A Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research


11h30-12h45, 13h45-15h30
Monday, 8 December 1997

Gaps, Problems and Priorities in Palestinian Refugee Research

This session was devoted to an overview of existing gaps and problems in the literature on Palestinian refugee research. Discussants identified an array of issues requiring further analysis. These issues ranged from the methodological, to the conceptual, and the empirical.

One broad methodological suggestion was to undertake a comparative inter-regional approach in imagining possible scenarios for resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. For example, it was suggested that the issue of compensation should be approached as a universal moral claim which holds not only in the Palestinian case, but in a myriad other cases including that of the Jews following the Second World War.

Conceptually, some participants underscored the need to study the refugee problem in relation to its various contexts. They underlined the linkages between a solution to this problem and its impact on former host states in the Arab World, would-be Palestinian hosts in the areas of return, and the Israeli state and society.

The existence of different resolution scenarios and their diverging consequences require the disaggregation of the Palestinian refugee issue into separate components. Participants suggested two possible ways of doing this: specifying the different categories of Palestinian refugees and delineating the dimensions of the problem.

On the former, it was felt that more empirical, detailed, and concrete analysis should be focused on the following groups: the camp populations in Lebanon and Syria, the Palestinian refugees inside Israel proper, the 1967 refugees whose legal status is different from the rest, and those Palestinians living outside of the refugee camps. More empirical work on the relationship between all these groups was also deemed necessary. There was also an agreement on the need to undertake a closer study of the political, economic, and psycho-social conditions of the refugees, the different modalities of compensation, and other pressing humanitarian and moral issues such as family reunification.

The role of humanitarian institutions was also discussed. Participants voiced the opinion that a more detailed assessment of the refugees' needs should be carried out. Moreover, a closer study of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's existing and potential capabilities to respond adequately to those needs was also deemed crucial. Some participants highlighted the political constraints placed upon UNRWA by host countries. Others suggested the need to rethink the agency's role, specifically the potential of transforming it from a relief humanitarian agency to a developmental one.

Finally, participants acknowledged the need to work collectively to put the Palestinian refugee problem on the public agenda, both inside and outside the Middle East. Furthermore, they recognized the absence of a significant change in attitudes toward the problem and called for more research in this area. They also stressed that attitudinal changes on all sides were crucial elements of any just resolution.

Subsquently, more detailed discussion revolved around four themes: non-material or normative; material; the importance of regional context; and process. Throughout these themes, there was continual discussion of the relationship between research on the issue and resolution of the issue.

Non-material dimensions

Many participants addressed the non-material aspects of the issue such as the importance of political process, mutual recognition of rights, the importance of public discourse, and normalisation. On these four aspects participants addressed the role of research, the potential for resolution, and their role as researchers in this process.

  • One participant argued that in contrast to legal, historical, or humanitarian approaches, more attention must be paid to the political aspects. The political aspect must entail an emphasis on UN General Assembly Resolution (UNGAR) 194 as the basis of resolution. Palestinians must operationalize the implementation of UNGAR 194 in a way that reflects current realities. Israelis must in turn recognise the principle to right to return. Additionally, there is a need to pay greater attention to public opinion. In terms of Palestinian public opinion, leaders should engage the public demands for right of return. In terms of Israeli public opinion, the issue--problematically--remains altogether unaddressed.

  • Another participant added that there is a new political dynamism in the Palestinian community which must be understood. One particular element in this increased ability to formulate and articulate interest in both the refugee and non-refugee communities.

  • Another non-material, or normative, dimension was raised. This was two-fold. First, the need for Israel to recognise a right of return, a right to national sovereignty, and a right to a national configuration. Second, there is a need to recognise responsibility in disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Only after this occurs can normalization (perhaps along the lines of South Africa) can proceed. However, other suggested that this reconciliation could only occur (as it did in South Africa) following the completion of a peace process.

  • Another participant maintained that although research is productive, researchers tend to interact solely with each other to the detriment of larger public discourse. To affect real change the mass publics in all relevant countries must become informed about the issues and interact in forums which enable the formation of opinion. Through this the public, as constituencies, can exert pressure on decision makers. Participants in the conference can facilitate this throughout public outreach such as op-ed writing and television and radio appearances.

  • Also regarding public opinion, many participants emphasized the necessity of transforming public perceptions regarding co-existence.

At the conclusion of the discussion on public opinion one participant added that not only should there be an emphasis on public discourse, but we should develop strategies for directing the discourse in a constructive fashion.

Material dimensions

According to one participant, the three options of repatriation, resettlement and compensation have not been thoroughly explored, and must be researched as they are foundational for a settlement of the issue. He elaborated:

  • In terms of repatriation, this issue needs to be directly addressed and not disregarded because of political unacceptablilty. As such, research must not only concentrate on the absorptive capacity of the West Bank and Gaza, but also on areas within Israel. Others, however, doubted that substantial return to 1948 areas was a realistic option.

  • In terms of resettlement in host countries, two issues must be addressed:
    • integration versus marginalization
    • burden versus contribution

  • In terms of compensation, a compensation "regime" is required.

Another participant suggested that compensation might take the form of development and stabilisation package (including housing, infrastructure, education and other socio-economic aid) in contrast to individual or lump sum payments.

Demography was also given particular attention in the discussion. One participant contended that researchers and policy makers alike must anticipate the time when Palestinian leaders will have to approach their constituencies and confront the fact that there are demographic constraints on the ability of the new Palestinian entity to absorb infinite repatriation. As such, the same participant suggested a three way marriage (Israel, Jordan, WB/G) was perhaps a fruitful avenue of research for resolving the demographic constraints.

Regional context

Several of the participants argued that the regional context is an essential component of the refugee issue and thus must relieve commensurate attention. There are two aspects to this: emphasis on the regional economic system and including other actors beyond Israel the PA, focusing on Lebanon and Syria.

On the first aspect, one participant spoke of the need for a regional development plan which moves from a relief to a development approach. Another bemoaned the existence of two bilateral agreements rather than a trilateral agreement and contended that a multilateral approach to regional development was necessary.

Among many participants advocating a greater regional emphasis one specifically stated that the Israelis and Palestinians cannot resolve the issue on their own. Therefore other regional players, especially Lebanon and Syria must be included. Furthermore, another added, Lebanon and Syria must be given greater consideration in research. For example such research could include answering the question: what resettlement means to Lebanon, particularly economically. Labor markets and their implications for regional economic competitiveness, he maintained, deserve particularly attention.


Beyond questions of general research design, the participants also tackled the thorny issues of sequence and prioritization.

Several participants stated that in the context of this forum, a preference should be given to a development of research agenda rather than an attempt to resolve the refugee problem. In conducting this research several participants also maintained that that research should not be self-censored and should also be broken down into manageable constituent parts. The debate regarding the focus of research centered around the relative importance of preferences and constraints. One participant maintained that the starting point for analysis should be peoples ultimate preferences, rather than realpolitik. Constraints should be understood, but not inhibiting and preferences should be optimised within these constraints, seeking to overcome these constraints. For example, some participants introduced the need to examine modalities other than the right of return, since the latter would not be acceptable to Israel. However, others responded that the discussion should not be contrained by anticipations of Israeli response, adding that this unnecessarily restricts the research agenda.

Several participants also emphasized the need to address specificities. In a particular, one stated that it is important to begin discussing scenarios (and likely Israeli, Palestinian and regional responses to these). Some also suggested that the issues must be broken down into constituent parts in order to become more manageable. Supporting the disagregative view, another participant suggested a recent study on Jerusalem which, by breaking the issue down, revealed a diversity of views.

One participant argued that the importance of the refugee issue in the list of priorities must be determined, yet added that this is difficult due to the interrrelatedness of issues. He also suggested that because it is such a controversial and integral issue, it should be left as sequentially penultimate, prior only to the final delineation of Palestinian statehood. Some viewed sequence and prioritization in a different light, contending that any resolution of the refugee issue can not be reached without clear and viable conceptions relating to borders and sovereignty (Palestinian statehood). Yet another suggested that as all issues are linked, they should be addressed simultaneously throughout.

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 15/12/97. Rex Brynen/