Compensation as Part of a Comprehensive Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Problem
Source: Workshop Papers.
by Jalal Al Husseini
Observations on Compensation in the Palestinian
Refugees' Case (June 1999).
Not being a specialist in compensation
myself, I will limit my comments to some preliminary
observations regarding the main principles that
should influence the handling of the Palestinian
refugees' compensation issue.
My main assumption is that any lasting
solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must
rely on two main principles:
- The solution should adhere to
prior UN resolutions, in particular resolution
194 (III) of the UN General Assembly, which provides
for a solution based on repatriation and compensation.
In this regard, historical precedents might be
useful in tackling the technical issues involved.
- It should also be based on the
principles of self-determination and democracy,
taking into account the refugees' own choices concerning
The "participative" approach may
seem demagogic and time-consuming to those who have
advocated, since the start of the current peace process,
a quick and "pragmatic" settlement to the issue.
However, history - and in particular UNRWA's experience
- has taught us that the refugees' clout with national
politics should not be underestimated. Indeed the
refugees have often proven instrumental in nullifying
the good intentions of programs or decisions considered
at variance with their political interests, and more
particularly with their right of return as promoted
by resolution 194. In order to maximize the chances
of success of any settlement scheme, be it in the
field of compensation, resettlement, or return, it
is important for the refugees to be involved in initiatives
aimed at finding a solution to their problem. This
can be accomplished either through direct consultation
or at the very least through the consideration of
their points of views as expressed by their institutional
representatives at the local and national levels.
This approach may also help end
to the rumours, so widespread today among refugee
communities both inside and outside Palestine, regarding
an alleged conspiracy to forsake the right of return
and/or compensation in exchange for a Palestinian
state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In turn,
such dialogue would contribute to easing the current
tension between the refugee communities and the host
authorities, and especially the PNA.
In the light of these initial remarks,
I would like to make the following recommendations:
1. For juridical and political
reasons, compensation should not be regarded as opposed
In fact, contrary to widely shared
opinion, resolution 194 (III) does not establish
a dichotomy between compensation and repatriation.
On the contrary, it recommends the payment of compensation
not only for the property of those choosing not to
return, but also for the loss of or damage to property
of those who return. Thus return and compensation
are by no means mutually exclusive.
Even though compensation in exchange
for repatriation might well emerge during the talks
as the only viable long-term solution, for the sake
of its smooth implementation it should not be presented
as the only option. One must bear in mind that the
acceptance of compensation, usually associated with
permanent resettlement, has long been regarded by
the refugees and the Palestinian leadership as tantamount
to a betrayal of the national cause. Although many
refugees today admit that repatriation as put forward
by resolution 194 (III) - namely the return to their
homes inside the 1948 boundaries - is not feasible,
the psychological barrier towards compensation and
resettlement still emerges very clearly in their
narratives. As a result, these two options are both
generally rejected. The absence of clear estimates
about the sums involved, as well as the lack of assurance
that they will be the direct beneficiaries of the
payments (and not the host authorities), are two
factors that have reinforced these negative feelings
By the same token, the issue of
compensation should not be directly linked to the
dissolution of UNRWA, which has become in the eyes
of the refugees a symbol of their political rights.
This should remain the case at least until necessary
steps have been taken to fill the vacuum such a dissolution
2. Compensation schemes should
not limit themselves to the recommendations set forth
in resolution 194 (III): namely that financial payment
for lost property should be provided, be it movable
or immovable (in historical precedents, both types
of property have been considered).
Indeed, such an arrangement would
benefit mostly the refugees who owned landed property
in Palestine before 1948, and exclude the less privileged
socio-economic categories, such as the rural and
urban proletariat. These latter strata then formed
the majority of the Arab population and today constitute
the bulk of the refugee camp population along with
their families. While the objective of compensation
schemes is certainly not to make up for the socio-economic
discrepancies existing within Palestinian society,
other forms of compensation should nevertheless be
provided, in recognition of the material and psychological
sufferings they have sustained over the past 50 years.
In particular, monies could be paid:
- in view of the historical injustice
that created the refugee question.
- for the loss of income due to
foregone employment, business or educational
- for the social and psychological
These two last categories were included
in the German- Israeli compensation program.
In practical terms, this means that
a double compensation mechanism should be established.
One part should be for property compensation benefiting
refugees who have documentary evidence of property
ownership inside 1948 boundaries (the British records
as well as UNRWA family files may be very useful
in this respect). The other part would compensate
refugees on an equal footing, with respect to non-property
One of the main difficulties for
the parties involved in the final negotiations will
be to reach an agreement on the definition of the
term "refugee", so as to determine precisely who
is entitled to compensation. For that matter, do
we know what is the Israeli definition of a Palestine
- or Palestinian - refugee ?
At any rate, the amount of monies
involved will be large. Estimates range from a minimum
$ 7-10 billion for mere reparations (S. Gazit) to
a maximum $ 147 billion at 1984 prices (Kubursi-Hadawi).
These estimates do not include the funds that might
be given to the host authorities to implement the
reintegration of the refugees who do not return.
Therefore, the international community will be asked
to contribute, with Israel and its main supporter,
the USA, being the major donors.