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Return, Resettlement, Repatriation:
The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations

Source: FOFOGNET Digest, 22 April 1996

by Salim Tamari, Institute of Jerusalem Studies

Final Status Strategic Studies
Institute for Palestine Studies
Beirut, Washington, and Jerusalem

February 1996

Return, Resettlement, Repatriation The Future of Palestinian Refugees in the Peace Negotiations
Reviewing the work of the Conciliation Commission for Palestine, established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 to deliberate the status of Palestinian Refugees from the 1948 war, one is reminded how little has changed in the debate over the predicament of Palestinian refugees in the span of half a century of dispossession. The themes of the Commission's deliberations, which began with the Lausanne Consultations in May 1949, were: problems of repatriation, resettlement, social and economic rehabilitation of refugees, assessment of lost Arab property in Israel, and the 'Reunion of Broken Families'. These issues are still central concerns surrounding the refugee meetings that were generated by the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

Nevertheless the establishment of the Refugee Working Group in the Arab-Israeli multi-lateral peace negotiations in 1992, and the Continuing Committee for Displaced Persons in March of 1995-- although ostensibly addressing the same issues raised in Lausanne-- occur in a drastically changed circumstances. The Palestinian Israeli Declaration of Principles, the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty, as well as those components in the Camp David Agreement that deal with displaced persons, have cast the old issues in a new light.

What are these changed circumstances that set them apart from the refugee meetings of the 1940s and 50s? Uppermost is the recasting of the status of the Palestinians as a people whose cause has now become not exclusively an Arab and Islamic one as it was in the aftermath of the 1948 war, but an international cause with concrete territorial claim to a land and (for most) sovereignty. The Palestinian refugee issue is now recast not as an exclusively humanitarian issue as it was in the 40s, but as part of a conception of restoring the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people.

This is a mixed blessing, because while the earlier deliberations in international assemblies on the Palestinians focussed more or less exclusively on refugees, today addressing Palestinian claims both in bilateral and multilateral forums deals with refugees as part of a 'package' of Palestinian demands in which refugees are seen as part of a complex set of issues that include residencies, family reunification, problems of absorption, compensation, and so on. That is, the issue of refugees has been diluted into the various themes of Palestinian national reconstruction.

Secondly, the issue of solving the problem of refugees is fast becoming part of the new dichotomy within Palestinian politics between the contingencies of state building, and the demands of the diaspora for representation and repatriation. Returning refugees are dealt with not primarily as the culmination of decades of yearning and dream fulfilment, but as part of a series of compromises between the absorptive capacities of the Palestinian economy and the ability of the Palestinian negotiators to wrest concessions from Israeli bureaucratic and political objections to their repatriation.

Thirdly, the issue of refugees is encountering formidable forms of resistance from Israeli decision-makers. While the Israelis seem to be embarking on new realization that the Palestinian state, with 1967 boundaries, is an inevitable outcome of the negotiations, they are singling the return of refugees to a barrage of ideological and political objections, both at the public level in the press and media, and at a more direct levels in the negotiations over displaced persons. The return of Palestinian refugees is now being portrayed as a security issue within Israel, and as a prelude to a subtle scheme of undermining the Jewish character of the state, even when it entails the return of refugees to the areas under Palestinian control only.

That these objections are being raised now, with such heightened intensity, is precisely because the possibility and probability of return are part of the modalities of the negotiations, both in the DOP and in the deliberations of the Quadripartite committee for displaced persons.

One should also regard these objections, in part at least, as being addressed to a home audience in Israel, with the Labour party attempting to demonstrate a tough line stance to potential centrist and right wing voters on the question of refugees. For this reason actual negotiating parameters may demonstrate a more flexible approach, especially when held away from the limelight and bilaterally.

I. Final Status Resolution?
The distinction made in the Madrid Peace Conference between bilateral negotiations and regional (multilateral) negotiations was meant to create complementarity between the practical concrete problems that only Israel and the Arab parties can negotiate directly, and those global issues that outside interested parties can contribute to, or benefit from. It was assumed that the multilaterals would create regional forms of cooperation that would facilitate the atmosphere of negotiations and cement bilateral agreements. In an essay on the multilaterals Joel Peters made the following interpretation:

    While the bilateral talks would address the political issues of territorial withdrawal, border demarcation, security arrangements and political rights of the Palestinians, the multilaterals would provide a forum for the participants to address a range of non-political issues extending across national boundaries, the resolution of which is essential for the promotion of long-term regional development and security. Whereas the bilaterals would deal with the problems inherited from the past, the multilaterals would focus on the future shape of the Middle East.

The Palestinians, being the weaker party saw this distinction differently. They saw in the multilaterals an arena where they could compensate for their limited options on the ground by seeking alliances in the region and in Europe to offset their limited options in bilateral negotiations with Israel. This became apparent in the deliberations of the Moscow steering committee meeting, in January 1992, where the modus operandi of the multilaterals were established. There the Syrians and Lebanese boycotted the meetings because they hinged any progress in the regional talks on progress in Israeli bilateral concessions on the Golan and South Lebanon.

The Palestinians--confined as they were with the negotiating tasks of the transitional period--insisted that an element of final status issues be added. They saw in the introduction of the refugee working group a 'political' dimension--not available in the other four groups (environment, water, economic development, and disarmament). It was 'political' in the double sense:

* It sent a signal to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon that they were not forgotten in the protracted negotiations of the transitional period. This would give a much needed legitimacy to the impending signing of an Israeli- Palestinian Accord which was bound to be seen as too conciliatory by Palestinians in the diaspora if a refugee component is missing from it.

* It also introduced an element of final status negotiations to supplement the negotiations over displaced persons which was bound to dominate talks over refugees.

This at any rate was the intention, although as we shall they the results were quite different. It was precisely this vision on the part of the Palestinians that led the Israelis, obsessed as they were with any hint about a Palestinian Right of Return to resist its inclusion in Moscow, and later to diffuse its program once they were prevailed upon to accept it.

Ultimately this aspect of the refugees became clearer with the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September of 1993. The status of Palestinian refugees, it will be recalled was one of the three contentious issues that were left to the final status negotiations to begin in mid-1996. But unlike the other two themes Jerusalem and settlement, the procedural aspects of dealing with refugees was reversed. The establishment of the Refugee Working Group in the multi-lateral negotiations with a mandate to deal with the status of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria--in addition to those in the West Bank and Gaza--preceded the establishment of the committee on displaced persons (the Continuing Committee) from the 1967 war.

Of all the committees in the multilaterals it was the Working Group on Refugees (RWG) where the Palestinians had the upper hand in defining the mandate of the group in their favour. But the ambiguity of that mandate--as we shall see--and the consensual nature of decision-making ensured that this tilt was never translated into a practical advantage.

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