A Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research


Tuesday, 9 December 1997

Discussion Session: Legal and Moral Dimensions

This session dealt with an array of issues pertaining to the legal and moral dimensions of the refugee problem. Drawing an analogy with the formative role of the Holocaust on Israeli political thinking, one (Israeli) discussant suggested that a main obstacle towards a fruitful resolution of the refugee problem is the inability of the Israeli society to understand the trauma of the Palestinian refugee experience. It was suggested that educational activities should be undertaken to publicise this issue inside Israeli society. This participant also added that Israel, as a state, should take some, but not all, responsibility for what has befallen the Palestinian refugees. Other discussants added that there is a need to study the human dimension of the refugee problem, particularly that concerning the Israeli myths deployed to hinder the return of the refugees.

Another discussant suggested that both Palestinians and Israelis must mutually recognise one another's respective traumas. However, the discussant added, the notion of a right of return should not be limited to geography. Rather, it should also include a right to return to normal life, to the protection of one's own sovereign state which ends the refugees' current state of vulnerability, to the enjoyment of the rights of citizenship, to the integrity of normal communal forms, and finally, to their rehumanization in the annals of history. In other words, Israel should address the "right of return" in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.

Other participants added that there is a need to research different strategies of reconciliation which could help the peace process when the time for reconciliation arises. It was also suggested that there is much to learn from the similar experiences of other communities around the globe (for example, South Africa, Latin America).

An Israeli discussant stressed that without reconciliation between the two peoples, peace cannot be obtained. Moreover, achieving a viable peace entails a clear partition between two separate states. In this case, the right of return should be limited to the Palestinian state, and not to Israel.

Others disagreed that the "right of return" to 1948 areas should be ruled out. Some discussants voiced the concern that the claim that millions of refugees will want to return to Israel proper was exagerated. To avoid such rhetoric, there is a need to engage in a systematic and empirical study of the profiles and quantities of potential returnees. After all, symbolic compensation is not sufficient to deal with the refugee problem. Nor was the attempt to intellectualize it by distinguishing between the "principle" of return and its implementation.

The session closed with a number of suggestions for further research. One participant contended that there is a need for a practical proposal from the Palestinian side concerning the right of return. This proposal should contain details, statistics, and the names of places in order to be comparable to a similar proposal already advanced from the Israeli perspective. Another participant suggested that there is need for more networking among civil society organizations on both sides to develope the public sense of understanding prerequisite for a viable peace. Moreover, the role of the media in the reconciliation process also requires further research.

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/