A Stocktaking Conference on Palestinian Refugee Research


Tuesday, 9 December 1997

Plenary Session

In the concluding session, the coorganizers presented the following summary of the conference and its findings:

First, it was noted that there was universal agreement among the participants that the refugee issue is a central issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that it has thus far not always received the appropriate degree of attention from researchers, policy-makers or the general public.

There was also a consensus among participants that the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state is an integral and central aspect of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including some aspects of the refugee problem. A just and durable solution cannot be imposed on the parties involved, and especially not on the Palestinian refugees themselves. On the contrary, any process of resolving the refugee issue must provide the refugees with options from which they can make a free and informed choice.


The Contribution of Researchers

Given the importance of the issue, there was broad agreement that researchers have a potentially valuable role to play, by providing the kinds of methodologically-sound and policy-relevant data required to inform negotiating processes, underwrite political decisions and define solutions, support the implementation of existing agreements, and facilitate the conclusion of future understandings. It was recognized that, in the end, it would be negotiators rather than scholars who would determine the content of future final status arrangements. Accordingly, the former were free to reject the proposals and analyses offered by the latter. However, by exploring possible scenarios, packages and arrangements, and by identifying the various issues that might confront any effort to operationalize these, researchers were offering valuable strategic "spade-work" in support of a final settlement.

In doing so, researchers should not be constrained by "red lines" and taboos, but rather should use their freedom as scholars to think originally and creatively--to "enlarge the menu" rather than self-censor. Equally, however, a certain amount of political realism is also critical if academic musings are to have policy impact.

If a solution is to be achieved, the negotiating parties will have to talk openly and freely about a range of delicate issues. Consequently, there was agreement among participants that so-called "second track" efforts can--if properly conducted with the right amount of discretion and connection--might be useful in promoting greater agreement and understanding. Conference participants also stressed the need to promoted wider public dialogue on these issues. Such dialogue needs to be harnessed to a clear strategy, however, which is based of a clear understanding of what sorts of perceptions in what constituencies one is trying to modify.


Key Issues

A repeated theme of conference discussions was the existance of both material (repatriation, return, compensation, resettlement) and non-material aspects (attitude, perceptions, and issues of justice and rights) aspects of the conflict. Both dimensions are important.

With regard to the former, many participants highlighted the need to know more about mass attitudes, among both Palestinian refugees and among Israelis. To date, public opinion surveys on the issue have been inadequate, particularly with regard to Israeli public opinion.

Overall, it was clear that there was a need to push research agendas further, and to delve into issues more deeply. Scholars must be wary of retreading the same ground, and make sure that they are asking the appropriate critical questions. The six conference discussion workshops identified a number of important question deserving of further attention:

  • The difficult issues raised by the discussion of legal and moral dimensions underscored the need for further dialogue. The issue of return of the 1948 refugees to their homes and the various modalities associated with such a possible return were discussed with a view to exploring them in future research. Some participants underscored the lack of Israeli public support for any return of refugees to 1948 areas. Others asserted that pragmatism should not come at the refugees' expense.However, participants were encouraged by the constructive discussion of differences, which underscored the value of additional dialogue activities in this area.

  • In the case of compensation, it was noted that there been relatively little detailed exploration of potential compensation regimes, including the basis for claims, valuation, adjudication, modes of balancing competing claims, the advantages and disadvantages of individual versus collective compensation, and financing modalities and requirements. Comparative studies of compensation systems adopted in other contexts might be useful in examining thse sorts of issues. It was broadly agreed that research on compensation in no way bound negotiators to particular outcomes, but might prove useful by informing their choices.

  • With regard to refugee repatriation, it was noted that any return of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza needs to be supported by appropriate assessments of their absorptive capacity, and of the socio-economic and infrastructural requirements and implications of an influx of Palestinians from outside these areas.

  • The future of UNRWA was another issue discussed at the conference. It was suggested that researchers had a valuable role to play in this regard, given the institutional and political limits which-- at a time of grave financial pressure and considerable political uncertainty--constrained the organization from thinking about its long term future.

  • In the case of interim measures, the fluidity and complexity of the current situation was underscored. One theme to emerge from discussion was the need for new developmental partnerships in the West Bank and Gaza. A second was the pressing social and economic needs of Palestinians in Lebanon.

  • The fundamental linkages between the refugee issue and other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict were emphasized in the discussion on final status. To date, these linkages have not received sufficient attention. There was also repeated emphasis on the regional dimensions of the refugee issue, and the need for research to address these.


Future Activities

The conference organizers noted that the UK has undertaken to organize a conference on the refugee issue, to be held at the University of Warwick in March. This conference will primarily focus on the cost requirements for different solutions to the refugee issue, with attention given to the modalities and potential funding mechanisms for such aspects as refugee absorption, compensation, and the implications for current host countries.

Other funding agencies were urged to show support for useful and strategic research on refugees, and to build on the findings, themes and observations that emerged from the Ottawa conference. Particular support was expressed for smaller, focused workshops which could deliver more detailed and sophisticated analyses of particular aspects of the refugee issue.

All participants were also urged to expand the degree of collaboration and networking among scholars. One mechanism identified for this was Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet and the FOFOGNET email list. Participants were once again reminded that PRRN offers a summary of world-wide research projects on the refugee issue, and all were urged to update this information regularly. The organizers also circulated a contact list of conference participants.

Finally, all participants extended particular gratitude to the International Development Research Centre and Canadian International Development Agency for providing the support that had made the Ottawa stocktaking conference possible.


Rex Brynen, McGill University/PRRN
Joel Peters, University of Reading
Janice Stein, University of Toronto
Jill Tansley, IDRC

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 30/10/97. Rex Brynen/