Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee
and Priorities in Palestinian Refugee Research
Monday, 8 December 1997
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
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
Beyond questions of general research design, the
participants also tackled the thorny issues of sequence and
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
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
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 Brynenfirstname.lastname@example.org