were highlighted.

The context of compensation

Two kinds of contexts were addressed during the session. Participants situated the issue amidst larger concerns for the right of return, moral responsibility, and accountability. They also attempted to place it in the framework of the current regional socio-political and economic context.

  • Participants noted that the issue of compensation has often been used as a substitute for the discussion of other more difficult issues such as moral responsibility.

    A clear distinction was drawn between the "Israeli" and "Palestinian" positions on the matter. Noting the two options provided by UN General Assembly Resolution 194--return and compensation--one participant noted that Israel thus far accepted neither, while Palestinians insisted on both. The participant echoed another speaker in emphasizing the need to start from a middle ground. In this respect, it was felt that the most important requisite was the will to come to an agreement. Some, however, differed with this view. One Israeli wondered about the extent of Israel's moral and/or legal responsibility to provide compensation to the refugees, and noted that Israeli public opinion might be reluctant to accept such responsibility.

  • Participants raised concerns about the need to situate compensation in the context of the peace process. Specifically, one speaker highlighted the need to think about the potential impact of a Palestinian-Israeli final status agreement including modalities for compensation of the refugee populations of Syria and Lebanon. Questions were raised about the degree to which the Palestinian Authority could reach an agreement that would be binding on other Palestinians.

  • It was also suggested that the voices of refugees needed to be heard in this matter and that a substantial number would prefer the right of return over compensation. A differing opinion however stated that compensation would be part of a broader final status agreement among leaders who already accept the principle of compensation.


Participants noted that the issue of compensation is highly complex, and suggested a number of ways to operationalize the concept and break it into more specific and manageable components.

  • What is the international experience on compensation and does it help us disentangle the Palestinian situation?

  • How might claims be made? Should they be based on losses suffered in 1948? What are the drawbacks of such a proposition? Is there sufficient documentation on the matter? Would this reproduce the social inequalities of the time? Are per-capita claims a better alternative?

  • To whom should payments be made? To individuals, families, or groups? Is it better to use the payments for developmental assistance?
    Those in favor of individual compensation schemes felt that the main unanswered questions lay in this area. Specifically, they suggested the need for further research into the evaluation of losses, the operationalization of suffering, and the determination of likely claimants. One participant maintained that the time span between the actual loss and the claim might cause problems for any individual, claims-based system. Another noted that an individual, claims-based system would tend to recreate the inequalities of pre-1948 Palestine, and suggested that some system of per capita payments might be more equitable and simpler to administer.

    Concerning collective compensation--paid to the Palestine Authority and host governments--both advantages and disadvantages were identified. The international community might be more likely to support such a scheme, particularly if it could do so under the rubric of regional economic development (rather than payments to individual claimants). It was also suggested that existing infrastructure in the West Bank/Gaza (including any settlements that might be evacuated) could be factored into a collective compensation package. Questions were, howeve, raised as to whether government bureaucracies were indeed the best recipients for compensation money.

    • Should payments be made in a lumpsum or should they be spread over an extended period of time? Should the payments be made in cash or in loans?

    • What are the economic implications of this sudden inflow of capital for individuals and countries?

    • What about the claims put forward by host governments? It was suggested that this question will gain critical importance following a refugee agreement, as UNRWA activities are wound down --especially if substantial Palestinian populations choose to remain in the host countries.

    • Who is responsible for the administration of the compensation regimes? How long should these regimes be in place?

    • How do we secure the mobilization of required resources? Who should pay?  Who is required to contribute? What compensation schemes are more likely to galvanize donors?

    In general, it was felt that a compensation element was necessary to deal with property issues as well as with issues of responsibility and culpability. Two concerns were raised in this respect: the resistance that this would generate inside Israel and the potential tensions that individual compensation schemes might trigger among various Palestinian constituencies.

    Resource Mobilization

    The last issue raised during the discussion was the need for resource mobilization and the constraints associated with this process. One participant expressed grave concern regarding the gap between estimates of Palestinian losses and the amounts of compensation funding that would likely be forthcoming from the international community. In this regard he noted that estimates of Palestinian losses can run from $40 billion to as much as $200 billion in current dollars, whereas total international aid to the Oslo process is approximately $700 million per year.

    Israel was identified as the likely primary source of compensation funds. Participants suggested that one of the downfalls of peace would be to redirect US aid money from the Israeli military and/or economy to compensation. Others, however, thought this was not feasible in the near future. Participants also identified the Western countries as potential donors. However, it was suggested that donors usually provide funding only out of a national interest. Moral and humanitarian issues thus need to be couched in different terms such as sustainability, accountability, security, and stability, if they are to stand a chance of garnering resources. It was agreed by most participants that any compensation scheme had to be designed so as to facilitate resource mobilization.


    Overall, most participants identified compensation as an area that deserved further study and analysis.

    The PRRN/IDRC compensation workshop was funded by IDRC and the Canadian International Development Agency thrrough the Expert and Advisory Services Fund. PRRN is a project of the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab Studies (Montréal).

    Last modified 23/12/97. Rex Brynen/