|The Palestinian Refugees: After Five Decades of Betrayal - Time at Last?
Source: Stockholm - Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2000
by Thomas Hammarberg
In the autumn of 1998, the Foreign Ministry appointed a project
group to carry out an in-depth study of the political, economic and
social conditions in the Middle East and North Africa. The project
has involved a number of written studies, including this present one.
The contents of these studies are the sole responsibility of the authors
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the FM on the issues
This paper concerns the issue of the Palestinian refugees, their situation
and the attempts to claim their short and long-term rights. One purpose
of the paper is to give a certain amount of factual background, although
its main intention is to analyse the possibilities of reaching a genuine
agreement - and what such a solution would demand of both parties involved
as well as the international community. Including us.
The paper was finalised in September 2000, after the July negotiations
in Camp David. Its author, Ambassador Thomas Hammarberg, has been the
Swedish representative in the refugee group of the multilateral peace
process, the Refugee Working Group, since 1994.
refugees: who are they and how many are there?
Oslo and afterwards
towards a settlement
The hopes of peace in the Middle East remain unfulfilled. One hurdle
is the unresolved issue of the Palestinian refugees. Because no peace
agreement has yet been reached, their plight continues, which in turn
muddies the conditions for any constructive attempts to broker peace.
Nonetheless, certain signs are now appearing that the vicious circle
that has been created is breakable.
When in September 1993 Israeli and Palestinian representatives agreed
on a Declaration of Principles for peace, they deliberately put off
dealing with the most important, and most sensitive, issues until a
later date. The problems of the Palestinian refugees, the settlers,
Jerusalem and the final status and borders of the Palestinian entity
were to be addressed in a later round of talks. It is these negotiations
which have now, after a considerable delay, been opened and were pursued
with some intensity in Camp David in July 2000.
The intention - and strategy - of the Declaration of Principles when
it was drawn up was that an agreement on the Palestinian administrative
control of parts of the occupied territories - combined with Israeli
military withdrawal - would build confidence and allow a peaceful dynamic
to evolve. This, it was hoped, would then facilitate the negotiations
on the remaining, more difficult issues. The Declaration of Principles
drawn up in Oslo was, therefore, an agreement on a process rather than
a peace agreement in itself.
The "final status" questions concerning the refugees, settlers, Jerusalem
and the Palestinian entity lie at the core of the conflict. For decades,
there has been a deadlock between the parties on these issues, and
any agreements will have to involve painful compromises. It is also
obvious that the four issues are interrelated and must be dealt with
The refugee question has been an open wound since 1948, after which
it has had a permanent place on the international agenda; the UN has
taken active steps both politically and through the UNRWA (the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near
East), while the Security Council has advocated an equitable resolution
to the refugee problem (" a just settlement of the refugee problem ").
Three key concepts have shaped the discussions on a solution to the
entire issue: "the right of return", "compensation/reparation" and "naturalisation" (resettlement).
These are also dealt with in this paper.
A special working group for the refugee question has been assembled
within the multilateral peace process that opened in Madrid in 1991.
This Refugee Working Group (RWG) is under the "gavel" of
the Canadian government, with the Swedish government having a special
responsibility as "shepherd" in the efforts to help Palestinian children
and youngsters. The fact that the issue of the 1948 refugees was taken
up by the multilateral approach as the only "final status" issue can
be interpreted as an indication of its international nature.
The part of the refugee question that concerns the refugees of the
1967 war - often dubbed "displaced persons" - has, in accordance with
the Declaration of Principles, been addressed in the quadripartite
talks between the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian representatives.
This means that all the different aspects of the refugee question
are now officially on the table for negotiations between the Israelis
and the Palestinians. Even if the disagreements on Jerusalem was defined
after the July talks in Camp David as the major obstacle to an agreement,
it is clear that there can be no stable peace in the region without
an accepted solution to the question of the rights of the Palestinian
refugees. This requires, in turn, the participation of trusted representatives
of the refugees themselves and of all the governments concerned.
1. The refugees today
problem facing the Palestinian refugees is that they are just that
- refugees. Expelled from their homes, year after year they have seen
their dreams of return dashed. And what is more, their struggle for "the right of return" has
seen their other rights undermined. Their status in some of the host
countries has been unclear and they have been subject to discrimination.
Material standards for most have been low, but not desperate in comparison
with the people of the surrounding Arab states. The UNRWA has made
sure that the level of basic education and health care has been kept
relatively high, even if it has dropped over recent years. On the other
hand, the refugees have had to put up with the lack of democracy and
freedom and the political opposition encountered in certain host countries.
The host countries - with one exception (Jordan) - have refused to
grant the refugees citizenship; this has also been the case for first
and second generation children in the new country. The justification
for doing so is that they would forfeit their refugee status if treated
like normal citizens, adversely affecting their chances of returning
The decision taken by the Arab League at the beginning of the 1950's
to approve the granting of resident and work permits to refugees in
the Arab states has not been consistently implemented in concrete political
terms. The same also applies to the 1964 resolution to give refugees
the right to travel freely between the different Arab states.
The PLO has helped to cloud the issue through a distinctly cautious
approach to the demand that the refugees should be given social and
civil rights in the host countries and through its opposition to a
role for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in relation
to the Palestinian refugees. A further complication is that none of
the host countries with large numbers of Palestinian refugees have
ratified the 1951 UN convention of refugees and its 1967 protocol.
The plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is especially serious.
They cannot hold citizenship on principle, even though exceptions for
special reasons were made for over 50,000 Christians - many of them
well-off and married to Lebanese citizens - and a small number of Muslims.
Similarly, they are not able in theory to obtain residency, even though
the 1948 refugees registered with the authorities (the Department for
General Security) and the UNRWA have been able to reside in the country
on a temporary basis and to apply for special travel documents.
Palestinian refugees from a second or third country have no such residency
rights and are excluded from social services. The same applies to 1967
refugees not registered with the UNRWA, whose presence in the country
For the first few years following 1948, the refugees were given material
and moral support, but since then their treatment has deteriorated.
The government's principle attitude is that the Palestinians are not
allowed to stay in the country, and it refuses to discuss any solution
that would open the door for the Palestinians to become assimilated
or "naturalised" in Lebanon.
This line is pursued consistently and with zealous conviction. There
are bitter memories of the civil wars of the 1970's and 80's in which
the Palestinians - not least PLO leader Yassir Arafat himself - were
blamed for dragging the country into a state of anarchy. This is exacerbated
by the fear that the Palestinians, of which the majority are Sunni
Muslims, would possibly upset the delicate political "balance" between
Lebanon's different communities if they were to be naturalised. During
the talks in Lebanon about the withdrawal of the Israeli occupational
forces, the government yet again proclaimed the Palestinian refugees
to constitute the greatest threat to national security.
In addition to this, not even the Lebanese Sunni Muslim leaders can
or want to welcome the Palestinians - so deep run the emotions. This
ultimately led to the extraordinary 1990 amendment to the constitution
refusing non-Lebanese permanent residence in the country.
All this has contributed to the dire circumstances under which the
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live; they have been allowed to stay,
but not on a permanent basis and denied any social rights. They can
neither work nor start up their own businesses without special permission,
while a number of professions are completely closed to them. Even the
unskilled cash-in-hand jobs which the refugees could previously get
are now being snapped up by the 300-400,000 guest workers from Syria,
who do not need to apply for residence or work permits.
Unemployment amongst the Palestinian refugees is consequently very
high. Around half the number of men of working age are without work,
and extremely few of the women have a job outside the home and the
family. Those who manage to squeeze their way into the unofficial labour
market are often exploited, with low wages and no insurance cover.
The refugees cannot own property without special permission, and most
applications have been turned down. Their housing conditions have been
made worse in that the camps which were destroyed may not be rebuilt,
in that no new housing may, in theory, be built in the camps that remain,
and in that the refugees who previously lived in battle-torn houses
in Beirut are now being gradually evicted. The situation is aggravated
by the fact that non-refugees have been able to move into the camps
- in Shatila, over half the number of residents are Syrian guest workers.
One proposal put forward by the Canadian government to help provide
a certain measure of relief to the homeless refugees through the construction
of new barracks outside Beirut was discussed in 1994, but the talks
were leaked by the media - the political storm that ensued led to the
abandonment of the entire project. This was a symptom of the fact that
any initiative that can be interpreted as indirect assent to the Palestinians
remaining touches a political nerve. This is the real reason why so
little has been done locally to give the Palestinians the social and
humanitarian support they need.
Registered refugees have had difficulties to get travel papers, and
some of those that have received and used them have been denied re-entry
to the country. Another problem forced upon the Palestinians who remain
unregistered with the authorities and the UNRWA is that they are forced
to live a kind of underground existence in Lebanon. These include the
1967 refugees and a number who have been deported from Israel.
The financial circumstances of the Palestinians in Lebanon have not
been helped by the fact that their relatives in the Gulf states were
deported during the Gulf war and that the contributions made by Saudi
Arabia and the PLO have plummeted since the first half of the 90's.
For reasons of budget, the UNRWA has also had to cut its primary health
care and schooling activities. The possibilities of receiving hospital
treatment when needed are severely limited, as the number of beds that
the UNRWA has managed to reserve for the refugees at the hospital has
For the younger generation, it is difficult to continue post-compulsory
school studies, even if Swedish assistance has helped to provide secondary
school places for some. The normal state schools are closed to Palestinians,
while private schools charge fees that are often beyond the means of
the Palestinians. Interest in further education has also been deflated
by the fact that the more skilled professions, such as teaching and
medicine, are not accessible to Palestinians.
All this has generated ill will and deep bitterness amongst the refugees.
Previously rare social problems, such as crime, prostitution and drug
abuse, have now reportedly taken hold, especially amongst the young.
There are also signs that fundamentalist groups have begun to infiltrate
Much of the political frustration is aimed at the Palestinian leadership
in Gaza. Syrian-dominated Palestinian factions have political control
of many of the camps, especially in northern Lebanon. The UNRWA has
also been affected, and has been hit by selective strikes.
The Lebanese government, like the Syrian, declines to participate
in the multilateral talks. Swedish representatives have sought a dialogue
on the Palestinian refugees in the bilateral dialogue between Stockholm
and Beirut, and have proposed an improvement to their situation in
anticipation of a coherent regional solution to the refugee question.
Although the Palestinians in Syria have not been granted citizenship,
they do have social rights. They have access to education and the labour
market, including within the public sector. They are able to own certain
kinds of property, though no agricultural land, and are considered
to have roughly the same standard of living as Syrian citizens in general.
Nonetheless, freedom of movement is restricted and political rights
limited, even in comparison with the rest of the country, and are controlled
by a separate authority, the Office for Palestinian Refugees. The Syrian
government has extracted a political price for the acceptance of the
refugees: in both Syria and Lebanon, it has stopped groups that sympathise
with the PLO and its leader, Arafat.
As Syria remains outside the multilateral process, it is not represented
at the RWG meetings. The government's express position is that the
refugees are to have the right of return to the places they once left.
Since the grave crisis in Jordan in the early 70's, when the PLO was
deemed to have embarked on the establishment of a "state within the
state", and the armed clashes (known as "Black September") between
Hashemite and Palestinian militia, there has been a gradual process
of reconciliation. Palestinians now hold leading positions in banking,
business and, to a certain extent, public administration.
The Palestinians were granted citizenship in 1954 by a new nationalities
act, a decision which ought to be seen in light of Jordan's annexation
during the 1948 war of the West Bank - a large chunk of the area which,
according to the UN partition plan, was to be allocated to the Palestinian
In 1988, two decades after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank,
Jordan relinquished all claims over the territory - the idea being
that it was to become part of the future Palestine instead. People
living there then ceased to be Jordanian citizens, although they could
still obtain passports valid for two or five years. 1948 or 1967 refugees
from the West Bank have also continued to be recognised as citizens.
Yet people from the West Bank who travelled out of the country on
an Israeli limited permit and who failed to return in time (the latecomers )
have not been granted citizenship, nor the stateless 1967 refugees
from Gaza (who are now estimated to number 100,000). One group that
has found itself particularly badly hit are the Palestinians from Gaza
who were expelled during the Gulf War and who ended up in Jordan -
they have found it difficult to even obtain work permits.
The standard of living of the refugees is on a par with the rest of
the population, thanks partly to the efforts of the UNRWA. There is,
however, a deeply rooted mutual suspicion between the Palestinians
and the Hashemites; for the latter there is said to be a traditional
concern that the former, particularly now in their majority status,
will "take over" the country, while the Palestinian camp is suspicious
of the King's direct contact with Israel. On the other hand, the King
is also regarded by many Palestinians as their political and/or religious
leader, which has lent further resonance to the repeated Israeli proposal
that the future Palestine should form part of, or be intimately tied
to, Jordan. Relations between the Jordanian and Palestinian leadership
have not yet been fully clarified following the accession of King Abdullah
Even though the Palestinians have been given greater freedoms in Jordanian
society, a feeling still remains among many of them that they are discriminated
against and that their actual and potential contribution to the Hashemite
state -given their high level of education and competence within a
number of different areas - have not been recognised. This does not
only apply to the military, but to their ability to reach the higher
offices of public administration as well.
Jordan is discussing the refugee issue directly with the Israelis
as part of the quadripartite talks on the 1967 refugees, and has taken
part in the meetings of the multilateral Refugee Working Group. Their
approach has been constructive, even if Amman, naturally enough, expects
both Israel and the international community to actively recognise that
Jordan has borne a heavy burden in its efforts to ease the refugees'
situation; in the event of a collective solution of the refugee question,
Jordan will be demanding compensation for this.
Its participation in the RWG and the quadripartite talks gives Egypt
a direct role in the resolution process of the refugee issue. There
are an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Palestinians in the country, and
up until the mid 70's, they had economic, social and civil rights.
Since this time, however, these rights have been eroded away, leaving
the Palestinians treated in the same way as any other foreigners. They
have had difficulties obtaining travel documents and, consequently,
work permits as well. However, the government has, as part of its RWG
activities, made promises that the Palestinians' situation will be
Egypt's historical and geographical links with Gaza is an interesting
part of the puzzle, something that will become much more evident once
Israel no longer controls the border crossing.
The West Bank - Gaza
For the outsider, there is little difference between registered refugees
and other Palestinians in those areas now under the administrative
rule of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank - Gaza,
especially since the camps have tended to merge increasingly with the
surrounding villages. For the refugees themselves, however, it is a
crucial fact that they are just that - refugees - and that they and
their descendants will never be able to return to the homes and towns
they once left; that they will always be "displaced".
Registered refugees have a permanent entitlement to UNRWA services
in terms of access to health clinics and basic schooling. Although
it requires double the amount of administrative work, the Palestinians
are keen to see that the UNRWA continues its programmes (which has
generally been possible, despite the extensive cuts that have been
made). This is a sensitive issue: if the UNRWA were now to pack their
bags and leave, it would be interpreted as a signal that, despite the
absence of any long-term solution to their plight, the refugee question
had been struck from the agenda.
Daily life for the refugees and other Palestinians in the West Bank
- Gaza has been deeply affected by the Israeli occupation. The constant
security checks are distressing. Special permission is needed to travel
within the occupied areas and between Gaza and the West Bank. Freedom
of movement is also limited by the fact that the West Bank is divided
up into separate zones with different security regimes. Conditions
for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are clearly inadequate, with
many being subject to bureaucratic harassment, a strategy obviously
designed to force them out of the city.
Two groups have been particularly exposed to political-bureaucratic
problems. One is the 40,000 or so people who were granted overseas
travel permits (for one year if leaving via the airport, three years
if travelling by road to Jordan) who stayed away longer than their
permits allowed, and who then applied to return home. Many of them
are students who had studied abroad. The other group consists of about
20,000 people who were allowed into the country on a temporary entry
visa to meet family members and who then remained without permission.
The importance of finding constructive solutions to the problems has
been raised within the RWG and the Quadripartite Committee, but so
far with little success.
Security measures, particularly during the intifada protests
from the end of 1987 to the beginning of the 90's (and even later),
have had an enormous impact on individuals. The repeated closure of
schools (on the initiative of the Israeli authorities and Hamas) also
obstructed the UNRWA's work and severely damaged basic education. Besides
being an assault on people's rights, the closure of Gaza and other
obstacles to freedom of movement have had far-reaching economic consequences.
These transportation problems have generally been a genuine problem
for the Palestinian community.
The extensive confiscation of land (around 65 per cent of the West
Bank and 50 per cent of the Gaza Strip) has also had an adverse impact
on the Palestinians, and not just in the way it has frustrated any
future possibilities of organising a return of refugees to Palestinian
There are almost a million Palestinians in Israel, the majority of
whom belong to the families that stayed behind in 1948 (their status
as a minority in the Jewish state will not be discussed here). Amongst
them, however, are also a number of internal refugees, who remained
in the country after fleeing their homes in 1948. Even though their
presence in the country is officially sanctioned, it would only be
fair for their material demands to be seen to during the deliberations
on reparation ahead of any peace agreement.
A tiny proportion of Palestinian refugees have even been allowed to
return to places in Israel other than their original homes, on condition
that it is made clear that the decision to grant these permits does
not constitute a recognition of a "right of return".
During the occupation, the Israel authorities have had administrative
control of the areas inhabited by the refugees. Although co-operation
with the UNRWA has been strained, particularly during the intifadah ,
refugee support was able to continue pretty much as normal. A new situation
has now arisen in which the Israelis have withdrawn from the areas
containing most of the camps but have continued to occupy East Jerusalem
(containing the camps Shaofat and Kalandia) and parts of the remaining
West Bank, areas which are also home to many refugees.
Palestinian refugees have occasionally encountered harsh treatment,
not least in other parts of the Arab world. In 1991, in the wake of
the Gulf War, around 350,000 were expelled from Kuwait, mostly to Jordan
- very much in response to PLO leader Yassir Arafat's statement supporting
the Iraqi invasion the previous year. Today, there are once again several
thousand Palestinians in Kuwait, where they live under strict surveillance
and enjoy only very limited rights; and it is roughly the same story
for the 180,000 or so Palestinians in Saudi Arabia. Just over 50,000
Palestinians are said to live in Iraq, where they have social, but
not political, rights. In 1995, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi had most
of the country's 20,000 plus Palestinians deported, many of whom, for
an extended period of time, came no further than the Libya/Egypt border.
Over the past few decades almost half a million Palestinian refugees
have, individually, been granted asylum in the USA, Canada and Europe,
where they are generally treated in the same way as any other refugees.
2. The refugees : who are they and how
many are there?
The original number of Palestinian refugees from 1947/48 and 1967
amounted to around one million. If you include their descendants, the
number is estimated to rise to more than three million. It is these
figures that are usually used in international talks, and, if they
are correct, it means that the refugees make up half of all living
Palestinians. However, the numbers are approximate and disputed, not
least by the Israelis. No reliable census has ever been carried out
for reasons we will discuss later, while the figures are complicated
even further by the contention surrounding how the term "refugee" should
Not all Palestinians of the diaspora should be regarded as refugees,
but who should? The established international definition - as laid
down by the 1951 convention of refugees and its 1967 protocol - is
inadequate since it is based upon the assumption that refugees neither
can nor want to return. In the case of the Palestinian refugees, reference
is instead regularly made to the UNRWA definition of a refugee as a
person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years
preceding the conflict in 1948, and who, as a result of this conflict,
lost both his home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in one
of the countries where UNRWA provides relief . These refugees
and their descendants have a right to aid if they are in need of it
and are registered with the UNRWA .
Even a superficial analysis of the definition reveals the flawed legal
logic - it is close to a circular argument, and mainly seems designed
to identify operatively those that are allowed to obtain UNRWA relief.
Even so, the UNRWA figures have still become those used in the estimation
of refugee numbers.
The refugees registered with the UNRWA can be broken down geographically,
with 42 per cent in Jordan, 38 per cent in the West Bank - Gaza and
10 per cent in both Lebanon and Syria.
This means that about one third of the West Bank's Palestinian population
are refugees, as are three-quarters of Gaza's. In Jordan, two thirds
of the refugees are registered with the UNRWA, a similar proportion
in Syria, while in Lebanon, the figure is in the region of 85-90 per
cent. It should also be mentioned that about one third of all refugees
live in camps, and that many of these camps are not very different
from the surrounding residential areas.
Table 1: Refugees registered with UNRWA, June 30 1999.
In fact, even disregarding the vague definitions, these figures are
still problematic as there is much to suggest that the UNWRA register
has distinct shortcomings. For example, since registration is a condition
of relief, it has not been in any family's interest to report when
a family member should be removed from the list.
On the other hand, the UNRWA definition does not include the refugees
that moved into areas other than those where the UN agency was active,
e.g. Egypt or the countries of the Gulf; nor does it include those,
who for reasons of pride, good financial standing or otherwise, have
not sought help from the UNRWA in countries such as Lebanon or Jordan.
The refugees that remained in the area under Israeli rule since the
1948 war (but not in their homes or home towns) were initially recognised
as an UNRWA responsibility, but this was to change when their support
was considered an Israeli concern - they too are thus not included
in the UNRWA figures. According to Palestinian sources, they amount
to nearly 20 per cent of the Palestinian population of Israel.
The 1967 war produced new refugee groups. According to the UNRWA,
the resulting refugee wave was made up of some 350,000 individuals,
of which around 200,000 were seeking refuge for the first time and
who have been regarded as internal refugees or "displaced persons".
Their families have grown since then, and now this latter group numbers
about half a million. Even if they have not been registered as UNRWA
refugees, the UN agency has still provided them with relief.
Included amongst the numbers fleeing from the 1967 war were around
166,000 (UNRWA) who were displaced for the second time; i.e. refugees
from the 1948 war and their descendants. Naturally, they were registered
with the UNRWA this time too, primarily in Jordan.
Host countries for the new refugee wave became Jordan (200,000) and
Syria (110,000). 35,000 were taken in by Egypt from Gaza while a lesser
number (5,000) made their way to Lebanon.
The "displaced persons" category could include another two groups:
those who happened to be in other countries when the 1967 war broke
out (e.g. in the Gulf region) and those who were refused entry to the
occupied areas after successive trips out of the country (known as
the "latecomers"). A Palestinian estimate has these groups numbering
60,000 and 40,000 respectively.
Another moot point has been whether children and grandchildren should
also be regarded as refugees despite their never having lived in their
family's original home. The Israelis have not seen this as given, and
their definition of "displaced persons" in the quadripartite talks
comprises only those who have themselves fled.
The Palestinians have disputed a sexually discriminating feature of
UNRWA practice, namely that the children of female refugees who marry
non-registered men lose their UNRWA cards, while this is not the case
for male refugees who marry outside the registered community.
Apart from all these technical-political problems surrounding the
definition of the term "refugee", the actual estimate of the number
of people is also a sensitive issue. In Lebanon in particular, the
question of the number of Palestinians is shrouded in mystery, something
which should be understood in light of the delicate "balance" between
different ethnic groups and religions, as reflected in the principles
of political power-sharing enshrined in the Lebanese constitution.
A kind of reverse logic has been set in motion here. There are a number
of political groups who would see the naturalisation of Palestinians
as a particular threat (bearing in mind this power balance amongst
other things), and it is in their interest to exaggerate the number
of Palestinians to render any discussion on pragmatic compromises impossible.
People who have cited lower and more realistic figures have been suspected
of preparing the ground for demands for the national assimilation of
The issue is such a volatile one in Lebanon that the UNRWA also shies
away from publicising more realistic estimates, contenting itself with
the number of registered refugees, which has in recent years been lying
at around the 350,000 mark. The PLO - who admittedly can have several
reasons for wanting to estimate on the conservative side - cite a figure
as low as 150,000. There has obviously been a significant emigration
of Palestinian refugees, not only to the Gulf region but also to Europe
and North America. Yet there are also several thousand "illegal" refugees
in Lebanon, including those from the 1967 war and people deported from
Israel. The actual number of refugees in Lebanon is commonly estimated
in diplomatic circles to be somewhere in the region of 180,000 and
Population statistics is a political issue in Jordan as well. The
tension there resides in the simple fact that the Palestinians make
up more than half of the country, something which understandably touches
some highly sensitive political nerves.
If the refugee question is now finally put to serious negotiation,
there will be the inevitable wrangling over definitions: who, exactly,
is a refugee? Such debate has already opened up a can of worms during
the quadripartite talks on the 1967 refugees. Is it not unreasonable
to demand now that a more definitive definition embrace those that
left the area in 1947-48 and 1967 and their descendants? It is also
important that there are approved (gender neutral) criteria for how
to include people married into the Palestinian community and their
children and grandchildren in the statistics.
In normal circumstances, a person's refugee status ends once he or
she is accepted as a fully-fledged citizen in another
country. It would therefore, once more, be not unreasonable to argue
that the Palestinians who now hold citizenship of another country should
no longer be regarded as refugees - although this too requires closer
analysis. The Jordanian decision to grant refugees citizenship was,
however, taken with the clear proviso that it would not undermine their
demands as refugees. It would hardly be fair for the refugees who have
benefited from this generosity to be deprived of their rights once
discussions on resolving the entire Palestinian refugee question commence.
3. Historical background
is impossible to discuss the Palestinian refugee question without turning
to the history books. The description of the actual events in the British
mandate area in 1947-48 is in fact one of the most controversial aspects
of the refugee debate, one which has come to be expressed in terms
of culpability and justice. The different views of the background to
events have led to conflicting demands on all sides. Each proposal
for a solution that is now put on the table is seen through the filter
of each party's different historical convictions
- as a present confirmation of one or the other version - and carries
with it its own particular moral charge.
Between 1947 and 48, over 700,000 Palestinians fled from the parts
of the mandate area which, following the UN partition plan, were to
fall under Israeli rule and from the territories that were annexed
by Israel during the 1948 war. They headed mainly for Gaza, the West
Bank, Trans Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, but some ended up in other parts
of the region which were to become the post-war state of Israel.
What made the refugees flee? Was it a matter of "ethnic cleansing",
with the Arabs being driven out with violence and intimidation? Or
were they encouraged to leave by their own leaders, to return victoriously
with the Arab forces from the neighbouring states?
The real reason is naturally more complex than the propaganda would
have it. Consider the following aspects that emerge from a retrospective
comparison of different reports, analyses and their sources.
Even right after the UN resolution in November 1947 on the partition
of Palestine - when the rumours were born of a coming invasion by the
Arab governments of the mandate area - tens of thousands of the leading
and more well-off Arabs were already leaving the region. This weakened
the Palestinian Arabs, politically and in terms of morale, and helped
to undermine their social structure. Moreover, the Arabs in the mandate
area were militarily ill-equipped compared to the Jewish troops.
Another decisive factor was the acts of violence committed by Jewish
terrorists, sometimes with the backing of the more official Jewish
organisations. The attack on the village of Deir Yassin on April 9,
1948, in which civilians were shot both before and after their defenders
had fled, is the grimmest example. More than 250 people were killed,
many of them women and minors, while the survivors were driven by truck
to Jerusalem, where many of them were paraded along the streets in
a macabre demonstration of power.
It goes without saying that these events spread fear throughout the
Arab population. The Palestinian national committee in Jerusalem, which
was lobbying the Arab governments to send troops to "liberate the Palestinians
from the Jews", made matters worse by exaggerating the attacks in their
reports by, for example, fabricating accounts of rape. This combination
of brutality and exaggerated reporting fuelled the flow of refugees.
Even before the outbreak of war in May, 200,000 Palestinians had already
left. By the end of April, effectively all 70,000 Arabs in Haifa had
evacuated the town after panic had broken out among them. The British
decision to begin pulling out of the town added to the situation, which
was exacerbated through a combined Jewish military offensive and loud-speaker
propaganda campaign at a time when the Arabic leadership was already
badly weakened. The local Arab national committee finally appealed
for an escort out of the area by sea. It is highly unlikely that those
fleeing the area counted on never returning, particularly the ones
who had swallowed the Arab propaganda concerning the victorious invasion
The threat of an imminent attack from the Arab armies was probably
one of the reasons why the Israelis put no more effort into curbing
the violence and intimidation. The fact that the Palestinian-Arabic
national committee in Jerusalem was urging the Arab governments to
invade was to them a sign that the enemy was just around the corner.
During the war which started on May 15 1948, the more hawkish elements
in the Israeli camp began to dominate; the Arab community was driven
out of certain areas as if part of a deliberate strategy. One example
of this is the decision in July to expel around 50,000 Palestinians
from Lydda - Yitzak Rabin, who was there at the time, wrote later that
this was executed on the direct orders of David Ben-Gurion.
Why were the refugees not allowed to return after the war? UN representative
Folke Bernadotte appealed to Israel on exactly this point - months
before he was murdered by Jewish terrorists. While the Israeli government
rejected his proposal, the General Assembly adopted it - in a somewhat
diluted form - in resolution 194 (III) on the Middle East of December
11, 1948. This dealt with the refugee question in paragraph 11:
" The General Assembly ...resolves that the refugees
wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours
should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and
that reparation should be paid for the property of those choosing
not to return and for the loss or damage to property which, under
principles of international law or in equity, should be made good
by the Governments and authorities responsible ".
The resolution also called for the appointment of a Conciliation
Commission for Palestine (CCP) to put its demands into practice.
The CCP included representatives from the USA, France and Turkey.
In the diplomatic talks of the summer of 1949, Ben-Gurion's government
promised to take in 100,000 refugees - on certain conditions: that
this would be part of a final peace accord; that no further demands
would be made; and that the returning refugees would not insist on
moving back to their original homes, but make do with the places the
Israeli government allocated to them. All other refugees would be integrated
into the Arab states.
The Arab leadership accepted the proposal as a bargaining chip, but
not as a final solution, and their demands for further concessions
were answered by the Israelis withdrawing their offer. Since this time,
only a few thousand refugees have been able to return - but only "humanitarian
cases" of family reunification. The Israeli reluctance for generosity
was linked, of course, to the fear that the Palestinians would become
a "fifth column" - as the existence of the Israeli state had not been
recognised by its Arab neighbours for many years.
The Israeli goal was to build a Jewish state, immigration to which
obviously being made easier by the evacuation of the land by the Arabs,
land in which most of the new Jewish settlements were then established.
Over 600,000 immigrants are thought to have arrived between the years
of 1948 and 1951, including many survivors of the Nazi concentration
camps. It was not long before abandoned property, housing and production
capacity found themselves in new hands, giving Israel the vitality
it needed. The right of possession to occupied assets went on to be
enshrined in law.
Why has the question of compensation come no nearer a solution either?
The CCP assessed the value of this abandoned real and personal estate
and its estimates could be found in the records. The Israeli government
did not reject the principle of compensation, and expressed itself
willing to donate money to a collective fund to support the integration
of the Palestinians in their new home countries. However, it declared
that such reparation would only be possible as part of a final agreement
and once Israel had, in turn, received compensation for the damage
it had incurred during the war.
The way forward for an agreement was hampered in the early years of
the 1950's by the arrival in Israel of over 100,000 Jewish refugees
from Iraq, whose assets had been frozen by the Iraqi government. The
Israel government argued that the two demands could be traded off against
each other - that of the Iraq refugees against that of the Palestinian
Since then, no progress has been made on the question of compensation.
There has also been a degree of scepticism on the part of the Arabs
towards discussing that part of resolution 194 as a separate issue,
as they have not wanted the refugee question to be bought off in any
way. The idea that the refugees would be integrated into the Arab world
encountered vehement opposition; the camps were seen as necessary -
also as a reminder of past injustices and of the fact that the conflict
had not yet reached an acceptable settlement.
Even though the UN shouldered some of the responsibility for giving
the Palestinian refugees a reasonably bearable material existence,
the host countries have been heavily burdened - both economically and
politically. Jordan and Lebanon in particular have witnessed their
camps become occasional training grounds for paramilitary groups, whose
attacks on Israeli targets have met with reprisals. Such tensions greatly
fuelled the civil wars in both Jordan (1970-71) and Lebanon (1975-82).
Nonetheless, the Arab governments and the Palestinian organisations
have taken the same fundamental stance on the refugee
question. They have both opposed assimilation in the host countries,
albeit for different reasons, and have been committed to keeping the
vision of return alive.
4. Madrid, Oslo and afterwards
A slow process
After lengthy preparations, the USA and the Soviet Union invited Israel
and its neighbours Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to a peace conference
in Madrid at the end of October 1991. The Palestinians were to be represented
by leading figures from the occupied areas - but not by any member
of the PLO, the dominant Palestinian organisation. The political and
diplomatic hurdles were many, but at least proceedings could begin.
The intention was to conduct two-pronged peace talks: bilateral between
Israel and each of its neighbours, and multilateral, organised into
five working groups on refugees, regional economic development, arms
control, and common security, environmental and water resources. The
multilateral groups would help to prepare the ground for agreements
between the direct parties themselves.
The Canadian government was asked to "gavel" the refugee group, while
the USA and the Soviet Union/Russia were given a special status as
initiative-takers (co-sponsors), with the EU and Japan as co-organisers.
The "core" parties were the Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and
Egyptians while the Syrians and Lebanese refused to take part.
The group contains a number of other governments as well, some with
an allocated area of responsibility. The EU "shepherded" the development
of the social and economic infrastructure, the USA human resources
and job creation, and France the question of family reunification,
while Italy took on responsibility for public health projects, Norway
for databases, and Sweden for "child welfare" (which we have interpreted
to mean the rights of Palestinian children and youngsters). Switzerland
agreed, at a later stage, to shepherd the "humanitarian dimension".
The broader plenary sessions have seen over thirty governments take
The RWG was to focus on finding ways to improve living conditions
for the refugees (including the displaced persons) without forestalling
their future status; on facilitating and improving the possibilities
of family reunification; and on supporting the process of reaching
a broad and viable solution to the refugee question.
That the refugee question was taken up by the multilateral track at
all was a Palestinian proposal, to which the Israelis responded with
reservation. One obvious reason for this was that the Israeli government
was not prepared to make any multilateral concessions that would undermine
their bargaining power in the bilaterals. This stance was given increased
relevance through the Declaration of Principles in Oslo 1993, which
concluded that the refugee question should be dealt with as one of
the "final status issues" in the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
At the same time, it has become clear that there are international
dimensions to the refugee question, including matters relating to international
law, and that a solution will probably require international financial
Another channel for negotiations on the refugee question was opened
up with the Oslo Declaration of Principles. It was decided that a joint
Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian-Egyptian committee, the Quadripartite
Committee , would be established to discuss how to organise the
return of the 1967 refugees from the West Bank and Gaza. This was also
taken up in the bilateral agreement that was signed in 1994 between
Israel and Jordan. As mentioned above, Syria and Lebanon have remained
outside both this and the multilateral process.
Given that the positions of the different parties were so very far
apart, it was not surprising that the multilateral refugee group got
off to a shaky start, bogged down with minimally inspiring discussions
on matters of procedure. The Palestinians wanted the group to discuss
concrete issues, not least refugee rights; the Israelis, on the other
hand, wanted to turn the discussions towards what could be done to
improve the current standard of living of the refugees, for which they
proposed confidence-building relief projects.
For work to be dynamic in such a group requires sufficiently common
goals - and because of this, there has not, with one exception, been
any real debate on the more politically sensitive, concrete issues.
With the question of aid dominating, the meetings have mainly consisted
of reports on what the donors have given or plan to give within each
area of responsibility, including what Sweden has done for children
in the West Bank - Gaza and Lebanon.
The exception is the French efforts concerning the regulations for
family reunification. The Israeli delegation has looked with scepticism
upon the question being raised at all, seeing it as a potential opening
through which "the right of return" might enter the agenda. What the
French have achieved in spite of everything is Israel's acceptance
of a quota of 2,000 cases (a "case" being a nuclear family with a child/children
under the age of 16), or no more than 6,000 individuals, who would
be able to return to the areas that are occupied or under the administration
of the Palestinian National Authority. On top of this quota, a few
additional thousand cases have been approved in connection with the
external recruitment of Palestinian police. Certain procedural simplifications
have been introduced as well.
A Vision Paper
The different multilateral working groups have been co-ordinated through
a steering committee under the control of the USA and Soviet Union/Russia.
In July 1994, this committee recommended that a "Vision Paper" should
be drawn up for the multilateral process, and that each working group
should sketch a ten-year vision of priorities for its own area of responsibility.
The Canadian delegation organised consultations directly with the parties
involved and with all members of the RWG at a plenary session in Antalya,
Turkey in December 1994. From early on it was clear that it would be
difficult to formulate a common vision on the refugee question.
The Canadian government had to content itself with sketching several "elements" in
the Vision Paper that are best borne in mind in the ensuing discussion.
One of these was that the refugees should not be faced with an ultimatum,
but offered alternatives to choose between, and that each solution
must take their legitimate rights into consideration. Another was that
although time was short, the process must be one of gradual measures.
A third element was that the solution must comply with international
law - demanding, however, all-round compromise rather than a legalistic
approach to the law.
The Paper stressed that the parties had to bring themselves to discuss
a series of delicate issues, openly and freely. They had to be prepared
to address sensitive issues, such as "the right of return" and compensation,
the future international status of the Palestinian Authority (including
its power to issue travel documents) and the ability for a number of
Palestinians to remain with full economic and civil rights in their
current host countries.
The idea was, of course, to begin easing up the political logjam,
to break taboos and in so doing, encourage each party to think along
new, and future oriented, lines. However, the Canadian Paper was never
properly discussed by the steering committee or at the RWG meetings.
It went too far for the Israelis and said too little for the Palestinians.
Not one of the parties was prepared to slaughter any holy cows, at
least not at this stage of the proceedings. It was possibly also due
to the fact that the bilateral talks looked as if they were grinding
to a halt, as Israeli plans for further settlements in East Jerusalem
had reawakened animosity between the parties. Nevertheless, the Canadian
delegation said that the Paper "was there" and could be picked up again
at the appropriate time.
One of the concrete proposals contained in the Canadian vision was
the gathering of information on the Palestinians and the conditions
they were living under. A census was recommended for the West Bank
- Gaza as well as for the neighbouring countries, in order to collect
data on numbers, living conditions, citizenship (or statelessness),
employment, connections to family or property in Israel and the occupied
Through the social research institute FAFO, the Norwegian government
has made valuable contributions with such demographic studies in the
West Bank - Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon, although, naturally enough, it
is always unclear which choice the refugees would make if they were
really offered alternatives to a future solution.
Another Canadian initiative was to address the possibility of refugee
absorption (the Canadians prefer the vaguer term, adaptation ),
referring mainly to the capacity and resources of the West Bank - Gaza
to take in more refugees. What would be the demands on land, water,
electrical power, housing and roads? On schools, health institutes
and other social services? On opportunities for small and large enterprises
and other ways of earning a living? On public administration and other
social organisations? Such questions will need to be analysed if there
are to be any deliberations on scheduling the re-immigration, on the
necessary investments and how they are to be financed, and on the possibility
of obtaining outside aid.
The Canadian delegation proposed that a) the Palestinian Authority
receive support to strengthen its institutional capacity and that voluntary
groups be encouraged; b) the relief projects be better co-ordinated;
c) research be conducted into the numbers that could conceivably move
to the West Bank - Gaza and the reasons they might have for doing so
(as something on which deliberations about future needs could be based);
and d) all Palestinian groups in the West Bank - Gaza be given the
chance to participate in the planning of the social, economic and political
Although these issues have now been tabled, it would be an exaggeration
to claim that they have been followed up with any sense of commitment
and determination. On the Palestinian side -where this discussion could
in all events be expected to be of some urgency - there is concern
that it is based on the covert condition that none (or extremely few)
of the refugees will be able to return to their original homes in Israel,
and that it would now feel like a mistake to indirectly approve this.
Another concern is, of course, that the region, particularly Gaza,
is already considered over-populated and has a high level of unemployment.
The RWG held six plenary sessions between 1992 and 1995. Since then,
no such meeting with all parties involved has been possible, only some
contact meetings between the "shepherds" of the different areas of
responsibility, and a number of thematic meetings on databases and
health initiatives, for example. The main reason for this is the frosty
atmosphere that existed between Israel and its neighbours (including
the Palestinian Authority) during Binyamin Netanyahu's premiership.
Since no progress was being made in the bilaterals, the Arabs were
unprepared to hold any multilateral meetings as they would possibly
give the impression that Israel was still willing to negotiate while
it was simultaneously blocking any chances of real success.
Even before the deadlock following the Israeli election of May 1996,
enthusiasm amongst both the Israelis and the Palestinians was low.
It appeared as if the Israeli representatives wanted to demonstrate
that the group was not really needed, especially when questions like
that of family reunification were brought up. The Palestinian delegates
did not seem to prioritise the group's work either, although if it
was unclear whether this was due to a shortage of resources for preparing
the meetings, disappointment about the sluggish progress of the work
it was doing, or their own uncertainty about certain matters of principle.
Syria and Lebanon's absence from the RWG naturally undermined the significance
of the entire process.
However, a steering committee meeting in Moscow in January 2000 gave
an indication at the time that the multilateral process
might be revived. Meetings were being prepared within the RWG, while
the quadripartite committee on the 1967 refugees began to meet more
regularly. At the same time, there was a continual uncertainty about
how the bi- and multilateral processes were to be interwoven. The USA
played an active and dominant role in both formal and informal processes,
occasionally acting as "chair" of the bilateral meetings. This dominant
role as mediator was further marked through the talks in Camp David
in July 2000.
Points of departure
The Palestinian version of the historical background
is that the Zionists drove out the refugees in 1948 with force. The
Palestinians insist on the right of the refugees to return home or,
if they choose to decline to do so, to reparation. They also demand
that Israel recognise its moral accountability for the injustices that
were done in connection with the expulsion of the refugees.
Their attitude to UN resolution 194 has been split; while the Palestinians
have claimed, and rightly so, that it is not especially clear on the
actual right of return, they have still recognised it as a valuable
reference point in discussions over the years.
The concept of the "return" has been, and still is, at the very core
of the Palestinian national identity; the vision of one day returning
home permeates the entire Palestinian cultural life, shaping and colouring
the camp schools and Palestinian literature. There are many similarities
here with the Zionist revival - no Palestinian politician can negotiate
away this one idea in return for others. Criticism levelled by Palestinian
organisations, intellectuals and leading figures against Yassir Arafat
following the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 was very much
to do with the effective shelving of the refugee question.
For the Palestinian representatives, compensation is unacceptable
as an imposed alternative to the right of return, but not as an offer
of reparation to those who choose not to return. In all events, those
who were dispossessed of their property in Israel should be individually
compensated. The question of compensation for the suffering has also
The PLO has therefore not expressed any support of the concept of
assimilation in the current host countries. It has been extremely important
for the PLO that the UNRWA continues its work until an acceptable solution
has been reached and the sense of apprehension ahead of each discussion
about the UNRWA's future has been intense. Israel has, however, looked
with scepticism upon the UNRWA, which it has sometimes even accused
of being a political tool used for anti-Israeli reasons to keep the
refugee question burning.
The Israeli version is that the responsibility for
the refugee tragedy lies with the Arab governments, which refused to
accept the formation of the state of Israel and declared war on it.
They gave both carrot and whip to the Palestinians to flee and then
went on to consolidate their refugee status - for political ends -
instead of giving them the chance to assimilate themselves into the
As was seen above, this view of reality is simplified and lacking
in accuracy. The Israeli delegation has also made statements in the
RWG that could be interpreted as advocating a shared responsibility,
at least in terms of the actual reasons why the refugees left. The
refugee problem, they have reasoned, was not created deliberately but
as a result of the inherent brutality of the war and the fear that
permeated both sides. Israel has never given its approval to resolution
194, as it has never accepted the claim that the Palestinians have
a "right" to return home.
As mentioned above, for a short period in 1949 the Israeli government
gave 100,000 refugees the opportunity to return, under certain fixed
conditions (which were never met). However, certain cases of "humanitarian" return
have been accepted for purposes of family reunification (about 40,000
individuals to Israel before 1967 and more than 88,000 to East Jerusalem
and the West Bank following the 1967 war ). The government has been
careful to stress that this can not be interpreted to mean that those
allowed to return have had any sort of "right" to do so.
Whenever the question of compensation has been raised, the Israeli
representatives have tended to broaden the discussion to include the
Jewish migration from Arab countries to Israel, asserting that these
two phenomena should be regarded as two sides of the same problem.
Parallels have been drawn with other resettlements, such as that in
the Indian sub-continent when India and Pakistan were established as
independent nations. The idea was that the two groups of refugees would
cancel each other out.
One basic approach in the Israeli camp has thus been that the refugees
should be assimilated into their current host countries and that the
UNRWA should be disolved. Whenever the Israeli government has expressed
a willingness to grant compensation, it has been talking about contributions
to a general fund that would finance such integration in the Arab states
rather than any kind of direct reparation or compensation to individual
There is an obvious relationship between their attitude to the Palestinian
refugees and the vision of Israel as a homeland for all Jewish people.
A cornerstone of the Israeli state has been that it should be open
to, and actively encourage, re-immigration from the Jewish diaspora,
and this has left no room or resources for the repatriation of, or
compensation to, Palestinian refugees.
The determination to defend the country's Jewish character and the
fact that there already exists a Palestinian group within Israel -
with a high birth rate - are two of the principal reasons why the acceptance
of a Palestinian right of return has never been on the agenda.
Another contributory factor is the fact that the Arab governments
and the PLO questioned the actual existence of the Jewish state for
many years, and prepared military actions against it. In Israel's eyes,
any repatriation of Palestinian refugees could well mean bringing the
enemy inside their own walls.
Arguments concerning Israeli security interests have been used to
justify restrictions on return to the occupied territories as well
as areas now under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The RWG
discussions (on family reunification) and the Quadripartite Committee
(on the 1967 refugees) have centred on the return to the West Bank
and Gaza - which Israel has reserved the right to govern. It is this
that the quota for family reunification has been all about.
Thus on point after point, each party's version of the truth and convictions
have diverged, and for decades the international community has been
unable to reconcile these differences. The yearly debates in the General
Assembly gradually became virtually a matter of ritual, closing on
every occasion with a referral to resolution 194. However, during the
1990's , especially after the Oslo Declaration of Principals, a series
of initiatives were taken for informal contacts between the Israelis
and Palestinians in order to attempt to define the framework for compromises
and final status issues, including the refugee question.
Contacts and compromises
In 1995-96 Abu Mazen and Yossi Beilin met informally for such deliberations.
The conclusions they reached have never been publicised, but are said
to have been that the Palestinian state would be able to accept refugees,
without any Israeli-imposed limitations, in return for the withdrawal
of their demand for the right of the refugees to return to within the "Green
Line". The refugees would receive compensation; the UNRWA would be
devolved and a new international organ would be created to take care
of reparation and rehabilitation. Israel would contribute to this new
An interesting contribution to the debate was published in May 1988
through the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard
University in Boston. A united Israeli-Palestinian working group made
up of politically connected intellectuals drew up a two-part report
on the parties' positions: first they presented each side's preferred
alternative, and then a "compromise version" for each party.
Implicit in this was that each party would be able to accept "their" version
of a compromise if other aspects of the negotiations did not throw
any spanners in the works. The purpose of the entire initiative was
to destroy a number of taboos and to start drawing the blueprints of
a possible settlement. The working group first discussed both parties'
fundamental needs - what was it exactly that was important to each
The first requirement of the Palestinians was that
Israel should accept responsibility for the refugees' plight. Such
an acceptance would not only have moral and symbolic value, but would
also serve as a basis for compensation. The second point was an Israeli
acceptance of the refugees' political and moral "right of return" to
their home towns in the actual state of Israel. For the Palestinians,
the refugee question was more of a political concern than a humanitarian;
nonetheless, a third demand was improving the material lot of the refugees:
a home, or at least a reasonable hope of a better life.
A further point was that the area that would make up the new Palestinian
state - the West Bank and Gaza - must be large enough to receive a
larger number of refugees: a return in other words to the 1967 boundaries.
In Israeli eyes, the refugee question is mainly
a fundamental matter of internal security. Israel is determined to
defend its existence, stability and Jewish character and interprets
any moves to force an acceptance of responsibility for the refugee
problem as attempts to throw doubt on its legitimacy.
In light of how discussions have evolved, Israel is looking for an
end to the refugee question as part of a collective peace agreement.
Unresolved refugee problems can sow the seeds of future discord, which
in turn can threaten Israeli, or the Israelis', security.
To defend Israel's democratic and Jewish character, any solution that
significantly increases the non-Jewish part of the country's population
must be rejected. Nor can Israel accept solutions that might involve
threats and the instability of a new Palestinian state spilling over
The principal alternatives which the members of the working group
formulated stressed exactly these needs and demands; and they conformed
to the parties' known positions (see above). But what were the details
of the compromise proposals - and how far were they away from what
each side wanted?
The compromise proposal put forward by the Palestinians in
the working group insists on Israel accepting its responsibility for
causing the refugee problem and on the refugees' having, in principle,
an individual moral right to return. Nevertheless, in light of over
50 years of changing conditions, and given Israel's problems, they
conceded that only a limited number of refugees could return to their
original homes. Israel would pay individual and collective compensation.
The fact that the new Palestine is prepared to absorb refugees into
its territory adds strength to its demands that Israel retreat to its
The Israeli compromise proposes that the country
accept, along with other sides in the 1948 war, a joint practical -
but not moral - accountability for the refugees' plight, and that a
solution to their problem lies at the hub of the peace process. Israel
would agree to the repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees under
the family reunification programme and would also be prepared to pay
compensation to the Palestinian state on condition that the Arab states
paid compensation for Jewish refugees.
As far as is known, the Harvard group made no attempts to synthesise
the two compromise proposals, concluding in their report that the solution
should fall somewhere in between. They defined four dilemmas which,
as emerged from their own deliberations, had to be discussed further
and resolved before any agreement could be possible:
- How many are to be allowed to return to Israel,
and on what conditions?
- What is to be the nature and extent of the compensation
- and how would it be linked to the question of
the Jewish refugees?
- How is Israel to formulate an acceptance of responsibility
and/or of the refugees' suffering?
- How many would be able to return to the Palestinian
6. Points of contention
The question of repatriation
As we have seen, General Assembly resolution 194 demanded that those
refugees that wanted to return to their homes and live in peace with
their neighbours would be allowed to do so, and that those who did
not wish to return would receive financial compensation.
Over the years, Israeli governments have consistently claimed that
since this paragraph was meant to be part of a package, it could not
be implemented separately and before any lasting peace had been established.
Israel has always, under all circumstances, voted against the resolution
and has, as was seen above, never given its approval to the idea that
the refugees should have any kind of right to return to their original
In retrospect, this part of the resolution seems somewhat vague; and
it should also be pointed out that, in general, refugee rights have
improved since the end of the 1940's (even if they have mainly concerned
the protection of refugees from being sent home against their wills).
The right to leave and to return to one's country has been
established in a number of different contexts since it was included
in the 1948 General Declaration on Human Rights - which was adopted
by the General Assembly the day before resolution 194. However, the
fact that these directives referred to "country" rather than "home" complicated
matters and rendered them less applicable to the Palestinian question.
Another human rights complication in this context is that the majority
of those that fled were never granted Israeli citizenship, most of
them having fled before the state of Israel was established.
Another relevant development is that the principles of family reunification
have been strengthened. The right to live, if possible, with one's
nearest and dearest has taken on a prominence, not least since the
talks on security and co-operation in Europe that were launched in
the 1970's. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child contains an
article on exactly this point, which is relevant to those who have
been parted from their families after having fled as refugees.
The events of the 1990's in the former Yugoslavia have underscored
how important it is for the international community to adopt a position
of principle towards giving people who have fled war or who have been
driven out of their homes for ethnic or similar reasons the opportunity
to return when they consider the time to be ripe. At the same time,
the Dayton agreement and later events in Kosovo have demonstrated that
the world is prepared to weigh this right against political considerations,
not least against factors that affect stability and the conditions
The obvious risk is that any compromises on the right of return will
be a confirmation of the injustices that have been done through violent
methods - which not only sets a bad example but can stoke a resentment
that, in turn, can undermine peace.
There can be no question that the Palestinian demand that the refugees
be allowed to return has both a human rights and moral potency.
Has this right been forfeited, or made impossible, by the fact that
Israel's neighbours - with their special relationship to the refugee
communities - were in a state of war with Israel? This seems to be
the crux of the Israeli position, against which the Arab/Palestinian
side could claim that Israel's refusal to let refugees back into the
country was the reason why hostilities continued (or at least one of
the reasons). To an observer, the deadlock looks very much like a "catch
The ex-Israeli general, Shlomo Gazit, who also took part in the RWG,
proposed in a document written in 1994 that although the right to return
should be recognised "in the abstract", its implementation should be
rejected for reasons of security. Today, it still seems impossible
to reconcile Israel's demands on security and the protection of the
country's Jewishness with the refugees' right of return.
It must also not be forgotten that the refugees' homes have been taken
over by others, who after so many years lay claim to a historical right
of possession. In practice, then, the choice faced by the Palestinians
is between continued hostilities - with the refugee question remaining
unresolved - and a "reinterpretation" of the concept of return to mean
resettlement in the areas under Palestinian rule rather than a return "home".
This would be a painful retreat for the Palestinian movement. But
the question is whether it would even be possible without a number
of concessions from Israel and the international community, with recognition
of the unjust treatment of the refugees coupled with a generous compensation
package that would also be able to function as a state grant to build
a new life in a new place.
It would also be important for at least some of the refugees to be
allowed to return. Bearing in mind that in 1949 Israel actually offered
to receive 100,000 returnees and that several thousand have been granted
permits to re-immigrate within the programme for family reunification,
this could be regarded as relatively uncontroversial; far from it,
as the issue touches some of the most sensitive nerves.
Israel seems prepared to take in just a small number of refugees,
so small that it would have no impact on the demographic balance. Figures
mentioned at the Camp David talks in July 2000 were 5-10.000 during
a five-ten year period. It would also be made completely clear that
their return was not a right and that their being received must in
no way be regarded as an indirect admission of guilt and accountability.
The returning refugees would not be able to move into their original
homes, something which has effectively been accepted by the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, they have greater expectations on the other points, and
want a number that is large enough to serve as a demonstration that
the Palestinian demands for refugee rights are being given, indirectly
at least, recognition. For the same reason, they are not willing to
limit the criteria to family reunification alone.
It is never easy to reconcile arguments of rights and quotas. A right
is a right, no matter how many others are in the same situation. In
this case, it is obvious that the first decision will be about numbers,
i.e. the quota, which will be determined by the total balance of compromises
on the different final status questions. When the number and timetabling
is settled, it would seem reasonable for the humanitarian concerns
to be given priority treatment. This means that the question of rights
must manifest itself in other ways in any peace settlement. So we will
now turn to the questions of compensation and recognition of the refugees'
question of compensation and accountability
The General Assembly resolution 194 also addressed the question of
compensation. Those refugees who did not want to return would be able
to receive financial reparation, as would those who had lost property
or had it destroyed. The CCP put in a considerable amount of work in
its time to determine the compensation needs. Now, five decades later,
the question has become substantially more complicated, both technically
The Israelis for their part claimed that the matter should be seen
as settled through the payments previously made by Israel to individual
people, and especially with a mind to the fact that Jewish refugees
from the Arab states never received compensation themselves (which
was indirectly "substituted" by the support they received in Israel)
- "quid pro quo", so to speak. This has been rejected by the Palestinians
who have claimed that the two refugee situations must be kept well
apart; the Iraqi regime failed to act in their interests when they
confiscated Jewish assets. Why should they suffer for the violations
of other governments?
Their position is that resolution 194 must be respected, that compensation
should be paid and that this should not be traded off against the right
to return, with the entitlement to further reparation for those who
decided not to return. Compensation should be paid to individual families
who had lost assets (including for the internal refugees who live in
Israel today), and collectively for the years of hardship.
What should a compensation programme prioritise? Salim Tamari, one
of the Palestinian delegates to the RWG, has pointed out that if compensation
is directed towards those who had land and other such property, it
would mean in effect that relief would be going mainly to the richer
members of the refugee community. Giving simply their refugee status
as grounds for compensation would be fairer, even more so, of course,
if the compensation was based on needs - but then this would just help
to weaken the links with the events of 1948 (and/or 1967).
A realistic prediction is that the negotiators will propose that no
distinction be made between "compensation" and "start-up aid"; such
a blurring of terms would facilitate a compromise. On the other hand,
compensation based on confiscated property would be more legally rooted,
even if it would be more difficult to implement in practice.
This discussion will be arduous, regardless of its political charge.
It will be hard to define - and agree upon - the criteria (within the
Palestinian group too). The administration of the entire programme
will be demanding and expensive.
Naturally, the costs will depend on the size of the payments - compensation
for confiscated property with compound interest alone would amount
to astronomical sums. Even if Israel was prepared to make a significant
contribution, other grants would probably be necessary.
Shlomo Gazit recommended that Israel should accept its part of the
financial burden of rehabilitating the refugees, even if it could be
interpreted as an admission of guilt or accountability. He proposed
a fixed grant of 10,000 dollars per family, irrespective of the value
of the property they left behind in 1948. For financing the grant,
he looked to Germany and the possibility of asking the country to contribute
to this sum by paying the compensation still due to Israel from East
Germany (which in his estimation should be somewhere around 7-10 billion
The Palestinian intellectual Rashid Khalidi proposed something more
generous - that each refugee should receive 20,000 dollars, which he
estimated would amount to a total of about 40 billion dollars.
The question is whether funds of this order of magnitude are actually
available. When the donor community convened to discuss the financing
of the plan for the West Bank - Gaza that resulted from the Declaration
of Principles in 1993, the outcome was no more than 2.5 billion dollars
(a third of which as a loan) to be utilised over a period of five years.
Is there any reason to believe that there would be any greater generosity
towards refugee compensation today?
This is compounded by the entrenched opposition on guilt and responsibility.
Israel has rejected discussions on every form of compensation that
could be interpreted as an indirect admission of Israeli accountability
for the refugee problem and acceptance of a "right of return". But
here, of course, is the crux of the matter for the Palestinians: they
want a clear signal that the refugees have in fact suffered injustice.
And this is one of the toughest knots to unravel in the entire proceedings.
It might be easier to reach an agreement if the compensation question
was considered, as far as possible, a purely technical process of repayment
and if the guilt and responsibility questions were taken up as distinct
issues, in, for example, a separate declaration. Even with heavy international
participation, such a separation, for obvious reasons, would be difficult
Whatever form such an admission from the Israelis would take - even
if made via an international initiative - it is for the Palestinians
a matter of some redress, as confirmation that five decades of dreams
of return were not totally unfounded; this will be particularly important
if that dream must now be given up.
For the Israelis it would be a matter of taking a self-critical review
of their own history and of accepting that people from another group
were severely wronged when the state of Israel was formed. The internal
response to their own revisionists for the past few years has demonstrated
that this will be a painful thing to do.
Shlomo Gazit proposed that Israel make a "moral-psychological" declaration
which recognises the suffering of the Palestinians over the years,
even if there was a danger of this being interpreted as an admission
of guilt by the Israeli government. One possibility would be to do
this by supporting a resolution in the General Assembly that welcomed
an agreement between the parties, that recognised the suffering of
the Palestinians and embraced their readiness to take part in a rehabilitation
programme while abandoning their demands of returning to Israel.
The question of resettlement
One alternative would thus be that the refugees be allowed to move
into the new Palestinian state, even if their original homes lay outside
its borders. But are there really enough resources in the West Bank
- Gaza to absorb a large number of refugees? This is where the Canadian
term adaptation comes in.
Making huge investments in the expansion of the infrastructure, schools
and other social institutions and to stimulate business is not enough.
The area must be able to function as an administrative and economic
unit, which demands the development of public administration and the
guaranteed maintenance of communications between the two geographical
How the new Palestine will relate to Jordan will be a matter of obvious
import, while more relaxed borders to Egypt will give a significant
boost to economic development. Such relationships could also offset
the unilateral economic dependence on Israel in terms of transport,
trade and employment opportunities.
It is understandable that the Palestinians will link a concession
that the refugees be allowed to move into the West Bank - Gaza with
the demand that the area will not be cut back by Israeli annexations.
From this point of view as well the Israeli stance is a problem. The "absorption
question" in the new Palestine will also be shaped by how the question
of the settlers is resolved. This is about more than just physical
space made up of land and water - it is about all the security measures
- including the separate access roads - which take a great chunk out
of the land resources.
Leaving behind the actual capacity to absorb refugees in the West
Bank - Gaza and the space available to them, the other limitation is
Israel's demands to have control over the extent of the immigration
and even, perhaps, over who is allowed to move in - for reasons of
security. As has been seen, there exists a concern in Israel that a
group of resentful refugees living in their immediate neighbourhood
would constitute a serious security threat.
An invisible line probably runs here: there can hardly be an agreement
if the Palestinians are both expected to accept a "reinterpretation" of
the right of return (to the new Palestine instead of to Israel), while
being deprived of the right to implement that change in practice. The
new state must surely be able to determine its own immigration policy
for itself; Shlomo Gazit wrote that the new Palestinian National Authority
could be expected to adopt a "law on return" - following a familiar
model (!) - which would give the Palestinians of the diaspora the right
to move into the new Palestine and hold citizenship there.
On the other hand, it is obvious that further discussion will be needed
on security, for both sides. Israel will demand that the new Palestine
be a demilitarised zone, though with a police capacity to deal with
violent extremists. What is clear is that security problems - in both
directions - will be exacerbated if the Israeli settlers are allowed
to remain. If the security problems are cleared up, there should be
room for greater Israeli generosity than has so far been proffered.
Would the refugees accept having to move to the new Palestine? There
has been much speculation about how many would actually want to, and
numbers of around half a million have been bandied about. The truth
is that nobody knows. No serious opinion poll has been taken, partly
because of the sensitive nature of the issue, but also because it is
difficult to conduct such hypothetical interviews on such a broad base
Poorly designed surveys could in fact do damage - by raising unrealistic
hopes, engendering conspiracy theories or spreading further misconceptions.
At the same time, it is a matter of some urgency that more information
is gathered on the opinions of the refugees themselves. An academic
and/or international framework for such studies would possibly make
things easier, but there are also arguments for a more indirect, journalistic
For the majority of the refugees in Lebanon, who originate from northern
Galilee, resettlement to the West Bank would mean an even greater displacement
from their original homes. Moreover, few of them have any family connections
there. Whether this can still be seen as a feasible option depends
partly on how important the refugees feel it would be to live under
the Palestinian Authority and flag; and this, in turn, is affected
somewhat by how they perceive the new Palestinian Authority.
In any event, the new Palestine's capacity to absorb refugees is not
unlimited, so it would appear difficult to reach a realistic and acceptable
solution to the whole problem without some of the refugees being allowed
to stay put - and without any loss of dignity or humanity.
As we have seen, there is particularly strong opposition in Lebanon
to each proposal for "naturalisation"; but even in the other host countries
any decision on assimilation would not be without its problems - even
if the refugees are already relatively well integrated into Syrian
and Jordanian society. It would in all events require external financial
support. There is also, for the governments involved, a political dimension:
to agree to assimilation would be a distinct departure from the long-established
The refugees that would prefer to remain would probably be those that
were enjoying greater prosperity; they would also be less of a "burden",
especially if they, or their host country, received a handout from
the compensation fund. The Palestinian community contains a number
of skilled entrepreneurs who would be able to help stimulate the national
economy. Another compensatory feature could be the UNRWA's remaining
resources which might also be used to help ease this transition.
Another resettlement option could be to move to a third country. Most
Palestinians are already living, most often temporarily, in the Gulf
region, while possibly another half million live in North America or
Europe - and it is no secret that many of the refugees in Lebanon would
like to follow in their footsteps. It is very likely that an internationally
sanctioned Middle East peace will give some of the refugees - but hardly
very many - the opportunity to move to a third country.
An important question concerns the future national identity of the
refugees. One idea that has been talked about informally is that the
refugees would be offered Palestinian citizenship in combination with
permanent residency (and social rights) in the host country where they
currently reside. This is an interesting possibility, although it too
has its difficulties: normally, citizenship means the right to live
in the country of which one is a citizen. If all Palestinians were
to use this right to settle in the new Palestine, there would quite
simply not be enough room for them all. A theory that everyone knows
will collapse as soon as it is put to the test is clearly no real solution
Individual Palestinians have also expressed concern that such an arrangement,
with theoretical citizenship of the new Palestine, could easily become
a pretext for the host country to deport Palestinian refugees there
at the slightest sign of a problem.
Another possibility would be dual nationality, but the Arab League
has taken a firm stand against such a deal. Nevertheless, it still
seems reasonable to be intellectually prepared for a more concrete
discussion on dual nationality as part of a general solution.
There is also a possibility that creative solutions will emerge from
the Palestinian entity's various potential relations to Jordan, although
there would be a danger that such an opening would lead to the forced
deportation of refugees from Lebanon to Jordan.
Inherent to each solution must be an element of voluntariness and
choice for the refugees: no option that makes the
Palestinians feel they are being herded around like
cattle will work. The different options should also be interesting:
moving to the Palestinian entity should be a reasonably attractive
option, compensation should be set at meaningful levels and the living
conditions for those who have been invited to settle in their current
host countries, or anywhere else, should be sufficiently tempting.
7. The next step
action to secure refugee rights
One of the Palestinian tragedies has been the collision between the
struggle for the right to return and the refugees' more immediate rights.
In order to keep the temporary nature of their refugee status alive
in people's minds, far too little has been done, partly deliberately,
to improve their standard of living. This has been particularly obvious
in Lebanon, where, in order to quash any suggestion that people are
adapting to permanent residency, the camps have been allowed to fall
into disrepair and the houses to become overcrowded.
Despite the absence of any protection brief for the UNRWA - it is
after all a relief organisation - the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
has not been allowed a role in the matter of the Palestinian refugees.
In certain situations this has been to the disadvantage of the Palestinians,
and has probably also contributed to the fact that so many of them
are still stateless - despite the increasing tendency to see protection
from statelessness as a human right.
It should be possible - in light, for instance, of this development
in refugee rights - to examine and improve the status and rights of
the Palestinian refugees, in anticipation of a peace settlement as
much as anything else. If the treatment, in different respects, of
all refugees is upwardly adjusted to the highest level found in all
the host countries, the whole situation would be considerably improved.
Even if this might be out of reach, bearing in mind the problems in
Lebanon, there is a definite need to put an end to the worst of the
injustices with no further delay.
An obvious priority would be to secure the legal status of many of
the Palestinian refugee groups who, for various reasons, have fallen
through all the safety nets. This applies not least to the refugees
without papers, the "illegal" refugees in Lebanon and the displaced
persons from Gaza in Jordan.
It also applies to those who were not allowed entry to the West Bank
- Gaza since they had stayed away after their permits had expired.
Another group with their own particular problems are the refugees without
Another priority must be to help the homeless obtain reasonable housing.
Again, this is an acute issue in Lebanon, where concern over misunderstood "signals" has
been allowed to prevent even the most urgent repairs and building work.
One of the RWG's aims has been to use financial aid to help raise
standards for the refugees - and thereby to improve the climate for
agreements, including concessions. Swedish efforts to support children's
rights in Lebanon and the West Bank - Gaza have been of importance
here. However, the UNRWA's budget problems - compounded by other hapless
circumstances - have unfortunately meant that total standards have
been dragged down; in just a few years, the UNRWA's grant per refugee
has been halved. This also seriously undermines the possibilities of
creating a healthy climate for talks that would facilitate a solution
to the refugee question.
question in the peace process
The way things have developed, it is impossible to address the refugee
question separately. Consequently, it must form part of a comprehensive
peace agreement in which Palestine is recognised as its own state with
well-defined borders. Jerusalem is an important part of the puzzle,
as is a solution to the question of the settlers.
The Israeli investments in settlements and other infrastructure could,
on the other hand, be seen as an asset towards resolving economic problems,
including aspects of the reparation question, if settlers move out
of the West Bank - Gaza. The creation of a Palestinian state with reasonable
borders would obviously be of great benefit to the refugee talks.
What these final status issues have in common is that, from an Israeli
perspective, they all concern security and protection from acts of
terrorism. In the Israeli debate, "concessions" regarding refugees
and the other issues will be weighed against the extent to which security
can be guaranteed.
A lasting settlement must be based on direct agreement between the
Israelis and the Palestinians. However, the problems involved have
obvious global dimensions as well. Peace in the Middle East is itself
a widespread concern; the five decades of conflict have been exceedingly
costly, in all respects, to the international community, while the
issues of Jerusalem and the refugees involve other interested parties
with their own legitimate claims to make.
There is, of course, a regional dimension to the refugee question,
and the neighbouring countries, including Syria and Lebanon, must be
involved in the talks. The international community has, particularly
through the UN, been involved since the 1940's. The role of the UNRWA
is also an important part of the solution, and how and when the agency
is devolved will be a central issue. It is also important that there
is a human rights profile to every resolution reached at the negotiating
A future peace settlement will also demand new, or reformed, agencies
to help implement the agreements, and not only the established authorities
in the countries/areas concerned. Although nobody is suggesting that
the Conciliation Commission for Palestine - which has been
dormant since the early 1960's - should be activated, its experiences
should be studied. It has been informally suggested that Sweden take
charge of a new body with a similar mandate, but the government has
declined to respond to "this invitation".
Nonetheless, there is a clear need for external funding to help finance
a peace agreement. Resources in the neighbouring countries will need
mobilising, which also emphasises how important it is for the Gulf
states, amongst other countries, to become involved in the process.
To bring the refugee question to a resolution will actually require
a mobilisation of diplomatic and economic resources of a colossal scale
- and of a stalwart nature. Working with continual improvisations on
an open account - as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, for example
- will not be sufficient. The United States of America will need to
take on an active role, although it is also just as important that
the project is not completely dominated by Washington.
The bottom line is that the strategies for organising the talks will
demand a great deal of thought: one risk is that the different parties
will copy earlier models too closely. What is clear is that the current
framework consisting of bilateral talks between the Israelis and the
Palestinians, the quadripartite talks and the RWG will be inadequate.
At the same time, it seems inappropriate to rely on one central peace
broker and shuttle diplomacy. Whatever, there will be a need for external
supportive initiatives at different stages and concerning different
One problem in the process so far has been that the Palestinians have,
in many ways, been in an inferior position, which has meant that the
talks have not been between two equal sides, able both to give and
take. Israeli representatives have acted from a distinct position of
power and have, in effect, decided the negotiation agenda.
The only thing that the Israelis have actually demanded from the Palestinian
leaders - guarantees of security - has not given the latter a usable
card to negotiate with, partly because it would be impossible to control
all the individual potential extremists, and partly because the political-ethical
pressure upon just that issue leaves no room for anything other than
The only way open for the Palestinian leadership has thus been to
keep as tight a reign as possible on the extremist factions. However,
the methods used to this end have violated human rights and aroused
the resentment of the Palestinian people, something which can hardly
been seen as a benefit to future security on either side.
Even though the Palestinian delegates gradually developed impressive
negotiation skills, they have always been clearly inferior, technically
and in terms of resources, to their Israeli counterparts. This lack
of balance increases the danger that any agreement reached will be
politically unsustainable on the part of the Palestinians. It would
probably advance the peace process if a better balance were created
in terms of "secretariat competence" between the negotiating parties,
including investigative capacity and a knowledge of human rights.
One dimension which has tended to be forgotten is the importance of
allowing the refugees themselves a voice in their destiny. For instance,
they had no direct representative at the Camp David talks in July 2000.
Even if the PLO has taken on the responsibility of representing all
Palestinians (i.e. including those outside the independent area), this
constitutes a sensitive political problem. The role of the PLO leadership
as administrators of parts of the West Bank - Gaza has fuelled suspicions,
not least amongst the refugees in Lebanon.
This was exacerbated by the fact that since 1993, all relief money
has been channelled to the independent leadership,
rendering the PLO unable to support refugee institutions
(including upper secondary schools and hospitals). Today, there is
therefore a crisis of confidence between the PLO and many of the refugees
they aspire to represent, a problem that is aggravated by the way that
the Syrian government directly undermines the PLO in both Syria and
Lebanon. This means that it might be necessary to try to find complementary
channels for meaningful consultation with the refugees
Conclusions: towards a
The process that was launched with the Declaration
of Principles in 1993 was meant to build mutual confidence between
the two sides. Granted, there has been some success in the understanding
of the other side's arguments and reasons, at least between the negotiators
themselves. However, the drawn-out nature of the process has also
encouraged extremists on both sides to try to find ways of scuppering
Unfortunately, the men of violence have been duly rewarded and their
acts of terrorism have led to the discontinuation of talks. The collective
punitive measures taken out on the Palestinians as a group have undermined
the grounds upon which the peace work rests. The uncertainties surrounding
the future of the settlers has spurred the extremists amongst them
to exploit political opportunities to sabotage the process. The result
of this is that there has been no widespread, enthusiastic upswing
for the peace process on either side, and the fact that the peace process
was obstructed so radically during the Netanyahu government gave pause
for thought - even if it might be of value for the future that numerous
conservative politicians and diplomats were drawn into the practical
negotiations as well.
Here, politicians and intellectuals have been cited who, to a certain
extent, have been voicing free thoughts beyond the traditional camp
lines. Their proposals appear more rational and the hope is, of course,
that they could become guides out of this sensitive tangle of political
postures. Yet the difficulties related to public opinion must not be
underestimated - on both sides there are broad-based groups that regard
concessions as a betrayal of sacred, national goals.
Bearing in mind the distinct inequality of the different sides of
the negotiating table, it is important that the process is not simply
a matter of trade-offs, and that any peace settlement is built upon
fundamental principles. This applies not least to the question of refugee
rights, which is a reason why the discussions should take on an international
dimension and involve the participation of external, impartial representatives.
This analysis of the problems and the different political stances
seems to lead to the following conclusions, conclusions which might
be seen as building blocks of a peace agreement:
- Israel recognises that it has a shared responsibility for the refugee
question and that the Palestinians have suffered heavy human and material
loss. This could either happen directly or through support to a new
- Israel agrees to take in some tens of thousands of Palestinians
more inside the 1948 borders. Any such move will have to concede to
security observation, while the Palestinians will have to abandon their
demand for a mass repatriation to Israel itself.
- The refugees are invited into the new state of Palestine, which
should be given the area and resources it needs. Israel relinquishes
its demands on controlling the immigration, although this does not
preclude any co-operation on questions of common security.
- A programme of compensation is developed that recognises claims
for the refugees' lost assets and for their refugee status. Such a
fund would also be seen as a source of start-up grants. Israel contributes
to the fund.
- Refugees who decide to settle in their current host country (if
this is approved) should be given social and civil rights. The host
countries should be compensated for the costs incurred in trying to
help resolve the refugee question.
- Every attempt should be made provide the refugees with reasonable
options. Settlement in a third country, when possible, should also
be given financial support from the reparation and compensation fund.
- The question of the refugees' citizenship must be resolved. One
option is a Palestinian citizenship issued by the new state (also for
those who will continue to live in exile). Another possible option
is dual nationality.
- The Palestinian representatives declare, after settlement has been
reached, that they relinquish all claims against the state of Israel.
The books are closed.
Together, these points sketch an approach that is not so dissimilar
to that which now seems to be emerging from within the more moderate
camps on both sides. However, there are a number of inherent grey areas
It is possible that many of the problems can be handled with a little
creative diplomacy, which would leave a certain amount of room for
different interpretations in the face of the "home opinion" - even
if the margins for this are small and in no way applicable to the more
concrete measures. An obvious area for prudent diplomacy is the account
of the historical background and the acceptance of the refugees' suffering.
One even more pressing problem is that far too few people will be
able to make use of the theoretical options that are being sketched
out - the "solutions" for settlement seem quite simply to fall short.
It will take an extremely long time to develop a "reception capacity" in
the new Palestine. On top of this, the chances of obtaining funds for
the necessary investments are limited - in relation to what would be
needed. These problems are seen to be nigh on insurmountable in the
case of the Palestinians in Lebanon, and there is reason to fear that
the options that can be offered to them will not be sufficiently attractive.
There is also time pressure - given the 52 long years that have passed.
The international community will be needed as advisors to the parties,
and sometimes as intermediaries and lobbyists as well. A particularly
important mission is to look after the human rights aspects. We must
also be prepared to offer further resources, in the name of solidarity.