Refugees in the Middle East Process
The question of Palestinian refugees has been a core issue in the Arab-Israeli
conflict since 1948. Subsequent to the initiation of the current Middle
East peace process in Madrid in 1991, it has been addressed in a variety
The Multilateral Track:
The Refugee Working Group
The Madrid peace process envisaged Arab-Israeli peace negotiations on
- first, bilateral negotiations between the direct parties to the conflict
(Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and Israel with what was initially formed
as a joint Palestinian/Jordanian delegation).
- second, multilateral negotiations on those broader issues whose solutions
require coordinated action and the international community's support.
The multilateral track was formally initiated in Moscow in January 1992,
with the establishment of the Refugee Working
Group and four others (Arms Control and Regional Security; Regional
Economic Development; Water; Environment).
The Refugee Working Group focuses on seven main themes, each with a lead
country or "shepherd". The themes are Data Bases (the shepherd
for which is Norway), Family Reunification (shepherded by France), Human
Resources Development (the U.S.A), Job Creation and Vocational Training
(also the U.S.A.), Public Health (Italy), Child Welfare( Sweden) and Economic
and Social Infrastructure (the European Union). In cooperation with the
regional parties, the shepherds are responsible for defining needs, developing
responses and mobilizing required resources. During the plenary session,
each shepherd will be making a report on the progress achieved under their
theme since the last plenary. To date, there have been eight plenary sessions
of the RWG:
- Moscow, January 1992
- Ottawa, May 1992
- Ottawa, November 1992
- Oslo, May 1993
- Tunis, October 1993
- Cairo, May 1994
- Antalya, December 1994
- Geneva, December 1995
Israel boycotted the first full session of the RWG in Ottawa in May 1992.
At the November 1992 meeting its participation was first delayed by a
dispute over participation of Palestinian members of the Palestine National
Council, and then cut short by a dispute over the issue of "family
reunification." The first seven meetings of the RWG were "gavelled"
by Canadian diplomat Marc Perron; he was succeeded by Canadian diplomat
Andrew Robinson at RWG VIII.
In 1997, the Arab League called for a boycott of the multilaterals in
protest over Israeli policies. However, lower-level work by the RWG continued.
This ended, however, with the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada
in September 2000, which led to a suspension of all multilateral track
- Despite this, Canada and the current RWG gavel holder, Mike Molloy, continue
to be support a range of research, dialogue, technical, and other projects
aimed at addresseing both the immediate needs of the refugees and enhancing
the prospects for eventually achieving a negotiated, mutually-acceptable
resolution of the refugee issue.
On the work of the RWG, see the papers by Rex
Brynen and Jill Tansley, Rex Brynen,
(Palestinian RWG negotiator) Salim
Tamari, and by former RWG Gavels Marc
Perron and Andrew
Robinson elsewhere on PRRN.
The Oslo Process
New frameworks and forums for discussion of refugee issues were created
by the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles
(DoP) of September 1993. The DoP called for the immediate negotiation
of interim Palestinian self-government in portions of the West Bank and
Gaza, with negotiations on "permanent status" issues--refugees,
along with borders, settlements and Jerusalem--to be delayed until 1996.
In May 1996, the final status negotiations were formally opened, but substantial
negotiation was interrupted by Israeli elections, and the subsequent change
in the Israeli government. The Hebron redeployment agreement (January
1997) called for final status negotiations to begin in March 1997. However,
Israel's decision to proceed with new settlement activity in occupied
territory near Jerusalem led to a deterioration in the peace process,
and as of the time of writing final status negotiations had not yet begun.
The DoP did, however, call for immediate negotiations between Israel,
the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt on the "modalities of admission
of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967." Subsequently,
a Continuing (or "Quadripartite")
Committee was established to discuss these issues. The Committee first
met in Amman in May 1995; subsequent meetings were held in Beersheba,
Cairo, Gaza, Amman and Haifa. Work within the Committee was slow, with
major differences over the definition of a "displaced person"
and hence the number of potential returnees. By 1997, deterioration in
the peace process saw work in the Committee grind to a virtual halt.
In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim
Agreement ("Oslo II") of September 1995 contained some clauses
of relevance to the refugee issue, in particular those regarding residency
rights for returnees.
The Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty
The refugee issue was also addressed in the Jordanian-Israeli
Peace Treaty of October 1994. In Article VIII.2, the parties agreed
to seek to resolve the refugee problem:
- In the case of displaced persons, in a quadripartite committee together
with Egypt and the Palestinians;
- In the case of refugees,
- in the framework of the Multilateral Group on Refugees [Refugee
- in negotiations, in a framework to be agreed, bilateral or otherwise,
in conjunction with and at the same time as the permanent status
negotiations pertiaing to the territories referred to in Article
3 of this treaty [i.e., the territories "that came under Israeli
government control in 1967"]
Permanent Status Negotiations
As called for in the Oslo Agreement, permanent status negotiations between
Israel and the Palestinians were formally launched in the spring of 1996.
These were interrupted, however, by the election in May of that year of
a new, Likud-led government in Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- Only after Netanyahu's defeat in turn by Ehud Barak, and the formation
of a Labor Party-led government in May 1999, did serious negotiations really
begin. In July 2000, US President Bill Clinton hosted an intensive summit
meeting in Camp David between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
These talks failed to produce an agreement, however, and little progress
was made on the refugee issue in particular. In many ways, the Camp David
negotiations were premature. Insufficient groundwork had been laid for an
agreement, and on the refugee issues the Israeli side seemed ill-prepared
to face the issue. The US may also have misread Palestinian intentions.
Following the failure at Camp David, further quiet contacts continued.
The eruption of widespread violence--the second intifada--in late
September, however, made negotiations more difficult, and hastened the
slow collapse of the Barak government. The rapidly-approaching end of
the Clinton Administration also created an additional source of pressure.
- In an effort to break the negotiations deadlock, President Clinton unveiled
compromise proposals to the parties in December 2000. In a subsequent speech
to the Israel Policy Forum in January 2001, Clinton outlined the many elements
of this proposal regarding borders, security, settlements, Jerusalem, and
other key issues. With regard to refugees, he noted:
- ...a solution will have to be found for the Palestinian refugees who
have suffered a great deal -- particularly some of them. A solution that
allows them to return to a Palestinian state that will provide all Palestinians
with a place they can safely and proudly call home. All Palestinian refugees
who wish to live in this homeland should have the right to do so. All
others who want to find new homes, whether in their current locations
or in third countries, should be able to do so, consistent with those
countries' sovereign decisions. And that includes Israel. All refugees
should receive compensation from the international community for their
losses, and assistance in building new lives.
- Critics suggested that the plan offered little recognition of the Palestinian
right of return, nor any realistic foundation for financing refugee compensation.
- Finally, later in January, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in
Taba in a last minute effort to secure an overall permanent status agreement
before early Israeli prime ministerial elections in February. This time--for
the first time-- Yossi Beilin (the chief Israeli refugee negotiator) and
Nabil Sha'th (the chief Palestinian negotiatior) made substantial progress
on the refugee issue. According to a fairly accurate (but not perfect) account
on 29 May 2001:
- Concurrent with the wording of a declaration that would absolve Israel
of legal responsibility for the refugee problem (an expression of regret
in place of guilt), a mechanism was worked out at Taba with the aim of
defusing the highly charged issue of the "right of return."
- The following are the principles of the settlement, as recorded by Israeli
and Palestinian sources who took part in the negotiations. Most of the
details were confirmed by international sources who closely monitored
The international body that will be established to deal with the subject
will present each refugee with five options: rehabilitation in his current
place of residence including citizenship of the state in which he lives;
absorption in the new State of Palestine; settlement in Halutza, in the
southern Negev in Israel; immigration to a country outside the region
(the external affairs minister of Canada, who visited Israel a short time
ago, reiterated his country's commitment to take in refugees as part of
a comprehensive peace agreement); return to Israeli territory.
The five options will be shaped in a manner that will channel immigration
as much as possible to options other than a return to Israel. This will
include a series of incentives, an accelerated rehabilitation program
and generous economic aid, which will be offered to Palestinians who forgo
the option of immigration to Israel.
The immigration quotas will also be geared to induce refugees to opt for
the alternatives to living in Israel. It was agreed that the immigration
quotas for Israel will be lower than those set for other destinations.
(According to an estimate by foreign sources, it will be possible, in
negotiations, to reach agreement on a quota of 40,000 refugee immigrants
to Israel over a period of five years.) In any event, it was agreed that
Israel has the sovereign right to decide who will enter her territory
and who will be barred from entering.
Dealing with the personal status of each refugee will be conditional upon
his relinquishing refugee status and accepting the same rights as those
in whatever place he chooses to reside. This means that the refugee agrees
the place he chooses will be his final place of residence. In addition,
this will mean forgoing claims to property in Israel. The Israeli side
attached great importance to this point, viewing it as confirmation of
the end of Israel's commitment with respect to the refugee problem.
The new international body will replace the United Nations Relief and
Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which
will be dismantled within five years. The new body will assume responsibility
for dealing with the refugees at both the personal and the community level.
This will include establishing infrastructure and making provision for
education, housing, health and welfare, and professional training. Israel
would like the UNRWA to shut down its operations, on the grounds that
the organization's existence perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.
It was agreed that refugee certificates that UNRWA issues would be canceled.
Refugee camps containing those who choose to be rehabilitated where they
are will be annexed to adjacent cities. Thus the refugee camps will lose
their extraterritorial status.
The international body will raise funds and give compensation for private
real estate that was expropriated from the refugees. There is still an
unresolved dispute concerning property of common ownership, collective
compensation, and movable property, such as vehicles and the other items
that the refugees left behind.
Israel demanded that a ceiling be set for the amount of compensation to
be paid; this would then become part of the permanent agreement. The Palestinians
demanded that compensation be set on a case-by-case basis, with no ceiling
- that is, with a separate assessment of the worth of each refugee's case.
Israel argued that the adoption of that system would perpetuate the problem,
because the Palestinians would quickly find themselves in a confrontation
with the administration, which would attempt to reduce the assessed value
of their property. One idea that was discussed was for the amount to be
calculated within a designated time, using a method that would take account
of macro-economic considerations and individual case-by-case calculations.
even more detailed account of the Taba has now become available in
a leaked EU internal summary of the talks.
- Ultimately, however, the Taba negotiations failed to produce a comprehensive
agreement on this and other permanent status issues. Against the backdrop
of escalating violence, negotiations were very difficult, and neither Palestinian
nor Israeli public opinion was inclined to compromise. Moreover, the Barak
government itself was on the verge of collapse. In February, Barak suffered
a humiliating electoral defeat at the hands of hardline Likud leader Ariel
Sharon. With Sharon's accession to the position of prime minister, the prospects
for meaningful permanent status negotiations quickly faded.
[ PRRN | Mcgill
Rex Brynen * email@example.com
* 21 March 2002